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Work Organizations as Secular Religions


Blake E. Ashforth and Deepa Vaidyanath
Journal of Management Inquiry 2002; 11; 359
DOI: 10.1177/1056492602238843
The online version of this article can be found at:
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JOURNAL
10.1177/1056492602238843
MANAGEMENT
/
Ashforth,
WORK
December
AND
Vaidyanath
OF
2002
RELIGION
INQUIRY
/

ESSAYS

Work Organizations as Secular Religions


BLAKE E. ASHFORTH
DEEPA VAIDYANATH
Arizona State University

The authors argue that the secular and the sacred should be viewed not as mutually exclusive but as interpenetrated. As the conventional anchors for spiritual strivings loosen
their grip, many work organizations appear increasingly willing to play the role of secular
religion. Secular religions offer transcendence through edifying cosmologies that address
fundamental questions about identity and meaning, without necessarily invoking a
supernatural power. Normative controls are used to instill faith in the often distant ends
of the organization and to sacralize the means through which the ends are pursued.
Founders may become deities of sorts; key insiders may become clergy; jobs, callings;
institutionalized processes, rituals; and failings, sins. However, because a secular religion is only a claim to a system of meaning, it should inspire not only wonder but wariness. The authors conclude that a certain ironic distance from such a religion may be
healthy for the individual.
I needed to become a fanatic by making a personal
commitment to something which went beyond me. I
liked that requirement, that attitude, the fact that people were saying, Listen were trying to do better and
were trying to do very well; now its up to you to
define what very well means. That was very neat,
very motivating. I was like a mussel in search of its
rock, and my rock was the fact that I had a requirement
which went beyond me. It was the possibility of living
what I really am in my flesh and bones, of sublimating
the whole lot and of presenting it to this God, this
instant God, this God within me, who was not something cold, remote, and inaccessible; it was a very concrete vision which mobilized the whole lot and made
it meaningful.
A manager, describing why he joined his current
employer (Aubert, 1995, p. 164)

Religion is often used as a casual metaphor. People


may be said to view their favorite sport as a religion, to
be religious about their diet, or to be working religiously on their garden. As a metaphor, religion suggests gravity and deep devotion. In work organizations, however, religion is often more than a mere
metaphor; it is a literal description of a way of life.
We argue that work organizations often act as if
they are secular religions (defined shortly), espousing
edifying cosmologies and encouraging faith in transcendent missions. Our argument unfolds through
five steps. First, we discuss why we framed the article
in terms of religion rather than spirituality, a more
prevalent concept in the organizational literature, and
what the qualifier secular adds to religion. Second,

AUTHORS NOTE: We are indebted to Mary Ann Glynn, Barbara Keats, Balaji Koka, Glen Kreiner, and Warren Van Egmond for
their very helpful comments on an earlier draft of the article.
JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT INQUIRY, Vol. 11 No. 4, December 2002 359-370
DOI: 10.1177/1056492602238843
2002 Sage Publications

359
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360

JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT INQUIRY / December 2002

we provide a brief history of the sacred-secular divide,


and argue that the two are actually interpenetrated
and that the so-called secular may serve as a site for
the sacred. Third, we recount how work organizations
are made sacred or sacralized: Normative control
imparts a cosmology, addressing individuals desires
for transcendence, and the reverence attached to the
transcendent goals devolves to the means through
which they are to be realized. Fourth, we ponder
whether the specter of a secular workplace religion
should concern us; we argue that a certain ironic distance from such a religion may, in fact, be healthy for
the individual. Finally, we briefly play with some
research ideas suggested by the notion of work organizations as secular religions.
Our intent is not to trivialize or usurp the role of
organized religion in everyday life. Rather, our intent
is to show how work organizations are often seen and
often act as if they are de facto religions. As a minimum, viewing work organizations through a religious
lens can provide fresh insights for understanding
organizational life.

WHY RELIGION RATHER


THAN SPIRITUALITY?
It probably would have been easier and less contentious to frame the article in terms of spirituality rather
than religion. Although many definitions of spirituality have been offered, most suggest that spirituality
connotes a personal connection to something subjectively meaningful and larger than oneself, a transcendence of self (e.g., Emmons, 1999; Fallding, 1958;
Mitroff & Denton, 1999; Wright, Hynes, MacAulay, &
Mahaffey, 2000). Conversely, religionas elaborated
on belowtends to connote a more or less institutionalized system of beliefs and practices that address
spiritual matters. Thus, religion represents a more collective and fixedor organizedresponse to desires
for transcendence, whereas spirituality represents a
more idiosyncratic and emergent response.
Research suggests that people generally have more
positive attitudes toward spirituality than toward religion (e.g., Mitroff & Denton, 1999). Given the premium that many Western societies place on individualism, there appears to be a certain skepticism toward
organizations that make spiritual claimsparticularly to an ultimate truth rather than to a process of
discovery. This skepticism slides into cynicism and
suspicion in the case of organizations in seemingly

nonreligious social domains, such as work. Along


with politics, religion is said to be the great
undiscussable in everyday social settings.
At the same time, the last decade has witnessed a
tremendous increase in popular and scholarly interest
in spirituality in the workplace (e.g., Butts, 1999; Conger & Associates, 1994; Laabs, 1995; Neck & Milliman,
1994). Indeed, a recent Business Week article claims that
a spiritual revival is sweeping across Corporate
America (Conlin, 1999, p. 152). This revival encompasses everything from organizations that actively
invoke a given religion as a normative structure to
organizations that passively tolerate employee-initiated spiritual overtures, such as religious dress and
prayer groups.1
Thus, drawing parallels between religion and
work, the sacred and profane, rather than between
spirituality and work, might strike some as blasphemous. Peddling insurance policies and manufacturing car parts might seem unworthy of consecration, as
too mundane and crass to warrant reverence. Nonetheless, we opted to frame the article in terms of religion precisely because of the organizational elementthe notion of institutionalized beliefs in
something transcendentand because (as we will
see) people project their gods where they are needed.
Defining Religion
There is no widely accepted definition of religion.
In Yingers (1967) oft-quoted words, Any definition
of religion is likely to be satisfactory only to its author
(p. 18). Sociological definitions tend to fall into two
major camps: functionalist and substantive. Functionalist definitions identify religion in terms of what it
does: for example, providing solutions to ultimate
problems, whereas substantive definitions identify
religion in terms of what it is: for example, beliefs and
actions predicated upon the assumption of the existence of supernatural beings or powers (Wallis &
Bruce, 1991, pp. 2-3).
The notion of a secular religion (e.g., Dittes, 1969)
represents an effective compromise for our purposes
because it refers to a system of beliefs and practices
that address fundamental questions about the meaning of life and ones role in the world (where one
may be an individual, group, or society) without necessarily invoking a supernatural being or power (cf.
civil religion, Bellah, 1967; common religion, Towler,
1974; implicit religion, Bailey, 1983; parareligion and
quasi-religion, Greil, 1993). As such, a secular religion

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Ashforth, Vaidyanath / WORK AND RELIGION

provides an overarching cosmology, defining who


one is (identity) and who belongs (membership), what
matters (values) and what is to be done (purpose),
how and why things hang together the way they do to
constitute reality and truth (ideology), how one is
embedded in that reality and connects to what matters
and what is to be done (transcendence), as well as how
ones historyparticularly ones originconnects to
these sacred principles.
It is important to note that cosmologies vary widely
across (and even within) social domains. For example,
whereas organized religions may place relatively
greater emphasis on the values of charity, mercy,
humility, compassion, tolerance, community, peace,
and equality, secular religions in the workplace may
place greater emphasis on the values of hard work,
rationality, progress, competitiveness, ingenuity,
teamwork, and equity. Similarly, civil religions (which
pertain to society as a whole) may place greater
emphasis on freedom, patriotism, democracy, capitalism, and materialism. Clearly, the common denominator of religions is not the content of the cosmologies
but the fact that there is a cosmology tied to something
transcendent.
Does the Qualifier Secular Define Away
What Makes the Topic Provocative?
Stark (1981) stated that the differences between
supernatural and non-supernatural or naturalistic
systems are so profound that it makes no more sense
to equate them than to equate totem poles and telephone poles (p. 159). Does this mean that adding the
qualifier secular to religion defines away what makes
the notion of work organizations as religions so
provocative?
Yes and no. On one hand, organized religions focus
on fundamental existential questions (e.g., Is there a
higher power animating the universe? Is there life
after death?). The qualifier secular denotes that work
organizations tend not to ponder such fundamental
questions; that is not their mission. Thus, a major
chunk of what makes organized religions deeply aweinspiringand thus provocative in a work context
has indeed been defined away.
On the other hand, secular religions do focus on a
fundamental existential desire for transcendence.
Transcendence is about connecting with something
beyond the self, about dedication to a higher cause,
andfor better and for worsecan therefore arouse
just as much passion, identification, and loyalty as an

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organized religion. To the true believers, their workplace is their temple, and their work, their calling. As
in organized religions, the cosmologies that support
secular religions are potent forces for mobilizing the
membership.
Can Secular Religions
Become Organized Religions?
Stark (1981) described how several secular organizations that provided therapy evolved into full-blown
religions as their existential reach increasingly
exceeded their grasp (e.g., Scientology). Might some
work organizations go the same way? Yes, if the questions they ask transcend naturalistic means of inquiry
or if the goals they pursue are so distal that they
require a major leap of faith on the part of members.
However, it seems very unlikely that many work
organizations would tread this path because they
would also be treading on the toesthe core competencies and institutionalized social validationof the
major religions. It is far more likely that a spiritually
inclined organization would simply incorporate the
tenets of an existing organized religion. Mitroff and
Denton (1999), for example, described religion-based
organizations (pp. 57-75) that deliberately import a
given organized religion as a foundation for organizing and operating their affairs.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF
THE SACRED-SECULAR DIVIDE
Through the ages, there has been a strong link
between the prevalent social and religious philosophies and the conception of work. We will focus on the
history of Europe because it informed the development of Western societies.
A millennium ago, European societies were typically divided into three distinct classes: the clergy,
aristocracy, and peasantry. The sacred pervaded all
corners of society, although religious observance at
the individual level was not widespread (Stark &
Finke, 2000). The Pope and Roman Catholic Church
were very powerful; even monarchies were bound by
the dictates of the clergy (Knowles & Obolensky,
1979). The most important field of study was theology,
the study of God. Manual labor was stigmatized, a
kind of punishment for the original sin purportedly
committed by Adam and Eve (Tilgher, 1958): In the
sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return

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JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT INQUIRY / December 2002

unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust
thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Genesis
3:19).
The Roman Catholic Church continued to dominate Western European societies until various reform
movementscollectively known as the Reformationarose in the 1500s (Friedell, 1930). Disaffection
with the church was fueled by suspicions of corruption and duplicity, restraint of social and scientific
thought, intolerance of dissent, and national resentments (Hale, 2000). Perhaps the most consequential
reformer was Martin Luther, a member of the clergy
who was skeptical about papal and ecclesiastical
authority. Luther believed that all Christians should
be permitted to interpret the scripture for themselves
and that work of all kinds should command spiritual
dignity (Tilgher, 1958). His revolt in 1517 helped
foment questioning of the prevailing religious and
social philosophies, encouraged scientific and social
thought to evolve more independently of church doctrine, and helped give moral sanction to hard work
and profit making. The Reformation gave birth to
Protestantism (Hale, 2000; Thomson, 1963), which
rejected papal authority and viewed faith as the path
to personal salvation. Some denominations also
viewed hard work as a path to salvation or viewed
prosperity as a sign of salvation, thus facilitating the
growth of capitalism and materialism (Weber, 1958).
Furthermore, the rise of intellectual questioning
and scientific inquiry fueled the Age of Reason in the
18th century, also known as the Enlightenment: The
growing understanding of natural phenomena capable of scientific exploration restricted the areas of the
unknown in which Gods power was seen to be at
work (Pettegree, 2001, p. 308). The separation of
church and state also increased gradually and became
codified in some state constitutions. The sacred was
becoming increasingly differentiated from the secular.
Finally, the late 18th and the 19th centuries spurred
a rethinking of the means of production, leading to a
shift from craftsmanship to the use of machinery and
mass production (Garraty & Gay, 1972). This Industrial Revolution helped fuel a sense of possibility and
loosen the assumptions of tradition. New and increasingly complex organizational structures emerged,
supported by greater freedom of movement and
choice, and scientific and technological investigation.
As society itself became more complex, subsystems
emerged and expanded to deal with critical issues,
such as health (medicine), education (schools), and
social regulation (law). Many of the subsystems were

predicated on a rational-scientific logic and organized


around relatively impersonal bureaucracies (Berger,
1967; Luckmann, 1967). Similarly, business organizations increasingly adopted Weberian principles of
rational bureaucracy. The upshot of this institutional
differentiation was that organized religion was
increasingly relegated to the private sphere (Berger,
1967; Luckmann, 1967), where individuals made idiosyncratic choices about religious observance. The
sacred was typically thought to be something quite
apart from the mundane and secular: Religion did not
belong in the workplace.
The Persistence of Existential Questions
This thumbnail history suggests two interesting
observations regarding work organizations as secular
religions. The first concerns the notion of secularization. Secularization theory, as it is termed, is much
disputed (Stark & Finke, 2000; Swatos & Christiano,
1999; Wallis & Bruce, 1991; Yamane, 1997). The strong
form of the theory maintains that individual piety and
religious participation have declined (or are declining) because of modernization. The weak form,
alluded to above, is that the scope of religious authority has declined (or is declining)that relative power
over various facets of life has shifted toward individuals or toward institutions invoking other forms of
authority (Chaves, 1994; Yamane, 1997).
Stark and Finke (2000), opponents of the strong
form, documented how for nearly three centuries,
social scientists and assorted Western intellectuals
have been promising the end of religion (p. 57). And
yet, religious participation appears not to have
decreased in the face of modernization (Greeley, 1989;
Hammond, 1985). In fact, Finke and Stark (1992)
argued that between 1776 and 1990, religious participation actually grew in the United States. It seems
that, despite modernization, organized religion has
not heeded its death notice.
Why this stubborn persistence? We think it is
because religions address fundamental existential
questions that have not beenand cannot beadequately addressed by rational-scientific logic (Swatos
& Christiano, 1999). As Herzberg (1995) put it, Science is the study of what; religion is the study of why
(p. 256). Returning to the functionalist definition, religions attempt to provide solutions to ultimate problems. Secular institutions, almost by definition, stop
short of this lofty goal and focus on more proximate
problems. And the secularization of societythe

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Ashforth, Vaidyanath / WORK AND RELIGION

weak form of secularization theoryhas made this


key difference more apparent, not less (Williams &
Demerath, 1991).
The search for answers. About 90% of Americans say
they believe in God or a supreme being, and yet,
although religious participation may not have
declined historically, it has remained low: Only 40%
attend religious services on a weekly basis (Gallup &
Castelli, 1989; Koenig, 1997). In short, many believers
are not connecting with organized religion, a phenomenon that Davie (1990) referred to as believing without belonging (p. 455).
Perhaps this gulf between belief and practice
between what is thought and what is enactedis
being bridged, in part, in other social domains, such as
family, community (whether town, nation, or other),
leisure pursuits, and work. As Sommerville (1998)
speculated, Religion is more likely to change its form
than to decline, and we may not be looking in the right
place for it (p. 253). Our focus here, of course, is on the
social domain of work as an institutionalized locus for
spiritual strivings.
As for those who do actively participate in an organized religion, they too may project their ultimate concerns into other social domains, including the workplace, albeit for different reasons. The stronger ones
religious identity, the more likely that it will be incorporated into ones global identitya roughly coherent self-system . . . abstracted from myriad concrete
experiences (Ashforth, 2001, p. 35; Epstein, 1980).
The global identity tends to be self-fulfilling as individuals gravitate toward social domains and roles that
allow them to enact their sense of self. Thus, the more
religious the individual, the more likely that he or she
will seek out a work role that is consistent with the religious identity or that allows the expression of that
identity.
In sum, the religious impulse appears to have
remained strong even if organized religions have lost
some of their strength, and that impulse may be finding its home in traditionally secular domains.
The Secular and Sacred as Siblings
The second observation suggested by our thumbnail history is that the secular became increasingly differentiated from the sacred, such that the two emerged
from a state of primitive fusion (Sommerville, 1998,
p. 250). This, in turn, suggests that secularized and
sacred social domains may still bear some of the

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genetic imprint of their common origin, much as offspring bear the imprint of their parents. Examples
include Halls (1998) description of the religious roots
of the bureaucratic form among economic, political,
and social institutions in the United States and Albert
and Whettens (1985) discussion of how modern universities evolved from monasteries and still retain
many religious trappings (e.g., tenure/ordination,
academic regalia).
Perhaps, then, the secular and sacred should be
viewed not as independent and mutually exclusive
but as similar and interpenetrated in some fundamental ways (Demerath & Schmitt, 1998; Marty, 1989). Perhaps families, communities, work organizations, and
so on have sacred overtones, just as organized religions have secular overtones, from balancing budgets
to cleaning pews (e.g., Kunkel, 1998; Wuthnow, 1994).
And perhaps a common denominator of the secular
and sacred, a root construct of the primitive fusion, is
spiritualityin particular, spiritual strivings for a personal connection to something subjectively meaningful. One of the main contentions in the literature about
spirituality at work is that many individuals are less
willing to put their spiritual strivings on hold while at
work. For example, Emmons (1999) argued that spirituality is not an isolated, compartmentalized set of
beliefs and practices; rather, it is an integral part of
daily life (p. 90). Just as the religious impulse is finding a home in secular domains, spirituality need not be
confined to houses of religion.

SACRALIZING THE WORK ORGANIZATION


Work organizations are complex creatures and
claim more hours of ones week than most other social
domains. Entering a work organization for the first
time activates, as a minimum, psychological motives
for identity (self-definition in the organizational context), meaning (sense making and purpose), control
(mastery and influence), and belonging (attachment)
(Ashforth, 2001). Indeed, like any social domain that
makes significant claims upon ones time and efforts,
the workplace may activate spiritual strivings for
transcendence as well as other motives, such as for
enjoyment, intimacy, wisdom, growth, security, hope,
salvation, and even immortality (e.g., Pargament,
1990).
At the same time, society seems to be becoming
more fragmented. As the pace of change continues to
quicken, tradition loses its grip, diverse lifestyles and

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JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT INQUIRY / December 2002

personal choices abound, mobility increases, and


once-sacrosanct values become relativized (Lifton,
1993). Neighbors may remain strangers, relatives are
less likely to live nearby, and community activism suffers from underparticipation. Thus, conventional
anchors outside the workplace for transcendence,
identity, meaning, control, and belonging are loosening their hold. As Conger (1994) asserted, the workplace has become a primary community (p. 13) for
many of us. And many work organizations are only
too happy to bridge the existential gap, providing
spiritual blandishments for their employees.
Normative Control
Just as the pace of change is loosening the reigns of
convention, so is it loosening the reigns of bureaucracy. New and flexible organizational forms are
increasingly required, and thus hierarchies are becoming flatter, power is flowing to the people who actually
do the work, and creativity and adaptability are more
highly prized. As bureaucracies are being dismantled,
so too are the external control structures that rode herd
on employeeshierarchical supervision, regulating
technical systems, and codified policies and procedures. However, organizations still need some way of
uniting, directing, and motivating employees. Thus,
as external controls decline, a greater premium is
being placed on internal controls, referred to as normative or cultural control.
Normative control imparts the cosmology that
undergirds (or is thought or hoped to undergird) the
organization and is thereby the principle lever of secular workplace religions. Kunda (1992) defined normative control as the attempt to elicit and direct the
required efforts of members by controlling the underlying experiences, thoughts, and feelings that guide
their actions . . . a sort of creeping annexation of the
workers selves (pp. 11-12). Normative control
shapes experience and interpretations of that experience so that newcomers spiritual strivings and
motives for identity, meaning, control, and belonging
may be addressed. Normative control is said to be an
internal control because it co-opts the individual such
that it is experienced as freely chosen rather than
externally imposed.
Normative control is enacted through substantive
management (i.e., material change in organizational
practices) and symbolic management (i.e., the ways in
which the organization is portrayed) (Ashforth &
Mael, 1996; Pfeffer, 1981). Substantive management

includes choices about strategies and goals, structures, technologies, budgets, information systems,
recruitment criteria, socialization practices, appraisal
and reward systems, physical settings, and so on.
Symbolic management includes the use of mission
statements, stories and myths, traditions and rituals,
distinctive language and metaphors, heroes, the framing of events and histories, and so forth. In particular,
cosmologies are often anchored to historical narratives regarding the vision, values, and beliefs of the
founders; the adversities faced and vanquished during the organizations life span (thereby vindicating
the cosmology); and the organizations distinctive
identity.
Cosmologies also extol the value of the individual,
linking seemingly mundane tasks to the vision of the
organization and instilling faith that the mundane
efforts will lead, ultimately, to hallowed ground.
Emmons (1999) concluded from his review of motivation and spirituality that even the ultimate can
appear in daily goals in matters that may appear, at
least on the surface, to be insignificant or quite ordinary (p. 96) and that a trade-off exists between the
manageability and the meaningfulness of goals
between the proximal and distalsuch that psychological and physical well-being are maximized by a
judicious blend.
How can such grand schemes be fashioned from
typically humble origins? The answer lies in (a) the
raw hunger of many individuals for transcendence,
identity, meaning, control, and belonging and thus
their susceptibility to edifying cosmologies; and (b)
the inevitable ambiguity, complexity, dynamism, and
equifinality (i.e., multiple paths to a given goal) that
surround organizational action, providing ample
license for constructing a social reality to suit the preferred cosmology (Weick, 1995). Meaning, in short, is
found where it is sought; it is not so much discovered as projected. As Emmons (1999) put it,
Much of the power of a spiritual or religious lifestyle
comes from the human ability to sanctify secular
objects (Pargament, 1997). To sanctify means to make
holy . . . to set apart from the ordinary or mundane and
to dedicate to a particular purpose or use. (p. 107)

Substantive and symbolic management blur over


time as the substantive gains symbolic overtones and
the symbolic becomes institutionalized in substantive
practices. What were once means to an end may
become ends in themselves (March & Simon, 1958),

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Ashforth, Vaidyanath / WORK AND RELIGION

and the reverence vested in the ends may devolve to


the means. This is the process of sacralization, of rendering something sacred. Indeed, the more transcendent and ethereal the ends, the more individuals tend
to sacralize the means; the distant glory of the ends is
approximated by glorifying the means. It is no accident that many religious rituals are minutely choreographed and that houses of worship are often incredibly ornate: Faith needs totems.
In time, then, the substantive and symbolic practices that once merely imparted the organization may
come to define the organization (Ashforth & Mael,
1996): The convenient becomes the essential as one
way of achieving an end may be reified as the only
way, the subjective becomes objective, the instrumental becomes expressive, and practices become sanctified as norms; is, in short, becomes ought.
Ultimately, the founder may become a larger-thanlife figure, a deity of sorts. Executives and key insiders
and experts may assume the mantle of clergy. Institutionalized processes, such as strategic planning and
cost-benefit analyses, may be consecrated as sacred
rites even where they do not serve rational purposes
(Mintzberg, 1994). There may even be sacred texts
(Mitroff & Denton, 1999), such as creation stories from
the early days and great sayings of the founder. Individual exemplars of the organizational identity may
be beatified, nonconformists may be demonized and
excommunicated, precedents may be recast as commandments and failings as sins, jobs may be sanctified
as callings, and incidents may be expanded into
sacred legends. Listen to this example of a senior surgeon as high priest:
A surgeon . . . described scrubbing as a ritual, despite
its scientific rationale (to destroy bacteria that cause
infections); he noted that most surgeons scrub for ten
minutes, although scientific studies have indicated
that two minutes is sufficient. . . . He [described] the
little window between the operating room and the
sink area, where everyone in the operating room can
watch the surgeon scrubbing, and the surgeon can
look through and see everyone in the OR waiting for
him. That window isnt really necessary, he declared,
and yet, there it is, so everyone can look at the surgeon
while they wait for him. Its a ritual, he proclaimed,
like a religious ritual. When he was a house officer . . . he noticed that the entire team of surgeons starts
to scrub together, but, somehow, the intern walks into
the operating room first, then the resident, and finally
the senior surgeon. (Cassell, 1991, p. 47)

365

One could counter that because surgery deals with


matters of life and death, it is particularly prone to
sacralization. Fair enough. But diverse examples,
from Roys (1959-1960) famous account of banana
time rituals in a factory to companies whitewashed
autobiographies, and from Ashforth and Kreiners
(1999) description of the deep meaning that individuals often vest in seemingly dirty work to the business presss ongoing lionization of successful CEOs,
suggest that sacralization is quite pervasive and varied. Because people are meaning seekers (and meaning makers), they are predisposed to sacralization;
they want to believe that their social domains and the
institutions that inhabit them embody what is noble
and worthy of personal investment. They are looking
for transcendence.

SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED?
A secular religion, as noted, provides a system of
beliefs and practices tied to fundamental questions
about meaning and ones role in the world. As such, a
secular religionlike any religionprovides a basis
for valuing and therefore for morality and behavior.
Secular religions are thus powerful things.
On one hand, this power can be a wonderful force
for addressing existential desires for transcendence
and the basic motives of identity, meaning, control,
and belonging. Simply striving for the spiritual has
been found to predict subjective well-being (Emmons,
1999). At higher levels of analysis, secular religions
help forge a sense of community and unity of purpose
and galvanize collective action and often ethical
behavior and good societal citizenship.
On the other hand, there is ample cause for concern.
First, members faiththeir belief in things unseen
may be misplaced. Because religions attempt to provide answers to ultimate questions, the answers are
usually not amenable to empirical disconfirmation.
Thus, religion is not an entity, but a claim (Greil,
1996, p. 49)a claim that the underlying cosmology is
true. Groups can sustain those claims better than individuals. In collectively enacting the sacralized processes, members both normalize the processes (making the otherwise strange seem commonplace and
reassuring) and affirm for one another the correctness of the ends (Stark & Finke, 2000; cf. plausibility
structures, Berger, 1967). It is as if they infer, Look at
our shared devotion; surely, we cant all be wrong.
Religious claims are supported, in sum, by social vali-

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JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT INQUIRY / December 2002

dation, not empirical validation. Thus, religions are


religions because we say they are and act as if they are.
(That said, because secular religions do not necessarily
invoke a supernatural being or power, their
cosmologies may be more amenable to reality testing.)
Second, whether intentionally or not, a particular
cosmology may be destructive to the fabric of society.
The range of potential destructiveness is wide, from
organizations that sanctimoniously push antisocial
products in the name of free choice, to those that view
the environment as an external thing to be tamed and
exploited rather than honored and renewed, to those
that push self-centered political agendas patently contrary to the best interests of the populace. Again, the
support of the organizations (or industrys) members
seemingly legitimates the underlying cosmology:
Members hear affirmation in the corridors, not the
echoes of their own voices. Unfortunately, zeal is a
poor proxy for social desirability.
Third, cosmologies can be manipulated cynically
for self-interest. Argyris and Schn (1974) distinguished between espoused theories, where organizations claim allegiance to one set of beliefs and values, and theories-in-use, where they actually enact
another set. A classic case is when management offers
pious statements about the value of employees and
then blithely undertakes layoffs when downturns
occur. However, cynicism tends to beget cynicism in
that Machiavellian behavior ultimately engenders
distrust. As distrust increases, the espoused cosmology loses its power to inspire.
Fourth, religions are susceptible to myopia and
resistance to change. A religion provides a system of
beliefs and practices, a self-contained and presumably
internally consistent cosmology, where answers are
provided to intractable questions. It is one system and
therefore but one perspective. However, given ambiguity, complexity, dynamism, and equifinality, any
one perspective is likely to be both egocentric and
myopic as it addresses the needs of the founders and
adherents from their localized subjective reality
(Ashforth & Mael, 1996). As Wuthnow (1994) said of
civil religions, the danger is that a religion may therefore become self-justifying, insular, and even arrogant. Furthermore, because faith must be maintained,
questioning the cosmology may not be tolerated. It is
no accident that loaded terms such as blasphemy and
heresy stem from religion. In time, a religions particular answers may be reified as absolute truths if adherents come to maintain that their religionand perhaps theirs alonehas the answers. But logic suggests

that not all religions, given their diverse cosmologies,


can have the answers. This uncertain certainty can
induce a rigid adherence to orthodoxy and undermine
openness to other perspectives and the possibility of
adaptation (cf. Staw, Sandelands, & Dutton, 1981). In a
real sense, to entertain changeto tamper with the
sacredmay be to entertain the selling of ones soul.
Pratts (2000) analysis of Amway is instructive. He
argued that Amway has constructed an ideological
fortress that protects committed members from
attacks on the worldview (p. 43). Amways espoused
values of merit, freedom, and unconditional love are
threatened when (a) distributors work hard but do not
succeed (failure of merit), (b) successful distributors
remain in Amway despite their financial independence (failure of freedom), and (c) colleagues turn
against others (failure of unconditional love). In
response, Amways cosmology holds that (a) the
world is ultimately controlled by God such that success is not influenced by luck; it reflects hard work and
Gods favorthose who have not succeeded have not
yet earned Gods favor; (b) successful distributors
remain because of the importance of Amways mission; and (c) colleagues who turn against others have
been corrupted by Satan, demonstrating the need for
unwavering adherence to Amways religious values.
The cosmology, in short, offers circular rationalizations that turn the threats against Amway into affirmations of Amway.
(Once again, however, because secular religions
usually do not make claims of supernatural sanction
and because their cosmologies are indirectly tested via
the marketplace, they may be more circumspect.
Although a firms bankruptcy does not mean that its
cosmology is necessarily flawed, it does mean that its
cosmology was not able to sustain the firm.2 Also, in
identifying with a transcendent reality that is more
basic than any action of the [entity] itself, civil [and
secular] religion allows specific plans and policies to
be criticized [Wuthnow, 1994, p. 132]. Thus, an organization that lauds service to the community may be
called to account for itself if its actions appear to deviate from that transcendent purpose.)
A fifth reason that secular religions are a cause for
concern is that work organizationsunlike organized
religionsdo not offer cradle to grave membership
and cannot guarantee permanent employment when
one is a member (Mael & Ashforth, 2001). Investing
religious fervor in a relationship that ultimately
proves transitory may lead to what Tillich (1963)
called existential disappointment: the profound

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Ashforth, Vaidyanath / WORK AND RELIGION

disappointment which follows every idolatrous reliance on something finite (p. 355). For example,
research on turnover and retirement indicates that
individuals often have a very difficult time exiting
roles and organizations with which they strongly
identify (Ashforth, 2001).
Finally, religions may induce individuals to forfeit
an important counterweight to the force of the underlying cosmology. Strong cosmologies function like
strong situations (Mischel, 1977), where consensus on
the right way to think, feel, and act may severely
cramp an individuals independence (Kunda, 1992).
The more sacralized the means are, the less latitude
there is for experimentation, personalization, and
adaptation. A strong cosmology, in presenting a dense
lattice of meaning and order, and perhaps a prefabricated self, may co-opt the individual. Thus, individuals may lose their circumspection regarding
cosmologies that may be wrong, destructive,
manipulated cynically, myopic, or resistant to needed
change (Aubert, 1995; Schwartz, 1987).
It is important to note, however, that religions differ
widely in their tolerance of diverse beliefs and practices. For example, Ammerman and Roofs (1995)
edited book discusses how some congregations shape
the local form of worship and community outreach;
what is sacralized is the fact of worship and outreach
rather than one specific form. Thus, a strong cosmology may encourage conformity on the ends (mission,
values) without discouraging individuality on the
means (cf. creative individualism, Schein, 1970).
In summary, secular workplace religions should
inspire awewhich Websters Third New International
Dictionary (1993) defines as reverent wonder with a
touch of fear. A secular religion provides a system of
deep meaning and connection (hence the wonder) but
is not necessarily open to its own limitations (hence
the fear). Like a moth drawn to a candle, the individual needs to maintain a certain ironic distance from the
cosmology that undergirds the religion, no matter
how seductive its flame may be.

STUDYING WORK ORGANIZATIONS


AS SECULAR RELIGIONS

367

and under what conditions can a job be viewed as a


calling, a leader viewed as a prophet or clergy, a group
as a congregation, socialization as religious conversion, organizational attire as vestments, or organizational identity as the soul of the organization? What
new research questions do sacralized phenomena like
calling, prophet, congregation, conversion, vestments, and soul suggest beyond conventional notions
of job, leadership, and so on? These phenomena and
many others are more than mere metaphors:
Sacralizing may actually render a job into a calling, a
leader into a prophet, and so on.
Indeed, sacralizing imbues the instrumental with
moral authority, creating a resource for the organization (Williams & Demerath, 1998). This raises the
question of the extent to which sacralizing isand can
beconsciously manipulated by management. For
instance, perhaps managerial interest in corporate culture stems partly from a desire to attain church-like
status and commitment among the flock. In a more
developmental vein, the malleability of sacralizing
begs the question of how organizations can reap the
benefits of sacralizing without becoming myopic,
resistant to change, or otherwise susceptible to the
pathologies of sanctification.
There are also many religious phenomena that lack
clear parallels with work organizations but are nonetheless very provocative. For example, sacrilege refers
to acts that profane the sacred. How might the concept
of sacrilege inform our understanding of acts in work
organizations that seem to be beyond forgiveness or
recompense (e.g., doctors who molest their patients,
banks that defraud their customers, police officers
who collude with criminals)? For less egregious acts,
how might the notions of sin and purification ritual
(e.g., repentancepenitenceabsolution) shed light
on performance management? For instance, corporate
restructuring and public scapegoating may be viewed
as forms of ritual cleansing that enable organizations
to reclaim purity and grace.
Our point, in short, is that the notion of sacralizing
and its pros and conscan shed considerable light
on a wide variety of organizational phenomena.

CONCLUSION
The notion of work organizations as secular religions suggests many possibilities for research. In particular, organized religions provide numerous
sacralized phenomena that have provocative parallels
to work organizations. For example, to what extent

Two trends are conspiring to make the workplace


an attractive site for secular religions. The first is the
dissolution of tradition, leaving fewer moorings for
social connection and the realization of spiritual

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368

JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT INQUIRY / December 2002

strivings. The second is the increasingly recognized


potency of normative controls in the workplace (e.g.,
Kunda, 1992), providing internalized substitutes for
the cruder external controls that held sway for much
of the 20th century.
A secular workplace religion develops as normative controls impart an encompassing cosmology that
connects the individual to a wider system of meaning
and purpose and as the transcendent ends give rise to
sacralized processes and histories. In so doing, a secular religion helps assuage desires for not only transcendence but for identity, meaning, control, and
belonging. A secular religion is thus a powerful force.
In the same breath, however, a secular religionlike
any religionis a claim to a system of meaning (Greil,
1996), a claim that may be misplaced, manipulated cynically, and even destructive, and may engender myopia, resistance to change, existential disappointment,
and a loss of individuality. A secular religion should
therefore inspire not only wonder but wariness.

NOTES
1. This favoritism toward spirituality at work over religion at work suggests a curious paradox: If spirituality is
thought to be a personalized search for transcendence, how
can spiritual strivings (Emmons, 1999) be realized within
a n i n s t i t ut i o n al i ze d s e t t i n g w i t h o u t b e c o m i n g
religionized? Is there a place for the highly personal and
idiosyncratic in work organizations? Perhaps the reason
that so many are unnerved by the idea of juxtaposing work
and spirituality is because of an implicitand, we think,
well-foundedsuspicion that spiritual strivings may be coopted by the organization (Ashforth & Pratt, in press).
2. It should be noted that organized religions are also subject to the winds of a religious economy (Stark & Finke,
2000, p. 193) of sorts, where they compete for members and
support.

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