Weber’s Ideas on the Religiosity and Their Relevance in Today’s World

Max Weber wrote an influential essay on how the main religions accommodate inconsistencies between their ideal of rejecting the world and the affairs of the world. This article looks back at his essay.

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Max Weber, the German Economist and Sociologist, published his famous essay ‘Religious Rejections of the World and Their Direction’ in 1920. It is one thing to argue its validity in the modern context. However, at least some of his ideas can still stir a conversation worthy of attention. It discusses how religions that are based on universal salvation and brotherliness particularised those ideals to accommodate the challenges of worldly affairs in order to be consistent with the ideals and the practice. Weber shows how the said particularism tweaks the ideals to the detriment of their loftiness. Even though the specifics may be more applicable to his sociological views, particular historical settings, and cultural evaluations, the essence of his ideas about the deviations from the core values of religions and the subsequent attempts at their justification are still valid to modern times.

These conflicts between ideals and the emerging realities of our existence show how many religions in their final form become less and less about the rejection of the world that they uphold as an ideal.

A Prelude to Some of Weber’s Ideas in His Essay

His main thrust was about the conflicts caused by the progression from the primitive magical religions to salvation religions that arose in the Axial age. An important fraction of prophetic and redemptory religions have existed in an acute and permanent state of tension in relation to the world and its order. The magician has been the historical precursor to the prophet or the saviour. All of them legitimise themselves through the possession of magical charisma. He claims that religions that abnegated the world first started in India, resulting in monkhood.

One point Weber did not make clear in his essay is whether he directs his focus on the clergy, the laity, or both. If it were clergy, his emphasis on abnegation makes more sense, as the major Indian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism do not ask for asceticism from the laity. Hinduism only advises one to leave the world as a renunciate after completing his worldly duties in the first three stages of life. Buddhism only expects monks, not lay people, to reject the world. As he writes that the prophets and mystics later emerged from the thinking laymen who freed themselves from the shackles of sorcerers via priesthood and written religion, he seems to accommodate all people in his essay. Every person following a faith as a layman or clergy at the end believes in the salvation of the soul. A related point that Weber does not dwell on is the scope of salvation. In Indian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, salvation, for many, is not achievable in this life. For these religions, salvation ends the cycle of birth and death after many lives. Weber’s essay seems to mainly focus its attention on Abrahamic religions that allow the suffering of the pious to end after this life.

The abnegation gives rise to mysticism that makes the devout a possession or vessel of God, and to asceticism that makes the individual act as willed by God through becoming His tool. He points out that the important criterion of consistency in these practices cannot be observed in reality, giving rise to conflicts in many spheres such as economic, aesthetic, political, intellectual, etc. Even the abnegation can be two-faced. On the one hand, it is about rejecting the world. On the other hand, the determined devout seeks to master the world, as an ascetic or a mystic, by the magical powers obtained by abnegation.

The more the goal of salvation a religion adheres to, the more it requires the faithful to stand closer to the clergy and the fellow faithful, to the detriment of the bonds and kinships that they had maintained in historical times. The economic ethic of sharing and caring for each other in a historical, primitive society that advocated reciprocity along the lines of traditional bonds is thus replaced by rather artificial religious bonding in the congregation. Thus, this emergent brotherliness results in an acosmic benevolence that is supposed to shatter the old tribal boundaries.

Salvation Religions and Its Conflict with Wealth

The point Weber makes about the conflict between the economic realities and the monkhood, or the priesthood is very visible in today’s world. The rational asceticism that the people rejecting the world has created the very wealth it rejects.

“Temples and monasteries have everywhere become the very loci of rational economies.”

According to Weber, this conflict between the salvation religions and the economic orders of the world can only be escaped via two avenues.

1. The Puritan ethic of ‘Vocation’– Puritanism routinized all worldly tasks into serving God’s will and thus any material benefits as per His will are bestowed on for fulfilling one’s duties. This leads to a non-genuine religion of salvation that renounces salvation as a goal attainable by everybody, in favour of God’s grace.

2. Mystical practice of negating personal interest A mystic does not hesitate, to donate the possessions to the person asking for. Such a practice facilitates the abnegation of worldly possessions but can be perceived as rather a selfish form of salvation.

What Weber said about Puritan ethics can be equally applied to today’s Evangelism which preaches salvation, grace, and forgiveness, and many other organised religions. Modern organised religions that started as salvation religions rejecting wealth have often re-oriented themselves as hoarders of economic property. This can be equally true for their agents such as clergy and laymen.

Salvation Ideal and Politics

The issue with political power also results from the boundaries of locality, tribe, and polity shattered by universal religions with a unified God. Weber argued that, unlike the localised belief systems such as the beliefs in magic and the functional deities, the salvation religions embrace the brotherliness of the wider world. Hence, they are not consistent in their core belief with the political power structures. These universalist structures responsible for the souls of everyone feel duty-bound to oppose any threat due to misguidance in faith. To overcome this, what these salvation aristocracies do, is to distinguish between the ‘just’ wars and the ‘secular’ wars.

Puritanism which particularised grace and asceticism to a section of the faithful, allows the use of violence, a means of the world, for the imposition of religion in the interest of God’s cause. The distinction between ‘just’ and ‘secular’ wars no longer makes much sense in a world that is becoming progressively more secular. However, many modern wars are still fought for both ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ causes. Even though many religions do not consider them holy wars, they support the socio-political structures that wage those wars, especially in situations where the interests of the state culture and the religious culture are intertwined. Thus, the causes these structures support, become just wars, limiting the brotherly love to a set of faithful. Especially in an ethnic conflict, the clergy, and laity of one ethnic group will side with their congregation led by their ethnicity-based socio-political structure, contradicting the brotherliness of acosmic benevolence. Despite modern religions not being bounded along tribal or kinship lines, they, ripping off the covers of religious brotherliness, come to the fore in a conflict.

The other aspect is that some causes at times are elevated to overshadow the fundamental ideals. A pious congregation can choose abortion as a sin that should be eradicated by, in a literal sense, a ‘just war’. God’s cause is preserving life, even though the ideals of rejecting the world cannot justify such actions. We are told, “Resist not evil”. The matter comes down to who the judge of God’s intention should be. All modern conflicts are very unlikely to be found in the scriptures and thus are subject to interpretation. Thus, Vox Populi may become Vox Dei, especially when there is no rational argument either way. The people’s voice is influenced by the socio-political structures and substructures.

Intellectual Challenge Facing Religion

Religion, as Weber believes, considers science more agreeable to it than philosophy, as metaphysical speculation leads to scepticism. However, he observes that every increase in rationalism in science pushes religion into the irrational realm. To counter this trend, the priests started educating the youth of the times to claim back power. Religion claims to offer a grasp of the world’s meaning by virtue of its charisma of illumination to people who are receptive. However, it encounters a contradiction, as religion cannot consistently communicate the mystic experiences that can be symptomatic of its charisma. Religions only can present mystic experiences as events and lack the means to adequately explain or demonstrate them.

Religious salvation was intellectualised through the rationalisation of life’s realities. Religions claim that the unjust suffering and the unequal distribution of individual happiness in the world can be traced to the origin of sin. Suffering thus becomes the punishment for sins and the means of discipline. A world allowing sin is less perfect than a world condemned to suffering. However, the futility of worldly affairs can only make sense within this imperfection, where suffering and sin exist. The religious guilt of sin is an integral part of cultures of the world. However, this world of ethical, compensatory causality is in opposition to the natural causality of science that represents the only possible form of a reasoned view of the world, though devoid of definitive answers to its ultimate assumptions.

Nevertheless, science created an intellectual aristocracy that is unbrotherly and senseless. This culture is meaningless as the self of a man is subject to death. An uncultured person can die satiated with life. On the other hand, a person striving for the cultural values of an intellectual aristocracy can become ‘weary of life’, not ‘satiated with life’. The more the advancement of such cultural values seeking the meaning of the universe seems meaningless, the more a person leans towards salvation. An escape through suicidal death is not approved by redemption religions and thus, is inconsistent with the acceptable means of salvation. For the mystic, a selfish rejection of the world in place of brotherliness, a form of religious aristocracy is possible. However, both modes are not consistent with the acosmic benevolence of brotherliness.

The Burden of Salvation and Brotherliness

Thus, as Weber says, under our mundane cultural circumstances, unless for the economically carefree, an imitation of the life of Buddha, Jesus, or Francis (of Assisi) seems to fail. The conflicts between the core ideals and the world order, that Weber elaborated in his essay, would be ever more sharpened by the ever-increasing rationalisation of the world through science. The congregations may gradually diminish, perhaps, until the day of a spiritual awakening due to a precipitous crisis in the collective human unconscious. Thus, the ideal of salvation will become more about asceticism and mysticism that is driven via personal ambition rather than an all-embracing brotherliness.

Religion will, perhaps, forever be in conflict with its core ideals and the realities of the worldly ways.


(The impact of the monotheistic God on the local belief systems was also touched upon in my previous essay on Medium,“ God in the Face of Monopolistic Competition”.

The current article is an attempt to present Weber’s ideas in the context of the main themes discussed.)


H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (1946) Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Oxford University Press, New York, 1946

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The website aims to show the possible origin of religion through a ‘uniquely’ human process which has links to the seclusion of girls at puberty. It also advocates the view that the Paleolithic Venus figurines are related to these puberty rites and hence, the prehistoric Venus figurines may carry a much larger meaning. Thus, Religion is something more than a throwback from our animal past.
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