Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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In …mile Durkheim's whole discussion of religion and quite explicitly in his definition, the idea of moral community figures prominently.

Durkheim defined religion as "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them" (1965 [1912]: 62). Thus he stated unequivocally that religion is not primarily a false science, nor is a belief in supernatural beings and powers its most distinguishing characteristic. Instead, religion is quintessentially social, a product of the collective life and an embodiment of the moral requisites of human social existence. For Durkheim, humans are religious because they are members of collectivities, and neither individuals nor groups can long exist without religious—that is to say, moral—constraint.

It has been noted that Durkheim's definition of religion is more than a definition; it is a theory of the sociological import of religion. Durkheim not only isolates criteria that mark off religion—beliefs and practices centered on the sacred—but goes on to state that because of their peculiar effect on the consciousness and moral sensibility of individuals, these criteria create a moral community, or church. It is also noteworthy that Durkheim equates church with moral community, a conflation that perhaps seems wrong today in an era of sectarian rivalries and violent conflicts. Durkheim's definition leaves open the possibility of inclusion within the general rubric of religion various moral communities that would not be considered religious if belief in the supernatural is taken to be definitive. Hence, from the broad Durkheimian perspective, support groups (Wuthnow 1994) espousing broadly varying beliefs and purposes can be said to embrace a religious (meaning moral ) significance. To avoid this confusion, it is perhaps preferable to treat religious communities as one type of moral community (see, for example, Lenski 1961).

Edward B. Reeves


…. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1965 [1912])

G. Lenski, The Religious Factor (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961)

R. Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey (New York: Free Press, 1994).

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