History of Sociology
Professor Denis Kim
November 1, 2012
Karl Marx and Max Weber on Religion:
Which one came first, the Chicken or the Egg?
A strong discrepancy in interpretation of religions exists between the two great thinkers, Marx and Weber, in that Marx saw religions as “the opiate of the masses” (Marx, 1843:42) meaning that religions justify believers’ bitter lives and make them passive whereas Weber saw religions as having power to bring about not just social but economic changes (Jong Seo, 2005:231). On top of that, Marx believed that the religion is a dependent variable determined by the substructure- materialistic and economic conditions. Weber, in contrast, assumed that the religion played a role in enlightening or changing people’s thoughts and behaviors unconsciously, causing them to embrace a new way of living such as capitalism. These contrasts derive from the fact that these two intellectuals approached the religions from different perspectives. Most of Marx’s reasoning reveals the characteristics of methodological holism while Weber focused more on individuals and held on to the idea that individuals’ motives and philosophy are the source of changes and revolutions- methodological individualism.
To begin with, it is critical to understand Marx and Weber’s sociological perspectives beforehand in order to grasp a comprehensive understanding with regard to the two thinkers’ ideas on religion. I believe that Marx revealed methodological holistic characteristics more from his study rather than methodological individualism. The opposite goes with the Weber’s perspective toward society. Marx’s approach tries to accept that fact that there are unseen things that are present such as relationships between individuals. The thing is that society enables itself to have control over individuals and tries to govern them with the unseen things. It is clear how Marx was on the methodological holistic stance in terms of his emphasis on economic determinism. Marx believed that society is composed of two dominant structures-sub and super. He explained that the upper-super structure such as religions is determined by the substructure which is mainly about economic elements such as relation of production and force of production. Mark concluded that materials are the ones that bring about social changes (Turner, 2005:17). We can argue that his ideas were mainly centered on methodological holism because he put more emphasis on the role (power) of economy and substructure than individuals and superstructure. Under the given interpretation, religion has almost nothing to do with social or economic changes because it belongs to the super structure. Religion seems to be reduced to a mere dependent variable or by-product caused by the substructure in accordance with Marx (M. Argyle & B. Beit-Hallahmi, 1975:174-177).
In contrast, methodological individualism was introduced as a methodological precept for the social sciences by Max Weber, most importantly in the first chapter of “Economy and Society” (Weber, 1968 ). It amounts to the claim that social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions, which in turn must be explained through reference to the intentional states that motivate the individual actors. In other words, it can be described as the claim that explanations of “macro” social phenomena must be supplied with “micro” foundations, ones that specify an action-theoretic mechanism (Alexander, 1987). With this approach, Weber was able to value individuals as their own and tried to decipher what constituted people in terms of intangible elements such as ideas, motives, values, and beliefs. What strikes is that he had a great opportunity to go through the process of development of capitalism with the help of this approach. His most well-known and intuitive book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit Capitalism, is a great culmination of his approach and...