Posts Tagged ‘Max Weber’

December 20th, 2013

Modernity, enchantment, and Fictionalism

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The stern visage of Max Weber looms over discussions of modernity and enchantment, as does the sunnier countenance of Charles Taylor. Perhaps they should be joined by the open faced, bluntly spoken, and allegedly poker wielding Ludwig Wittgenstein. This choice might seem counter-intuitive. Wittgenstein did not write much about enchantment, and is more often considered a disenchanter who used the tools of philosophy to dispel illusions brought about by linguistic misuse. As he wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

November 6th, 2013

History without hermeneutics: Brad Gregory’s unintended modernity

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I would like to draw attention to three aspects of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, a book whose courage and ambition I applaud, if for no other reason than that it exemplifies what an engaged form of historiography (and humanistic inquiry more generally) can and should do. The first aspect has to do with the commercialization and commodification of knowledge in post-Reformation modernity and how it impacts advanced inquiry today. From it follows my second concern, which lies with the indebtedness of Gregory’s own narrative to the fruits of modern, disciplinary and specialized inquiry. Finally, I wish to take up the question of whether Gregory’s historiographical approach might be seriously compromised by the apparent absence of a focused hermeneutical engagement with the major voices (theological, philosophical, political, economic, etc.) widely credited with shaping the landscape of post-Reformation modernity, both secular and religious.

June 28th, 2012

American civil religion in the age of Obama: An interview with Philip S. Gorski

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Philip S. Gorski is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University. His work as a comparative historical sociologist has been influential in recovering Max Weber and asserting the strong influence of Calvinism on state formation in early modern Europe. In his recent book, The Protestant Ethic Revisited (Temple, 2011), he challenges Charles Tilly’s thesis that the technologies of war drove the creation of stable nation-states and argues that post-Reformation religious conflicts were the primary impetus of European state formation. In addition to co-editing The Post-Secular in Question earlier this year as part the SSRC’s series with NYU Press, Gorski is editor of another volume coming out early next year entitled Bourdieu and Historical Analysis (Duke, 2012). He and I sat down in Theodore Roosevelt Park in New York City, where we discussed the book he’s writing on civil religion, joked about Obama’s messianic burden, and considered what present-day America might learn from Émile Durkheim.

June 5th, 2012

Blurring the boundaries

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Four guided missiles packed with explosive material hurtled into the morning sky. Though the day was brilliant blue and cloudless, no one saw them coming. They were aimed at a nation that did not see itself at war. Moreover, it was a nation convinced that missiles fired in anger no longer posed a serious threat to its security. The weapons were conventional in the strict sense: they did not carry nuclear warheads.

April 19th, 2012

Good news from the grand narrative

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To be asked to contribute a commentary on Professor Robert Bellah’s magnum opus is a great honor and a privilege that, in the virtual company of intellectuals of the highest caliber, manages to concentrate the mind and at the same time to fill you with despair; not least because Religion in Human Evolution stands as a measure of the distance that lies between routine, or ordinary, intellectual activity, and genuine, indeed extraordinary, intellectual achievement.

February 28th, 2012

A travelogue of ideas

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In a special session at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion on November 20, 2011, Robert Bellah discussed his new book, Religion in Human Evolution, with members of a distinguished panel.… Why was this event so special? It was not just the distinction of the members of the panel themselves, beginning with Bellah, arguably the country’s best known sociologist of religion and author of such seminal essays as “Civil Religion in America” and “Religious Evolution,” and groundbreaking books, including Habits of the Heart and Tokugawa Religion. Rather, the significance of the event lay in its recognition of the importance of the book’s project, a breathtaking survey of the whole sweep of the history of religiosity, which is nothing less than the history of humankind.

December 9th, 2011

Beyond reductive naturalism

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Future histories may report that the public discourse on religion was dominated by reductive naturalism until Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution appeared in 2011. One of the most distinctive features of Bellah’s book is his extensive use of the latest developments in the natural sciences, such as biology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and developmental and child psychology. One of his purposes is, as he puts it, “to show how deeply we are shaped by a very long biological history.” This might give the wrong impression that Bellah’s approach is similar to the New Naturalist approach. However, Bellah’s is better characterized as a non-reductive humanistic naturalism, which is a synthesis of the humanistic (interpretative, social, and historical) understanding of religion and the naturalist approach.

November 23rd, 2011

Dangerous evolutions?

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Religion in Human Evolution is an immensely ambitious book on a topic only a scholar of Robert Bellah’s stature could dare to tackle. It attempts no less than to explain human biological as well as cultural evolution in one sweep, beginning with early hominids and ending with the “axial age.” Bellah engages evolutionary biology as well as cognitive psychology for the framing of his argument. This is a courageous move of transcending conventional disciplinary boundaries, for which he should be applauded. At the same time, it draws Bellah into positions he might actually not always be comfortable with.

November 9th, 2011

Weber for the 21st century

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For almost one hundred years, all sociologists of religion have taken Max Weber’s great work on comparative religions as a primary point of departure. Whole libraries of scholarship have been produced to explicate Weber, expand on Weber, disagree with Weber, revise Weber. In the next hundred years, I think, the point of departure will be Robert Bellah rather than Weber. Bellah’s new masterpiece, Religion in Human Evolution is comparable in scope, breadth of scholarship, and depth of erudition to Weber’s study of world religions, but it is grounded in all of the advances of historical, linguistic, and archeological scholarship that have taken place since Weber, as well as theoretical advances in evolutionary biology and cognitive science.

October 3rd, 2011

American Grace and public sociology

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Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell’s American Grace follows up on these Tocquevillean themes, exploring the contemporary American religious landscape to understand, in the words of the subtitle, “how religion divides and unites us.” As in Putnam’s earlier work, the book mobilizes the full array of methods available to the social scientist—survey research, interviews, participant observation in relevant settings, historical comparisons. Vignettes drawn from qualitative research are interspersed with discussions of the quantitative data accessible to the uninitiated. The authors draw frequently on other pertinent studies to buttress their own findings, helping reassure us that the results of their research are reliable.

July 8th, 2011

On reductionism

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There’s something attractive about a neat typology, and also something we seem to loathe about the compartmentalization entailed. So what I want to do here is open up some more conversation on this ambivalence.

July 9th, 2010

When strong is weak

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It is a testament to the power of the “strong program” image that most commentators on our working paper read Matt May and me to be optimistically praising its emergence in the sociology of religion, despite our statements to the contrary. Of course, a writer criticizing readers is bad form, and truth be told, we deeply appreciate the commentators’ willingness to discuss a working paper whose positions and prose are not yet entirely solidified. Our original title had “a critical engagement” as its subtitle; leaving it out probably didn’t help communicate our intent. If we add to this the positive connotations of the term “emerging,” we can certainly understand how commentators saw us as identifying a wave we were preparing to surf.

June 14th, 2010

Quantum sociology and The New Metaphysicals

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At first glance, Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals might appear narrow and idiosyncratic. After all, it’s an ethnography of spiritual practitioners in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a pairing of the sacred and the secular that can seem as incongruous as Buddhists at boxing matches. What do astral voyagers, shamanistic drummers, and OBEs (Out of Body Experiencers, not to be confused with the equally rarefied Order of the British Empire) have to do with a progressive community anchored by such bastions of rational knowledge as Harvard and MIT?

April 14th, 2010

New answers to old questions

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David Smilde and Matthew May’s finding that there is an “emerging strong program” in the sociology of religion is a matter for some celebration. One has to wonder how religion could have fallen into such a state of inattention in a field that regards Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life as among its foundational texts. Until recently, it has been as if biologists agreed that Darwin had gotten right the central idea of their field and then proceeded to ignore that idea in everything else they did. With the return of religion as a crucial matter of public concern, such an outlook will no longer do. We, as scholars, must take other people’s religious lives more seriously, whether we take our own seriously or not.

The fruitfulness of the emerging sociology of religion will hinge on the extent to which it re-connects us with the questions that those foundational texts address. For present purposes, these are chiefly two.

March 15th, 2010

The (really) strong program

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Whenever there is talk about an ‘emerging strong program’ and ‘a new sociology of religion,’ we need to keep in mind not only where we might be going, but where we have come from. Given the apparent centrality of religion to much of the modern world, and what now appear to be the limitations of the secularization thesis, we should welcome any sign of a revival of the fortunes of the sociology of religion. However, I have serious doubts about its annunciation. We will need more than research into which religions are figured as independent variables, or which receive some positive evaluation from social scientists, in order to herald the birth of a strong program.

January 8th, 2010

A Neo-Weberian theory of American civil religion

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The American civil religion, Robert Bellah argued, was derived from two sources, one religious and the other secular: the covenant theology of the Puritans and the classical republicanism of the Founders. Writing amidst the collective funk of the mid-1970s, Bellah famously concluded that the American civil religion was an empty and broken shell. Though I agree with Bellah about the sources of this tradition, I disagree with his assessment of its vitality. Nor do I believe that civil religion is the only version of the American tradition. I argue that there were at least two others. To wit: religious nationalism and radical secularism.

November 7th, 2008

The magic ballot

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I regret that we are forced to catch the special aura of this election without a deep and serious space for the idea of magic, magic as it used to be.