According to the Pew Research Center (an independent US think tank), by 2050 people who identify as Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world (Hackett et al., 2015, p. 5). Another significant trend identified in their report is that by 2050, atheists, agnostics, and other people who do not affiliate with any religion will make up a declining share of the total world population (Hackett et al., 2015, p. 5).
Although it is hard to generalize based solely on statistics, what can be taken away from this report is that, using the words of Peter Berger, the world remains “furiously religious” (1999, p. 2). This is an unexpected finding, particularly to those philosophers and sociologists who believed that religious influence would decline in modern societies. They often used Max Weber’s concept of the “disenchantment of the world” (1864–1920) as a basis for their views. In this article, we will analyze this concept and its relation to science and secularization.
Max Weber’s Theory of Disenchantment
During a conference at München in 1917, Max Weber stated: “the fate of our time is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world” (2004, p. 30). The original German expression for “The disenchantment of the World” is “die Entzauberung der Welt”, which could be translated as “the elimination of magic from the World” or “the de-magification of the world”.
The disenchantment of the world is not exclusive to Modernity, but, as Weber’s work attest, it is already to be found during the transition from magical and animistic worldviews to traditional religions. Weber had extensive knowledge in the sociology and philosophy of religion and was deeply interested in religions from China, India, Judaism and Protestantism (Grosby, 2013, p. 1).
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For him, the emergence of Occidental monotheism, specifically, marks a turning point in the ancient vision of the cosmos by differentiating the realms of the natural and the supernatural. Roughly speaking, animism endows natural phenomena with spiritual essence and agency. In contrast, monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, openly regard the divine as going beyond nature and standing above it.
Therefore, the outset of the disenchantment happened as the world was being divided between the realms of the natural and supernatural, the sacred and the profane. Rationalization, as mentioned by Weber, also plays a key role during this transition. Phenomena onetime explained by alluding to magical and supernatural forces could now be approached by means of reasoning and understanding.
Weber concludes that Western rationality also has its background in the advent of monotheism. For Weber, “The roots of ‘Western’ rationality (…) are to be found in ancient Judaism, whose Prophets helped disenchant the world by ridding it of its many Gods in favor of a universalizing conception of a transcendental God” (Zisook, 2017, p. 2). To this day, the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael starts by reminding devotees: ” Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, King James Version).
Interestingly, Judaism is the result of a long historical development from polytheism to monotheism. There are some stories in the Bible that refer to such transition. In the book of Exodus, Moses climbed up to mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God. The people of Israel waited for forty days and nights. Because he was taking so long, the Israelites crafted a golden Calf and started worshipping him. This is just an example of a shift towards monotheism undergone by the Israelites, who were deeply influenced by the Egyptian religion. In Weber’s terms, leaving a surfeit of gods to worship the One true God carried the seed of disenchantment: the golden calf had nothing divine.
Hence, the disenchantment of the world is not unique to Modernity. Rationalization, however, does imply that the supernatural slowly loses terrain to a rational understanding of reality. It is indeed a “slow” process because, in Weber’s view, the eclipse of the magical that begun with the advent of monotheism culminates with Calvinism (Zisook, 2017, p. 4). In contrast to the Catholic tradition of the time, protestants made a significant reduction in the notion of the sacred. This is demonstrated by the refusal to pray to the deceased, the disregard for the group of saints that traditionally accompanied the believer, and the lessened belief in magical conceptions of souls and miracles. After Protestantism, it was enough to cut a thin line to lose communication with the transcendental (Berger, 2006, p. 163).
Disenchantment and Scientific Reasoning
Weber’s notion of disenchantment relates to scientific reasoning as well. Relegating the supernatural to the transcendental meant that in nature there were no mysterious or incalculable forces at play. Science could explain the mechanisms of natural phenomena without resorting to divine agents (Loia, 2019, p. 4).
This was expressed more poetically by Berger: “A sky empty of angels was open to the intervention of astronomers and, eventually, astronauts” (2006, p. 163). Scientific reasoning was replacing a spiritual cosmovision; the cult of reason was underway. This is somewhat similar to the image of history by the father of sociology, August Comte (1798-1857). In the first section of the Course of Positive Philosophy, he describes the Law of the Three Stages as part of his sociological theory of progress.
In a nutshell, the law asserts that all societies experience three successive stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive (Bourdeau, 2022). In the theological, natural phenomena are explained by resorting to supernatural agents. In the metaphysical, the need to uncover final causes remains but instead of supernatural agents, abstract concepts are used (this is also known as the philosophical stage). Finally, the positive stage is characterized by the discovery of laws that govern phenomena; there is no need to unveil final causes (this stage can also be called scientific).
Comte thought that societies would eventually leave behind the first two stages and embrace science under positivism. There is undoubtedly a teleological temperament to history in this account because the stages are not contingent but rather constitutive of human development.
Read through the lenses of Weber, the Law of three stages could be interpreted as consecutive degrees of disenchantment. The advent of scientific methods and rationalization rendered reality transparent and intelligible on the basis of reason. Gods and spirits were demoted to a bygone era. Disenchantment meant here that confidence was put on the ability of science to explain the world. However, for Weber this is not a beneficial process. When he stated that “the fate of our time is characterized (…), above all, by the disenchantment of the world” he added a bleak tone: reality was also being bled of its mystery.
Disenchantment and Secularization
Sociologists of religion, like Peter Berger, have related Weber’s concept to the theory of secularization. Broadly, secularization includes a social dimension of disenchantment. Added to the substitution of supernatural explanation by scientific reasoning, society is also organized in a way that relegates religion to the private sphere and decreases the influence of religious institutions. Aspects of society once under the control of the Church, for example, become autonomous spheres: education, law, economy, politics, etc.
Today, numerous Political Constitutions are secular and differentiate, at least formally, between the powers of the state and religion. Early theorists of secularization followed a positivist understanding of progress and made the prognosis that modern societies would follow this trend. Modernity and secularization were inseparable. Along these lines, one can read some of the work of the young Jürgen Habermas, where he argues that religion and devout arguments do not have a place in the public sphere. His latter work has re-examined this assumption, e.g., Between Naturalism and Religion, 2005.
Was Max Weber’s Prognosis of Disenchantment Mistaken?
We started with statistics about religion for one reason: the theories of secularization in the modern world seem to be mistaken, or at least misleading. How can one reconcile Weber’s ideas with the persistence of religion?
First, it is true that our scientific sense of the world has made a great deal of progress. However, to think that scientific reason replaces religiosity is to reduce the latter to its explanatory functions. Religion is clearly more about providing people and communities with meaning than about explanatory theories. Countless Christians, for instance, go to see physicians and recognize medical expertise, but at the same time, ask their fellow believers for prayers and claim that only God has the last word on their health. This means that a natural understanding of the human body (its biology and chemistry) does not preclude the belief in a Christian God.
This distinction between science and religion is encapsulated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book The Great Partnership. He writes: “science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean” (2012). Therefore, rationalization does not necessarily entail disenchantment, and Modernity is not essentially secular.
Secondly, what seems undeniable is that the religious landscape has changed over the centuries. It is extremely hard to know what people really believe when they identify themselves as Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists nowadays. Some have contended that instead of fundamentalist and dogmatist versions of religion, several believers have embraced pluralistic forms of spirituality (Barrero, 2015). Therefore, even if our world is not completely disenchanted, rationalization has changed a plethora of dogmas and behaviors. At any rate, the sociology and philosophy of religion will continue to examine the phenomenon of religion and, in doing so, they will need to reinterpret and converse with great thinkers, like Max Weber.
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