Fewer and fewer people are identifying as following a religion than ever before.
It would be easy to think that we’re all losing our faith. That God is truly dead. But whereas it may be true that traditional religion is slowly dying, we haven’t all suddenly been stripped of our need to believe and worship something greater than ourselves.
Religion is stronger than ever; it’s just gone underground. Most people today still subscribe to some set of beliefs and bow down to something, they’re just not aware of it because they’re not what we’d call traditional religions.
Some people worship science. Others worship political identities. Some people worship beauty. Others worship football. Some people worship small humans, i.e. their children. Others worship small lifeforms from other planets.
Whatever it may be, pretty much all of us believe in and worship one of these modern religions. Even if it’s the fact that you don’t believe in worshipping anything. And one of the widest spread and most active modern religions around today is Workism.
It doesn’t take a holy man to see how work has all the right ingredients for a religion. It involves a mass congregation of people in similar looking buildings, all with equally similar codes of conduct and organised behaviours. It’s driven by the implicit truth that what you’re doing is right, and faith in that you’ll continue to get what you desire as long as you do it. And it’s built on an intangible system of narratives, symbols, traditions, rituals, and sacrifices, all which come together to justify the absolute devotion to an all-powerful and supreme higher power.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with work or even subscribing to it as your religion. But when work is your religion and you don’t it, then you can come to rely on it not just as the source of your paycheck, but of your identity, community, purpose, and fulfilment for pretty much all your spiritual needs.
Work is Passion
Somewhere during the last century, the idea that work could and should coincide with your “passion” emerged. Today, we jump from job to job searching for it, believing in a vocation, listening out for our calling, and hoping we land that divine and coveted dream role.
For many of us, work is a great source of meaning in our lives — if not for the simple fact we spent most our days grinding through it with the same bunch of suits. But the idea that work should be the source of your passion, and therefore the major source of meaning in your life, although a great way to motivate workers, is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment and burn out.
“Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
“Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling.”
It’s not that work can’t be something you’re passionate about. But more that “passion” isn’t some grand elusive thing that’s out there waiting to be uncovered when you finally get that promotion or get headhunted by Google.
Passion is something that’s developed over time. And so no matter what you do for a living, there’s probably some part of it that’s working towards cultivating it. And even if there isn’t, there’s more than one way to grow a passion in your life, and, incidentally, most of them are typically found away from the church of work.
Work is Play
“Having a job or career they enjoy” is the top ambition of today’s young people. With “helping other people who are in need” coming in second place, and getting married landing in a distant third.
Who knows when the idea that work should be fun and enjoyable came about. Last time I checked it was laborious, repetitive, dull, and maybe, sometimes, at just brief moments, almost tolerable.
Even when your interests align with a mega income, it’s generally not all a barrel of laughs. You still have to force yourself out of bed in the morning. Even billionaires still reply to emails.
And this raises a crucial point. When people think about enjoyment in work today, it’s less about messing around with your buddies in the office and being able to draw all day. In the religion of work, enjoyment is the chance to engage in the largest and most competitive game in human history: building wealth.
The playing field is the office. The competition is everyone around you and yourself. The rules are, well, you set the rules. And the goal is simply to build as much wealth as humanly possible, with the winner being the one who dies with the largest number of dollars, pounds, yen, estates, camels, or whatever next to their name.
If the problem with this game isn’t evident enough, then consider that in order to have any chance whatsoever of being in the running, you need to be willing to do anything to beat the competition, become an extremely pious workaholic, and pretty much spend your whole life as nothing more than an unenlightened player in an arbitrary and irrelevant game.
Work is Identity
Work has evolved from being a necessity and a mere way of paying the bills, to become a means of fulfilling the need for passion, play, and most of all, a sense of identity.
When who you are and what you do for a living are seen as much the same thing, any potential sign of a problem with your work can send your whole world crashing down.
Not receiving praise or doing as well as you thought. Failing to cross as many tasks off the To Do list today as you wanted. Or how about, heaven forbid, losing your job. Such events can all equally have a cathedral-sized impact on every part of your life and lead you to question the very core of your being.
In an attempt to guard against this frailty, many people turn to social media as the canvas across which they can extend, shape, and get the recognition they need for their work-based identity. They painstakingly write their Twitter bio to reflect their professional edginess, populate Instagram feeds with doctored photos to demonstrate their laptop and Starbucks lifestyle, and publish critical articles to bolster their stance on work-related views and beliefs.
All this can feel so natural because when work is your identity, your reason for being is based around your sense of accomplishment — money, status, followers, friends, viewers, comments, retweets. It’s all the same. Basically any sign of reinforcement that comes from outside and reassures you that yes, this is who you are.
And it might be who you are. But for most people, it’s not, at least, it’s only a part of them. The other part isn’t dependent on metrics like a balance sheet or follower count or monthly appraisal, but motivated by more stable, internal things like values and ambitions.
Such internal and individual and uncontrollable things are what tend to get people really excited and what incite real change. Thus, they’re also the things that generally upset and call into question the whole doctrine and dogma that is the religion of work.
And who would want that?
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.