Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion.

“In order to identify the simplest and most primitive religion known to us from observation, we must define what is meant by a religion. If we do not, we might either call a system of ideas and practices religion that are not in the least religious, or bypass religious phenomena without perceiving their true nature. This danger is not imaginary, nor is it just an offering to sterile methodological formalism (Durkheim 1995, 25).”

While this is of itself a valid statement, it calls into question the very nature of what is religion? How do you truly define an intangible concept that has as many interpretations as there are identified religions themselves? Durkheim seems to believe that in order to achieve such an understanding and therefore make a solid definition, we “must begin by freeing our minds of any preconceived ideas (Durkheim 1995, 25).” That is easier said than done when dealing with such ingrained belief structures that go beyond Durkheim’s almost systematic approach to understanding how these notions are defined. Stating that the core explanation of how religion is defined is contained within “reality itself,” Durkheim loses his critical argument on religious phenomena and appears as though he is unable to commit to any single idea although he keeps returning to many of the same themes of belief (Durkheim 1995, 26). Perhaps this is indicative of the fact that it could be argued that there is no such thing as a ‘religion’ in the accepted sense, and it is more simply put, a unified belief structure.

In Turning Marx on His Head, there is a “focus on the secularists, their encounters with the religious, and their attempts to defend their notions of religion and culture against the tide of alternative views ( McBrien & Pelkmans, 2008, 88).” The approach applied to this concept of the secular mind by McBrien and Pelkmans was in its most basic form, meaning simply not religious (McBrien & Pelkmans 2008, 89). McBrien and Pelkmans assert that these secularists, “participated in the life-cycle rituals which, for them, confirmed religious affiliation, but who were, in their own words, ‘not interested in religion’, ‘not doing anything with religion’ or ‘not religious.’ Though they did not apply the term ‘secular’ to themselves, they increasingly identified themselves in contrast to those they labelled as ‘religious’ and denied the keeping of any religious observance, except for the belief in God, as a pre-condition of being a Muslim (McBrien & Pelkmans 2008, 89).” While an interesting dichotomy, this is not something exclusive to this group; however, you can see it just as rife in Christianity, where people only attend their respective church things like Christenings, Midnight Mass at Christmas, Easter service, weddings, funerals and so forth. It could be argued that the distinction between religion and religious comes down to participation. If you are a full-time participant, you are clearly religious as you buy fully into the entire socio-cultural aspects that your belief system enforces upon you. However, if you are a part-time participant, you may still identify yourself as belonging to a particular religion, but you are more or less a symbolic member, only fulfilling your perceived duty when absolutely necessary.

There almost seems to be a confusion between the definitions of what is secular versus what is sacred, which in this situation is likely born out of the stripping of identity in a Soviet controlled society (McBrien & Pelkmans 2008, 89). By systematically distilling all aspects of their social and religious culture into a nationalistic identity, the Soviet state helped facilitate this marginalisation of the Muslim faith (McBrien & Pelkmans 2008, 89 – 90). This seems to stand in contrast to Durkheim’s statement that “religion is inseparable from the idea of church,” as it is clear that this group of Muslims effectively compartmentalise their understanding and engagement with concepts of faith, religion and church, thereby separating them into individual elements that rarely have any crossover (Durkheim 1995, 44). As a result, their limited involvement in their religion separates them from the idea of a church representing a group of like-minded believers, because while it can be said that they are similar in their approach, how they interact may vary widely and thus further divides and marginalises them as a group. Conversely, Durkheim’s notion that “religion can be defined only as a function of features found wherever there is religion” contradicts this idea of the church as a central vehicle for unifying the religious and allows for a much broader interpretation which could ultimately be argued to support McBrien and Pelkmans discussion on secular Muslims (Durkheim 1995, 26).

Durkheim states that “we have arrived, then, at the following definition: a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions – beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church. The second element that takes its place in our definition is therefore no less essential than the first: demonstrating that the idea of religion is inseparable from the idea of a church suggests that religion must be something eminently collective (Durkheim 1995, 46).” However there are many people throughout the world that consider themselves to be religious or spiritual and yet do not identify with a collective and are therefore quite solitary in their adherence to their chosen faith. Additionally, there are many proponents who are effectively part-time participants in their religion, only experiencing it when it is either expected of them or falls within some long-held tradition. With that in mind, Durkheim’s interpretation of religion, although correct on some levels, is inherently flawed as it does now allow for the breadth of religious practice experienced by many within the spiritual world. While it can be argued that this is simply one explanation and interpretation for what religion is, there is no single definition that will ever truly adequately deal with this concept. It is far too broad, far too subjective and ultimately a personal belief or disbelief in what religion is and of itself.


Durkheim, E. 1995. Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. 25 – 46. London: Free Press

McBrien, J., Pelkmans, M. 2008. Turning Marx on his Head: Missionaries, ‘Extremists’ and Archaic Secularists in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. Critique of Anthropology. Vol 28-1. 87 – 103. London: Sage Publications



About The Archaeological Anarchist

I am an Archaeologist from jolly old England, a father, Renaissance man, blogger & Indiana Jones wannabe. View all posts by The Archaeological Anarchist

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