THOMAS Carlyle's fulminations against the spiritual damage
wrought by factories are almost two centuries old, but the sentiment is current
wherever industrialisation is rampant.
"The huge demon of Mechanism," he wrote,
"smokes and thunders, panting at his great task, oversetting whole
multitudes of workmen... so that the wisest no longer knows his
In China today, government leaders and dissidents alike
worry that, as one commentator put it, "frenzied competition for a better
life (has) lobotomised the people of inherent values like common decency,
compassion and feelings of fellowship"”.
A century ago, Max Weber described the process as
"disenchantment". The German sociologist thought the transition from
a culture of faith and farming to the narrow-minded and bureaucratic "iron
cage" of modern civilisation required the destruction of a spiritual world
He saw a modern society made up of "specialists without
spirit, sensualists without heart".
Weber was certainly on to something: industrialisation does
break down old religious ways. In pre-industrial societies, the transcendental
and the everyday were closely woven together.
Social rituals couldn't be separated from ethical
expectations. Such unity is impossible in a world of material plenty, big
cities, and high technology.
Vast increases in wealth, consumption and education create
opportunities for personal expression and eliminate the economic rationale for
many socio-religious restrictions. Urbanisation brings people physically
closer, but often as anonymous neighbours rather than in communities with
telecommunications and transport erode the borders between the "us"
of family or village and the "them" of the outside world. The old
religious and spiritual ways cannot survive this transition.
But Carlyle, Weber and many modern social observers make
bolder claims: common religious belief and shared moral values are gone
forever; modern society has no room for old-fashioned certainties; there is no
exit from what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls "A Secular Age".
Are they right? In a rich economy, the grim fight for
survival is eased and there is more time for emotional and religious
exploration. Modern scientific knowledge invites speculation and wonder.
As Weber noted, spiritual discipline is required for the
"worldly asceticism" which makes modern economies so productive.
Prosperity and urbanisation might engender greater spirituality.
Karl Marx condemned religion and shared morality as
"illusory happiness of the people"”. His case is weakened by the
failure of his alternative.
Marxists in opposition were often idealistic, but in power
their rule was both inefficient and cruel. Their promise of an economic justice
which would make life satisfying now sounds like a bad joke.
While Marxism has been an outstanding failure, its more
successful modern counterparts have failed to convert everyone to secularism.
Democracy is desired, but is hardly inspirational, and there's no need to
travel to China to hear complaints about excessive materialism, selfishness and
In less restrictive nations, praise for freedom is often
matched with complaints about the tyranny of the media, the government and
society in general.
Relatively few people seem to make prosperity serve
spiritual ends. Industrialisation and secularisation have come together,
mostly, as inseparable elements of the turn from the transcendental to the
The modern package of high consumption and individual
freedom appears irresistible, even if the loss of old ways is sometimes
But the facts do not support the case for permanent radical
secularity. While religion is down in many parts of the world, it is hardly
out. In many countries, industrialisation and prosperity seem to nourish Islam.
Even Christianity, the religion first threatened by industrialisation
and urbanisation, is not doing badly outside increasingly atheistic Europe. In
China, the lamentations over the loss of a moral compass should be set against
the rapid growth of indigenous and imported spiritual teachings.
The new middle class there seems to be particularly
More fundamentally, questions of religion and morality are
questions of human nature. How strong and how universal is the desire to find
something that is higher and more certain than anything offered by the physical
The answers are not changed by the onset of
Religious practices organised around old economic patterns,
social relations and folk beliefs will wither away, but that decline could be
followed by the growth of spiritual organisations and the development of moral
standards which fit with urbanised, industrialised, societies.
In the words of a Chinese investment banker, "The
desire to make sense of life doesn't go away just because I'm rich".
He has been spending more time at a Buddhist temple.
* Edward Hadas writes about macroeconomics, markets and
metals for Reuters Breakingviews. Opinions expressed are his own.