The attempt to explain or account for religion and its role in society as well as in individual experience; systematic social scientific theories begin primarily in the nineteenth and early twentieth century with such writers as Marx, Weber, Durkheim and his school, Freud, Troeltsch, James, and others. Although more recent work builds on these earlier efforts to comprehend religion's role in history and human experience, contemporary thinkers also have constructed special theories analyzing a variety of phenomena. In doing so, they often have uncoupled the empirical and theoretical study of religion's many facets from the grand historical narratives, philosophical assumptions, and theological concerns of the earlier pioneers.
One persistent strand of theorizing has emphasized the general idea that religion is largely ideological or compensatory in character. This orientation tends also toward the reduction of religion to nonreligious social or psychological forces. Marx's emphasis on the social-class origins of religion (religion as the "opium of the masses") expresses this view, as does Nietzsche's psychological diagnosis of resentment as a source of early Christianity. Freud's view of religion as infantile wish projection or a rationalization of conduct rooted in more primary processes such as aggression, ambivalence, and guilt has much the same quality. The Stark-Bainbridge theory of religion as a system of compensators represents a recent, more empirically oriented extension of this general theoretical style.
These explanations can be distinguished from ones that focus on the functions of religion without committing themselves to religion's ontological "reality." Durkheim's idea that religious beliefs and practices concerning the sacred sustain social integration and form the matrix for our central categories of thinking, as well as Malinowski's emphasis on the defensive functions of religion against the threat posed to society and the individual by death, fall into this category.
Although these two styles of theorizing have much in common, they have distinctive emphases. Durkheim's additional claim to have discovered the origin of religion in the experience of society itself moves him closer to the aforementioned type of perspective. Swanson's more recent analysis of the social roots of transcendent and immanent religious experience has a similar thrust. However, Durkheim's emphasis on religious rituals and collective effervescence has provided a basis for diverse theoretical approaches, not only (for example) Bellah's integrative concept of "civil religion" but also his emphasis on "symbolic realism" and the role of collective religious processes in transfiguring social reality.
Max Weber's theory of religion largely departs from the above standpoints in its emphasis on the autonomous role of religious ideas. His work faces in two different directions: (1) the development of a systematic sociology of religion and (2) the study of the relationships between the world religions and the emergence of modernity. Both efforts are carried through in similar comparative, historical scope and depth. They are not unrelated, but the latter project takes precedence over the attempt to provide a truly general theory of religion (in contrast, for example, to Joachim Wach's systematic Sociology of Religion , University of Chicago Press 1947). Weber's systematic sociology develops the central concepts and typologies that have sustained much sociology of religion since his time: charisma, the roles of prophets and priests, asceticism and mysticism, church versus sect types, the interrelationships among religious ethics and worldly activities in the spheres of economics, politics, the family and sexuality, the sciences and arts, and so forth. Many of these analyses are carried over in his comparative study of religions and civilizations, especially in his examination of the economic ethics of the world's religions and his attempt to account for the role played by religion in the rise of capitalism and modernity. Studies in theory and history by Troeltsch on church, sect, and mysticism in European Christianity, and by Niebuhr on the denomination in America, develop ideas closely related to Weber's work.
Weber separates the question of religion's truth claims from his scientific analysis and avoids the reductionistic implications of Marxian, Freudian, and even Durkheimian theories. For instance, his key concept of charisma locates legitimation of the religious leader's extraordinary gifts in a complex relationship among leader, followers, and cultural context but remains silent on the ultimate validity of these gifts. Weber's version of the sociologist's calling was combined with a high regard for genuine religious commitment. This uneasy resolution of the problem paved the way for current "methodological agnosticism" in the study of religion.
The problem of "religious experience" suggests another form of theorizing about religion. William James's focus on the individual, rather than on the institutional element of religion, and his analysis of mystical experience is a landmark for this approach. Rudolf Otto's discussion of the numinous experience, the mysterium tremendum , helped lay the foundation for a phenomenology of religion. Comparative-historical studies from this general standpoint have been developed by van der Leeuw and Eliade. Such approaches are decidedly antireductionistic, are favorably disposed toward religion, and generally avoid any attempt at "explanations" of religion, even functional ones. Rather, the focus is on a study of the varied manifestations of religion's most universal characteristics in the hope of thereby identifying its essence. Berger's theory of meaning systems, plausibility structures, and legitimations represents one of the most fully developed efforts to combine the phenomenology of religious experience and meaning with sociological concepts.
The sociology of religion today is marked by a wide range of theories. They include analyses of phenomena such as conversion (Lofland), commitment (Kanter), privatization (Luckmann), globalization of religion (Robertson), civil religion (Bellah), millenarianism (Worsley, Burridge), and religion and modernization (Wuthnow), to mention only a few. Some extend the classical theorists' insights to current social changes, while others probe in greater detail specific theoretical problems less thoroughly examined by earlier writers.