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The Holy Avarice Project

The "Holy Avarice: Religion and the Re-enchantment of Modern Capitalism" research project investigated the role of religion in modern economic life in the Global South and the developed North. It was funded by the Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs program of the Historical Society.

project summary | Religion, Progress, and Innovation in the Contemporary World

Through interviews with poor entrepreneurs as well as businesspeople of high net worth, the Holy Avarice Project examined the role of Christian faith in fostering innovative business practices as well as harnessing economic enterprise for social reform and progress. Above all, the research explored the diverse ways in which Christian theologies, churches, networks, moral frameworks, and practices make it possible—under at least some conditions—for Christian entrepreneurs to break out of Weber’s “iron cage” of capitalist modernity and make religious faith a powerful source of economic and social innovation.

Many people have discussed the upsurge of religious vitality and influence in various domains of modern life, including in politics, entertainment, the media, and even the academy. But very few have explored the impact of faith on what is arguably the central, defining feature of modernity — namely, capitalist enterprise. In part, this is because many observers of modernity, following the lead of Max Weber, Karl Marx, and many other influential purveyors of both classical and late-model forms of secularization theory, have assumed that religion enjoys little or no power to influence economic systems and therefore it cannot possibly be an independent variable. Following Weber, some have thought that an earlier form of Protestant Christianity paved the way for its own marginalization. As one seventeenth-century Puritan divine, Thomas Watson, told his followers, “You have done all your secular work in six days, you should now cease from the labor of your calling, and dedicate the seventh day to the Lord.”

Rejecting such a neat “sacred-secular” division of labor, new and revitalized forms of Christianity, particularly forms of evangelical, Pentecostal, and Catholic Charismatic Christianity that are exploding throughout the Global South are laying full spiritual claim to all seven days of the week. Rather than reject economic ambition as unholy or as a mere means to providing for one’s material needs, Christian business people from all over the world are infusing their businesses and activities with Christian meaning. Not content to permit any sphere of life to remain disenchanted, they often bring their faith into boardrooms and on to the factory floor, resulting in innovative, faith-based business models that secularization theory has left us ill-prepared to understand or anticipate.

The Holy Avarice Project was a quasi-ethnographic exploration of the potential of Christian faith to generate socially progressive innovation in the context of the developed world as well as the dynamic emerging economies of the Global South.

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Project Leader

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Rebecca Shah

Research Fellow
Associate Scholar, Religious Freedom Project