Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Modern social science emerged when scholars began to emancipate themselves from normative thinking, that is, when their aim became to arrive at knowledge of human society and human beings free from value judgments or value prescriptions. In Western Europe in the nineteenth century, a number of scholars no longer wanted to make blueprints of a future society but instead wanted to intervene in the actual operation of society to improve the quality of life of its participants. This development did not come out of the blue but was prepared by various philosophers, among whom the most well known are David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Condorcet, and Montesquieu. In Scotland and in France in the previous century, these philosophers had made a successful breakaway from older, "natural law" thinking. The new thinking was more or less empiricist, that is, based on human experience, and positivist, that is, based on what was given by the senses. Consequently, the relationship between social science and religion was from its inception a precarious one. This is well reflected in the ideas of the French thinker Auguste Comte. According to him, progress in human knowledge knew of three stages: the theological stage, the metaphysical, and, finally, the positive stage, in which knowledge had become free of norms.

The pioneers of young social sciences such as ethnology, sociology, and psychology not only studied human religion, some also combated it. Evolutionism was the main paradigm to study culture and religion in early-nineteenth-century ethnology or anthropology. One of its pioneers, Lewis Henry Morgan, thought religion too irrational to subject it to an evolutionary scheme. For Edward Tylor, the origin of religion was to be found in the belief in spirits of early man, which he called animism, and from there on it had developed further till monotheism. Herbert Spencer had more or less similar ideas as Tylor. In the thinking of Karl Marx, religion was only a marginal issue, and as he grew older it became even more marginal. For him, religion was a reflection of the particular, historical phase of the structure of society. The religious mind was a product of society; it was self-alienation. Quite contrary to Marx's ideas, religion was prominently present in Sigmund Freud's writings. To the founder of psychoanalysis, religion was nothing but a projection. It was the worship of an erh÷hter Vater , and it had its roots in an infantile need for protection, hence a yearning for the (mythical) ancient father. It could persist only because of human helplessness.

It was ╔mile Durkheim's conviction that religion not only stabilized society but also gave direction to it. In the end, society celebrated itself in religion through its rituals and beliefs. The more consensus was achieved on religious dogmas, the more they steered human actions in society and the more morality was to be found in religion. Later on in life, Durkheim thought religious persuasions to be part of the collective consciousness. The stronger they are found to be in society and met by the individual, the more they will be practiced. According to Durkheim, religion enabled societal order, but how is order possible in a "disenchanted" world, that is, a world robbed of its divine shine by science? To Max Weber, religion formed a human answer to everything irrational in life. Only religion could render life meaningful by giving not only norms for everyday life but also answers to existential questions.

These various positions continue to be found among social scientists. There are some who proclaim the end of religion in their scientific writings, while others observe in their research on religion a kind of "methodological agnosticism." Finally, there are also scientists who mix religious persuasions and scientific insights.

Durk H. Hak


╔. Durkheim, Suicide (New York: Free Press, 1951 [1897])

╔. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (London: Allan & Unwin, 1952 [1912])

E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966)

H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills (eds.), From Max Weber (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946)

S. Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York: Random House, 1946 [1913])

S. Freud, The Future of Illusion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961 [1928])

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978 [1922]).

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