Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1858-1918) German-Jewish philosopher and sociologist who spent much of his career as Privatdozent at the University of Berlin, largely due to anti-Semitism, and only gained a regular appointment at the University of Strasbourg in 1914.

Simmel contributed an original formal sociology and a distinctive interpretation of modernity. Religion played a relatively minor role in his work, but his ideas on it were characteristically insightful. In his main essay on religion, Simmel (1959 [1906]) portrayed it as one form in which manifold social experiences can be organized, distinguished by its transcendent dimension and claim to totality. Like Durkheim, Simmel offered a kind of sociological projection theory. Religion emerges in social relations of special intensity. In his relation with God, the individual repeats and transcends his relation to the collectivity. The unity of the group is expressed in religious terms; the deity is the name for that unity.

The tension between unifying and differentiating forces in social life is also reflected in religious terms, for example, in the Christian notions of equality before God and individual salvation. But religion is not mere reflection or projection. Even tensions within religious thought are part of a symbolic whole that integrates experience in a manner transcending any other. The social origins of religion thus do not fully account for its nature and function. Simmel's ideas, justified by a broader program, have had relatively little impact in the sociology of religion, due to lack of understanding of that program and Simmel's abstract mode of exposition.

Frank J. Lechner


M. Kaern (ed.), Georg Simmel and Contemporary Sociology (Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 1990)

D. Levine (ed.), Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971)

G. Simmel, Sociology of Religion (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959 [Die Religion , 1906])

G. Simmel, The Philosophy of Money (London: Routledge, 1978)

G. Simmel, Essays on Religion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997).


J. N. Lapsley and J. H. Simpson, "Speaking in Tongues," Pastoral Psychology 15(1964):48-55

J. H. Simpson, "Sovereign Groups, Subsistence Activities, and the Presence of a High God in Primitive Societies," in The Religious Dimension , ed. R. Wuthnow (New York: Academic Press, 1979): 299-310

J. H. Simpson, "Moral Issues and Status Politics," in The New Christian Right , ed. R. C. Liebman and R. Wuthnow (New York: Aldine, 1983): 188-205

J. H. Simpson, "Toward a Theory of America," in Secularization and Fundamentalism Reconsidered , ed. J. K. Hadden and A. Shupe (New York: Paragon, 1989): 78-90

J. H. Simpson, "Globalization and Religion," Religion and Global Order , ed. R. Robertson and W. R. Garrett (New York: Paragon, 1991): 1-18

J. H. Simpson, "The Body in Late Capitalism," in Abortion Politics in the United States and Canada , ed. T. G. Jelen and M. A. Chandler (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994): 1-13.

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