Walter Benjamin’s Capitalism as Religion: Is there any chance of freedom?

| Gustavo Racy | Heathwood Press |

Walter Benjamin’s fragment Capitalism as Religion has stood out in the philosophical and political left, especially with the outburst of the current global economic crisis. According to his hypothesis, capitalism was not only made possible through the development of political economy, which draws back into the rise of protestant ethics, as also observed by Max Weber, but it emerged as religion itself. Having not dogma, and consisting in pure cult, capitalism would be the first religion to induce guilt instead of guaranteeing atonement. The acknowledgment of capitalism as a religion may help to understand the political task of the left in the twenty-first century by pointing out how capitalism has advanced, reaching out for a new sphere of human life. In this sense, the hypothesis can be seen as a continuity within Benjamin scholarship, that links the study of nineteenth-century capitalism in the Arcades Project, to the cultural analysis of the twentieth-century in texts like The Work of art and The Storyteller, to twenty-first-century socioeconomic life. By exploring the text and the unfolding of his ideas, especially via Giorgio Agamben’s work, this essay aims at describing the features of capitalism as religion. Furthermore, the essay focuses on pointing out the possibilities from within the retroactive spiral created by capitalist dynamics, claiming the need for the merging between theology, history and politics, as indicated in the enigmatic opening image of Benjamin’s Thesis on the Concept of History.

Up to half a decade ago, a fragment written by Walter Benjamin in 1921 and posthumously published, remained forgotten. In it, Benjamin declares that a ‘religion may be discerned in capitalism – that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torment, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered’ (2004, 288). Two interconnected paths allow us to understand this idea. Firstly, there is a resonance of Marx’s German Ideology, in which religions represent critical overcoming between one another – therefore Christianity represented a critical overcoming of Judaism. Secondly, Benjamin takes on Ernst Troeltsch (1969) and Max Weber’s (2009, 2010) understanding that the Reformation favoured the growth of capitalism, believing, instead, that ‘it transformed itself into capitalism’ (Benjamin, 2004, 290).

The criticism towards Weber and Troeltsch, which is not expanded in the fragment, forms the core of the idea. If Benjamin did not expand his theory, in order to make the inversion clear, it is necessary to identify the mechanism that makes capitalism a religion. Such a mechanism, I believe, grounds the proper structure of the contemporary mode of production and divides it in three levels.

“In the first place, capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed. In capitalism, things have a meaning only in their relationship to the cult; capitalism has no specific body of dogma, no theology. […] This concretization of cult is connected with a second feature of capitalism: the permanence of the cult […] And third, the cult makes guilt pervasive. Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement”. (Benjamin, 2004, 288)

This observation takes us back to Marx’s thinking. Apart from the overly repeated idea of religion as the opium of the people, it is necessary to remember that regardless of its ideological traits, the necessities that stand before individuals are real, for they present themselves as such, that is, as objective needs that are, therefore, objectifications of the social being. The feeling of suffering that may lead individuals to religion, hence, is the expression of a real suffering. Criticism should focus, thus, not towards religiosity but to the real reason for suffering, and from there, religiosity, which, as a social phenomenon, leads to the begetting of ideology and fetishism. As Weber had shown, later reassessed by Benjamin’s colleagues Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, a disenchanted world left no room for religion as a constitutive part of human experience. The suppression of religion by Enlightenment reason, however, did not necessarily overcome religion, or myth, but from what it can be induced in Benjamin’s argument, it left a blank space to be filled. Enlightenment left us a critique of religion based on its political ability and capacity of domination, but it disregarded the fact that it expresses real needs, which can help overcome the gap between rulers and dominated.

Philosophically understood, the capitalist mode of production retakes a project of Western thought that falls back into Anthropology, for it demands, reproduces and veils a specific functional species of humankind. The economic logic reproduces the empiricist conception, inherited from Hume, and consequently, Adam Smith, that the substance “man” is a reality whose behavioural regularity must be identified, assuming, thus, the data is the essence, without any mediation. As an Aristotelian, however, Marx differentiated the essence to the accidents, that is, between that which the being endures in opposition to that which the being actually is. While in Marx society is seen as a complementary whole dialectically bonded – it is necessary to remember the discussion on the relation between base and structure made by Gramsci and later British Marxism -, for economists, the “ethos of the house”, economy, is seen as a regulatory process that suffices human needs. This allay, however, is accomplished through the market which in fact reaches out for every human need, taking them as essences, at the same time making them uneven, considering them all to be of the same importance.

Considering the current economic crisis, one specific critique of Marx towards economic empiricism comes out as punctual: the fact that commodity, through which economy pretentiously suffices human needs, has an essential contradiction that resides in the problem of prices. Though quantitavely different, commodity prices are qualitatively equal: they represent different magnitudes of an essence. Thus, commodity joins two different natures that, for Marx, tend towards incompatibility, for trade value does not encloses the form of the product of labour to the being. On the contrary, when:

“exchange value enters in activity, it makes its real end a means to its own end, which being something quite different, transforms the activity and may threaten to destroy its real point. So exchange value enters thought, culture, and morals. The nature of everything tends to become secondary to this universal nature, something that Marx terms commodity fetishism. All capacities become particular applications of a single general capacity: enterprise and entrepreneurship”. (Meikle, 2006, 316-317)

Thus, according to Rolf Tiedermann (2009, 23), just as:

“Lukács had translated into philosophical language the economic fact of commodity fetishism and applied the category of reification to the antinomies of bourgeois thought, so did Benjamin wanted to proceed in relation to culture in the era of the apex of capitalism”.

In so doing, Benjamin ‘recognized the ideological consciousness within the abstraction of capitalist production related to value, pointed by Marx’ (Tiedermann, 2009, 23). In addition, Benjamin identified in nineteenth-century culture the mere exchange value in its illusory, phantasmatic aspect, in which the exchange value, the “value-form”, veils use value. With that, Benjamin not only advanced what he believed to be a necessary advance of Marxian theory, but also postulated a deep analysis that paved the way for the understanding of the twentieth-century through a concept of history based in the present. A type of history in which the occurred is not anymore the fixed point, to which the present should approximate, but the opposite. Furthermore, such a concept and previous analysis of the nineteenth-century brought Benjamin to reinforce, specifically by the cultural environment of the nineteenth-century, actualized² by the philosopher in his own time, the theory of Capitalism as Religion.

Inspired by this text, Giorgio Agamben set out to interpret the hypothesis of capitalism as religion from the perspective of a lexicological analysis of the sacred and the profane. Sacred or religious were the gods’ belongings and, as such, these things were subtracted from human use. On the other hand, every act that violated the inaccessibility of sacred use was sacrilegious. Within that concept, roman jurists were the ones who better understood the meaning of a profanation. If ‘“to consecrate” (sacrare) was the term that indicated the removal of things from the sphere of human law, “to profane” meant, conversely, to return them to the free use of men’ (Agamben, 2007, 73). A religion, in these circumstances, would be the realm that subtracts things, places, animals or people to common use, transferring them to a particular place through the ritual, such as the sacrifice, for instance. The term “religion”, in this sense, derives, for Agamben, not from religare (the re-linking between human and divine), but from relegere (re-read), meaning precisely that which maintains man and gods separate. ‘It is not disbelief and indifference toward the divine, therefore, that stand in opposition to religion, but “negligence” […] before things and their use, before forms of separation and their meaning’ (Agamben, 2007, 75). “To profanate”, therefore, stands for the reopening of a path towards a special form of negligence, transforming the separation into a particular kind of usage. ‘That seems to be the reason why according to Agamben, philologists put little attention into the dual meaning of profanare: on the one hand profanation and, on the other, sacrifice’ (Racy, 2012, 94).

As a religion of pure cult, generating guilt, instead of atonement, capitalism generalizes and turns absolute the structure of separation, or split, which defines “religion”. In so doing, capitalism terminates the distinction between sacred/profane, divine/human. In so doing, not only is the split eradicated, but also profanation itself becomes an absolute consecration without any content. ‘This division is analogous to the one caused by commodity. Initially distinguished between its use and its exchange value, commodity becomes an ideal fetish which is equalled through the false similitude of its quantitative and qualitative values’ (Racy, 2012, 94). As Giorgio Agamben (2007, 83) recalls, in commodity fetishism:

“use is always a relationship with something that cannot be appropriated; it refers to things insofar as they cannot become objects of possession. But in this way use also lays bare the true nature of property, which is nothing but the dispositive that moves the free use of men into a separated sphere, where it is converted into a right”.

From the scope of commodity fetishism, Benjamin’s fragment brings into light a rather delicate question, observing that Capitalism might be a religion of mere cult with no theology. Benjamin justifies this by stating that ‘the first heathens certainly did not believe that religion served a “higher”, moral interest, but that it was severely practical’ (Benjamin, 2004, 290). In other words, for Benjamin, ancient mythical-religious systems were not supposed to ‘achieve any greater clarity then about its “ideal” or “transcendental” nature than modern capitalism does today’ (Benjamin, 2004, 290). Religion is given a rather material functionality, in this sense. As a practical system, capitalism retakes ancient mythological-religious structures that Benjamin saw as essentially materialistic and non-transcendental. Though unjustly judging religions in general, specifically whichever those he considered to be of “the first heathens”, Benjamin nonetheless points out for the need to consider how capitalism, being sans rêve et sans merci, is able to retroactively regenerate regardless of any morals, with its discourse imbued in it. In this sense, there is no moral ground, also, to confront capitalism and, as such, it becomes a naturalized phenomenon. In this logic, the dispositive of nature that operates within the human sphere is right, which condemns us to guilt. This guilt, however, cannot be profaned, for it is the crowning of human powerlessness.

If religion should, for Marx, be overcome precisely because its illusory character would be exceeded at one point through the overcoming of social contradictions created by humankind in its process of self-becoming, history shows that this overcoming was at one point instituted by market dynamics and by the fetishizing character of the inner contradictions of commodity. Commodity, together with estranged labour, presents itself as a second nature – and if it is natural, it relates to myth and presents no escape – that dictates morals, culture and thought. From that point on, our exigencies are all lined by a terrain of abstraction that, as observed by Benjamin, divides the symbolic forms of human culture. Capitalism seems, therefore, to establish itself as a religion through a long process of ideological conflict that stems from different spheres of human action which demands to be restored to a philosophical and anthropological scope.

In understanding the three levels through which capitalism sustains itself as a religion, finally, it is possible to indicate three correspondents that identify the mechanisms through which capitalism reproduces itself. Concerning the first level, that of pure cult, contemporary society responds with spectacle and consumerism. To the second level, that of capitalism having no weekdays, we respond with the idea of a 24/7 routine which merges technocracy to labour, as consistently explored by Jonathan Crary (2014). Finally, to the third level, that of guilt, contemporary society responds with credit.

1) The pure cult – Capitalism, according to Benjamin, is a purely cultic religion. Commodity fetishism is, for this, central. Under capitalism, labour ‘does not create only goods, it also produces itself and the worker as a commodity’ (Marx, 1967, 90). An absolute commodification, thus, engenders in the worker a relation with his own life in which the latter is ‘a strange and hostile force’ (ibid, 91). The commodification of the work force completes the process of estrangement, in which things, not being recognizable as fruits of human labour, seem to acquire a life of their own. Not being able to perceive goods as an objectification of the being, estranged labour dresses up commodity in fetishism, creating a ‘quasi-religious and quasi-magical relation […] between human beings and commodities’ (Blaettler, 2012, 33).

Guy Debord was the one who analysed how commodity fetishism reached out to different dimensions of everyday life. Fetishism would not be exclusive to market and labour relations, but to life in its entirety, through the falling apart of the lived experience into spectacular representation. Though the author focuses specifically on the visual aspect of the spectacle, the idea of it as a ‘social relation between people that is mediated by images’ (Debord, 2002, 7) explains how the religious features of commodities are naturalized in our everyday experience. The spectacle is the medium through which fetishism becomes the model of our social life. ‘It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production’ (idem).

As Marx had already discussed, commodities – which are now anything – are not perceived in connection to their physical properties. This means commodities are not perceived as a social relation between men. Instead, they assume ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things’ (Marx, 2011, 86), in a process analogous to the procedures within the religious world, where men are subject to transcendental powers. In this sense, Debord was correct in affirming that the ‘tautological character of the spectacle stems from the fact that its means and ends are identical’ (Debord, 2002, 8). The spectacle becomes a reality in and for itself and, as such, it is ‘the material reconstruction of religious illusion’ (ibid, 9).

In the dynamics of capitalist society:

“[s]eparation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle. The institutionalization of the social division of labor in the form of class division had given rise to an earlier, religious form of contemplation: the mythical order that corresponded to the interests of the masters”. (Debord, 2002, 10)

This separation inflicts irreparable damage on social life, since the gap opened by it is filled by the spectacle itself, which in the end reveals ‘itself for what it is: an autonomously developing separate power, based on the increasing productivity resulting from an increasingly refined division of labor […] working for an ever-expanding market’ (Debord, 2002, 10). Spectacular society, thus, elevates itself to the status of a cultic relation in which commodities are heightened to the level of idolatry as something foreign to social relations.

2) No weekdays in Capitalism – according to Benjamin, in capitalism, ‘each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper’ (2004, 288). Would not that be precisely the unending reproduction of commodity worship through spectacle? One of Benjamin’s merits in his study of nineteenth-century Paris was precisely showing how the process of commodification reaches all spheres of social life. Within that scope, the meaning of a society of spectacle cannot be resumed to consume, despite the fact that it too, reaches all spheres of life. Its meaning is, in fact, ontological within the society from which it stems. Such ontology, grounded on utilitarianism, marks the genesis of capitalist political economy, surrounded in a religious aura. The only way for capitalism to be merely cultic is by profaning the relation between work and free days. This profanation can be retroactively observed in Marx and Engels, but it is in the twenty-first-century that it reaches its apex, when the non-stop devices of market economy and the subject ‘begin to coincide more intensively’ (Crary, 2014, 4).

The functioning of capitalism as a ceaseless mechanism is not new, but now, it has reached a new level, which Jonathan Crary (2014) names “24/7”. Currently, 24/7 capitalism stands for a ‘static redundancy that disavows its relation to the rhythmic and periodic textures of human life. It connotes an arbitrary, uninflected schema of a week, extracted from any unfolding of variegated or cumulative experience’ (Crary, 2014, 9). Power over work force and the demands over productivity ceased to consider the importance of rest and recuperation. If Adorno had already denounced the idea of “free-time” as a form of false liberty, granted to the worker so that they could be a more effective and sustainable producer, now ‘there has ceased to be any internal necessity for having rest and recuperation as components of economic growth and profitability’ (Crary, 2014, 14). Human capital, overly commodified, has become, in theory, dispensable for the very functioning of the mode of production.

Capitalism 24/7 in fact engages the social being as superfluous. The deprivation of sleep in twenty-first-century capitalist society, for the good productivity of the enterprise, denounces the ‘apparent equivalence between what is immediately available, accessible, or utilizable and what exists’ (Crary, 2014, 19). The apparent life of their own that commodities have dictates humankind’s time. Present-day capitalism, thus, attempts, and largely accomplishes, to induce ‘a time that no longer passes, beyond clock time’ (Crary, 2014, 8). The possibility of being constantly connected anywhere sets the pace through which not only things, but also people can be discarded. This relation demands the mediation of technology, displacing, and obsolescing, our bodies and minds. Human experience becomes mediated by commodity. The absolute inter-connectivity introduced by the internet split for once the relation between humankind and nature. The satisfaction possible in work becomes that of being up-to-date with the know-how of the latest novelties. That satisfaction, however, is only illusory, providing the ‘temporary conviction that one is on the winning side of the system […]; but in the end there is a generalized levelling of all users interchangeable objects of the same mass dispossession of time and praxis’ (Crary, 2014, 58).

The dynamics of capitalism 24/7, thus, works by imposing a constant dispossession of time while illusorily guaranteeing a satisfaction over the product of such a tremendous effort charged on people’s bodies and minds. The play between time dispossession and illusory satisfaction unbalances human nature and society. Capitalism has no “weekdays”, therefore, because there is no more distinction between labour and leisure. One works while at leisure and one enjoys an apparent leisure at work. Undistinguished, work and leisure proves the “fealty of the worshipper”.

3) Schuld (guilt) – Benjamin states that capitalism is the first religion to generate guilt, instead of atonement. This is the most delicate part of his argument. But it is also the one in which we are able to find a consistent path towards a critique of contemporary society. According to Benjamin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – who Foucault considered to be the key intellectuals of contemporaneity -, all fell in the trap they themselves attempted to overcome in modern society.

“Freud’s theory […] belongs to the hegemony of the priests of this cult. Its conception is capitalist through and through. By virtue of a profound analogy, which has still to be illuminated, what has been repressed, the idea of sin, is capital itself, which pays interest on the hell of the unconscious” (Benjamin, 2004, 289).

Nietzsche, on his turn, anticipated capitalism’s religious sense of guilt, through the ethos of the superman, but made this superman into the ‘first to recognize the religion of capitalism and begin to bring it to fulfilment’ (Benjamin, 2004, 89). As for Marx, he did not realize that the turning of capitalism to socialism would be, in his own theory, consequences of ‘the simple and compound interests that are functions of Schuld’ (idem). Thus, none of the authors were, in Benjamin’s view, really able to break up with the social impositions of capitalism, presenting a genuinely freed individual.

Certainly, from the problem of fetishism in Marx’s critique of political economy, it is clear that the phenomenon of capitalism cannot guide us to freedom. On the contrary, the very basis of capitalism is dictated by the absence of freedom, since it feeds upon human needs and anxieties, which are driven by needs that are hidden by an imposing system that inhibits humankind towards criticism and self-criticism on their own making. Nonetheless, if we manage to gaze the problem through a different angle, a productive path can be identified from religion itself. If economy is the “theology of the mundane god”, as Marx declared in the Misery of Philosophy, it is necessary also to understand the theology of the supra-mundane god.

The inquiry can be illustrated again by Agamben’s interpretation of Benjamin’s hypothesis. Creditum, from where we inherited our lexicon “credit”, ‘is the past participle of the Latin verb credere: it is that in which we believe, in which we deposit our faith, when we establish a fiduciary relation with someone’. The usage of this term, however, stems from the Greek and, specifically of liturgical language. In the Bible, the word translated as “faith” is the Greek word pistis. A “bank of credit”, that is, a bank, in contemporary Greece is called Trapeza tes pisteos. The fiduciary relation imposed as such via this language, retook the archaic Indo-European institution – recollected by Émile Benveniste – of the “personal fidelity” that established credit as the content of human relation. On another, yet analogous reading, the relocation of faith into fiduciary relation restores a kind of ritual whose “striking feature” Georg Simmel (1950, 358) declared to be, ‘not only the rigor of its observance but, above all, the anxiousness with which it is guarded as a secret’.

Credit as the content of human relations can only be illusory veiled in materiality, for it is actually an immaterial phenomenon, a parody of that pistis that ‘is nothing more than the substance of an expected thing. This material veiling is attained by the form of-money, which, as Schumpeter observed, is nothing more than credit and, therefore, a projection of the expected thing condemning us to constant guilt over the desired object. When the Nixon administration declared the end of Bretton Woods, suspending the convertibility of dollar to gold, money was finally void of any value ‘that was not purely self-referential’. By nullifying the gold patrimony of money-holders, the conducting principle was changed, in the effective materiality, of human needs. A real proof of the inherent contradiction of commodities. Money lost its relation to nature (gold), and became self-sufficient, becoming an autonomous entity involved with fetishism. Money became credit grounded in itself, corresponding to nothing but itself. In capitalism as religion, finally, everything acquires meaning only in reference to the fulfilment of a cult that is void of dogma or idea. Such is credit. If in a first moment humankind was expropriated from its work-force – the only substance capable of generating value – now even our faith is expropriated through the sacrament of an independent language that grants to the future the obligatoriness of producing commodities while it demands, in the present, a payment in advance. Capitalism, in that sense, manages to achieve ‘the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world’ (Benjamin, 2004, 289).

In You Shall be as Gods, Erich Fromm discussed the concept of Humankind present in Judaism. According to the doctrines, the naming of God as the un-named prevents it from becoming an idol, a feature so far current in Semitic groups. ‘God, as supreme goal and value, is not man, State, an institution, nature, power, possession, sexual drive, or any man-made artefact’ (Fromm, 1981, 39). God is not man; therefore that which was created by man can only be divine by reporting to God’s image and similitude, which is proper to man. If not, that which man creates will report back to idolatry, for the idol is that which man refers his passions and qualities. The eidolon, thus, is not the image of God, but of Man himself. This is the teaching passed on to Moses when God presents Himself as the un-named – and possibly the reason of Christ’s constant references to the supra-mundane realm. The idol is an estranged form of human experience. ‘The idol is a thing; it is not alive. God, on the contrary, is a living God’ (Fromm, 1981, 40). The worshipping of the idol as a suppression of needs only leads to more needs, transporting us to idolatry and guilt, which in appearance, could leads us to the atonement through credit.

The question raised in the title of this essay remains. How can we achieve freedom in a capitalist world if capitalism is today, a religion that does not allow us to reclaim the material world to our use?

By attempting to explore the hypothesis of capitalism as religion with the aid of different authors, an investigative path opens up. Dividing the hypothesis into three levels, as Benjamin did, and dwelling into each one of them, we are left with different possibilities for case studies in order to understand how, materially, capitalism reproduces itself as a religion. Firstly, the inquiry on the problem of spectacle and fetishism, via aesthetics, visual culture and anthropology. In the second place, the investigation on the realm of labour and technocracy, via sociology and political philosophy and, finally, the problem of guilt, sacralisation and profanation, via theology and philosophy of history.

Humankind rebelled against the unique God in order to be free, fulfilling the divine mission given to human beings. This rebellion, however, articulated the equalling between humankind and God. It made possible, finally, the alliance between human and divine because it is, in essence, freedom. The god-money that Agamben identified is the profane and yet impossible-to-be-profaned entity. If we indeed aim at freedom, the fact of capitalism as religion cannot be resolved only through philosophy, anthropology or economy, but also via the politics of the area that has ever since grounded in religious doctrine, that is, theology. Besides that, the problem of capitalism as religion must be identified beyond the borders of abstract thinking, entailing a political attitude of those who, unwillingly and unknowingly, are constantly confessing to the acolytes of the market. From the merging of history and theology, as Benjamin had pointed out in his Thesis on the Concept of History, it is possible to ask once more if freedom is possible. Agamben calls for the need of profaning the un-profanable. In this sense, the observation made by Erich Fromm (1981, 23) offers us a good starting point.

“Humankind challenges the supreme power of God, and is able to do it, because potentially, it is God. The first act of humankind is that of rebellion […] its first act of disobedience is the beginning of human history because it is the beginning of human freedom”.


¹ CAPES Foundation, Ministry of Education of Brazil, Brasília – DF 70040-020, Brazil; Visual and Digital Cultures Research Center (ViDi), Universiteit Antwerpen.

² The use I give to the term “to actualize” here is transliteral to Benjamin’s aktualität, which means bringing something forth to the historical present. In Latin languages, the idea of an “actualization” of history does not infer in the sense of truth or reality, which the English word “actual” has. Since my native language is Portuguese, I decided to use a word that resembles the original German word used by Benjamin, but recalls its Romanic use. The “actual”, in this sense, is the “now”.


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Heathwood Institute and Press is a non-profit, critical theoretical organisation that was formed by a collective of academic researchers across a wide range of disciplines. Motivated and inspired by Frankfurt School critical theory, our aim is to investigate the root causes of social, economic and environmental inequality by offering foundational, holisitic social critique as well as promoting concrete, critical alternatives to the type of social policy symptomatic of today’s highly unjust societies. Learn more.


One Comment Add yours

  1. dmf says:

    “The suppression of religion by Enlightenment reason” I’ve never been able to understand how anyone can have a grasp of the history/politics/culture/etc of the US and talk about Enlightenment/de-enchantment/etc, is this just a case of fragments of haunted European thinking making their way thru the body politic?


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