Religion is always going to be a touchy subject to approach with any objectivity. But that doesn’t mean that we, as social scientists, should not try. Religion is a huge force within the cultural and structural aspects of society both at a macro level and a micro level. The following is taken from a literature review I did some time ago for an article on religion and its composition.

What do we mean when we say that something is a religion? How do we define that concept? Despite some discussion to the contrary—and we’ll see some of that in a moment—religion has been consistently defined through broad strokes for centuries.

One of the earliest formal definitions of religion comes from Friedrich Schleiermacher who defined religion as “das schlechthinnige Abhängigkeitsgefühl”—which is commonly translated as “the feeling of absolute dependence,” though there is some contention as to whether or not that should be “the absolute feeling of dependence” (Finlay, 2005). Not too long after, Friedrich Hegel (1895) submitted that religion “is the Divine Spirit’s knowledge of itself through the mediation of finite spirit.”

While it is not my intention to survey the entirety of definitions of religion here, I think it is important to see both the diversity and the similarity of definitions over a span of centuries. I will quote a few for examples though I won’t be deep diving into any of them specifically here. It is merely important to note that while they have some differences between themselves—and will have some differences from the definition I use here—they have a congruency between them that all point in the same direction I am headed with my own thoughts.[1]

James Frazier (1911) wrote, “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.” William James (1936) states that religion is “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 the divine.” Following up from there, Durkheim (1947) published a definition of religion that stated, “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.”

Later we see two definitions published that move into the area of religion as symbols. Thomas O’Dea (1983) proposes that “Religion, like culture, is a symbolic transformation of experience.” Then Clifford Geertz (1993), coming at religion as both a symbolic and cultural system as well, says that 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 factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” Catherine Albanese (2012) agreed with this in her definition that religion is “a system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values.”

I have left out two definitions to which I will return in a moment, but I will end the litany of definitions here with the submission from Fredrick Streng (1985) that “Religion is a means to ultimate transformation” to which Joseph Adler (2014) tacked onto the end a very appropriate “and/or ultimate orientation.”

By now, even if I have belabored the point, I think it is clear that religion is a complex topic and there is no single definition that is conclusive or “right” in the way it approaches the subject while also seeing a continuity of similarity through all of these definitions.[2]

In the late 19th century, Edward Tylor (1871) suggested that the “minimum definition of Religion [is] the belief in Spiritual Beings.” Yet in that same work, Tylor provides this “minimum definition” through a specific examination of those who question the legitimacy and existence of religion at all. The idea mentioned previously, that religion as a construct of examination, is not a new idea. It has been with scholars for some time now.

Timothy Fitzgerald (2017) claims that “there is little or no agreement among academics on what religion is or is not.” I think the brief examination of definitions above shows that agreement is not about uniformity of specifics but about consistency in the broad strokes. Fitzgerald believes that religion is a subversive category that stands apart from the idea of the secular, dividing the examination into power games. While that is partially accurate, we find such definitions as Durkheim, and agreement from Albanese, that do not make any separation between the ordinary (secular) and extraordinary (religious). Are we bound to such ideas and power games? I submit we are not.

In approaching my own look at religion, I gravitate toward two specific definitions.

  • The first is from Paul Tillich[3] (1966), German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran theologian, who stated that “Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary, and a concern that in itself provides the answer to the question of the meaning of our existence.” 
  • The second definition, and the one around which the rest of this section is generally designed, is from Gerd Theissen (2010), German Protestant theologian and New Testament scholar, who states that “Religion is a cultural sign language which promises a gain in life by corresponding to an ultimate reality.”

As you can see from my own brief review of religion and the concepts of what makes up religion as viewed through centuries, religion is complex. But in all of this, while I have a specific agenda to achieve here in the manner by which I have produced this review, we can read between the lines and see how defining religion is about separating out the existential questions that we have and then uniting people under various moral and creedal answers. In this, we find the distinctions of religions that continue to exist in the world today.


1. Note that this is an acknowledged bias of using definitions that point to and in support of my own assertions. While I have yet to find any definition that does not support my own conclusions, I recognize that there are definitions that attempt to negate religion as a category of examination rather than redefine it outside even the variety found in these examples.

2. Something of note is that many of these same definitions are used repeatedly through various textbooks to show the variety of approaches to the subject.

3. A large portion of my own theological metaphysics is informed through Tillich’s existential theology.


Adler, J. A. (2014). Reconstructing the confucian Dao: Zhu Xi’s appropriation of Zhou Dunyi. SUNY Press.

Albanese, C. L. (2012). America, religions, and religion (5th ed.). Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Durkheim, E. (1947). The elementary forms of the religious life: A study in religious sociology. Free Pr.

Finlay, H. E. (2005). ‘Feeling of absolute dependence’ or ‘absolute feeling of dependence’? A question revisited. Religious Studies41(1), 81-94.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. (2017, August 8). The Critical Religion Association.

Frazer, S. J. (1911). The golden bough: A study in magic and religion. Macmillan.

Geertz, C. (1993). Religion as a cultural system. In The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. Fontana Press.

Hegel, G. W. (1895). Lectures on the philosophy of religion: Together with a work on the proofs of the existence of God (J. Sanderson, Trans.). E. B. Spears (Ed.). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company.

James, W. (1936). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature: Being the Gifford lectures on natural religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. Modern Library.

O’Dea, T. F., & Aviad, J. O. (1983). The sociology of religion. Prentice-Hall.

Streng, F. J. (1985). Understanding religious life. Wadsworth.

Theissen, G. (2010). A theory of primitive Christian religion. SCM Press.

Tillich, P. (1966). Christianity and the encounter of the world religions. Columbia Univ. Press.

Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, art, and custom. J. Murray.