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A Light in the Darkness - A Commentary on Two Not Entirely Rationalistic Treatments of Religion

Updated on October 12, 2012

I find it fascinating that, although Max Weber and Emile Durkheim likely never knew of one another, they begin their respective works on religion in much the same way. Namely, they each state that a definition of religion cannot possibly be provided until the end of their study (Weber 399; Durkheim 37). Thus, they each make an implicit promise that by the end of their essays, the reader will have learned their definitions of religion. This is a promise that Durkheim and Weber fulfill in very different ways.

Durkheim has no qualms speaking of “religion in general” (17), the essence of which he hopes to identify via an essentially reductionistic process of describing “the elementary phenomena of which all religions are made up” (51), claiming that a whole must be analyzed in terms of its parts (51). By calling this process reductionistic, I do not mean to denigrate Durkheim's work. To begin inquiry into essentially uncharted scientific territory with reductionism is perhaps inevitable and necessary. It is only when a subject stays mired in reductionism that progress is impeded. Thankfully, Durkheim takes us beyond any such stagnation. A constant motif of his work is that the religious experience is a reality sui generis (29, 465, 471), unique and irreducible.

So Durkheim insists that we begin our study of religion as a complex whole in terms of its elementary parts, but he immediately assures us that religion is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. For example, although he defines religion as something “eminently social” or “collective” (22, 63, 471), he asserts that there is no simple one-to-one correspondence between religion and society's basic material forms, because “collective consciousness is something more than a mere epiphenomenon of its morphological basis” (471). Durkheim describes society, in other words, as a complex system. Social facts, including religion, are emergent properties sui generis, qualitatively distinct from the underlying system. Rather than being strictly determined by the system, these emergent processes develop autonomy, obeying “laws all their own” (471).

In defining religion, Durkheim states that the idea of the supernatural (39 – 40) is not an essential component. Weber similarly mentions the “strongly naturalistic orientation” of early religion (400). This is reminiscent of Margot Adler, who says that “the supernatural . . . is a thoroughly modern notion” (8). Nor, for Durkheim, is the concept of divinity intrinsic to religion (45). Rather, besides being eminently social—necessarily uniting their adherents into “churches” (62)—religions are all comprised of beliefs and rites (51, 56) regarding what is profane or sacred (52). Durkheim defines the sacred and profane essentially in terms of their absolute heterogeneity. They are in radical opposition to one another in a way which surpasses the opposition of any other concepts known to man (53). Tying all these ideas together, Durkheim presents his concise definition of “religion in general” on page sixty-two.

Weber, in contrast, does not speak of religion in general, and thus fails to provide an explicit definition of such religion. Weber's definition of religion lies as much in what he leaves unsaid as in what he says. What he says consists of detailed descriptions of myriad manifestations and variations and fluctuations of religious expression. He fulfills his initial promise to the reader implicitly, suggesting by his mode of writing that there is no religion in general, only religion as it manifests in specific contexts. The religious processes described by Weber are in such a vibrant state of continual flux that what they “are” is different from one moment to the next, and from one individual to the next.

The approaches of Weber and Durkheim are best conceived of as complementing one another. Neither method fully captures “religion” in its essence. To do so would be impossible. The best we can hope for are a variety of heuristic frameworks, useful as guides or tools to aid our own exploration. No map is the territory, but there can be an assortment of good maps which each highlight different aspects of the terrain, and in doing so, necessarily obscure others. All models have unique strengths and limitations.

In addition to defining religion differently, Weber and Durkheim distinguish between magic and religion in different ways. For Durkheim, religions are distinguished by their establishment of churches, defined as groups united by common beliefs and practices concerning the profane and sacred (59). Magic does not establish a church, however, as the clientele of a magician is not a unified moral community (60). For Weber, the difference between religion and magic is essentially the difference between the supplication and the compulsion of spiritual beings (424). Weber also points out the nomenclature in which entreated beings are “gods” and coercible beings are “demons” (424). This nomenclature helped transform the conception of simple sorcery into that of demon worship, paving the way for the witch-craze of (roughly) 1450 - 1700 CE (Russell and Alexander 35).

Durkheim says that the gods are dependent on their worshipers “even in the most idealistic religions” (53). From this, we can conclude that a sort of magical coercion of God/gods is possible even in these religions; if the gods depend on their worshipers, their worshipers are in a position of some power vis-à-vis the divine. The various prosperity doctrines in fashion with modern televangelical Protestantism come to mind. The idea presented by these televangelists is that they (and thus, the God they represent) depend on donations to support their “ministry”. Moreover, those who donate (“plant a seed”) can expect a harvest of abundance and blessing from God in return. This is something like Weber's means-ends magic, conducted for this-worldly economic benefits (399 – 400). I was pleased to gain such a new perspective on a phenomenon that has long confounded and angered me.

I’ll say of Weber and Durkheim’s respective distinctions between religion and magic much the same thing that I said of their varying definitions of religion: both perspectives are useful and valid in their own ways, revealing some aspects of the distinction and failing to reveal others. Undoubtedly, there are yet other distinctions to be made between “religion” and “magic”, mostly dependent upon what one means by each of these terms. I believe it is largely a matter of individual perspective. However, I do consider both Weber's and Durkheim’s distinctions between magic and religion to be eminently useful aids for my own conceptualization.

To a certain extent, their conceptions of magic vs. religion overlap; Weber begins to sound quite a bit like Durkheim when he suggests that priests are “actively associated with some type of social organization . . . in contrast with magicians, who are self-employed” (425). Weber doesn't fully embrace this distinction as decisive, however, calling it “fluid in actuality” (425). Thus, where Durkheim is prepared to make sweeping generalizations, Weber seems to think that in the highly contextualized realm of social phenomena, there are exceptions to every ostensible rule.

Both Weber and Durkheim also address the origin of religion. The ways in which they do so are entirely characteristic of their approaches in general. Weber begins with detailed descriptions of what he considers to be the earliest forms of religion/magic. For him, these forms are essentially rational, rooted mostly in economic motivations, and entail a simple means-ends arrangement whereby certain actions produce certain predictable results which are useful in a “this-worldly” context (399 - 400). From this point, complexity increases as the concept of souls/spirits is introduced (401), leading to symbolization (404 - 407), leading to the emergence of gods (407 - 410), leading by social processes to the entire gamut of religious expression. So Weber traces the history of religion from simple to complex forms, describing all the while how society is the cause of both the simple forms and their transformations. Durkheim provides essentially the same answer, but as can be expected, he does so in a much more explicit manner. For Durkheim, the “universal and eternal” cause of religious experiences can be stated in one word: society (465). Thus, society is the ultimate source of religion for both Weber and Durkheim. The difference lies in how they state this.

One point of profound similarity between Durkheim and Weber will lead us into the issue of how these thinkers believed religion to have affected the course of history and society. Durkheim identifies religion as the source of science and philosophy (21, 466, 477). Likewise, Weber says that in some cultures, “the conception of a rationally regulated world [originated] in the ceremonial order of sacrifices” (448). It hardly needs stating that such a view of the world is a necessary precursor to a scientific worldview. Weber, in further agreement with Durkheim, asserts that religion “is the womb from which non-sacerdotal philosophy emanated” (451). Durkheim further implies that Hinduism and Buddhism were forerunners of secular humanism, (quoting Oldenberg) “a deliverance in which man himself delivers himself . . . a faith without a god” (48).

For Weber, religion is capable of giving birth not only to rational, scientific, and secular philosophic forms of thought, but to a secular legal system. For ancient Rome, “sacred law became the mother of rational juristic thinking” (409). Since Roman law left an indelible mark on Western law up to the present, it is obvious that this dynamic had ramifications far outside the specific culture of the ancient Roman Empire. Likewise for Durkheim, “legal rules” are rooted in “ritual prescriptions” (466), and in fact all the most important social institutions have their provenance in religion (466). I have always felt that religion is a key dimension of many social and psychological realities, and that its influence is ubiquitous, but Weber and Durkheim made me realize that I have only begun to appreciate the importance of religion for shaping every aspect of human civilization.

Weber and Durkheim each have obvious philosophical foci underlying their discourses on religion. Weber focuses on economic theory from the very beginning, locating the central purpose for religious activity in economic factors (400). Economic concerns are woven throughout the rest of his narrative: a reliance on divination (429), taboo (435), or a caste system (436) can impede economic rationalization (429), whereas ascetic Protestantism enables economic rationalism (436, 479 – 480). The interaction between economy and religion is a two-way street. Not only does the prevailing religious paradigm determine the boundaries for a society's economy, but social class plays an integral role in which forms of religion are propagated. The peasantry (468), aristocracy (472), bourgeoisie (477), artisans (481), and proletariat (484) each have specific religious propensities which help determine the forms of religion that are likely to take hold.

Weber also focuses on the political effects of religion. Religion can be utilized to legitimate political authority (412), to bind a political organization or “confederation” (412 – 413), to delineate a locality/polis (414), or to unite different territories via συνοικισμóς (synoikism) (416). Conversely, political conditions also influence the type of religion that develops. For example, universalism and monotheism are likely to develop in a milieu of imperial expansion (418). Finally, religion can promote social reform (443), but it can also maintain the status quo by rendering a people unable to consider revolting or reforming the prevailing system (436).

Durkheim is not as concerned with economic theory and politics as with epistemology. He attempts to transcend the debate between the empiricists and the rationalists (26 – 32) by imbuing Kant's a priori knowledge categories with a social origin (32), so they are no longer innate or transcendental. While I found Durkheim's discussion towards this end fascinating, I also felt that the magnitude of such an attempt was beyond the scope of his essay on religion, and thus seemed a bit hurried. Kant, in writing Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), did not attempt therein to first develop his seminal theory of knowledge. He had already written Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and he continually refers to the ideas fully developed in these earlier works throughout Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Durkheim, I believe, could have benefited from doing something similar.

Weber and Durkheim both express a non-rationalistic appreciation for religion as a thing-in-itself. For example, Durkheim asserts that there are no false religions, because they all “hold to reality and express it” (14 – 15). Weber seems to locate his non-rationalistic appreciation for religion primarily within a phenomenological framework, saying that one must understand religion through “the subjective experiences . . . of the individuals concerned” (399). Durkheim shows a similar regard for phenomenology, indicating that the positive internal states which a believer experiences constitute experiential proof no less valid than scientific proof (464- 465). In addition, however, Durkheim, who quotes William James often, rests his appreciation for religion in a Jamesian pragmatism. Of the believer, he says, “He is a man who is stronger” (464), and quotes James (who quotes Jesus), saying, “A tree is known by its fruits” (465). Faith raises a person above the limits of his own resources (464) and prompts him to action (479). Thus, for Durkheim, religion is “an essential and permanent aspect of humanity” (13), unlikely to disappear or be replaced by science (478 – 479).

Having compared Weber and Durkheim on a number of points, I would like to conclude by mentioning some of the things that I found most interesting or controversial in their respective writings. For example, I disagreed with Weber when he said, “Slaves . . . have hitherto never been the bearers of a distinctive type of religion” (484). Weber seems not to have been aware of the distinctive religion of Kumina that evolved as an Afro-Caribbean syncretism among slaves in Jamaica (Barrett 17 – 18).

I found Weber's discussion of gender fascinating. Weber points to a gender egalitarianism in the religions of the disprivileged (488). This was certainly true for nascent Rastafari, a religion of the disprivileged in which women featured prominently (Price 66, 213). Earliest Christianity was likewise gender egalitarian, as evinced by Pauline writings which speak of female deacons (Rom. 16:1), a woman named Junia who was “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7), and the fundamental equality of men and women in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Weber states that Paul spoke against charismatic female authority (489). He must be thinking of such passages as 1 Timothy 2:12, which insists that women be silent and submissive. Weber, however, could have benefited from modern scholarship, which almost unanimously considers the later “pastoral epistles” (including 1 Timothy) to be pseudonymous. I know of no statements in the indisputably Pauline writings which relegate women to a secondary status in the church.

Although many of incipient Christianity's converts were the “vulgar and illiterate” (Origen Ch. 27; 1 Cor. 1:26), and the Christian ethic esteemed the poor (Luke 6:20; James 1:9-10), I hesitate to say that early Christianity was entirely a “religion of the disprivileged”. The gender equity in early Christianity may have stemmed more from an immanent eschatology which rendered many traditional values of the ephemeral social order obsolete.

I'll conclude by discussing what I found most interesting in Durkheim. For Durkheim, as sentience is a property which emerges out of the complexity of the nervous system, qualitatively surpassing the nervous system itself (471), society is the “consciousness of the consciousnesses” (492). Society is an infinite magnification of the individual (29), and thus “the highest reality in the intellectual and moral order” (29) that we can observe. Elsewhere, Durkheim says that society is different from the rest of nature only by virtue of its greater complexity (31), and so it would seem that Durkheim esteems that which is most complex as that which is “highest”. This value judgment should be taken into consideration when Durkheim speaks of “simple” religions (38), which he contrasts with “superior” religions of greater complexity (15).

Personally, I hesitate to agree with a value system which assigns superiority to that which is merely more complex. However, Durkheim's lofty descriptions of society did make me think a lot. I became a psychology major partly because I hoped that by studying the human mind, I could learn something of the principles which govern the universe itself, my hope being that the universe either is or is governed by the Greek νοῦς (transliterated 'nous'), as conceived (albeit differently) by Plotinus, Xenophon, and various Presocratics. Durkheim's identification of society as the “consciousness of the consciousnesses” (492) struck me to the extent that I wondered if society, and not the individual, was the best image of the νοῦς of the cosmos, if such a thing exists. Thinking along these esoteric lines, I developed an even greater interest in sociology—my initial serious interest had been sparked by Charles Price's Becoming Rasta—, and began to consider it as a course of future study.

Durkheim's esteem of society was so reverential that I took him to almost consider society itself to be divine. He personifies society as an “individuality”, capable of “thinking” and “considering” (483, 493). Society's inner thought life is “the totality, outside of which nothing exists” (490), containing the very universe. It generates a reality that surpasses “the individual, though it is within him” (496), and thus is both immanent and transcendent, within and without, somewhat like Atman/Brahman. Although to interpret such statements by Durkheim in this way may be quite a stretch, Durkheim still strikes me as almost a mystic of sorts, as the quote on the title page further exemplifies. Perhaps, however, I am only reading my own mystical leanings into Durkheim.

Finally, when Durkheim said that every religion necessarily contains a plurality of sacred things (56), it made me wonder if our human need to allow for “'the radical plurality of the self'” (Adler 27) and “complexity, multiple meanings, and ambiguities” (Adler 27) is so great that plurality must somehow work its way into even the “monotheistic” traditions (consider the trinity). Given this triumph of the human need for some semblance of reality over all attempts to enforce pure homogeneity, one might even hope that the Neo-Pagan revival will eventually influence large segments of prevailing religious paradigms, sparking a “creative effervescence” (Durkheim 475) to light our way out of the yawning existential vacuum which seems poised to swallow my generation.

Works Cited

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Barrett, Leonard. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. Print.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Electronic copy.

Origen. "Contra Celsum." After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity. Ed. Bart D. Ehrman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pages 82 – 93. Print.

Price, Charles. Becoming Rasta. New York: New York University Press, 2009. Print.

Russell, Jeffrey, and Brooks Alexander. A History of Witchcraft. London: Thames and Hudson, 2007. Print.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society. Electronic copy.


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