29 7.1 What is Religion?

It is not a simple matter to define religion; conceptions and opinions regarding the character of religion are diverse. Even among scholars who spend a lifetime studying expressions of religion, views vary on its essential nature. Does “religion” refer to the established organized religions of the world? Is religion a personal spiritual journey? Is it an expression of cultural practices? Does religion have an essential connection to morality? Of course, it is possible to view religion as more than just one of such possibilities. Still, most points of view regard a particular characteristic of religion to be a common, essential feature of all religious expression.

There are many perspectives from which we could examine views of the nature of religions. We will approach the question from two of them. We will look first at religion from the viewpoint of the individual’s inner experience; what does it mean to be “religious”, how do individuals express themselves “religiously”? Then we will look at religious practices in terms of a collective activity involving a group or community. Such viewpoints may not necessarily exclude each other, but they offer different vantage points for seeing religion as an aspect of being human.

7.1.1 Religion as Individual and Personal

James: Religion Is a Private Experience

We met William James ( 1842 – 1910 ), the philosopher and psychologist, in the unit on Metaphysics. His essay “The Will to Believe” supported his argument for a libertarian version of indeterminism, or free will. This same essay also contributes to James’s philosophy of religion — individuals have a choice to believe in ideas that are not objectively substantiated by science. Religion, for James, involves the experiences of individuals, specifically those experiences relating to an individual’s conception of what is divine, or beyond the usual scope of reason and empirical evidence. James was an empiricist who believed that individuals willfully engage in private/internal experiences, some of which are religious, and involve neither reason nor evidence. James was also a pragmatist, one who considers practical effects or usefulness — “Ideas become true just so far as they help us get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.” (from his lectures Pragmatism (1907). And for James, religious experience can have practical, beneficial effects.

James’s classic work in Philosophy of Religion is The Varieties of Religious Experience, a set of lectures originally published in 1902. (The subtitle is: “A Study in Human Nature.”) He begins by pointing out that there is no single specific definition of religion, and that definitions “are so many and so different from one another is enough to prove that the word ‘religion’ cannot stand for any single principle or essence, but is rather a collective name.” He points out that philosophers of religion have focused on either the institutional aspects (theological disciplines and ecclesiastic organization, for example) or on specific religious emotions. His interest is not in institutional aspects of religion; it is about emotion, but not a specific emotion — “there is no ground for assuming a simple abstract ‘religious emotion’ to exist as a distinct elementary mental affection by itself, present in every religious experience without exception.” For practical purposes, James arrives at this working definition of religion:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to 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 the divine. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow.

What we consider to be “organized religion” is, by James’s definition, a secondary outgrowth of primary, internal experiences of humans.

His lectures proceed to cover this internal, individual experience from both philosophical and psychological perspectives. From his philosophical vantage point, he explains that what the individual relates to as “divine” is grounded on belief in an idea that is abstract, and not empirically or rationally validated. The possibilities are wide open in terms of what the abstract idea is, whether it be the monotheistic God of Western organized religions or some other god or primary truth. From a more psychological perspective, he regards some individual religious believers as having “healthy mindedness” and others as having “sick souls.” The former have a positive attitudes and upbeat views of the world, the latter are pessimistic and depressed.

James believes that there is value in religious experience; it can put a life that is not going well on a positive course. His view on the benefits of positive thinking, as exemplified by “healthy mindedness” foreshadowed self-help books that followed decades later. Among the useful effects of religious experience are enthusiasm, emotional security, and a warm-hearted attitude toward others.

James concludes his Varieties lectures with a reminder that in his first lecture, he forewarned that any conclusions would necessarily be based, not on empirical justifications, but “by spiritual judgements only, appreciations of the significance for life of religion, taken ‘on the whole.'” From his conclusion:

Summing up in the broadest possible way the characteristics of the religious life, as we have found them, it includes the following beliefs:—
1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof—be that spirit “God” or “law”—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.
Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:—
4. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
5. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.

A supplemental resource (bottom of page) provides further insight on James’s philosophy of religion.

Armstrong: Religion Is Personal Regard for Others

Needless to say, personal, or private. religious experience as described by William James, does not exclude religion as a ground for our relationships with others. While James saw the private, experiential aspect of religions as its essential feature, he does, in fact, grant the such experience can produce “in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.” The next philosopher we will meet views behavior of the individual toward others as the primary characteristic of religion. Karen Armstrong (1944 – ), a contemporary scholar of organized religions, sees the common thread among the doctrines of all religions as a “summons to action” for behaving a, certain way, rather than “believing things.” Armstrong thought she had left religion by the wayside when she abandoned her life as a Catholic nun. However, the twists and turns of her early career led to serious scholarship regarding the world’s primary religions.

Armstrong believes that practices within religion as well as perceptions of religion are misguided. In terms of religious practice, she thinks that focus on “believing abstruse doctrines” is where religion misses its purpose; instead, religious teaching should provoke compassionate thinking and actions. Further, Armstrong takes exception to critical perceptions of religion as a force for violence. To those who cite carnage and violence performed in the name of a religion, Armstrong responds that religion historically has been hijacked by the process of state building. Before modern times, religious ideology formed a basis for state-building, and religious ideology became a part of politics. In Armstrong’s view, violence is a dimension of human nature, not of religions; it is the ego at work. The core of religion is compassion and peace.


My wish: The Charter for Compassion[CC-BY-NC-ND]

7.1.2 Religion as Socio-Cultural Practice

Durkheim: Religion Is a Group Experience

A contrast to viewing the essential nature of religion as deeply personal and private experience, whether it be about a relationship to the divine or our attitudes toward others, is the idea that religion is a collective experience, involving a society or social group. Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a French sociologist, a founding father of the discipline of sociology, who has contributed significantly to the study and understanding of religion as a socio-cultural practice. Though some regard his work as “sociology of religion,” others in the philosophy and comparative-religion disciplines regard Durkheim’s contributions as insightful and substantial in their continuing influence on understanding religion. Instead of characterizing religion as the individual’s innermost beliefs, religion, from Durkheim’s perspective, is about beliefs shared by a connected group, as a societal practice. Religious beliefs belong to the group and unite its members.

In his influential work on religion The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915) Durkheim’s aim was to come up with a generalized theory on religions that fits all societies, from the most primitive to the most modern and complex. He provided this definition of religion, and emphasizes that the “collective” aspect of religion is as important as the essential activities, beliefs and practices:

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. The second element which thus finds a place in our definition is no less essential than the first; for by showing that the idea of religion is inseparable from that of the Church, it makes it clear that religion should be an eminently collective thing.

This definition establishes these central aspects of Durkheim’s view of religion.

  • That religion is a communal activity.
  • That members of a religious community share two activities: their beliefs and the practices they perform together.
  • That beliefs and practices (the rites and rituals) relate to sacred objects.

The notion of “the sacred” is a key idea in Durkheim’s account of religion, and by definition, it posits the concept of everything that is not sacred — “the profane”. These two categories, the scared and the profane, according to Durkheim, form our experience of the world.

All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred. This division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, is the distinctive trait of religious thought; the beliefs, myths, dogmas and legends are either representations or systems of representations which express the nature of sacred things, the virtues and powers which are attributed to them, or their relations with each other and with profane things.

To understand religion we need to understand that “the sacred” can include a wide array of gods, objects, rituals, whatever becomes the focal point of belief and practice:

But by sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits; a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred. A rite can have this character; in fact, the rite does not exist which does not have it to a certain degree. There are words, expressions and formulæ which can be pronounced only by the mouths of consecrated persons; there are gestures and movements which everybody cannot perform.…The circle of sacred objects cannot be determined, then, once for all. Its extent varies infinitely, according to the different religions.

Durkheim’s project illustrates the idea of the sacred through his examination of both primitive and more modern practices — totemic principles, mythical ancestors, animal-protectors, “civilizing heroes” and “gods of every kind and degree” who offer protection and security. Nevertheless, Durkheim does not provide philosophically satisfying insight about the essence of “the sacred”. Other scholars, however, who have followed, for example, the French phenomenologist Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986), have continued in this study of the sacred. Eliade developed detailed understanding, comparisons, and histories of religions in terms of the sacred and the profane. Unlike Durkheim, however, Eliade saw religion as a phenomenon in its own right, rather than a group or societal expression to be examined through the lens of sociology. While, Eliade does not truly belong in this ideological niche for understanding religion first and foremost as a socio-cultural practice, like Durkheim, he does regard “the sacred” and its “otherness” as the essential feature of religion that sets it apart from the natural world of the profane.

Durkheim’s legacy surrounding group or societal rituals and regard for sacred objects not only influences the scholarly pursuits of philosophy and comparative religion; it also characterizes popular analyses of modern practices, both religious and secular. A frequently cited secular example is the passionate regard for and rituals surrounding national symbols and flags; there is energized zeal and respectful support of such objects, while their desecration invokes fervent anger and rage.

A supplemental resource (bottom of page) provides further insight on Durkheim’s view of religion.


Briefly explain the difference between James’s and Armstrong’s views on the primary nature of the individuals’s religious experience. Do you find one or the other more compatible with your own views? Explain your opinion.

Explain the main differences between James’s and Durkheim’s conceptions of religion. Do they share any common features? (100-150 words)

Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

7.1.3 Appiah: Is a General Definition Possible?

Kwame Anthony Appiah (1954 – ) is a British-born contemporary American philosopher of African origin, whose wide areas of scholarship and interest include moral and political philosophy and philosophy of culture. In the upcoming short talk, Appiah cautions us that “maybe there isn’t such a thing as a religion” or at the very least, that vast generalizations about religion are risky.


Is religion good or bad? [CC-BY-NC-ND]

Appiah describes the epistemological “deal” that was struck in the late 19th century between science and religion, with science gaining freedom to pursue knowledge without the constraint for consistency with religious doctrine. (Note that this picture of the boundary between science and religion is consistent with the projects of both William James and Emile Durkheim.) We “visit” Appiah’s native Asante society, which today “is not a world in which the separation between religion and science has occurred. Religion is not being separated from any other areas of life.” and he reminds us that millions of people such as the Asante society “are fellow citizens of the world with you, but they come from a place in which religion is occupying a very different role.” We should proceed carefully, therefore, with specific definitions of religion and sweeping generalizations about it.


Do you think religion is essentially about personal practice or more about group practice? Do you think generalizations about religion should be made cautiously, as suggested by Appiah? Why, or why not?

Note: Post your response in the appropriate Discussion topic.

Supplemental Resources


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). William James. Read section 4.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Emile Durkheim. Read section 4 on Durkheim’s philosophy of Religion.


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