Reflections on Max Weber’s Sociology and Theory of Religion

We already noted Max Weber’s (1864-1920) theory of religion in which he drew a connection between the emergence of capitalism in the West and the Protestant ethos and way of seeing the world. In this article, we will briefly reflect on further sociological insights Weber offers and apply these to religion where applicable. 

Weber’s Threefold Typology and Religion

We find significant relevance in Weber’s threefold typology of authority which is one of his most important theoretical insights. It is Weber’s analysis of authority that he locates in three major areas: Legal-Rational authority, Traditional authority, and Charismatic authority. All forms of authority here entail power. We can understand power to refer to one’s ability to have his or her will carried out despite resistance from others. Weber believed that these three forms of typology are present in society. It is worth breaking these down individually.

Legal-Rational authority is that which is based on the legitimacy of a society’s laws and rules. It is the right of leaders to act under rules to make decisions and set policy. Such leaders are invested with authority by those who follow the rules. We see a modern-day example in democracy. In democracies, power is given to individuals and/or groups who are elected by voters. The rules for wielding this power are usually stipulated in a constitution. 

Traditional authority is that which is rooted in traditional, or long-standing, beliefs and practices of a society. It is power and authority that are ascribed to persons because of a society’s customs and traditions. The qualifications of an individual ascribed with this authority do not matter largely because it is power given through inheritance or religion. Regarding the former, the individual is given authority because he or she is a relative or descendant of persons who already exercise traditional authority. Regarding the latter, a leader and members of a society can believe that an individual is given authority by God or the gods.

This was particularly the case for ancient and preindustrial societies where kings and emperors were invested with divine authority legitimizing their rule. Caesar Augustus was given authority because of his divine status as being the son of Julius Caesar who upon his death had his divine spirit ascend to the heavenly gods. The Egyptian pharaohs were given authority to be an intermediary between humanity and the divine. The pharaohs enjoyed a unique status between humanity and the gods. They are often depicted as the person to make offerings to the gods and who were believed to partake in the world of the gods. During the Fourth Dynasty (r. 2575-2465 BCE), the pharaoh came to be seen as the “Son of Re.” A number of the Pharaohs, including Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE), and Ramses II (1279-1213 BCE) attempted to achieve deification during their rule while some were thought to become minor deities after their death. These beliefs no doubt contributed to the central political role the Pharaoh had in the kingdom.

This form of authority can also be seen in modern monarchies where a king, queen, or prince receives power because she or he comes from a royal family. Those who are given divine authority do not need to have unique skills because authority is conferred to them based on their ancestry or divine designation.

In religious history, we can also note, for example, how Confucius opposed this form of authority. He was rigidly critical of the view that morality was provincial to leaders and argued that all persons possessed a moral nature. Morality is not limited to any one person or group and it can be cultivated within each person.

Finally, there is Charismatic authority. This authority is based on devotion to the exceptional character, personal qualities, and perceived heroism of an individual. This person can exercise authority over a whole society or only a specific group within a larger society. 

Examples are not difficult to come by. Historical figures like Jesus and Mohammad exercised Charismatic authority over their early followers. They inspired loyalty and devotion and their teachings exercised significant power and influence. Followers chose to follow their orders or requests for action.

In what is known as the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his disciples to take the message of the Gospel to all nations and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had instructed his disciples to go from town to town after giving them authority to drive out impure spirits and heal disease and sickness. He gave firm instructions, such as to spread the message of the kingdom of heaven and for the disciples to take nothing with them on their journey, not even a coat, bag, or money. The disciples obeyed these commands and went from town to town.

The Buddha commanded his followers and disciples, the Dharma Bhanaks, to go “forth for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world.” The Buddhist missionaries obeyed and Buddhism quickly spread through numerous territories, notably after the conversion of king Ashoka. Muhammad issued many commands to his followers. For example, under his leadership, Muhammad’s devotees followed him from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution in an event that is called the Hegira. Early Muslims believed that Muhammad received divine revelation from Allah and under his leadership, a large army marched on Mecca and captured the city.

In each case, these leading, charismatic figures in their respective movements and religion exercised authority over their passionate followers. These followers would obey their leader’s commands and calls to action.

The same can authority can be seen in queens, kings, and presidents. Weber viewed Charismatic authority as being less stable than Traditional or Rational-Legal authority because once charismatic leaders die, their authority dies as well.

Religion, Disenchantment, and Rationalization

Weber issued insights that encourage further reflection, in particular his notions of disenchantment and rationalization. 

According to Weber, we live in a disenchanted world of impersonal forces. We have become intellectualized within a world that has been demystified as the sense of mystery regarding our surrounding universe continues to erode away. The mysterious cosmos has been replaced with a secularized cosmos. 

Disenchantment is also about the devaluation of religion in modern societies, as well as the loss of meaning. It is somewhat symptomatic of the post-Enlightenment context in which we no longer appeal to gods and spirits as explanations for phenomena. Today we believe that it is science that will eventually explain everything in rational terms. Weber believed that it is in this context, namely under disenchanted circumstances, that people need to give meaning to their lives. Not being able to do this is a sign of weakness. It is a sign of weakness, for example, to pursue escapism in illusions and “experiences,” or in old religious traditions no longer warranted to believe in.

We clearly see in this Weber’s notion of rationalization, namely the replacement of traditions and values with reason and rationality. When it comes to modern medical science, for example, we no longer appeal to religious healers like sangomas, witch doctors, practitioners of reiki, or Voodoo priests as authorities in the field. Rather, we see these as ineffective and superstitious, and thus attempt to educate societies and persons who believe in such things in the ways of modern medicine. In the realm of law, the modern legal system employs a Legal-Rational logic rather than placing authority in the hands of Traditional or Charismatic leaders like tribal chiefs or priests.  

Legacy and Modern Application

Weber’s theory of religion and sociology continues to exercise great influence. He is to be seen alongside some of the other giants in Western intellectual history, like Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim

The reasons for his influence are obvious. His approach analyzed the basic elements of social institutions and how these elements relate to one another. This type of analysis continues to be used by sociologists today. He is also an early theorist to show, via an analysis of Protestantism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, the relationship between economics and religion. He thus noted the moral and spiritual dimensions of economic behavior. Like Durkheim, Weber showed that religion, which is often considered to be a highly personal affair, also has a strong social institution and dimension.

In Webber’s notion of rationalization and disenchantment, we see clear parallels to modern secularization theories. These theories are complex and varied, but generally speaking, we can take such theories to acknowledge the diminishment of the importance of religion as societies become more modern. Weber’s theory appears to predict this secularization of Western culture.

But there are also challenges one can offer. Weber might be right about the secularization of and diminishment of the importance of religion in Western culture, although this has become the victim of serious criticism. The sociologist Rodney Stark, for example, argues that the claim that modern societies have become less religious than historical ones, such as during the Middle Age period, is exaggerated and can be shown false. It is also the case that the world is becoming more and not less religious, which means that billions of people continue to find answers to important questions in religious explanations.

Challenges can also be offered to Weber’s notion from predominantly Muslim societies where evidence shows that the more modernized these societies become the stronger religion is. As Stark acknowledges, “In extraordinary contradiction to the secularization doctrine, there seems to be a profound compatibility of the Islamic faith and modernization – several studies from quite different parts of the world suggest that Muslim commitment increases with modernization!”

The religious commitment of Muslims in Java, for instance, was found to be positively correlated with education and occupational prestige. In other words, persons who attended college and/or were in high-status jobs were much more likely to pray the required five times a day, to give alms, and to fast in accord with orthodox Islamic practice than were Muslims with little education and/or low-status occupations. These findings suggest that Muslim practice will increase as modernization continues to progress.

A study of the leading Muslim “fundamentalist” movement in Pakistan found the leaders to be highly educated, all having advanced degrees. Further, the movement’s supporters came overwhelmingly from “the new middle class.” In Turkey, since 1978 there has been a marked increase in the proportion of students at the University of Ankara who hold orthodox Islamic beliefs. By 1991 the overwhelming majority of students held to these views. For example, in 1978. 36% of students firmly believed “there is a Heaven and a Hell”, a proportion which jumped to 75% in 1991. Significantly, these students are the political and intellectual future of the country, including its future scientists and engineers. Further, Turkey is arguably the most modernized of Islamic nations and has since the 1920s experienced many decades of state secularity and semi-official irreligion, despite these policies have waned in recent times.


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