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Definitions of Religion: Summary

Over the last month, various definitions of the term “religion” from different theorists were posted on this blog. Here is the list of all of the quotations:

Phenomenological Definitions

“[T]o feel oneself absolutely dependent and to be conscious of being in relation to God are one and the same thing; and the reason is that absolute dependence is the fundamental relation which must include all others in itself.” – Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 17

“Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the term, is ultimate concern.” – Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, 8

“The truly ‘mysterious’ object [mysterium tremendum] is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb. – Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 28

“It could be said that the history of religions – from the most primitive to the most highly developed – is constituted by a great number of hierophanies, by manifestations of sacred realities. From the most elementary hierophany – e.g., manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree – to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity.” – Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 1

Psychological Definitions

“Religion, therefore, as I now ask you to arbitrarily take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine.” – William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 31

“As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection – for protection through love – which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life, provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place.” – Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion, 30

Anthropological Definitions

“It seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim, as a minimum definition of Religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings.” – Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture, 424-425

“By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. Thus defined, religion consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them.” – James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 46

“Without further ado, then, a 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.” – Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 90

“For I believe that ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating, and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose systems on an inherently untidy system.” – Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 4

Sociological Definitions

“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.” – Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 44

“[T]he establishment, through human activity, of an all-embracing sacred order, that is, of a sacred cosmos that will be capable of maintaining itself in the ever-present face of chaos” – Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy, 51

Ideological Critiques

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” – Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

„“I have already suggested that if God is male, then the male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.” – Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, 19

“Philosophy of Religion is not committed to a community; it is an individualistic attempt to analyze the nature of ultimate reality through rational thought alone, using elements of many religions to assist in the articulation of the ultimate. Theology by contrast cannot be separated from the community which it represents. It assumes that truth has been given to the community at the moment of its birth. Its task is to analyze the implications of that truth, in order to make sure that the community remains committed to that which defines its existence.” – James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 9

Deconstructing the Term

„“That is to say, while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization.” – Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, xi

“There cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.” – Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, 29

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