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Definition of Religion- A Sociological Critique

Karel Dobbelaere and Jan Lauwers Social Compass 1973; 20; 535 DOI: 10.1177/003776867302000403

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Karel DOBBELAERE

Jan LAUWERS

Definition of Religion -

A Sociological Critique (*)

Les auteurs indiquent, pour

commencer, sur base d’une

Berger et Yinger, que le

une définition fonc-

comparaison entre les travaux de

choix entre une définition substantielle et

tionnelle de la religion n’est pas une

ce choix exerce une

influence

simple question de goût:

l’ana-

décisive sur le résultat de

lyse.

Ils

enquêtent ensuite sur la

praticabilité

des définitions fonc-

tionelles et substantielles. Il en ressort

pas une entité, mais une

que la " religion " n’est

évidente dans ce

qualité qui est attribuée à certaines

sociales ou

choses et à certaines fonctions par des catégories

catégories de positions. Une variation est

que certains appellent " religion

sociologue

" et d’autres pas. Il en

découle que le

contexte structurel et situationnel

doit porter son attention sur le

du processus de définition

de la religion.

Sans cela, il court le

risque de reprendre

à

son compte la définition d’une catégorie de positions dans la

société. Cela apparaît avec force en ce qui concerne lemploi

des définitions

substantielles ou fonctionnelles dans les théo-

ries

qui prennent parti implicitement ou explicitement au sujet

de la sécularisation.

Si le

sociologue veut

dans

prendre

distance de tout

de

la religion,

pas

point

de vue

idéologisant

qu’une

sa définition

il ne lui reste

seule alternative : il ne doit

définir lui-méme la

différentes positions

la religion

religion, mais la laisser définir par les

sociales

présentes

n’est pas

gique,

mais elle

dans la société. La définition de

un point d’aboutissement pour la recherche sociolo-

appartient

à

l’objet

à étudier. Elle est un

sociale changeante que le sociologue

élément de la réalité

veut considérer.

* Revision of a paper

presented at the Annual Meetings of the Society for the

Karel M. DOBBELAERE,

by

Jan LAUWERS in

secularisatietheorieën&dquo; ,

Scientific Study of Religion, Chicago, October 21-23, 1971, by

which was further elaborated with parts of an article published

Politica :

&dquo;

Ideologische achtergronden van de sociologische

327~348.

XXII (1972),

535

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Sociologists who study religion

have

always

been confronted with

the difficult problem of defining their

at least one attempt

of religious life,’

definition of

religious phenomena

and of

material object. Durkheim made

religion. Most introductory

in

chapter define ’religion’,

&dquo;

to

on the definir-

before publishing his study on the elementary forms

and in his book the first question he starts with is the

textbooks in the sociology of religion start with a

tion of religion. Weber, on the other hand, states :

to say what it; is, ,is not possible at the start of a presentation such as

this. Definition can be

study. The essence of

attempted, if at all, only

religion

at the conclusion of the

is not even our concern, as we make it

our task to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social

type of social behavior had to be

behavior. &dquo; However, the particular

specified. This is what Weber implicitly did. &dquo; De facto, &dquo; as Berger,

writes,

the

&dquo;

Weber follows the definition of

of this

time.

&dquo;

4

the scope of religion current in

seems to have wor-.

Religionswissenschaft

Explicitly or implicitly

every sociologist of religion

ked with a definition of religion. In this paper we will study the major

types of definitions of

religion used in the sociology of religion and

research.

their influence on sociological

1. Are definitions. of religion &dquo; de gustibus &dquo; ?

If we study the kinds of definitions used in sociological textbooks, two

are

prevalent : substantive and functional

,definitions.:! Substantive

is ; functional definitions of re-

types

definitions of religion say what religion

ligion say what religion does, i.e.

what

its consequences are for its struc.-

tural context.

Berger offers a good example

of a substantive definition :

Religion,

is the ’human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established. &dquo; The

differentia in this definition is, of course, the category of the sacred,

which, as he writes, was taken

the

Religionswissenschaft

a quality of mysterious

related

to him,

essentially

in the sense understood by

By

sacred is meant here

since Ru~dolf Otto.&dquo;

and awesome power, other than man and yet

which is believed to reside in certain objects of experien-

profane,

it is

apprehended as &dquo; sticking out&dquo;

on a

deeper level is in

cosmos provides

everyday life, and,

chaos. The sacred

ce. &dquo; 6 Sacred is antonym to

from the normal routines of

opposition to another category:

man’s ultimate shield against chaos, the terror of anomy.7

1E. DURKHEIM,

" De la définition des phénomènes religieux", in LAnnée Socio-

logique, 1898, 1-28.

2 E.

DURKHEIM, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, Paris, P.U.F., quatrième

éd., 1960, 31-66.

3M. WEBER, The

Sociology of Religion, Boston, Beacon Press, 1963, 1.

4 P.L. BERGER, The Sacred Canopy, Garden City, Doubleday, 1967, 176.

3E.g. P.L. BERGER, ibid.,;

J.M. YINGER, Religion, Society

Introduction to the Sociology of Religion, New

as Yinger does valuative definitions as

6 P.L. BERGER, ibid., 26 and 178.

7Ibid., 26-28.

and the Individual :An

York, Macmillan, 1957, 6. We eliminate

" inappropriate for the tasks of science ".

536

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Yinger gives us a clear example of a functional

definition &dquo; Religion,

by means of

then can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices

which a group of

people struggles with

life. It is the refusal

ultimate problems

of human the face of

to -capitulate to death, to give up in

to tear

frustration, to allow hostility

apart one’s human associations. &dquo;8

(death, natural catastrophes,

These ultimate problems are described

originatedby &dquo; uncontrollable events &dquo;

by T. Parsons as frustration

but

also unexpected and therefore &dquo; unearned &dquo; good fortune) and &dquo; uni

certainty. &dquo; e O’Dea talks about &dquo; the three brute’ facts of contingency

(the

&dquo;

uncertainty context &dquo;),powerlessness (the &dquo; impossibility context &dquo;,

) and scarcity (and consequently, frustration

.

death, suffering, coi~-rcion

and depciva~ion) . &dquo; 1°

Not all definitions are either substantive or functional : some are a

combination of the two. Take e.g. Durkheim’s well-known ,definiton &dquo; A

relative to sacred

set apart and forbidden - beliefs and prac-

religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices

things, that is to say,

things

tices which unite into one

single moral community called a church, all

11 The substantive

part

of the definiton has

single moral community

all those who

Durkheim says that the consequence,

those who adhere to them.&dquo;

to do with the essence of religion &dquo; a unified system of beliefs and ~pracr tices relative to sacred things.&dquo; A ’functional element is added to the

definition &dquo; which unite into a

adhere to them. &dquo; In other words,

the function of religion, is integration, is a cohesive collectivity.

The alternative to a substantive or a functional definition is discussed

by P. Berger

in terms of its usefulness. He defends his choice of a

substantive definition and concludes : &dquo; It must be emphasized, though,

that the choice of

definitions need not imply differences

in the inter-

pretation of particular socio-historical developments. &dquo; To make his point

he refers to Luckmann,

who ,defines religion

only agrees, but

in

terms of its social function,

and with whom he not

is indebted to for his inter-

Berger’s

final conclusion

pretation of the processes

is : &dquo; In the long run,

of secularization .12

I suppose,

definitions are matters of taste and

thus fall under the maxim de

gustibus. &dquo; Is

This answer to the definitional dilemma does not satisfy us. It is

based on a comparison

Luckmann,. But we

of work on secularization done

study

by Berger

and

must investigate if in his

of socio-historical

with a substantive

developments, Luckmann does not work implicitely

definition

of religion.

Luckmann makes a difference between an

cific social form or religion&dquo; and &dquo;a specific

elementary and non-spe-

historical form of reli-

8 J.M. YINGER, op. cit 9.

9T. PARSONS, " Motivation of Religious Belief and Behavior ", in J.M. YINGER,

op. cit., 381-382

10 Th.F, O’DEA, The Sociology of Religion, Englewood

11 E. DURKHEIM, op. cit., 65 ; in

Forms of the

Religious

12 Ibid., 178 and 208.

13 Ibid., 178.

English

translation by

Life, New York, Free Press, 1965, 62.

Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1966, 5.

J.W. SWAIN, The Elementary

537

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gion.

cific

!’ +4 The sociological theory of religion

forms of religion in -society.l5 In the

out. of

elementary

and

nature.16

is only interested in spe-

forms had

called &dquo; world

past, these specific

forms, the so

-specific

emerged

nonspecific

views’&dquo; which

were religious because of their social function : the trans-

historical form of

cendence of biological

religion was

of symbols

Typical for a

layer

that it was a distinct

in the

world view consisting

significance

to a

under-

distinct level

was located -

the

specific

social form,

which represented the inner hierarchy of

explicitly

lying

a

the world view, and which referred

of

sacred COSMOS.17 Later it developed into a still more

reality ― a level in which ultimate significance

&dquo;

religious institution &dquo;,

organization.18

with

things

Studying

such as

religious dogmas and an

developments

Berger

ecclesiastic

the past socio-historical

he defines the sacred cosmos

does.i9 As a result,

during

a substantive one and

this

essentially

study

in the same terms as

his functional definitions becomes

his conclusions are the same or similar to those

of Berger.

In order to judge the results of a

&dquo; 2°

sociological analysis done with a

compare some of Berger’s

substantive or a functional definition we will

work on secularization with

Yimgers study on &dquo;Religion and Social

sticks to a func-

Change,

because Yinger, in contrast to Luckmann,

tional ~definition.21

Yinger, if we read him correctly, suggests that Berger, in his book

The

Noise of Solemn Assemblies,

talks about secularization with a double

meaning. On one hand the redefinition of

justment of the church (beliefs and

the world within which it works &dquo; - what

religion, &dquo; the in,evitable and,

to

dramatic changes in

to

call

&dquo; re-

to this ~

practices)

Yinger prefers

ligious change &dquo; -

and, on the other hand, meaning &dquo; many fields of

life’s decisions carried out without reference to religion&dquo; - what Yinger

calls &dquo; the usual dictionary

ambiguity in the use of the

conclude

meaning of secularization. 22 Due

term, Berger, according to Yinger, must

that there is secularization and no-secularization in the U.S.A.

Secularization is

gion&dquo; - an &dquo; American way of life&dquo; with religious

occurring through

the development of a &dquo; cultural reli-

overtones.23 How-

one finds within the

our religious beliefs with our

symbolic integration -

ever,

Berger ascertains that on the other hand,

a strong mutual involvement of

U.S.A. &dquo;

political processes and institutions &dquo;, which he calls

14Th,

LUCKMANN, The Invisible Religion, New York, Macmillan, 1967, 50-61.

15 Ibid., 56.

16 Ibid., 48-53.

17Ibid., 58-61.

18 Ibid., 62-68.

19 Ibid., 58 ; P. BERGER

refers

explicitly

to it : " Luckmann treats (the sacred cosmos)

as virtually interchangeable with his

conception of the religious ", op. cit., 178.

20 J.M. YINGER, Sociology Looks at Religion, New York,

21 Ibid., 68 : " I will not

developments, for the

of

Macmillan, 1966, 67-74.

ask whether or not the changes ’really represent religious

asking of such a question usually implies a substantive definition

for our purpose ".

religion that is too narrow

22 Ibid., 69-72.

28P.

BERGER, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, Garden City, Doubleday, 1961,

esp. 39-50.

538

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a political,

social and

psychological religion,24 and which is a counterin-

dication of secularization. 25

It seems to us that

Berger attempts

to indicate, in the churches of the

a process of &dquo; religious change&dquo;

U.S.A., a process of desacralization

in Yingers terms -

are all still maintaining their central

point very clearly

U.S.A.

-

and that as a result of this process the churches

symbolic position. He makes this

he compares Europe and the

in another book in which

-&dquo; At least as far as

me confidence,

,

Europe concerned, it is possible to say with so-

religiosity is strongest (and thus,

least) on the margins of modern

that church-related

at any rate, socio-cultural secularization

nants of old

eliminated from the work

industrial society, both in terms of marginal classes (such as the rem-

individuals (such as thos8

petty bourgeoisie) and marginal

process).

The situation is different in America,

position,

but

keeping this position only

the European and

where the churches still occupy a more central symbolic

it may be argued that they have succeeded in

by becoming

highly secularized themselves, so that

the American cases represent two variations on the same underlying

theme of global secularization. &dquo; 26 Bergers

tion&dquo; as

use of the term &dquo; seculariza

&dquo;

desacralization &dquo; is a consequence of his definition of reli-

gion. In the churches of the LT.S.A. he observes the development of a

religion, &dquo; a religious affirmation of the same values held

munity at large&dquo;: 27 secular values

cess competitively

replace

religion.

achieved, &dquo;

(&dquo;

by

the com-

an intense this-worldliness, &dquo; &dquo;suc-

&dquo; a-ctivism,&dquo; &dquo; social adjustment,&dquo; etc.)

sacred values.28 This is desacralization, or the secularization of

Yinger

could never affirm this because of his functional definition of

&dquo; If

in terms of a system of beliefs and

thereafter to

identical with secu-

the great tradition. If

religion.

There is no secularization in the U.S.A., in his

religion statically -

emerged at a given time and were subject

change

is nearly

away from

ongoing

opinion

:

one defines

practices

that

no essential

larization. It

one thinks of

revision - religious

represents the falling

religion,

however, as an

search, subject

does not

to changed

forms and revised

of

ligious

zation

indication of an

the conditions of

myths, then lack of orthodoxy

strength.

very

In

mean weakening

religion. It can be a sign of

&dquo;

short, the increase in re-

supposed&dquo; seculari,

analyst. It is an

changes in

in a pros-

activity and interest in the

is

paradoxical only

expected

life

context of

to the sectarian, not

to the

churchlike response to dramatic

the

middle and upper classes

Yinger

among

perous society. &dquo; 29 In other words,

cannot describe the situation

as a process of secularization since &dquo;

society, thus is functional for society.

churchlike &dquo; religion still integrates

24 P. BERGER, op. cit., 51-104.

25 J.M. YINGER, op. cit., 71.

26 P. BERGER, The Sacred

Canopy,

108.

27 P. BERGER, The Noise of

Solemn Assemblies, 41.

28Ibid., 42-49. 29J.M. YINGER, op. cit., 73.

539

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The above analysis proves to us that the definition of

religion

religion cannot

gustibus.

be a matter of taste and thus cannot fall under the maxim de

In some cases the ’definition of

damental influence on the outcome

one works with can have a fun-

of the analysis.

1

2. Substantive and functional definitions : some problems

The above cited definitions are all very clear and

they seem easy to

apply, but some important problems are still unsolved.

A. The social context and the religious community

.

If we use the functional type of definition, how are we

solves this problem

there remains a

going to study

&dquo; functional

~alternatives &dquo; ? Is there place ~for&dquo; functional alternatives &dquo;,

must, by

definition also be consi-

by defining religion as

when every possible &dquo; alternative &dquo;

dered as a

religion ? Yinger

&dquo; a certain kind of effort &dquo; to perform various functions.30 In other words,

he introduces an element other than functions into his definitions : not

every effort to perform various functions but a certain kind of effort.

further question to be solved : who is

Consequently,

going

to specify that certain kind of effort ?

As we see it, one answer seems to be given to that question by Yingers

problem concerning

his functional definition :

&dquo;

If

given system of beliefs and practices that is

arguments on another

it can be shown that a

generally thought

which religion has been defined,

to be religion is not performing

the functions by

then one declares that such a system

is

not &dquo; really&dquo; religion at all. This error can be avoided

an effort to perform Yinger is specifying

by indicating

that religion is

seems that here

certain functions for man.&dquo; 31 It that &dquo; certain kind of effort &dquo; as

being that which is &dquo;gen.erally

thought to be religion&dquo; by society.

In fact, Yinger is not

descriptive

study&dquo;

talking exclusively

about functions.

Implicitly,

he adds

able to

elements to his functional definition in order to be

what &dquo; is generally thought

even if this so-called

by which religion has been

functional alternatives &dquo; or

be religion&dquo; in the community under study -

religion

is not performing the functions

defined.

when using a substantive definition. As

noted above in connection with Bergers definition, the sacred &dquo; is be-

Similar problems come up

lieved to reside in certain

objects of experience.

&dquo;

&dquo;

This quality, &dquo;Berger

objects,

&dquo;

to animals, 32 Thus, the

specifies, &dquo;may be attributed to natural or artificial

or to men, or to the objectivations of human culture.

30Ibid., 8.

31 Ibid.

32 P. BERGER, op. cit., 26. He talks in a concrete way of chieftains, customs, in-

stitutions, space, time, sacred beings, forces or principles.

the same: " anything can be sacred

determined, then, once for all ", op. cit., 52.

The circle of

E. DURKHEIM points out

the sacred objects cannot be

540

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lie not in the &dquo; entities &dquo; themselves but

&dquo; in an attitude extended toward certain ideas, objects and acts, &dquo; 33

attributed sacred

and this attitude is extended to them because,

distinguishing traits of religion

society

qualities

a specifying factor, namely the society which is being studied; into the

to them. As in the functional definition,

one has to introduce,

substantive definition, in order to make this definition operational.

Does this mean that we are

going back to one of Durkheim’s definitional

single moral community &dquo; ? ? Only partly.

elements, namely, ’the&dquo; one

The problem with Durkheim’s definition is that he does not differentiate

between &dquo;society &dquo;and the ‘.‘ religious community. &dquo; It is probable that

in primitive societies both tended to

it should have been

the &dquo; church &dquo; he was

overlap

each

other but, analytically, religious community

-

possible to distinguish between

referring to - and society. This analytical dins-

tinction could have

cohesion -

prevented him from circulatory reasoning - social

Demerath and Hammond.34 And

as he is charged with by

as result, he might then possibly have come up with the following

question : under what conditions

is societal cohesion a consequence of

the moral cohesion of the religious community ? 15 Of course this ana-

lytical stand is also needed in modern societies, but is easier to accom-

plish as we have, for the most part, several different

would certainly extend E.

&dquo; church &dquo; in

Taking

religious

commu-

nities within societies - churches, denominations, sects and cults -

even transgressing the national bounderies.

this into account we

Nottingham’s interpretation of the world

&dquo;

- the moral unity of any group

Durkheim’s definition

of worshippers, whether composed of an entire tribe of

more limited group &dquo; 86 - by adding &dquo; or a larger group.

The need for a specification of &dquo;the religious

&dquo; societal context &dquo;

&dquo;

people or a

community &dquo; and the

very clearly by

shortcomings,

in Durkheim’s definition is shown

the use Schneider makes of it. &dquo; Whatever its merits or

this is plausibly a sociologists definition. Durkheim was interested in

&dquo; integration, &dquo; the integration of men in society, as indicated by his

concern with the operation of

religion as uniting men into&dquo; a single

is one of the great historic con-

This evaluation is a good example

moral community &dquo; - and integration cerns of the discipline of sociology.

&dquo; 37

33E. NORBECK, Religion in Primitive Society,

also E.K. NOTTINGHAM, Religion and Society,

New York, Harper, 1961, 10-11. See

New York, Random House, 1954, 4-5,

and E. DURKHEIM, op. cit., 364.

34 " At points Durkheim argued that

religion is produced by social cohesion; at

product of religion; and at still other

other points he argued that social cohesion is a

points he had it both

stand, to wit, that

ways ". In our opinion this is not only due to his methodological

causally and functionally

—

one social fact can only be explained —

by other social facts (E. DURKHEIM, Les règles de la méthode sociologique, Paris, P.U.F.,

1956, 13th ed., 109), as is

suggested by

and

N.J. DEMERATH III and Ph. E. HAMMOND

Transition, New York, Random House, 1969,

(Religion in Social Context, Tradition

28-29), but especially

" religious 35The remarks community of " and " society ".

to the fact that he