Volume 3, Issue 2, Autumn 2017
Approaches to Religion
Johann P. Arnason
Theorizing the History of Religions
The Weberian Agenda and its Unresolved Issues
The paper begins with a brief discussion of French approaches to religion, with particular emphasis on interpretations of and responses to Durkheim’s work. This survey of the French tradition then serves as a background to more detailed analyses of Max Weber’s work on the historical sociology of religions. Specific features of the Weberian project stand out in contrast to French conceptions; but to gain an adequate grasp of his problematic, it is necessary to think beyond his incomplete arguments and spell out the underlying or adumbrated themes. Although Weber’s civilizational studies are at first sight centred on ‘economic ethics’, it can be shown that the perspective shifts towards the question of religion and politics. Closer examination of theocracy, a marginal notion in Weber’s writings, but open to more complex interpretations, and of sacral rulership as a more general category, throws light on the religio-political nexus and its civilizational contexts. A further issue, less explicitly present in Weber’s writings, but relevant to his main concern, is the relationship between religion and philosophy. All these aspects should be discussed in more concrete historical terms than Weber could do a century ago, and the processes that led from archaic civilizations to the axial age are of particular importance.