MAX WEBER: The Social Psychology of the World Religions
The world religions, to Max, are Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and
Islam, and they are chosen because they have a large number of followers, and for no
other reason. He will also consider Judaism, since it is an important precursor to
Christianity and Islam and because of its significance for the development of the
economic ethic of the West.
The term 'economic ethic' points to the practical impulses for action which are founded in
the psychological and pragmatic contexts of religion. The religious determination of life
conduct is only one of the determinants of the economic ethic. The religiously determined
way of life is itself profoundly influenced by economic and political factors.
Those strata which are decisive in stamping the characteristic features of an economic
ethic may change in the course of history; nevertheless, as a rule one may determine the
strata whose styles of life have been at least predominately decisive for certain religions.
For example, Confucianism was the status ethic of prebendaries, men with literary
educations who were characterized by a secular rationalism. Christianity began its course
as a doctrine of itinerant artisan journeymen. It is not the case for Weber that ''the ruling
ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling classes,'' however. And, however incisive
the social influences, economically and politically determined, may have been upon a
religious ethic in a particular case, it receives its stamp primarily from religious sources,
and most predominantly from the content of its annunciation and promise.
One of the foci of religious ethics has been the evaluation of suffering. By treating
suffering as a symptom of secret guilt and of a crime in the sight of G/god/s, religion has
psychologically met a very important need. The fortunate is seldom satisfied with the fact
of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune.
Good fortune wants to be legitimate fortune. Religion provides the theodicy of good
fortune for those who are fortunate.
Salvation religions are religions of suffering. Under the pressure of typical and ever-
recurrent distress, the religiosity of a 'redeemer' evolved. This religiosity presupposed the
myth of a savior, hence (at least relatively) a rational view of the world. In Judaism, the
term messiah was originally attached to the saviours from political distress, as transmitted
by the hero sagas. In Judaism, and in this clear-cut fashion only in it and under very
particular other conditions, the suffering of a people's community, rather than the
suffering of an individual, became the object of hope for religious salvation. The usual
rule was that the savior bore an individual and universal character at the same time that
he was ready to guarantee salvation to the individual and to any individual who would
turn to him.
The tribal and local gods, gods of the city and the empire, have taken care only of the
interests that concern the collectivity as a whole. In the community cult, the community
as such turned to its god. The individual, however, turned to the sorcerer and magician
for help with his personal evils. Hereditary dynasties of mystagogues or trained personnel
under a head determined in accordance with certain rules developed. Collective religious
arrangements for individual suffering per se, and for salvation from it, originated in this
fashion. The typical service of magicians and priests becomes the determination of the
factors to be blamed for suffering; that is, the confession of sins. Where religious
development was decisively influenced by prophecy, sin was no longer merely a magical
offense: it was a sign of disbelief in the prophet and his commandments.
While prophets have not generally been descendants of depressed classes, it has generally
been the depressed classes who need a redeemer. Thus, most prophetically announced
religious of redemption have been located in the less-favored social strata. For these, such
religiosity has been either a substitute for, or a rational supplement to, magic.
The need for an ethical interpretation of suffering and of the meaning of the distribution
of fortunes among men increased with the growing rationality of conceptions of the
world. There have been three rationally satisfactory answers to questions about the basis
of the incongruity between destiny and merit: Karma, dualism (from Zoroastrianism) and
the predestination decree of the deus abscondidus (the absconded god; kind of a cool
phrase). These solutions are rationally closed, and are found in pure form only as
Ecstatic states (orgies, quietistic edification, contemplative mortification, etc) have been
sought first of all, for the sake of the emotional value they offered the devout.
Rationalized religions have sublimated the orgy into the sacrament. Every hierocratic and
official authority of a church fights against virtuoso religion and its autonomous
development. The church is the holder of institutionalized grace, and seeks to organize
the religiosity of the masses.
The kind of empirical state of bliss or experience of rebirth that is sought after as the
supreme value by a religion has varied according to the character of the stratum that was
foremost in adopting it. The conception of the idea of redemption is very old, if one
understands by it a liberation from sickness, hunger, etc., ultimately from suffering and
death. However, redemption attained a specific significance only where it expressed a
systematic and rationalized image of the world and represented a stand in the face of the
world. Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men's conduct. Yet very
frequently the world images that have been created by ideas have, like switchmen,
determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.
From what and for what one wished to be redeemed, and let us not forget, could be
redeemed, depended upon one's image of the world.
Behind every religion lies a stand toward something in the actual world which is
experienced as specifically senseless. Thus, the demand has been implied: the world
order, in its totality, could, and should somehow be a meaningful cosmos. The various
great ways of leading a rational and methodical life have been characterized by irrational
presuppositions, which have been accepted simply as given and incorporated into life.
What these presuppositions have been is historically and socially determined, to a very
large extent, through the peculiarity of those strata that have been the carriers of the ways
of life during its formative and decisive period. The interest situation of these strata, as
determined socially and psychologically, has made for their peculiarity.
Where prophecy has provided a religious basis, this basis could be one of two
fundamental types of prophesy: exemplary and emissary. Exemplary prophesy points the
way to salvation by exemplary living (usually contemplative and apathetic-ecstatic ways
of life). Emissary prophesy addresses its demands to the world in the name of a god.
These demands are ethical, and often of an active acetic character.
The civic strata, conditioned by the nature of their life, which is greatly detached from
economic bonds to nature, tend toward a practical rationalism in conduct. Their whole
existence has been based on technological or economic calculations and upon the mastery
of nature and man. These strata tend toward religions of active asceticism. Wherever the
direction of the whole way of life has been methodically rationalized, it has been
profoundly determined by the ultimate values toward which this rationalism has been
All kinds of practical ethics that are systematically and unambiguously oriented toward
fixed goals of salvation are rational, partly in the same sense as formal method is rational,
and partly in the sense that they distinguish between valid norms and what is empirically
All ruling powers need legitimacy, which comes in three kinds...
In the main, it has been the work of jurists to give birth to modern Western states, as well
as modern Western churches. Jurists work in the realm of formal rationalization, they
follow procedures, etc. With the triumph of formalistic (rather than substantive) juristic
rationalism, the legal type of domination appeared in the West.