Defining Religion

“Religion is a dream, in which our own conceptions and emotions appear to us as separate existences, being out of ourselves.”

Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (1841)


“Man makes religion; religion does not make the man. Religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself…Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people….Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve about himself.”

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844).


Religion is “the belief in Spiritual Beings. … The belief in spiritual beings appears among all low races.”

Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (1871)


Religion is “a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of human life.”

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890)

“Religion… shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in the relation to whatever they may consider 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.”
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)


“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relating 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.”

Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).


“Religion is that which grows out of, and gives expression to, experience of the holy in its various aspects.”

Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1917)


“The most elementary forms of behavior motivated by religious factors are oriented to this world. … Thus, religious or magical behavior must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct, particularly since even the ends of the religious or magical actions are predominantly economic. … [Religious belief includes] the notion that certain beings are concealed “behind” and responsible for the activity of the charismatically endowed natural objects, artifacts, animals or persons.”
Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (1922).


“Religion or magic, the maintenance of law or systems of knowledge or mythology occur with such persistent regularity in every culture that it must be assumed that they also are the results of some deep needs or imperatives…magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control, and yet has to continue in his pursuit. … Religion is not born out of speculation or reflection, still less out of illusion or misapprehension, but rather out of the real tragedies of human life, out of the conflict between human plans and reality.”

Bronisław Malinowski,  “Culture,” Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (1931): 621-46.


“Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”

Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1933.


“Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. […] If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.”

Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, 1939.


“I want to make clear that by the term “religion” I do not mean a creed. It is, however, true that every creed is originally based on the one hand upon the experience of the numinosum and on the other hand upon pistis, that is to say, trust or loyalty, faith and confidence in a certain experience of a numinous nature and in the change of consciousness that ensues…We might say, then, that the term “religion” designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been changed by experience of the numinosum.”
Karl Jung, Collected Works, 11, paragraph 9 (1937)


“God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. … That is the opposite of everything a religious person expects from God. The human being is called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world. Thus we must really live in that godless world and not try to cover up or transfigure its godlessness somehow with religion.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1943-1945)


“Religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in His revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture. … It is a feeble but defiant, an arrogant but hopeless, attempt to create something which man could do. In religion man bolts and bars himself against revelation by providing a substitute, by taking away in advance the very thing which has to be given by God. It is never the truth. It is a complete fiction, which has not only little but no relation to God. … What is the purpose of the universal attempt of religions but to anticipate God, to foist a human product into the place of His word, to make our own images of the One who is known only where He gives Himself to be known.”

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Part II (1956)


“For a definition of faith I go to that place in the gospel where the words are found, “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief”; and for a definition of revelation to a sentence of Luther, “I do not know it and do not understand it, but sounding from above and ringing in my ears I hear what is beyond the thought of man” (Erlangen Ed., 20, 133). Faith and revelation expressly deny that there is any way from man to God and to God’s grace, love, and life. Both words indicate that the only way between God and man is that which leads from God to man.”

Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man (1957).


“A non-religious man today ignores what he considers sacred but, in the structure of his consciousness, could not be without the ideas of being and the meaningful. He may consider these purely human aspects of the structure of consciousness. What we see today is that man considers himself to have nothing sacred, no god; but still his life has a meaning, because without it he could not live; he would be in chaos. He looks for being and does not immediately call it being, but meaning or goals; he behaves in his existence as if he had a kind of center. He is going somewhere, he is doing something. We do not see anything religious here; we just see man behaving as a human being. But as a historian of religion, I am not certain that there is nothing religious here.”

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (1957).


“Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.”
Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions (1963).


“Religion is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established. … Religion is the audacious attempt to conceive the entire universe as humanly significant.”
Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967).


“Religion is better defined as the system of practices and ideas, or perhaps better said, mental and psychological devices, which help men overcome, obviate, alleviate, or counteract fear and anxiety and the subjective and psychological effects thereof.”
Nathan Grossman, “On Peter Berger’s Definition of Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 14/3 (1975): 289-290.


“A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books (1973).


“Religion can be seen as a system of symbols by means of which people […] locate themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values.”

Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1981. 


“Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.”

Emmanuel Levinas, in Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (eds.), The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking The Other (1988).

“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: Disciplines and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (1993).


“No religio without sacramentum, without alliance and promise of testifying truthfully to the truth, which is to say, to speak the truth: that is to say, to begin with, no religion without the promise of keeping one’s promise to tell the truth – and to have already told it! – in the very act of promising. … The promise promises itself, it is already promised, that is the sworn faith, the given word, and hence the response.  Religio would begin there.”

Jacques Derrida, ‘Faith and Knowledge: the Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,’ in Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (eds.), Religion (1994).


“To my mind, religion is the entirety of the linguistic expressions, emotions, actions and signs that refer to a supernatural being or supernatural beings. ‘Supernatural’ is here taken to mean that which belongs neither to the powers of nature nor to human agency, but transcends these domains”.

Antoine Vergote, Religion, Belief and Unbelief: A Psychological Study (1996).


“Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakeable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time.”
Richard Dawkins, The Root of All Evil (2006).


“Belief in transcendent reality [and a] connected aspiration to transformation which goes beyond ordinary human flourishing.”

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007).


“These things [religion and other ideologies] are not inherently good or bad; they are valueless. They require an individual to interpret them and put them in practice in order for them to have any negative or positive value…Religion is anything that a religious person makes it out to be. If you want to blame religion for all the bad things that religion does in the world, and there are plenty, then you have to also credit religion for all the good things that it does in the world. You can’t pick one over the other. Religion is dependent on how people live it out in the world, how they interpret it and how they experience it…The way they [people] define their spirituality is inextricably linked to the other forms of their identity. Religion is just one of those forms, but there is also nationality, ethnicity, gender, politics, social and economic views, sexual orientation.”
Reza Aslan and Julian Jacobs, “Reza Aslan on Religion and the Rise of Secularism at American Colleges’ The Student Life (May 8, 2015)