Definitions of Religion

collected by Katinka Hesselink, 2004

William James, p. 51 (1901)

Religion is "That personal attitude which the individual finds himself impelled to take up towards what he apprehends to be the divine."

Emile Durkheim, Lambek p. 46 (1912)

. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1965 [1912]), p. 62 (source oct. 2004)

"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.

Clifford Geertz, Lambek p. 63 (1966)

C. Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion , ed. M. Banton (London: Tavistock, 1966): 3 (source oct. 2004)

"Religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

Polythetic definitions, Hamilton p. 20-22 (1995, 2001 [2005])

A polythetic definition is one that designates a class of things that share resemblances with one another but where no single or set of attributes is common to every member of the class. These familiy resemblances are such that while any particular instance will have in common a number of attributes with some members of the class, it may share no attribute in common at all with others. ... The definitional strategy consists in listing the attributes which define the class. An instance qualifies for inclusion if it exhibits a number of these attributes but it is not required that it has all of them. Southwold (1979b) offers the following attributes [of religion] as a tentative and probably incomplete list:
  1. A central concern with godlike beings and men's relations to them.
  2. A dichotomisation of elements of the world into sacred and profane, and a central concern with the sacred.
  3. An orientation towards salvation from the ordinary conditions of worldly existence.
  4. Ritual practice
  5. Beliefs which are neither logical nor empirically demonstrable or highly probable, but must be held on the basis of faiths - 'mystical notions' but without the requirement that they be false.
  6. An ethical code, supported by such beliefs.
  7. Supernatural sanctions on infringements of that code.
  8. A mythology.
  9. A body of scripture, or similarly exalted oral traditions.
  10. A priesthood, or similar specialist religious elite.
  11. Association with a moral community, a church (in Durkheim's sense).
  12. Association with an ethnic or similar group.

On the sources

The source mentioned in large letters is the source the present collection is based on. In many cases this is Lambek, which is an anthology of various articles out of the history of scientific studies in religion. In some cases my source is the original book. If so I've mentioned that in the bibliography. If the source is secondary, I have tried to find the original sources online, but haven't checked these personally. The original source is mentioned in small type with a link added called: source date. This original source is mentioned in small print. The original date of the quotes is mentioned in brackets in large type.