Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Weber's Sociology of Religion: An evolutionary approach?

I haven't finished the introduction by Talcott Parsons, but I decide it's time to look at the actual book itself! Once again I'm going to make reference to my knowledge of Buddhism to sharpen the focus.

The preface and introduction are valuable, but it's still a pity there's no foreword from Weber explaining the approaches in chapter 1 onwards - I wonder if there might be a way of including relevant fragments from elsewhere (more possible for online editions). In the translation there's even some difficulty about the chapter title, given here as 'The Rise of Religions,' which according to the review by Reinhard Bendix may be fine as a rendering of 'Die Entstehung der Religionen' but may not be the right one!

Weber's opening remarks in the first chapter state that one can't define or say what religion is until the conclusion of study, "our task ... to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social behavior." Presumably, one can know what conditions and effects are religious and can identify their characteristics, attributes, etc... , after the event. But is this a bit 'chicken and egg'? What kind of language do we need for the definitions? It makes sense to informally survey the scene to gain some clues as to the kind of theory needed, but how far do you take that? When do you stop? How do sociologists determine when they've reached appropriate milestones and can start codifying?

Parsons hinted at Weber's problem of being "understood" - and from reading his introduction and literature on the Web, it seems he wasn't always successful. That probably reflects the use of natural language. In contrast, a mathematical approach would use a formal notation, have definitions up front and use these in working forward, to derive initially some lemmas and work up to major theorems. Imagine if mathematical theories were subject to such vagaries of uncertainty in translation and interpretation!

The second paragraph indicates the scale of the challenge: "the external courses of religious behavior are so diverse that an understanding of this behavior can only be achieved from the viewpoint of the subject experiences, ideas, and purposes of the individuals concerned - in short, from the viewpoint of the religious behavior's 'meaning' (Sinn)." (Sinn is a German word translated as 'sense' or 'connotation' - for the same reference objects, there may be different connotations.)

The third paragraph talks about "elementary forms of behavior." So the initial perspective appears to concern the origins of religious activity in terms of primitive elements. I guess this is meant to be analogous to the way we can talk in science about atomicity/irreducible elements, simple forms and so on. And of course some branches of science try to make sense of this through theories of evolution, but it's a major/critical step to apply this evolutionary approach to society ...

Accordingly Weber asserts that [in primitive religion] the primary orientation is this world - and the quote from Deuteronomy is intended to illustrate such a "primitive" viewpoint: "That it may go well with thee ... and thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth." But it is just one quote and even a hundred such quotes can't be proof [by example]! What about other viewpoints, e.g. the pursuit of Heaven? Consider e.g. Job 14:14 - "If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come." (King James Version of the Bible, [see KJV online])

The historical viewpoint is further hinted at with the analogy with making fire, traditionally associated with signs of emerging civilisation in early homo sapiens - it's tempting to map religious development to such evolutionary theories. Compare (and contrast) this with, say, a Buddhist view of humanity's evolution. It's described as a cycle (of Samsara), in which there is both human evolution and devolution with lifespans ranging over many thousands of years (DN. 26 Cakkavatti Sutta - The Wheel-turning Emperor: partly translated into English, with an introduction and also a full translation). However, it's a moral evolution and devolution that the Buddha describes... it is the nobility and virtue of mind that is regarded by the Buddha as a measure of the evolved nature of a human.

Weber states that the "ends are predominantly economic." Is this just reflecting the fact that the approach observes only what is observable...? I wonder to what extent this viewpoint affects the [sociological] analysis of different religious groups today? Is there the assumption that the primary orientation is this world, implying it must be material? What methodologies are used? An appropriate tool might be to carry out surveys of literature and questionnaires of adherents.

Whilst I readily accept that "religious or magical behavior or thinking must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct," I would query the paragraph's concluding clause: "since even the ends of the religious and magical actions are predominantly economic." If talking about evolution, how about evolution of views within an individual during their life, an evolution that could go from material to transcendental, i.e. [internal, subjective] lower and higher orientations? Given Parson's indication of support for describing changes within spheres, I guess the theoretical framework could support this.

It's tempting to think that current society represents somehow an advance over earlier (and hence primitive) societies. Weber tries to identify early forms of spiritual activity in groups, again leaning on what is observable, and states (p.3): "orgy is the primordial form of religious communication." and goes on to describe how intoxicants induce ecstasy and the aids to reach that transient state: "he may employ any type of alcoholic beverage, tobacco or similar narcotics - and especially music ..." This is a description that could easily apply to many people today who go out for the night, roving pubs and clubs! In fact the run-up fits also: "Because of the routine demands of living, the layman may experience ecstasy only occasionally, as intoxication." This matches the habits of people unfulfilled in their daytime jobs, living only for the weekends and its night-time attractions. But would we call this 'religious behaviour'? I think not - just 'hedonistic behaviour' would be more likely and what can we deduce about evolved humanity then ...?

What about silence as promordial communication? Before the noise there was the silence. Yes? But silence may not be easily registered - it can be only momentary, yet deeply communicative.

Taking things further, what about observations of a monastery where most inhabitants spent most of their time in silent meditation? Most of the 'action' - in terms of experiences of rapture, altered states, jhanic absorptions and so on might be vivid and deeply meaningful, yet have little or no outward manifestation. One might argue that this is not characteristic of primitive religion, yet it is commonly said that children, unencumbered by too much thinking (rationality) can access deep states very quickly and perhaps the same applies to 'simple cultures' in general.

I think this is evidence of the problem of the external descriptive approach.

In theory, sophisticated religion evolves so that magic is left behind. According to Parsons, "In the end, the study of Protestant ethic, according to Weber, merely explored one phase of the emancipation from magic, that disenchantment of the world that he regarded as the distinguishing peculiarity of Western culture." To what extent does that really hold today? Many of the top sports people still exhibit what might be regarded as superstitious behaviour: consider Rafael Nadal's pre-match routine just before play commenced at the classic Wimbledon 2008 final - the cameras showed him sipping out of one water bottle and then the next. More generally, what is/are the attraction(s) of the Harry Potter novels?

Weber then comes to the concept of the soul (which is acknowledged as not being universally accepted) and states: "...what is primarily distinctive in this whole development is not the personality, impersonality or superpersonality of these supernatural powers, but the fact that the new experiences now play a role in life." i.e. A raison d'etre (internalised) in themselves; and the example given is ecstasy. The example of burials is given, useful in showing particularly how the development of belief in the soul changes the associated customs and rituals, which have to accommodate more their needs after death of the physical body, resulting in extra parameters (positioning of body, items placed with the body etc). Of course, a further refinement in belief may remove some of these and not necessarily put anything in their place. There are also other implications we can read into these practices, including some belief in rebirth or reincarnation (or at least some contiguous existence).

Parson's introduction hints at considerable debate around the extent to which Weber's approach was evolutionary and remarks intriguingly that anthropologists were strongly anti-evolutionary. Was that some or most of them? I wonder what their views are today?

That's the last post for today and I still haven't got far into the text - I think before I post again, I need to read a fair bit more.

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