From Disenchantment To Disruption

Philip S. Gorski

It has been exactly a century since the great German sociologist, Max Weber, composed his essay“Science as a Vocation.” It was there that he first described the history of Protestantism as a process of “disenchantment” (Entzauberung). It is hard to overstate the influence of this neologism. Originally borrowed from Friedrich Schiller, it would provide the master frame for the most influential versions of the secularization narrative for the next century.

A half century ago, in The Sacred Canopy (1967), the chef d’oeuvre of his massive oeuvre, the late Peter Berger summarized the cultural impact of the Reformation this way:

The Protestant believer no longer lives in a world ongoingly penetrated by sacred beings and forces. Reality is polarized between a radically transcendent divinity and a radically “fallen” humanity. … Between them lies an altogether “natural” universe … bereft of numinosity.1

For Berger, secularization occurs when the “sacred canopy” withers away, leaving only a disenchanted “nature” behind.

Forty years later, in A Secular Age (2007), his philosophical history of the contemporary era, Charles Taylor made disenchantment a central element of his narrative as well:

Disenchantment dissolved the cosmos, whose levels reflected higher and lower kinds of being … In its stead was a universe ruled by causal laws, utterly unresponsive to human meanings … like a machine … 2

For Taylor, the sacred cosmos explodes in a massive “supernova” that gives rise to a heavenly host of shimmering secular worldviews beckoning for our attention.

Viewed through the lens of the present, the Protestant Reformation now comes into focus as an era of “disruption” not unlike our own, an era in which the existing system of cultural and political authority was rapidly and unexpectedly undermined by the advent of a new technology. What the internet is to our era, the printing press was to Luther’s.

Reams of Paper

We are so accustomed to the availability of print today – so inured to a glut of information – that it can be difficult for us to comprehend just how revolutionary the advent of cheap print really was. Medieval books were laboriously hand-copied in Latin by one or several monks onto sheets of vellum harvested from dozens of calves. They were prohibitively expensive and in short supply. Renaissance books were somewhat cheaper and more plentiful, written on paper made from rags. Even in the early print era, books were still a luxury good, written and produced by and for a cultured elite. It was the vernacular pamphlets of the Reformation era that first turned printed matter into a mass commodity.

Martin Luther played a pivotal role here. Not through his 95 Theses in 1517. As anyone who’s read them knows, they were intended for a learned audience and may have been hand-written rather than printed. The breakthrough text was actually Luther’s sermon on indulgences, printed the next year, 1518. Written in Luther’s characteristically pugilistic style, it was published in a cheap German edition and aimed at an educated lay audience. It sold massively, as did many of Luther’s subsequent writings, along with those of other Protestant authors. During the first decade of the Reformation several million such pamphlets would be published. Luther dominated the market. Something like 40 percent of all Protestant texts produced in this period were penned by him.

An Economic Reformation

There is an economic story here, too. Before the arrival of Luther and the onset of the Reformation the book trade had been a very capital-intensive line of business. Printing was time consuming. Producing a long book could take a year or more. Many printers ran out of funds and went out of business. Gutenberg himself died bankrupt. So printing initially gravitated to large trading cities, where capital and commercial expertise were in plentiful supply, places like Nuremberg, Venice, and Lyon.

The advent of cheap print changed all this. Less paper was needed to produce a pamphlet. Fewer pages meant shorter production time. Proximity to talent now became just as important as proximity to capital. Luther’s base of operations, the little town of Wittenberg, soon became a publishing hub. So did Calvin’s Geneva. The newfound prosperity of these towns had as much to do with the printing trade as the Protestant ethic.

The advent of cheap print also undermined the existing system of cultural authority in much the same way that the internet has in our time. The flow of information grew enormously in scope and speed. It also became much more difficult to steer or block. And it had many more tributaries than ever before.

The advent of cheap print also destabilized the existing systems of political authority. Sixteenth century Europe was not a system of sovereign nation-states such as we have today. Politically, it was a congeries of towns and principalities that were only loosely connected via a ruling dynasty. Political authority derived from network centrality: everything was linked through the center and the dynasts occupied the center. Cheap print created lateral connections that had not existed before. It led to the emergence of new groupings and alliances and to wave after wave of revolution and rebellion.

Discipline and Enforcement

Out of this crucible new forms of authority slowly emerged. And cheap print would be one of its binding elements. It would be used to discipline instead of disrupt. Religious authority would be reestablished via Bibles and hymnals, catechisms and confessions. Political authority would be buttressed with placards and proclamations and law books and learned treatises. Some of the democratizing potential of the print revolution would be realized, too. But the reality would fall well short of expectations. In this, too, I suspect, our own age of disruption will be similar to Luther’s.

In the old Weberian narrative, the Reformation was the historical catalyst for “rationalization.” By this he meant the emergence of distinct spheres of human activity – politics, economics, science, and so on – each oriented to its own set of “ultimate values” – power, wealth, truth, and so on – and each seeking the most efficient means to these ends, whatever the consequences. In the long run, rationalization may win out. In the short run, though, the experience is surely disruption. Can the democratizing potential of the internet be salvaged in the long run? Or will it simply lead to more encompassing and sinister forms of control? And what effect will this all have on religious tradition? For answers to these questions, we must perhaps await the next centenary.

Philip Gorski is Professor of Sociology at Yale University. His latest book is American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton, 2017).


1 Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Doubleday, 1967), pp. 111-112.

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007), p. 280.