Is disenchantment the end of religion?

Copyright © 2000 by Christopher L. Walton

Philocrites : Liberal religion : Essays | 1.18.03

In "Science as a Vocation" (1918-1919), Max Weber writes: "The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the 'disenchantment of the world'" (155).1 Weber's use of the term "disenchantment" rather than, say, "secularization" is particularly suggestive because it points to Weber's concern with subjective experience as well as with patterns of social organization and thought. Weber describes the contemporary social and intellectual world as disenchanted, but he also writes that "the bearing of man has been disenchanted and denuded of its mystical but inwardly genuine plasticity" (148). Weber does not simply argue that religion has been privatized or that society has been secularized; he argues instead that the human condition in modern societies is characterized by disenchantment at the personal as well as at the social level. Rationalization and intellectualization have profound consequences not only for the economic and political organization of modern societies, but for the psychological and spiritual organization of the "modern self" as well. This essay asks whether disenchantment marks the end of religion in Weber's scheme, not only as a significant institutional and social force but as a personal reality as well.

Although Weber says that disenchantment has progressively limited the scope of certain features of religion (such as magic and charisma), his analysis of the development of religions of salvation suggests that certain meanings of "religion" may continue to play important roles even in a disenchanted society. As religion has developed its own distinctive forms of rationalization, religion itself has become disenchanted without necessarily forfeiting a distinctive and vital function. Disenchantment may mean that particular (and primitive) meanings of religion fade away while rationalized and perhaps even disenchanted meanings of religion emerge instead. Religion evolves and changes as an important sphere of human society just as economic and political spheres of human society evolve and change. So long as the development of religion reveals a degree of continuity as a distinctive sphere in human life, the definition of religion in one historical period cannot be used to show that religion has ceased to play an important role simply because its definition has changed. I will argue that Weber's analysis recognizes and allows for the possibility of disenchanted but nonetheless vital forms of religion, although Weber's pessimism about the value of such forms is unmistakable. I will also argue, however, that the "disenchantment of the world" may not adequately describe the historical situation in which we find ourselves. Is it so clear, after all, that the world has been disenchanted and that religion — insofar as enchantment belongs to religion — has irremediably ceded its mystery to the clarity of science and the control of technology?

What forms can religion take under the conditions of rationalization, intellectualization, and disenchantment? Rationalization per se is not foreign to religion. Weber argues in fact that religions of salvation are responsible for generating the "rational conception of the universe." The "myth of the redeemer" depends on the assumption of a world order which, "in its totality is, could, and should somehow be a meaningful cosmos" ("The Social Psychology of the World Religions" 1922-1923, 281). The idea of redemption involves the identification of "something in the actual world which is experienced as specifically 'senseless'" (281). The consequent development of a "systematic and rationalized image of the world'" allows people to take a corrective stance in response to the senselessness in the world (280). Religions of redemption tend toward systematic, comprehensive rationalizations of problems and their solutions, in contrast to magical religions which are remedial in a non-systematic way.

Weber suggests, however, that the assumption that the cosmos is meaningful has detached for all practical purposes from any particular revelation of the meaning of the cosmos. As various rationalizations have achieved autonomy from religion, they have preserved the assumption of the world's rationality without requiring a demonstration of that rationality. A modern scientist cannot prove that "what is yielded by scientific work is important in the sense that it is worth being known,'" although the scientist's vocation depends on her assumption that scientific knowledge is worthwhile ("Science as a Vocation," 143). A religious person, meanwhile, assumes that the world is a meaningful cosmos and that the world's meaning has been demonstrated decisively — in the theistic traditions, through divine revelation. Religion has lost authority over forms of rationalization that once provided key elements of its demonstration of the meaning of the cosmos, however, so that disciplines like history, biology, law, and political theory challenge rather than support central traditional claims of a religion.

Other disciplines have come to compete with religion for authority over the solution to concrete human problems. As various disciplines have gained "rational cognition and mastery" over particular problems, religion has been reduced to referring uniquely only to "mystic experiences" ("The Social Psychology of the World Religions," 282). Because history, biology, law, and the other rational disciplines no longer provide authoritative support for religious claims, religions often fall back on what cannot be proved. Weber argues that as the world has been made rational, religion has been made the custodian of the irrational. In other words, while religions have been rationalized — developing bureaucratic structures, legal systems, and theoretical rationalizations — the "image of the world" rationalized by religion has come to be fundamentally irrational. Rationalization may have appeared first in human societies as a feature of religion, but Weber believes that religious rationalizations have been reduced to the articulation of purely inward "experiences." The meaning of the world no longer requires public demonstration.

Weber argues that the rationalization of other spheres of life has pushed religion more and more "into the realm of the irrational" (281), but it is not obvious that religion has ceased to be rational simply because other spheres of human activity have been rationalized. One of the most notable contributions of religion — the "religious ethic of brotherliness" — is a rationalized expression of religion that continues to challenge most spheres of human life. The religious ethic is a rejection of various aspects of the social or natural order in the name of a transcendent or spiritual order. In "Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions" (1915), Weber argues that the fully developed rationalization of the prophetic religions of redemption involves a universalizing of a religious ethic of brotherliness (327-330). This religious ethic of brotherliness, in its fully developed form, stands in acute tension with other mature rationalizations.

The more the world of the modern capitalist economy follows its own immanent laws, the less accessible it is to any imaginable relationship with a religious ethic of brotherliness. The more rational, and thus impersonal, capitalism becomes, the more is this the case. (331)

The tension with the religious ethic of brotherliness appears in politics as well as in economics. The bureaucratic state "is less accessible to substantive moralization" the more politics becomes "matter-of-fact and calculating" (334-335). Similar tensions appear in aesthetic, erotic, and intellectual spheres.

Although the religious ethic — at least in its ideal form — flatly rejects the authority of other rationalizations, it is important to remember that the ethic functions in the world as a social force among others. Its practitioners may reject the world in principle, but in practice they must find workable compromises with the world. Religious people who try to serve the ethic of brotherliness in the various spheres of their lives introduce a form of rationality that is somewhat hostile to the rationalized and intellectualized methods of the modern disciplines. By acting out of an ethic rooted in a perception of ultimate meaning beyond the proper domain of any other discipline, religious people challenge the reigning forms of social organization in ways that may yet prove creative.

Weber leaves open the possibility that religion may continue to serve as the domain of meaning in an otherwise disenchanted world. That meaning may be perceived or assumed strictly as an inward reality, which is what Weber largely seems to expect in "Science as a Vocation." If religion does come to describe only that domain of meaning which is perceived or, more often, simply assumed by individuals, religion will prove sociologically insignificant, although it may continue to describe a kind of psychological state. Such "religion" will no longer offer a meaningful or systematic rationalization, but only a feeling or hope that such a meaning is possible. Religion may also be perceived, however, as the foundation of an ethic that challenges the various forms human society takes. The institutional and intellectual traditions of the rationalized religions seem most vitally relevant to a disenchanted world in their capacity to link the personal quest for meaning and cosmic order to a discipline that serves the religious ethic of brotherliness. (A better term than "brotherliness" is now needed, of course.) Linking the search for meaning to an ethic that seeks a universal and transcendent community certainly threatens social forms that depend on the rational discrimination of more and less significant human beings. One's sense of discomfort with the degree of threat posed by religion as a continuing social force will no doubt depend partly on one's degree of confidence in the rationalizations threatened by religion and partly by the specific meanings (or forms of redemption) around which religious communities take shape.

We must also observe that the threat religion poses to the autonomous rational disciplines is not the only threat Weber's analysis indicates. Although religion has undergone rationalization and disenchantment, one should not therefore assume that irrationality, charisma, or magical thinking have disappeared from modern societies. If organized religion continues to struggle with "secular" rationalizations, it also continues to struggle with the manifestations of charisma and irrationality as well. The success of charismatic leaders in violent movements hostile either to modernity or to the universal application of the religious ethic of brotherliness (which we see in the instances of "ethnic cleansing" and genocide) suggests that irrationality threatens rationalized religion as well as secular institutions.

Finally, we turn to the question of disenchantment itself. Weber defines disenchantment as "the knowledge or belief that . . . there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation" ("Science as a Vocation" 139). Could it be, however, that science may discover certain innate limits to the extent of our mastery by cognition and technological control? It does seem to be the case that the physical world as we are capable of experiencing it without the aid of extremely refined scientific instruments does conform quite closely to Newtonian physics, and can be usefully described and manipulated using a mechanistic model. Physicists are now aware, however, that the picture is much stranger the more closely we look. The randomness in quantum theory and the limitations of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle are but two examples of discoveries (if they are discoveries) that may indicate limits to our capacity to "know" and calculate the forces that govern the world.2 Most of the forces we seek to control do yield to our examination and control, more or less — but current research complicates matters by examining phenomena that simply may not yield to our mastery.

Such phenomena may be only of theoretical interest, but Weber's disenchanted worldview depends on the assumption that we can in principle master all forces. Contemporary science suggests that one cannot know all of the factors that cause an event in all of its particularity. Our mastery can only ever be approximate. This is important theoretically because the disenchantment of the world is an assertion of a human triumph, even if only in principle, and the actual state of science suggests that humans may be discovering real limits to our intellectual and technological triumph. We may not be approaching the re-enchantment of the world, but we may be approaching the end of the disenchantment of the world. The world is stranger and holds more possibility than our compartmentalized rationalizations acknowledge. Weber assumes that technical means and calculation will serve human needs more adequately than magical means. This may be true, but Weber must have a limited view of what really is at play in human life. Not all human needs can be served by calculated, technical means. A truly vital religion will certainly not seek to overthrow rationalization, nor will it seek to reestablish a lost world. Instead, a vital religion will link the human desire for ultimate meaning — the ultimate human need — with a rationally disciplined ethic. Above all, it will recognize the need for humility before a world that sets the ultimate limits for us and not we for it.


Written for "Theology and Culture," Professor Francis Fiorenza, Harvard Divinity School, January 25, 2000.
1. All page number refer to From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, New York: Oxford University Press, 1946. back
2. George Johnson has written a particularly helpful account of cutting-edge research and some of its puzzling implications in Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). back

Works Cited

Max Weber. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

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Philocrites | Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Christopher L. Walton