Max Weber: Theory of Religion


Devanshu Bhadauria

Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur





The approach of Max Weber to study of religion reflected the interpretive methodology as contrasted with the positivist methodology adopted by Durkheim. The enlightenment thinkers had presented an image of human beings as reasonable, thinking creatures, able to perceive their circumstances and to do plan and bring about a change in a rational and orderly manner. Weber’s theory of religion is one most basic work to understand the motivations and values that inform the actions of individuals. In this article we will give more emphasis to ‘The Protestant Ethic and sprit of Capitalism’ original work of highly respected sociologists Max Weber.






Max Weber, one of the most well known and highly respected sociologists was an individual of wide learning. His interests ranged among subjects covering a wide area and his writings covered the field of economics, law, philosophy, comparative history as well as sociology. This may have been one of the most critical reasons for Weber having put forth his theory of religion in which he talks about the influence of Protestantism1 on the rise of the Capitalistic Society.2


Our aim is the understanding of the characteristic uniqueness of the reality in which we move. We wish to understand on the one hand the relationships and the cultural significance of individual events in their contemporary manifestations and on the other the causes of their being historically so and not otherwise. The influence of Max Weber across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences persists, despite numerous scholastic and cultural advances, nearly one hundred years after his death. His legacy is not only a result of his wide breadth of knowledge and study, but his keen attention to methodology process and applications. Max Weber’s perception of sociology was an inclusive science of social action. His main objective was to explain how western society had evolved, distinct from the East, and become dominated by goal oriented by rationality.


Weber’s work is still widely used. He laid down a foundational theory and orientation to understand the motivations and values that inform the actions of individuals. Weber began his work on the sociology of religion with what was originally an essay, ‘The Protestant Ethic and sprit of Capitalism’. Other important work of Weber is: The religion of India: Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (1958), Ancient Judaism (1967) and The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (1968).


Maximilian Carl Emil Weber:

Maximilian Carl Emil Weber was born on 21 April, 1864 in Erfurt in Thuringia, Germany. He was greatly influenced by his father Max Weber Sr., a wealthy and prominent politician in the National Liberal Party (Germany) and a civil servant.

His mother, Helene Fallen stein was a Protestant and a Calvinist, with strong moral absolutist ideas. He was a German political economist and sociologist who is considered one of the founders of the modern study of sociology and public administration.


In 1882 Weber enrolled in the University of Heidelberg as a law student and chose as his major study the field of law. Along with his law coursework, Weber attended lectures in economics and studied medieval history and theology. Intermittently, he served with the German army in Strasbourg. In 1886 Weber passed the examination for "Referenda". Throughout the late 1880s, Weber continued his study of history. He earned his law doctorate in 1889 by writing a doctoral dissertation on legal history entitled The History of Medieval Business Organisations. In 1889, he took doctor’s degree in medieval commercial law, specializing in legal history with a study of Roman agrarian law. Never fully able to maintain a professional position or academic output of his earlier years, life of a private scholar in Heidelberg, Weber eventually in 1903 became associate director of the Achieve fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. In 1910 , Weber had with Tonnies and Simmel founded the German Sociological Society. The Sociology of religion consisting of the individual studies of the China, Hinduism, and Ancient Judaism. On the 14th of June, 1920, Max Weber died. Weber gave his life, producing works of genius yet unsurpassed in their excellence and boldness of analysis and style.


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

The core of Weber’s theory is that the attitudes involved in the Spirit of Capitalism3 derived from religion. Around AD 1500, many Roman Catholics in Western Europe were unhappy with the way the church was being run. The Popes and many of the priests seemed interested only in wealth and power and set a bad example in the way they led their lives. This led to a movement, which became known as the “Reformation”, to change and reform the Christian Church. People who joined the movement were called “Protestants” because they were protesting about the things they thought were wrong.


In 1517, a German monk called Martin Luther nailed a list of complaints about the Church and the way the priests behaved, to the door of Wittenberg church in Germany. Luther believed that everyone should be able to study God’s message for themselves. So, he translated the Bible from Latin into German. Versions in other languages quickly followed. Luther was condemned by a Church court, but several German princes supported him. He also won followers in Europe. Soon, there were other religious leaders and the Protestants split into different groups. One such group was headed by a reformist named John Calvin who set up a church in Geneva. Calvin stressed simplicity, austerity and devotion and the followers of Calvin in England were called Puritans.


Weber, the last of the three writers, like Durkheim, invested significant time in the study of religion. Also similar to Durkheim, Weber sees a great deal of contemporary society rooted in the processes of religion. However, like Marx, Weber sees the driving force of history as material interests and not ideas, as found in religious beliefs. So in tying religion to the spread of capitalism, as he does in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he attempts to show that the ideas4 behind the religious beliefs of Calvinists steer the direction of the forces that were already in motion. The combination of technologies that facilitated capitalism and the ascetic habits of the Calvinists allowed capitalism to flourish in Europe and spread to the Americas.


Weber summarized the Calvinist ethic in five points

a)      There exists an absolute transcendent God who created the world and rules it, but who is incomprehensible and inaccessible to the finite minds of men.

b)      This all powerful and mysterious God had predestined each of us to salvation or damnation, so that we cannot by our works alter a divine decree which was made before we were born.

c)      God created the world for His own glory.

d)      Whether he is to be saved or damned, man is obliged to work for the glory of God and to create the Kingdom of God on earth.

e)      Earthly things, human nature, and flesh belong to the order of sin and death and salvation can come to man only through divine grace.5


The Spirit of Capitalism:

According to Weber, the capitalist desired wealth not for enjoyment or luxurious living. They wanted it so that they could use it to make more wealth. The thirst for money making for its own sake is the very essence of the modern capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system which aims at the limited accumulation of the profit through the rational organisation of production.


In the seventeenth century, thirteen centuries after the fall of Rome, other civilizations were much more prominent than the West in world history. Europe was a rather insignificant area while China, India and the Ottoman Empire in the Near East were a; major powers. The Chinese in particular were way ahead of the West in terms of their levels of technological and economic development. This brought him to a question and he tried to find an explanation to why capitalism developed only in the West.


Weber reasoned that it was essential to understand what separated modern industry from earlier types of economic activity. He found that the desire to accumulate wealth was common to all civilizations. People valued wealth for comforts, security, power and enjoyment that it brought. With the accumulation of wealth, they used it to made themselves comfortable and become free of want.


Max Weber: World Religions and Social Change:

Religion means set of ideas and believes about the “supernatural” and the impact on the lives of the human beings. Max Weber’s sociology is the foundation of scientific sociology of religion in a sense of typological and objective understanding. Rejecting Karl Marx's evolutionary law of class society, or Emile Durkheim's sustained law of moral society, Weber established the understanding sociology of the subjective meaning of religious action or inaction. To make such knowledge of the understanding objective, he founded the methodology of the ideal type and the elective affinity of causal relationships. Weber "elaborated a set of categories, such as types of prophecy, the idea of charisma (spiritual power), reutilisation, and other categories, which became tools to deal with the comparative material; he was thus the real founder of comparative sociology."6 Religious believes give meaning to life. They help answer question about oneself and the world one lives in. They provide certain guidelines or behaviour, certain codes of conduct which individual are expected to follow.


The term "religion" refers to both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction. "Religion" is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system," but it is more socially defined than personal convictions, and it entails specific behaviours, respectively.


Weber’s work on the sociology of Religion needed to seen in the context of his methodological approach to social phenomenon. Weber lived at a time, when positivism was the major approach for the scientific understanding and interpretation of human behaviour.


Weber however, stressed a means of understanding social phenomena that took into the account the fact that the phenomena of social experience were not ‘given things’, as the data of the natural sciences were, but were given their form and content by the ideas and motives of human.7 Weber emphasised the subjective meaning –complex of action and stated that the study of society required an interpretive understanding of social action, i.e., the methodology of natural sciences is not applicable to the social sciences.


Sociologists define religion as a cultural system of commonly shared beliefs and rituals that provides a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose by creating an idea of reality that is sacred, all-encompassing and supernatural. There are three key elements to this definition.

1.      Religion is a form of culture. Culture consists of the shared beliefs, values, norms and ideas that create a common identity among a group of people. Religion shares all of these characteristics.

2.      Religion involves beliefs that take the form of ritualized practices. All religions thus have behavioural aspect- special activities in which believers take part and that identify them as members of a religious community.

3.      Religion provides a sense of purpose – a feeling that life is ultimately meaningful. It does so by explaining coherently and compellingly what transcends or overshadows everyday life, in ways that other aspects of culture typically cannot.


For sociologists, it is very important to study religion with an unbiased and non-judgmental perspective. There are certain important implications for the study of religion.

The three classical thinkers of Sociology, though they all held that religion is in a fundamental sense an illusion and that the ‘other’ world which religion creates is our world, distorted through the lens of religious symbolism, each, viewed the role of religion in society very differently. To Karl Marx, religion contained a strong ideological element that provided justification for inequalities of wealth and power found in society. To Durkheim, religion is an important ingredient of society because of the cohesive function it serves, especially ensuring that people meet regularly to affirm common beliefs and values. To Weber, religion is important because of the role it plays in social change, particularly the development of Western capitalism.


Confucianism in China:

Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It is a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious thought that has had tremendous influence on the culture and history of East Asia. When Confucianism first took birth in ancient China, it had a well- developed economy. Trade, commerce, finance and manufacture were quite advanced. Despite the advancement in civilization, Capitalism did not develop there. Weber through his studies pointed out why. According to Weber, the Confucian ethic would not permit capitalism. Confucian ideas could be summed up as follows:

a)      Belief in the order of the universe, the cosmos.

b)      Man should aim at being in harmony with nature and the cosmos.

c)      Behaviour is to be guided by tradition. All wisdom lies in the past.

d)      Family and kin ties and obligations were never to be neglected.


The stress on harmony, traditionalism and family obligations are quite contradictory to a capitalist form of society. Thus, the practice of capitalism in such a society would be considered improper and against the religious beliefs of the people.


Judaism in West Asia:

Judaism is a set of beliefs and practices originating in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and explored and explained in later texts such as the Talmud. Jews consider Judaism to be the expression of the covenantal relationship God developed with the Children of Israel.


Weber analysed the interaction between the Bedouins, the cities, the herdsmen and the peasants. The conflicts between them and the rise and fall of United Monarchy. He discusses the organisation of the early confederacy, the unique qualities of Israelites relations to Yahweh, influence of foreign cults, types of religious ecstasy and the struggle of the priests against ecstasy and idol worship. He describes the times of the Division of the Monarchy, social aspects of Biblical prophecy, social orientation of the prophets, demagogues and pamphleteers, ecstasy and politics, ethic and theodicity of the Prophets.


Judaism, as we know is the foundation of Western Christianity. The Jews too believed themselves to be the chosen ones of God who they believed were to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Judaism, unlike Confucianism and Hinduism speaks of an ethnic mastery over the environment, not harmony. Weber felt that Judaism could have generated what he called ‘the spirit of capitalism’. However, certain historical forces prevented this. The Exodus or mass migration of the Jews from their homeland due to persecution left them scattered all over the world which limited their economic activity.


Hinduism in India:

The oldest of all the great religions still prominent in the world today is Hinduism, the core beliefs of which date back some 6000 years. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. Most Hindus accept the doctrine of the cycle of reincarnation- the belief that all living beings are part of eternal process of the birth and rebirth. A second key feature is the caste system, based on the belief that individual are born into a particular position in a social and rituals hierarchy, according to the nature activities in previous incarnations.


The Hindu ideals of moksha8 or salvation talk of the liberation of the soul only when it is free of material desires or vasanas. Hinduism preaches “other-worldly asceticism” in which the material world is de-emphasized. Material prosperity is considered temporary and illusory and is not given importance to. Religions that place more stress on other-worldly asceticism and de-emphasize the material world can hardly foster attitudes that promote capitalism.


Weber thus reached a conclusion that mere material conditions like finance, trade and technology are not enough to promote capitalism. India and China had both of these, yet, the value systems of these countries were such that the pursuit of wealth for one’s own sake and rational organization of work to achieve this purpose did not make sense. It did not fit in with the ethos or the ideals of these societies.



Weber’s work on religion and economy has been subject to criticism. Some scholars are of the opinion that he concentrated very selectively on certain aspects of religious ethics and interpreted them very narrowly so that they fit in with his theory.


His theory of the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism has also been criticized from many angles. According to some scholars, his spirit of capitalism was a phenomenon that was prevalent among the Italian merchants in the twelfth century, long before Calvinism9 was even heard of. Others were of the opinion that the key notion of “working in a vocation” which Weber associated with the Protestantism already existed in Catholic beliefs.


Weber’s account and its essentials, although, are still accepted by many and the thesis remains as bold and illuminating in the modern times as it was when it was first formulated. Weber’s theory is valid, modern economic and social development has been influenced by something that seems at first sight utterly distant from it – a set of religious ideas. On the brighter side, critics point out that Weber’s theory meets several criteria important in theoretical thinking in sociology.


Firstly, it is counterintuitive10. It suggests an interpretation that breaks with what common sense would suggest and develops a fresh perspective on the issues it covers.


Secondly, the theory makes sense of something that is otherwise very puzzling - the idea of why individuals would want to live frugally after making great efforts to accumulate large amounts of wealth.


Thirdly, it illuminates circumstances beyond those it was originally developed to understand. Though Weber’s principal study dealt with the origin of capitalism, he implies that parallel values to those instilled by Puritanism11 might be involved in other situations of modern capitalist development.


Lastly, a good theory is not just one that happens to be valid. It is also one that is fruitful in terms of how far it generates new ideas and stimulates further research work. Weber’s theory has been highly successful in these respects, providing the springboard for a vast amount of subsequent research and theoretical analysis.


Having granted its virtues and its unquestionable advancement of modern society, Weber was the first to concede the vices bureaucracy, viz., the inevitable de-personalization of human relationships in government and industry. He refers to the formalism and the rule-bound and cool ‘matter-of-factness’ of bureaucratic organization, a crypto-plutocratic13 distribution of power and increasing concentration of the materials of management. Yet, says Weber, it is inevitable, irrepressible, and inescapable.


Weber’s theory of religion being the driving force behind capitalism may have applied and been a very logical explanation for the rise of capitalism as an economic system in the west in the 18th century. But if we were to apply the same theory in modern society, it would fail because man today is motivated by the need to survive and not the desire for a peaceful life. For what we make of what we have is under our control but what becomes of us when we lose our physical bodies is totally and completely uncertain



Weber made detailed studies on Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism14 and ancient Judaism and in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and elsewhere, he wrote extensively about the impact of Christianity on the West.

Weber’s writings on religion concentrate on the connection between religion and social change. Weber argues that religion is not necessarily a conservative force; on the contrary, religiously inspired movements15 have often produced dramatic social transformations.


Max Weber demonstrated a vast and profound knowledge of history which he analyzed with a conceptual precision that is unsurpassed by any historian or sociologist to date. The wealth of material contained in his writings, the painstaking study of concrete situation and historical processes, his analysis of the structure of social action, typology of behaviour, comparative study of religions as well as economic, political and social systems and his insights into the contemporary process of rationalization16 and bureaucratization could well be used by generations of sociologists to come. A prolific writer and original thinker, Weber made extensive use of his knowledge of history, philosophical tradition, religious system and social structures to refine his concepts and to developed genera theoretical schema dealing with a variety of social phenomena.


Weber treated his research on world religions as a single project. His discussion of the impact of Protestantism on the development of capitalism in the West is part of a comprehensive attempt to understand the influence of religion on the economic life in varying cultures. Analyzing Eastern religions, Weber concluded that they provide inseparable barriers to the development of industrial capitalism. He says this was not because the Eastern civilizations were backward, but because they had simply come to accept values that were different from the ones that were predominant in Europe.


From his study of Hinduism, he inferred that its highest valued stress escape from the toils of a material world to a higher plane of spiritual existence. The religion does not motivate its followers to focus or control the material world. Hinduism, in fact sees material reality as a veil hiding the true concerns to which humankind should be oriented.


Though China was for a long time one of the most powerful and culturally most developed civilizations of the world, it was dominated by its religious values that acted as an impediment to economic development. Confucianism directed effort away from economic development, which means it emphasizes harmony with the world rather that promoting economic development.


He regarded Christianity although as a salvation religion with values that say that human beings can be ‘saved’ if they adopt the beliefs of religion and follow its moral tenets. The notions of sin and the rescue from sinfulness by God’s grace generate a tension about emotional dynamism something essentially absent in eastern religions. Drawing the most significant difference between the religions of the East and the West, Weber said that the religions of the East cultivated an attitude of passivity in the believer towards the existing order whereas Christianity involves a constant struggle against sin, and hence can stimulate revolt against the existing order of things.



1.      “Protestantism “word means when someone says something forcefully or complains about something.

2.      Economic Society based on private ownership of the means of production.

3.      Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribner's Press, 1958, pp. 47 - 78.

4.      Weber’s classic “switchman” metaphor

5.      Aron 1967: 221-222

6.      Ninian Smart. "The Study and Classification of Religions," in Encyclopedia, 15th ed.

7.      Simey,1967:95

8.      Moksha defined as the realization of one's union with God; as the realization of one's eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; as the attainment of perfect mental peace; and as detachment from worldly desires.

9.      A simple, frugal life-style along with hard work was recommended. Worldly or sensual pleasures were viewed with horror; fine clothes, dance and music, theatre and novels came from the Devil as they would divert a person from working for the glory of God.

10.    Describes something that does not happen in the way you would expect it to.

11.    Calvin stressed simplicity, austerity and devotion and the followers of Calvin in England were called Puritans.

12.    A hidden system of government in which the richest people in a country rule or have power.

13.    A religion developed originally in ancient China which emphasizes a simple and natural life.

14.    Restorationists, Nontrinitarian movements, or the New Religious Movements, which share certain characteristics of the Protestant churches, are termed 'Protestant' by outsiders, even though neither mainstream Trinitarian Christians, nor the groups themselves, would consider the designation appropriate.

15.    The rationalization is partially a product of the fact that Luther and his religious descendents read the Old Testament and New with equal weight, and so is due to greater influence of Jewish thought.



1)       Giddens, Anthony, Sociology, Wiley India Pvt. Ltd., 6th Edition, 2010

2)       D’souza, Leela ,The Sociology of religion ,Rawat Publications, Delhi ,2010

3)       Soumyajit Patra, Rethinking Religion, Rawat Publications, Delhi,2010

4)       Indra Gandhi National Open University School of Social Sciences, Sociological Thought

5)       Abram Francis and Morgan, John Henry, Sociological Thought, Macmillan India Limited, 1985

6), Accessed on 26 of September 2010.

7), Accessed on 26 of September 2010.

8),  Accessed on 13 of September 2010.

9),  Accessed on 14 of September 2010.

10), Accessed on 10 of September 2010.

11), Accessed on 25 of September 2010.

12),  Accessed on 26 of September 2010.

13) ,  Accessed on 26 of September 2010.

14), Accessed on 29 of September 2010.

15), Accessed on 30 of September 2010.




Received on 01.11.2011

Revised on   15.11.2011

Accepted on 29.11.2011

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