Defining Religion: Durkheim and Weber Compared

Robert Launay*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Emile Durkheim began The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life with an injunction: “In order to identify the simplest and most primitive religion that observation can make known to us, we must first define what is properly understood as a religion”. Almost simultaneously, Max Weber would begin the long section on the sociology of religion in his unfinished work Economy and Society by insisting, “To define ‘religion’, to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as this. Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study” (1978, p. 399). Durkheim’s insistence and Weber’s reticence are equally surprising. By and large, Durkheim’s writings are relatively sparing of definitions. He did not generally bother to define words that were already in common currency. “Religion” is unquestionably the most notable counterexample. On the other hand, Weber was far more scrupulous—one might even say obsessive—about defining terms that were not specifically his own, including “capitalism”, “class”, and “bureaucracy” to select only a few examples. Durkheim’s long disquisition on the definition of “religion” was as radically atypical of his modus operandi as was Weber’s avoidance. The question of religion’s definition provides a fruitful window into their opposing analyses of non-European societies as a means of characterizing European modernity, ways that derive in important respects from early modern depictions of “savages” and “Orientals”.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number89
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • Anthropology
  • Durkheim
  • Non-European reli-gions
  • Sociology
  • Theories of religion
  • Totemism
  • Weber

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies


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