Religion, Society, and the Historian



In a secularized age, the study of past religion encounters problems both of empathy and categorization, and the student who derives his understanding from current belief and practice may be in a worse position than the detached observer. Yet historians have never before taken religion so seriously, while wider interest in the history of Christianity is growing. “Religious History” is sometimes said to have taken the place of “Ecclesiastical History.” But both disciplines flourish, and the difference between them has been overstated. Historians can learn from social scientists questions about religion which, confined within the safe boundaries of period, they have not always had to face. The social functions of religion have been threefold, religion acting as a precipitant, a bond, and a source of legitimation. It has been said (by an anthropologist) that the study of religion has recently lived off the conceptual capital of its ancestors. The understandings of the social meaning of religion advanced by three of these “ancestors,” Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, are examined. Only Max Weber is found to provide helpful guidance to the social historian of religion, particularly with his key concept of “elective affinity.”