REVIEW: The Sociology of Religion, by Max Weber


by Judd Burton

Max Weber.  The Sociology of Religion.  Boston:  Beacon, 1993.

(original published in German in 1922)



            I recently had the privilege of reading sociologist Max Weber's The Sociology of Religion.  For anyone interested in the study of religion or comparative religions, this work is an absolute must-read.  I highly recommend it.

            The book deals with religion, from its most basic animistic beginnings to the development of priesthoods.  Weber leaves no social aspect of religion unexamined, analyzing laity, salvation, class relationships with religion, intellectualism, mysticism, asceticism, and much more.  The scope of the work is impressive and leaves the reader with the feeling of just having been enlightened by a great mind.

            Max Weber executes a brilliant work of history and sociology in The Sociology of Religion.  This book is a comparative analysis of the world’s major religious traditions and their social ramifications throughout history.  The Sociology of Religion is a cohesive treatise that is amazingly written (and wonderfully translated, for that matter, by Ephraim Fischoff) with the skill of a novelist and the thoughtful and exacting methodology of a true scholar.

            While The Sociology of Religion is an engaging overview, the most interesting portion of the work is Weber’s discussion of the prophet.  Rightfully so, Weber makes careful distinction between the role of priest and prophet.  Where the priest is part of an organized, centralized cabal of religious officials, the prophet is something entirely other.  The prophet is most often the bearer of a new—or modified—religious doctrine or divine ordinance, rather than a perpetuator of traditional orthodoxy.  Such an individual can cause drastic change in a society.

            Weber also notes that the priesthood of a religion is often part of the elite, the hierocracy, as it were.  The prophet, on the other hand, is most often a preacher from the middle or lower classes.  When the priesthood becomes corrupt or oppressive, the prophet emerges to criticize and lead an effort to reform the priesthood and the population too.  Weber masterfully uses examples from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, and ancient Chinese religion to illustrate his argument concerning the role of the prophet in a society.

            The population of a society, if indeed they are religious, most often follows the lead of the established priesthood.  If there is a corrupt priesthood, it sets a precedent for the sacrilege and corruption of the people.  It is in such heretical conditions that prophets arise.  He or she answers a perceived special revelation and shares it with the people of society, most often in the form of homily.  Hence, the prophet is a capable preacher, conveying the message of repentance first, and then social reform.

            I would be interested in what commentary Weber would have on the phenomenon of corruption in the leadership of some evangelical Protestant groups.  It occurs to me that Weber would most likely pay close attention to televangelists.  There is no question that many of these individuals garner vast support and have large viewing audiences.  However, in an age of unethical televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson, I am prompted to think that Weber would ask “Where is the American evangelical prophet to answer these corrupt leaders?”  At least, I think Weber would say “The conditions for such a prophet, or prophets, are almost ideal.”

            Furthermore, if such a prophet were to arise in American Protestant society, what sort of person would we be looking for?  If we are to follow Weber’s line of thinking, this individual (or group of individuals) will emerge from either the middle class, or merchant class.  But, of course, it is difficult to predict, as epiphany is not confined to a class.  At any rate, this American prophet will likely call for religious and social reform as prophets of previous ages in similar social conditions have.

            Weber’s The Sociology of Religion is a religious study of the highest caliber.  Simply put, it is one of those works that continually provokes questions.  It is an enlightening and informed volume, which, I would argue is particularly valuable to historians of religion.

copyright Burton Beyond, 2005-2020