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Analyzing Emile Durkheim and Clifford Geertz's Definition of Religion

In: Religion Topics

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In attempting to answer the ominous and age-old issue of what religion is, Emile Durkheim and Clifford Geertz offer two quite in-depth and distinct definitions that can be viewed as very similar, yet truly different on a number of levels. In this essay, I will examine the similarities and differences between the two authors’ definitions of religion and offer my own perspective on each. Both anthropologists provide definitions that share the emphasis on religion as specific to a people, and also share the acknowledgement of rituals or practices within religion. However, Durkheim and Geertz have different fundamental, explicit concepts of religion, and in turn emphasize different aspects of religion and its social function. Many critiques on both definitions have provided a number of pros and cons to each, which in turn have led to my preference of one over the other. In examining the similarities between Durkheim and Geertz’s definitions of religion, one must observe that both authors conceptualize religion as specific to the group of people that it is present in, with limited applications outside of the group. At the heart of Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion is the concept that religion is central to society and that “religion is an eminently social thing” (DURKHEIM 2008: 39). Embedded in this idea of religion as a social entity is the concept of religion as socially-specific; as applicable only to the specific group it exists in. He goes on to claim that beliefs and rites composing a religion are “always shared by a definite group that professes them” (43). In defining religion, Clifford Geertz also makes the claim that religion is specific to a particular group, though his definition is based on the idea of cultural specificity. Geertz says that religion is an “extrinsic source of information…that [lies] outside the boundaries….of common understandings…...

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