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II. History and Religion

The Axial Age Religions: The Debate and its Legacy for Contemporary Sociology

Bryan S. Turner

Introduction: Classical Sociology of Religion

In his 'Nine Theses on the Future of Sociology', Giddens' first thesis was that 'sociology will increasingly shed the residue of nineteenth and early twentieth-century social thought' (Giddens 1987: 26). Whatever the relevance of that prediction to general sociology, in the sociology of religion the field continues to be influenced by two contrasted traditions that have their origins in Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1961 [1912]) and Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (2002 [1905-6]) and The Sociology of Religion (1966 [1922]). Despite significant developments in the study of religion, Weber and Durkheim continue to define the basic parameters of the sociology of religion. They remain important because they recognized the centrality of religion to social life, they understood how secularization posed critical problems for the continuity of social forms, and in order to understand the problem of religion in relation to modernity both sociologists looked beyond Europe to obtain a comparative, if not universal, perspective on religious institutions. Durkheim was influenced by William Robertson Smith's reflections on the functions of ritual in Semitic cultures in his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (Smith 1997 [1889]). More importantly, he provided a brilliant analysis of the religious rituals and totemic beliefs of aboriginal communities from Central Australia (Spencer and Gillen 1997 [1904]). Weber, as we will see, undertook an ambitious study of religions in India and China as part of his broad project into the economic consequences of the world religions. Perhaps the only competition in this arena of classical sociology comes from Georg Simmel's Essays on Religion (1997) and The View of Life (2010), but this revival of interest is relatively recent.

On the basis of their studies, they provided a vocabulary and research agenda that, however much disputed, continues to influence contemporary research. However in modern sociology, large-scale comparative research has been largely abandoned, because contemporary epistemological debate has undermined confidence in claims about generic definitions of 'religion' across cultures and through history. The critique of universalism has also thrown doubt on such large-scale historical and comparative claims, and the legacy of the secular Enlightenment, specifically Immanuel Kant's philosophy of religion, is seen to be problematic. Against the background of the modern critique of evolutionary and universalistic approaches, the work of the late Robert Bellah stands out as exceptional and in this chapter I explore his contribution to the sociology of religion through a commentary on his relationship to the legacy of Max Weber and Karl Jaspers. My purpose is to defend comparative and historical research against epistemological scepticism. However, before launching into that defense, some preliminary observations about the legacy of Durkheim and Weber are in order.

To start with Weber, his work has been narrowly and conventionally conceived as the comparative study of the social and cultural conditions that gave rise to rational capitalism in the west and more generally to secular modernity. In this respect, The Religion of China (1951 [1916]), The Religion of India (1958 [1916]) and The Sociology of Religion (1966 [1922]) represent major contributions towards what Friedrich Tenbruck (1980) has identified as the 'thematic unity of Weber's work', namely the study of the economic ethics of the world religions. I propose that, while Weber clearly had in mind the study of the origins of rational capitalism, these interpretations (rationalization, reutilization of charisma, origins of capitalism, economic ethics and so forth) are, while accurate, perhaps the least interesting or important aspect of the Weber legacy. In this discussion, I am more concerned with the underlying moral vision of Weber's work in the context of understanding other cultures (Peel 1969) or, in modern parlance, of understanding religious traditions from a cosmopolitan perspective and outside so-called 'methodological nationalism' (Delanty 2012).

We can more broadly interpret Weber's project in terms of the analysis of the religio-cultural complexes shaping human choices in relationship to empirical reality. In this more expansive interpretation, Weber's sociology of religion was a contribution to the comparative study of 'personality and life orders' (Hennis 1988; Schluchter 1988). In this respect the distinction between mystical and ascetic orientations becomes the central issue, and therefore the Zwischenbetrachtung or 'The Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions' (Weber 2009 [1915]) is the decisive text. Within this framework we can study religions, specifically modern religious movements in their urban settings, as systems of rules of personal piety, especially in terms of the disciplining of the human body (Turner 2011). The emphasis here is on practices and rituals in the everyday world or habits that are designed to produce virtue or religious excellence.

There is however another way in which we might think about Weber's comparative and historical sociology of religion which is brought to light by considering his legacy within the debate about the religions of 'the Axial Age' that has revolved around the work of Robert Bellah on religion and human evolution and the work of the late Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (2000) on 'multiple modernities' and his reflections on the Axial-Age thesis (Eisenstadt 1992). As we will see shortly, Bellah brought our attention to the importance of Weber's idea of 'acosmistic love' or 'life-denying love' and following Bellah's lead we can approach Weber's sociology as the study of the inevitably tragic relationship between politics, which requires violence as a means, and religious traditions that attempt to institutionalize an ethic of brotherly love. In this struggle between politics and religion, the demand for peaceful co-existence (in the ethic of absolute commitment) is sacrificed to the mundane requirements of politics and reasons of state (in the ethic of responsibility). In his late work, Bellah proposed that this debate culminated towards the end of Weber's life around the figure of Leo Tolstoy. In the relationship between 'the religious and the political' (Turner 2013), religious values are, in the last analysis, typically compromised in favour of political necessity. Hence life is tragic from a religious perspective.

In Karl Jaspers' The Origin and Goal of History (1953 [1949]) these religions or ethical systems failed ultimately to control violence in human societies, and hence there is a tragic element to these diverse movements. Jaspers (1953: 20) specifically recognized that the Axial Age had 'ended in failure'. How does this relate to Weber's own implicit ethical position vis-à-vis violence? One answer is to be found in The Religion of China, namely that 'China in particular has become a crucial case to test the empirical soundness of the Axial Age theory' (Roetz 2012: 255). For Weber, Chinese civilization never experienced the tension between 'the world' and the religious imagination, mainly because Confucian values were always absorbed into the state without any tension or ambiguity. Most of the 'revisions' of Weber's account of the Orient have sought to challenge not only his interpretation of Confucianism, but more generally his approach to Asian cultures (Busse 1985).

These developments open up at least two interesting lines of inquiry. The first is simply to ask whether Weber's description of Chinese religions is empirically valid. In general, modern scholars have argued that his interpretation of religious life in China cannot be easily supported. A second question strikes me as obviously more interesting, namely whether it is possible to see Weber's sociology - despite all the debate about his philosophy of the social sciences in terms of its objectivity and value neutrality - as an ethical inquiry that was conducted on the stage of world history into the tragic and fateful relationships between the means of violence in politics and the quest for brotherly love in the legacy of the Axial Age religions? And as an additional line of thought, what is the relationship between Durkheim and Weber in terms of this larger ethical question about the conditions that make social life satisfactory, or at least possible as a consequence of the regulation of violence? I conclude that much contemporary sociology of religion has become trivial and local by comparison with the classical legacy of Weber and Durkheim. The exceptions to this harsh judgment would include the authors who contributed to The Axial Age and its Consequences (Bellah and Joas 2012). Two other noteworthy exceptions in historical sociology are Peter Stamatov's The Origins of Global Humanitarianism (2013), which examines religious responses to slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, and David G. Hackett's That Religions in which all Men Agree (2014), an historical sociology of Freemasonry in the formation of civil society in the United States. Having noted these contributions, one can only agree with Ates Altinordu (2013: 67) that, given Weber as the starting point, 'It is surprising that a vast majority of recent work in the American sociology of religion is characterized by a presentist and non-comparative outlook, with most studies focusing on contemporary American congregations'.

Generally speaking, large-scale comparative and historical sociology did not flourish in the post-war period, especially in American sociology. In retrospect, one can always think of exceptions - Guy E. Swanson's Religion and Regime (1967), Talcott Parsons' The System of Modern Societies (1971) and Benjamin Nelson's On the Roads to Modernity (1981) - but the generalization will hold. Today in British sociology, David Martin (2011), working on Pentecostalism and the future of Christianity, continues the tradition of large-scale sociological analysis. Another recent example in the United States would be Philip S. Gorski's The Disciplinary Revolution (2003). However, other major figures in historical and comparative sociology often ignored religion. For example Norbert Elias (2000 [1939]) in his study of European manners was more or less silent about the impact of Christianity on 'the civilizing process'. While focusing on the emergence of the state in relation to different patterns of self-regulation, he did not attach any significance to the role of the Church. The contrast with Weber, who in many ways was the inspiration behind Elias' magnum opus, is striking. The exceptions to this observation that sociology abandoned large-scale comparative studies of religion, include, as I have already observed, Eisenstadt and Bellah. While Eisenstadt did not write extensively on China, he disputed Weber's interpretation of the religions of Asia in Japanese Civilization (1996) by claiming that Weber had not fully appreciated the theme of transcendence in Confucianism. Bellah, in contrast to scholars of his generation, has done much to revive the Weber tradition in his monumental Religion in Human Evolution (2011).

Bellah plays an important part in my exposition, not simply because he was inspired by both Durkheim and Weber, but because he is one of the few major figures in mainstream American sociology to have taken Asian cultures seriously. One can simply refer here to his Tokugawa Religion (1957) and Imagining Japan (2003). From his study of Jaspers and early Chinese society, he departed from Weber's interpretation in arguing that there was a sense of transcendence in Confucianism and therefore Confucian ideas cannot be interpreted as merely a secular ideology of the state and a system of ethics for the literati. His use of the Axial Age framework to analyse the transcendental character of Confucianism is perhaps the most important work to be published within the Weber legacy for many decades. Bellah (1999) approached Weber's sociology of religion from the perspective of 'an object-less life-denying love' (ein object ldsen Liebesakosmismus) better to understand the nature of Confucianism not as a state ideology but as a genuine world religion that is a religious tradition with a strong sense of transcendence.

In this introductory comparison of Weber and Durkheim, one might start simply by noting that, whereas Durkheim was interested in the generic notion of religion (specifically the classification of the sacred and profane), Weber was concerned with the historical and comparative importance of religions. Durkheim famously observed it to consist of 'a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things' (Durkheim 1961: 62). Weber (1966: 1), by contrast, declared in The Sociology of Religion that defining '"religion", to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as this. Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study'. While Weber examined for the consequences of the 'economic ethics' of the world religions, Durkheim examined the 'elementary forms' of religious classification, the impact of their emotional framing, how these classificatory systems were embedded in ritual practices, and finally how the 'collective conscience' was an essential foundation of the social. If there is a point of convergence between Weber and Durkheim, it is that authentic religion is characterized by its seriousness either because it involves for Weber an overriding vocation or because for Durkheim human contact with the sacred is dangerous and sacred spaces and practices are not to be approached frivolously or carelessly. This idea of taking religion seriously from a scientific perspective was probably influenced by William James (1929 [1902]) in Varieties of Religious Experience from the Gifford Lectures in 1901-2. It may be a sweeping exaggeration but one could plausibly argue that Durkheim was not interested in religion as such. His focus was on the collective experiences of the sacred, which we can argue is the real foundation of everything that gets defined as religion.

With respect to specific religious traditions, Durkheim did not undertake any extensive study of Chinese religion. However Primitive Classification (Durkheim and Mauss 1963 [1903]) offered a characteristic investigation of Chinese religion in terms of its classificatory significance. More precisely, he argued that the underlying principle of Asian religions (at least in China, Cambodia, Thailand, Tibet and Mongolia) was 'Tao', which he translated as 'nature'. Durkheim and Mauss noticed that the underlying logic of Chinese classification was complex - often involving multiples of eight. They also observed that the classificatory system facilitated the 'reduction of multiplicity of gods to one, and consequently they have prepared the way for monotheism' (Durkheim and Mauss 1963 [1903]: 78). Did the classificatory principle anticipate the universal monotheism of the Axial Age?

While Durkheim was not especially interested in Asian religions, we can treat Marcel Granet (1884-1940) as a substitute, so to speak, for Durkheim. We can compare Weber's treatment of China with the legacy of Marcel Granet whose The Religion of the Chinese People (1951 [1922]) and Chinese Civilization (1930 [1929]) were influential in French historiography in the 1930s. Granet was a member of the Durkheim circle, and was influenced by Edouard Chavannes, Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert. Granet's oeuvre illustrates his interest in rituals and customs within a framework derived from Durkheim and Mauss. The study of religious festivals was dedicated to Durkheim and Chavannes. As a professional Sinologist, Granet was in fact interested in more general social phenomena. His work was a major contribution to the sociology of knowledge but Chinese Civilization had relatively little to say about the sacred, concentrating instead on power structures in the feudal system and their eventual evolution towards an imperial political and urban culture. If Durkheim's sociology was a study of morality or mores - for example in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals (1992) - we may not be surprised to find Granet placing considerable emphasis on Chinese moral codes such as filial piety. He (1930 [1929]: 310) declared filial piety to be 'The foundation of domestic and even of civic morality'. Weber went in a similar direction, observing that 'piety, the mother of discipline, was the only true absolute duty and a literary education was the only true means of perfection' (Weber 1951 [1916]: 163).

As we know, Weber was reluctant to describe Confucianism as a religion and in The Religion of China described piety (especially filial piety) as the basis of moral conduct. An important aspect of Christianity, in contrast to other world religions, was its decisive break with kinship ties and familial relationships. The charismatic authority of Jesus, and the promise of a coming world, overturned any mundane loyalty to parents or the wider kinship group. As a development within Judaic millenarianism, Jesus and his disciplines did not anticipate the continuity of this world and therefore the family as a reproductive unit was irrelevant to early Christian eschatology. In Pauline Christianity, the faithful are commanded to abandon their duty to family in order to respond to the pure charismatic demands of the gospel of Jesus - Follow me! In his account of the city and citizenship in The City, Weber also noted that the Christian congregations were not familial or kinship organizations, because the Christian community was based, to quote St Paul, on the 'circumcision of the heart'.

Weber's notion of 'religion' is that it exists in perpetual tension with 'the world' made up of the various value spheres. For Weber, insofar as we are in the garden of 'disenchantment', what remains of the moral or serious life can only be conducted as a vocation in either science or politics. In what we might call the charismatic challenge to established routines, Weber followed Adolf von Harnack (1912 [1908]) who had elaborated a notion of the conflict between inspiration and tradition in his The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. This theme has been taken up by Gerd Theissen in his controversial The First Followers of Jesus (1978) in which he described different types of 'wandering charismatic's'. However Weber extended Harnack's ecclesiology of western Christendom into comparative religion by looking at religious tensions with the world and their eventual rationalization and standardization. Thus Confucianism had no such tension with the world, the emperor and the family. Hence 'in sharp contrast to Buddhism, Confucianism meant adjustment to the world, to its orders and conventions. Ultimately it represented just a tremendous code of political maxims and rules of social propriety for cultured men of the world' (Weber 1951 [1916]: 152). Given this pragmatic orientation to the secular world, he concluded that Confucianism had no notion of individual salvation from sin and redemption through grace. In the Confucian ethic, the literati 'had no desire to be "saved" either from the migration of the souls or from punishment in the beyond' (Weber 1951 [1916]: 156). If this tension with the world provided the underlying dynamism of the Puritan world, it was also the source of its tragic vision.

If this comparison with Durkheim is worth making, one needs to ask whether there was any parallel moral argument or sentiment in Durkheim's work equivalent to Weber's lecture on 'politics as a vocation'? Perhaps the underlying moral theme in Durkheim's sociology was that a meaningful life (or the serious life as he once defined 'religion') is only possible in a society that is normatively coherent. For Durkheim, the social and moral coherence of traditional European societies had been shattered by the First World War as a consequence of which he came to develop a notion of cosmopolitanism (or 'world patriotism') in response to nationalism and international conflicts. Perhaps we have here a possible point of convergence between Durkheim and Weber insofar as both men turned to the problem of violence with the industrialization of warfare. Durkheim died in 1917 and Weber in 1920. The classical sociology of religion was a product of urbanization and secularization after the French Revolution but perhaps it was terminated as a consequence of the social and moral problems thrown up by the mechanized violence in modern warfare. Joachim Radkau (2009: 540) suggests that Weber's sociology in general was haunted by the problem of death, namely that death no longer has any meaning in modern society. The mass slaughter of men in the trenches raised issues for which there was no convincing religious answer. The tragic dimension of Weber's sociology was perfectly captured by Jaspers in his 'commemorative address' in 1920 when he noted that Weber 'was also no Christian. For him, to be a Christian was to accept the commandment of the Sermon on the Mount: do not succumb to evil. He did not want to fulfil this commandment, because it was incompatible with operating in the world' (Dreijmanis 1989: 22).

 
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