Soc 461/561

Lecture 8: The Cultural Meaning of Religion II: Theodicy & Salvation

April 14, 1999



Max Weber, "The Social Psychology of World Religions," in Gerth &

Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology 1946: 267-301.

What are the economic ethics of a religion? They are the practical impulses for action found in religion.

However much influenced by its social, economic and political circumstances, a religious ethic gets its character from religious sources and, most of all, from the content of its message and promise.

Against Marx’s "historical materialism," Weber stresses that religious ethics are not mere functions of economic interests or psychological needs.

How does religion provide theodicies for the fortunate as well as the unfortunate?

Theodicy: Justifying the ways of God to humanity (see excellent discussion of theodicy in Jonathan Z. Smith, ed., The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion 1995: 1065-1067).

"As the religious and ethical reflections upon the world were increasingly rationalized," Weber says, "the theodicy of suffering encountered increasing difficulties."

"Rationalism": the word has an abstract meaning but the more practical form of rationalism means, "the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means" (293).

"Rationalization," i.e., increasing application of rationality to all institutions and most areas of life.


Three Types of Theodicy—three historically rationally satisfactory religious responses to the fact of undeserved suffering:

  1. Indian doctrine of Karma
  2. Zoroastrian dualism: and,
  3. Calvinist predestination

Why do people need to give meaning to suffering?

The concept of redemption became significant only when it produced a coherent, ordered "image of the world" and a stand in the face of the world. For, according to Weber, the meaning of redemption depends on such a world image and such a stand.

Weber’s Famous Switchmen Metaphor:

Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men [and women’s] conduct. Yet very frequently the "world images" that have been created by "ideas" have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamics of interest. "From what" and "for what" one wished to be redeemed and, let us not forget, "could be" redeemed, depended upon one’s image of the world (280).

In other words, interests are always at work in shaping the development of religion. But ideas in turn shape what people’s interests are (Ann Swidler, "Foreword" in Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion 1993 [1922]).

Political, economic and social oppression, ritual and bodily defilement, the cycle of rebirth, and the senseless play of the passions and the limitlessness of desire. What’s behind all these various forms of hell is something in the actual world that is experienced as "senseless." What’s further implied, according to Weber, is a demand that the world is, could, and should somehow be a meaningful "cosmos."

What Weber is arguing is that there is a fundamental human "need for a meaningful cosmos."