Beyond Religious Ideas – The Legacy Of Max Weber In Critical Theory And Critical Religion (Joel Harrison)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

In his essay “The Failure of Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion,” (141-62) Donald Wiebe heralds a courageous return to the Enlightenment principles which once characterized the “science of religion,” particularly in the nineteenth century.

Just a year after he first published the essay (1984), Wiebe co-founded the North American Association for the Study of Religion, helping to inaugurate a branch of religious studies scholarship loosely referred to today as “critical religion.” Critical religion has maintained that although religious studies separated itself from theology proper as early as the nineteenth century, extra-scientific concerns in the form of latent theological agendas took hold of the academic study of religion, rendering it quasi-confessional.

These latent agendas are characterized primarily by the phenomenology of religion, yet Wiebe also sees them extending as widely as the humanities more generally, which has been marred by a general, existential search for meaning at the neglect of the natural sciences.  Wiebe writes: ““[The] period from 1945 to 1960 not only represented no advance in the development of Religious Studies as an academic or scientific undertaking; it amounted to a retrograde step, in that, like the classics in the colonial curriculum, it defined itself only in terms of a reaffirmation of ‘commitment to civilization,’ thus ‘reaffirming’ its opposition to the sciences.”(77)

These sorts of arguments aren’t confined to what I’m here calling “critical religion.” However, critical religion attaches a particularly trenchant edge to its critiques, pressing resolutely for what it understands to be a pure science of religion. For Wiebe and others associated broadly with critical religion, for example Robert Segal, Russell McCutcheon, or Craig Martin, once theological agendas are excised from the academic study of religion, the methodology we are left with, or are free to recover, is that of the natural sciences: empirical, testable, and without conclusions being set in advance by any extra-scientific agendas.

For example, in the introduction to McCutcheon’s well-known genealogical analysis of Eliade entitled Manufacturing Religion, he suggests that if particular “theories, commitments, and contexts” of religion are non-testable, then they are not viable because they assuredly participate in the ideological project of insulating a sui generis concept of religion from criticism. It is not at all clear, however, how the genealogical, colonial (i.e. political) critique of religion McCutcheon advances is “testable” or what it would even mean to claim that it is.(6)

The main contention of this essay is that critical religion’s argument for “natural science” as the only properly academic approach to religious studies turns on a characterization of a particular nineteenth century distinction, between the “scientific” and the “confessional” that was later called into question beginning with Max Weber at the turn of the twentieth century.

The primary Weberian criticism—the rejection of an explanatory, material first principle for religion—coupled with the recovery of “religious thought” as a sphere of analysis was carried into the Frankfurt School in their articulation of the dialectic of enlightenment. Critical religion, however, has omitted this aspect of the Weberian legacy, instead characterizing Weber as part of the same reductive project of the nineteenth century and, thus, their own project as well, arguing that if it a method is non-confessional, it must be empirically reductive and vice versa.

The distinction between critical religion and critical theory can best be understood by examining how each understands “rationality,” which is drawn out in Weber’s analysis of the rationalization of religious and economic values. In short, critical religion maintains that there is a universal standard for rationality and truth characterized by natural science, while critical theory understands “rationality” to be itself a set of values that puts the Enlightened subject at the center of all claims to knowledge.

This essay shows that whereas critical religion has maintained that the fundamental debate in religious studies is between natural scientific and phenomenological/theological (i.e. confessional) approaches, the critical-theoretical Weberian legacy highlights a more fundamental dichotomy in religious studies between ontological and axiological analyses—that is, between what religion is and what it does.

On these terms, the critique of phenomenology and “theological agendas” can certainly continue as necessary on the ontological side, but such a critique has little to say about an analysis of the ways that religious values have determinant effects on material reality—a central consequence of Weber’s work. Indeed, a materially reductive analysis by definition rejects that possibility altogether. Here, I am rejecting the reductive claim that religious values are always wholly determined and thus explained by material reality.

I begin by laying out how I understand Weber’s position before turning to how Weber is taken up in critical religion and critical theory. Both threads depend upon Weber’s understanding of value and the role values play in sociological analysis, which Weber draws primarily from the Neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history.

Time does not permit a full treatment of Rickert’s theory.  However, we can see his indebtedness to Rickert clearly from one methodological sentence in Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber writes of “the spirit of capitalism” that, “If any object can be found to which this term can be applied with any understandable meaning, it can only be an historical individual, i.e. a complex of elements associated in historical reality which we unite into a conceptual whole from the standpoint of their cultural significance.”(13, his emphasis) We can unpack this definition of the “historical individual” in order to see what is at stake in Weber’s method.

Following Rickert, Weber sees socio-historical reality as an infinitely complex web of individual phenomena that are themselves infinitely complex. This individuality and complexity entails a logical distinction between the ways in which the natural and historical sciences regard individual phenomena: The natural sciences abstract from individuals to form general concepts, while the historical sciences are interested in conceptualizing phenomena in their individuality.

According to Rickert,

Each leaf on a tree, every lump of sulfur a chemist puts in his retort, is an individual. As such, it can no more be subsumed under a natural scientific concept than any great personality of history. As regards leaves or sulfur, however, we automatically conceive the single individuals as nothing more than instances of general concepts. In other words, we pay no attention to what constitutes them as individuals. This is necessary, for only under this condition do we obtain “leaves” or “sulfur” in the sense of natural science. Here we are interested only in individuals as generic cases.(35)

Importantly, “individual” for both Weber and Rickert is not limited to material objects. Any “object” that can be formed into a conceptual whole can be regarded as a historical individual. History is, by definition, composed of unrepeatable, unique individual phenomena; therefore it logically excludes general concept formation as a tool for historical analysis. Historical science, is interested only in these kinds of individuals, which it treats as conceptual wholes Weber calls “historical individuals,” a term drawn from Rickert.

All individuals of experience are potential historical individuals, none more complex than any other in their total empirical reality because all individuals of experience are infinitely complex. Because of this infinite complexity, any historical individual is still a conceptual abstraction—it cannot account for the total empirical reality from which the concept is constructed, which is why Weber refers to historical individuals as a “complex of elements associated in historical reality.”

Rickert calls the gap between conceptualization and empirical reality a hiatus irrationalis. For Rickert, the relation between historical concepts and empirical reality is closer than that between the natural sciences and empirical reality because the former attempts to capture reality as Rickert argues it actually is.(35)

Even in identifying an individual, it is still necessary that we highlight the elements that we think generate the clearest picture of it as a conceptual whole while maintaining its unique individuality as much as possible. Weber says that this is accomplished from “the standpoint of cultural significance,” which is to say the cultural significance of the historical individual to the time and place in which it is located. In other words, when we make our choices in sketching out the historical individual, we do so on the basis of value—not our own subjective values but those of the culture in question.

This kind of claim to methodological objectivity is both familiar and problematic; however, time does not permit for a full critique of it. It suffices to say that other figures even in Weber’s generation (e.g. Ernst Troeltsch) argued that the scholar cannot—and should not—bracket his or her own subjective values in performing this kind of cultural analysis.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber sets out to identify those values and material conditions, which come together to form “the spirit of capitalism” as a conceptual whole. Here we see the primary way in which Weber may be distinguished from the nineteenth century theorists of religion admired in critical religion.  Weber rejects explicitly the reduction of complex cultural phenomena to a single material explanatory principle and yet his analysis is also in no way “confessional.”

In the introduction to the text, Weber distinguishes his project from historical materialist theories, which argue that “religion” as a phenomenon can only be explained in terms of the economic mode of production. Religion, in other words, has no determinative effects on material reality. However, the historical development of capitalism is too complex, Weber thinks, to be explained purely on its own terms. Rather than view society as clouds of epiphenomena that float over the ground of economic production, he sees society as overlapping spheres, each with its own value demands it makes on individuals. These demands have to be rationalized with one another in order to produce a coherent picture of one’s practical activity in the world.

In conceptualizing the spirit of capitalism, Weber identifies a complex nexus of causal elements, both material and ideational, and argues that at the center is a specific religious orientation toward the world, which he calls inner-worldly asceticism, that is the driving explanatory force for his account of the spirit of capitalism. To be sure, Weber does not think this orientation to the world has no material explanation or that material explanations play no part at all in his account of the spirit of capitalism.

Indeed, his account requires an explanation of the ways in which capitalism fit together so well with an orientation to the world that seems utterly opposed to it on the surface, such that the latter has a determinative, real effect on the former.  Weber writes:

Every such attempt at explanation must, recognizing the fundamental importance of the economic factor, above all take account of the economic conditions. But at the same time the opposite correlation must not be left out of consideration. For though the development of economic rationalism is partly dependent on rational technique and law, it is at the same times determined by the ability and disposition of men to adopt certain types of practical rational conduct. When these types have been obstructed by spiritual obstacles, the development of rational economic conduct has also met serious inner resistance. The magical and religious forces, and the ethical ideas of duty based upon them, have in the past always been among the most important formative influences on conduct. In the studies collected here we shall be concerned with these forces.(xxxix)

A material account of inner-worldly asceticism is possible, whether we explain the core theological ideas, predestination and calling, or the popular circulation of those ideas. Yet Weber thinks this account is insufficient for explaining the results of those ideas, namely their rationalization with capitalism, which produces a new, hyper-efficient and peculiarly frugal form of capitalism. Put differently the material explanation of the religious ideas does not give us the material effects those ideas produce.

This constitutes an explanatory rupture at the site where ideas and values can be regarded as objects that have material effects, which is authorized by a philosophy of history and social theory that regards historical and social phenomena as infinitely complex individuals analyzed as conceptual wholes. I argue that we can best make sense of this by considering the difference between reductive materialist accounts and Weber’s account in terms of a distinction between an ontological and axiological approach to religion.

The ontological is an approach to what religion is. In its empirical versions, the ontological approach attempts to explain religion in terms of natural scientific processes, genealogical accounts of power relations, or social processes and functions. In its phenomenological versions, it attempts to construct a general system of religious symbols intended to get at the essential meaning of religion across cultures and times.

The axiological, by contrast, is an approach to what religion does. It regards religious ideas, beliefs, mental states, and practices as real, not in their essence, but in terms of their effects on material reality. It recognizes that what we call “religious” does have an explanation apart from its religious meaning, but that the religious meaning may have effects apart from its material explanation. Weber’s project shows us exactly how this is possible.

Joel Harrison is a PhD candidate in religious studies at Northwestern University. His work is focused on the relationship between theology and social theory at the turn of the 20th century in Germany and theory and method in the early history of religious studies. His dissertation, “Between Normativity and History: Ernst Troeltsch’s Mystic Type and the Creative Agency of Values”, reads the “mystic type” in Troeltsch’s theological sociology of the Church as a way of understanding his later work in the philosophy of history, particularly his solution to the problem of history and normativity.  Joel has served as the Assistant Chair of the Humanities Residential College since 2015. In addition to that post, Joel will be the Graduate Assistant in the Public Humanities at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and will serve as the Religious Studies Department’s Graduate Teaching Fellow through the Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching for the 2017-2018 school year.

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