Simmel's Concept of Religion

Bryan S. Turner's answer to the question why the sociology of religion would matter from the point of view of sociology as a whole is: because it is the very nature of the social itself which is at stake here, and 'sociologists have been interested in religion because it is assumed to contain the seeds of social life as such' (Turner 2010: 20). Although Turner illustrates this point by the example of Emile Durkheim, his statement applies equally to Georg Simmel. It would be difficult to find another classical sociologist whose understanding of society would be so inextricably interwoven with their theory of religion as it is the case in Simmel.

An attempt to present Simmel's complex theory of religion in a short article would be doomed to fail. I have undertaken this task in other places (Motak 2012, Motak 2013), but for the sake of our argument it is necessary to sketch briefly its crucial points. Simmel uses the word 'religion' (die Religion) sometimes in the wider, and sometimes in the stricter, sense. 'Religion in the wider sense' means a priori form - in contradistinction to religious content, and it refers to a phenomenon which does not necessarily amount to a historical institution. This a priori form is capable of creating the special 'world of religion', therefore Simmel calls it also a 'world-form'. In this wider sense, the term 'religion' is used interchangeably with many other expressions, like 'religiosity', 'a subjective human process', 'religious state of the soul', 'religious attitude', 'religious tone' and - last but not least - 'religious mood'. All these words describe emotional 'origins' of religion or a kind of pre-stage of religion. Individual religious attitude (especially towards the natural world, towards fate and towards other people) 'creates' the finished product of religion: religion in the stricter sense. 'Religion in the stricter sense' might be identified with the 'objective religion' - any historical religion or its 'content' (transcendent beliefs). Moreover, objective religion is clearly contrasted with subjective 'religiosity' (die Religiösität).

Simmel contrasts religion understood in terms of content ('religion in the stricter sense') with religion understood in terms of subjective process ('religion in the wider sense') - or religiosity. In the essay Contributions to the Epistemology of Religion (Beiträge zur Erkenntnistheorie der Religion, 1902 - see Simmel 1997: 121-33) he clarified this distinction as an opposition between religion (religious content) and religiosity (religious form). In Simmel's own words: 'neither does the religious state of the soul logically require any specific content nor does any such content bear within itself the logical necessity to become religion' (Simmel 1997: 125). Religiosity as a fundamental a priori category, as one of the 'great forms' (among others, like science or art) can accept as its content the entire wealth of reality. Every such form gathers the fragments of existence into a unified totality. None of them can be privileged over any other; and none is ever able to substitute for another.

Seen as a 'great form', religiosity is a way of life, or life process, of the religious person. When we are in a religious mood, we experience all possible spheres of life as religious. Then, 'from this general religious mood of life, the process of religion acquires a physical, objective form' (Simmel 1997: 144). Religious attitude (especially towards the natural world, towards fate and towards other people) 'creates' the finished product of religion, in which the religious quality has acquired concrete shape and content. Therefore Simmel concludes: 'religion does not create religiosity, but religiosity creates religion' (Simmel 1997: 150).

Religiosity - as a 'particular spiritual quality' or 'attitude of the soul', a way of looking at the world as a whole - constitutes a kind of pre-stage of religion. This particular perspective of religion-like (religioid) character prepares an individual foundation for religion, but it can also express itself in other cultural pursuits (like science or art). Religiosity becomes religion when it assumes a specific form in human interaction. Still, not every product of a religious attitude can be termed 'religion'. We should not forget that for Simmel the idea of God remains constitutive for religion in the stricter sense. His observation concerning the modern transformations of the idea of God is worth noting in this context. In The Personality of God (Die Persönlichkeit Gottes, 1911 - see Simmel 1997: 45-62), he claimed that 'the concept of God has passed through so much heterogeneous historical content and so many possibilities of interpretation that all that remains is a feeling that cannot be fixed in any precise form' (Simmel 1997: 45).

In one of his last texts, The Conflict of Modern Culture (Der Konflikt der moderner Kultur, 1918 - see Simmel 1997: 20-25), he noticed that the eternal struggle between life and form has entered a new stage: it is no longer a struggle of a new form against an old, lifeless one, 'but the struggle against form itself, against the very principle of form'. As a consequence, 'the fixed content of religious beliefs tends to dissolve into religious life' - understood as a tuning of the inner process of life from which the content of belief originally developed (Simmel 1997: 21). Deena and Michael Weinstein (1995: 137f.) consider the Simmelian theorem of 'liberation of religiosity from religion' to be a 'heroic project' of 'radical reorientation of the religious impulse from transcendentalized objects to the depths of life' and - consequently - a variation of the death-of-God story.

Simmel neither sought to determine the social function of objective religion nor suggested that religion is an integrating force. As a matter of fact, he rather attempted to reveal the common root of both social as well as religious phenomena: a drive for unity which is the most powerful integrating factor. This cohesive force expresses itself in very strong, elementary emotions - 'social feelings', which play the crucial role in creation of social institutions, and - after reaching a certain level of intensity - provide also conditions for emerging of a special social institution: the objective religion. For Simmel, the objective religion understood as a concrete social and historical reality is - like society - a result of reciprocal actions and it is structured around the idea of God.

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