Martin Riesebrodt

Professor Emeritus of the Sociology of Religion in the Divinity School; also in the Department of Sociology



PhD (University of Heidelberg)
PhD Habil (University of Munich)

Martin Riesebrodt’s academic interests are in social theory, the historical and comparative sociology of religion, and the relationship between religion, politics, and secular culture. His most recent book, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (University of Chicago Press 2010) offers an interpretative theory of religion. The book justifies the general application of religion as an analytical concept and defines religions not as theologically constructed “traditions” but as actual systems of practices related to superhuman powers. The meanings of such practices are expressed neither in intellectual discourses nor in subjectivist interpretations of practitioners but inscribed in liturgies. Based on an analysis of lay and virtuosi practices as well as prophetic visions within the Abrahamic and East-Asian traditions, the theory argues that religions do not share in common supposed “functions” but rather their promises of averting misfortune, coping with crises, and bringing blessings and salvation. Accordingly, the universality of religion is not based on any inborn quality of the human species but on the attraction of these promises. Since the human species will be unable to control nature, to abolish inequality and injustice, or to overcome the mortality of the human body, religions and their promises will continue to be part of future societies.

The Promise of Salvation builds on Riesebrodt’s earlier work, like Die Rückkehr der Religionen. Fundamentalismus und der 'Kampf der Kulturen,' in which he explored the unexpected regeneration of (often fundamentalist) religion in the modern world, his Pious Passion: The Emergence of Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran, and his coedited volume Fundamentalismus. Vom Kolonialismus zur Globalisierung. Professor Riesebrodt has also published on classical social theory, in particular the work of Max Weber. He has, for example, coedited a volume on key theoretical concepts in Max Weber’s sociology of religion (Max Webers Religionssystematik). Presently, he is working on a book about asceticism and the transformation of its forms and meanings in Western modernity.