No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Simmel, G. (1922), Die Religion, Frankfurt am Main: Rütten und Loening.

Summary - In his work "Die Religion" (Religion), Georg Simmel describes the role of religion in society and its relationship to the individual. Religion serves as a way for social groups to transcend their material existence and connect with a higher power. The exclusivity of certain religions, such as Christianity, sets them apart from others in that they reject the existence of other gods and seek to spread their own belief system to all people. Religion serves as a way for individuals to make sense of the world and find meaning in their lives. The formation of religious beliefs, according to Simmel, may be influenced by general psychological tendencies and the rhythms of the individual's inner life.

Religion serves individual identity and purpose

Simmel begins by discussing the role of religion in the life of an individual and how it can provide a sense of unity and purpose. He argues that when other personal or material forces are experienced as disrupting or inappropriate, religion can take on a more central role and bring a sense of satisfaction and coherence to one's life. Conflicts and contradictions can arise when different claims and demands are made; but it's possible to resolve these conflicts through a process of mediation or reconciliation. Simmel sees religion as a form of life that shapes and defines an individual's sense of identity and purpose.

The meaning-making of religion

Religion creates its own world that is separate from and may even contradict the empirical or material world. This religious world is shaped by values and emotional tones that give meaning to the concepts and experiences that it encompasses. It provides a holistic and unified perspective on life that can bring coherence to otherwise conflicting elements. This religious world can be seen as a total system that encompasses and coordinates all other systems or aspects of life. The value or validity of this system is not undermined by the fact that it may not be rationally or empirically verifiable or that it may contain contradictions, as long as it provides a meaningful and satisfying framework for understanding and living one's life.

Religion is a distinctive mode of experiencing and interpreting the world. The religious mood of an individual shapes and transforms their perception of all aspects of life. This religious perspective gives rise to the various creations or phenomena that are central to religious practice and belief, such as gods, salvation, and rituals. Religion is not simply an exaggeration or distortion of empirical or psychological facts, but rather a fundamentally different way of understanding and engaging with the world. Religion is particularly relevant to one's relationship with nature, fate, and the social world, and the meaning and significance of religion can be explored by examining these relationships. Religion involves a sense of transcendence or uplift, and it can provide a sense of unity and coherence to an individual's life.

Religion and art

Religion and art differ from and relate to reality. Religion and art take elements from reality and transform them into something new, with their own logic and truth, and both create worlds that are separate from but equivalent to the world of reality. Emotions and the subjectivity of human experience create religious and artistic worlds. Religion and art can intersect with and shape different aspects of human life, such as our relationship to nature and to the forces that shape our lives. Our emotional responses to these things can shape our religious and artistic experiences.

Religious experience

Certain emotional experiences, such as the experience of nature or the experience of fate, can be religious in nature. When these experiences are religious, they are shaped by the productive, religious forces within the individual and are therefore in accordance with the categories of religiosity. The concept of fate, in particular, is well-suited to bring the vibrations of religious life from a virtual to an actual state and to the concept of the divine and absolute. The 13th century theologian Meister Eckhart believed that God is simple and undifferentiated, yet contains all different beings within himself: God is both the creator and the creation, which is eternal, and is present in all things but also transcends them. The soul is both nothing without God and everything through God. 

Religion and sociology

Religion relates to subjective experiences and feelings, including the concept of fate or destiny. These experiences and feelings can be shaped and influenced by cultural and societal norms and values. The objects of religion, or the things that are considered to be religious, can be shaped by the subjective experiences and feelings of individuals, and the way in which people experience and understand the concept of fate or destiny can also be influenced by their religious beliefs and practices. Cultural and societal norms and values can shape and influence religious experiences and feelings, and there is a reciprocal relationship between these norms and values and religious beliefs and practices. The relationship between the individual and their concept of God or a higher power reflects and repeats the relationship of the individual to their social group, with elements of submission, interaction, and the dynamics of power and dependence present in both. Simmel suggests that religion and sociology are interconnected, with religious attitudes influencing and being influenced by social relationships. The relationship between religion and society can be intertwined or distinct from one another. In many cultures, religious obligations are tied to one's social role and membership in a particular group, and social and religious duties can be closely connected. In contrast, Simmel notes that Buddhism is not a religion and does not contain social norms, as it teaches that individuals can achieve salvation through their own actions and beliefs rather than relying on external powers or intermediaries. Simmel also discusses how various social relationships, such as those between children and parents, patriots and their country, and soldiers and their army, can have a religious tone due to the mix of selfless devotion and self-serving desire, humility and elevation, and sensory immediacy and abstract ideals that they often contain.

Simmel mentions the concept of "coincidentia oppositorum," or the unity of opposing concepts, in the relationship between the individual and their God, with various emotions and attitudes towards God present at different times. In the second function of religion, the individual feels bound to a higher, universal force from which they flow and to which they flow, to which they surrender, but from which they also expect upliftment and redemption, from which they are different and yet also identical. This has been referred to as the "coincidence of opposites," the unity point that allows all contradictions of existence to melt into undifferentiated unity. This includes the manifold behaviors of the soul towards God and God towards the soul, including love and estrangement, humility and enjoyment, ecstasy and remorse, despair and trust, which are not just the coloring of changing epochs of such behavior, but each of which leaves a trace in the fundamental relationship of the soul to its God, such that it seems to encompass all possible contradictions of mood in one breath and to emit them from itself. And yet, God is just, but also forgives beyond justice.

In the ancient world and not just in it, God stands above parties and yet takes sides. He is the absolute lord of the world and yet allows it to unfold according to the inviolability of its laws. By encompassing the reciprocal relationship between the human and their God in this way, covering the entire range of possible relationships in both simultaneity and succession, it clearly repeats the behaviors that exist between the individual and their social group. Here, the individual is encompassed by a superior force that nevertheless allows a measure of freedom; a receiving that nevertheless elicits a response; a surrender that does not exclude rebellion; a reward and a punishment; the relationship of a part to the whole, while the part itself demands to be a whole. In particular, the humility in which the devout person acknowledges that everything they are and have is owed to God, seeing in God the source of their being and their strength, can be transferred to the relationship of the individual to the whole. For the human is not nothing before God, but rather a mere speck, a weak but not entirely insignificant force, a vessel capable of receiving that content. In this way, the same form is revealed in the religious and sociological modes of existence of the individual. These latter merely need to be accompanied or taken up by religious mood in order to reveal the essential form of religion as an autonomous construct, with its own content and its own mode of existence.


Simmel discusses the concept of God as the ultimate object of belief: When one believes in God, they allow the fundamental power of belief to be channeled and focused on God, and this is reinforced by the idea of faith as the essential nature of religious people. The idea of God as absolute, which stems from the wholeness and originality of the soul's energy, is connected to other psychological functions that channel their general, undifferentiated, and unbiased power into religious substance. God is the object of love and the object of seeking, and God's status as the ultimate goal is reflected in his origins as the absolute realization of psychological functions.

Belief and unity

Concepts such as belief and unity, can be found in both social and religious contexts. The concept of belief can be seen as the root of religious experience, which it is present in all religious individuals, even if it is not always manifested in a belief in God or a specific deity. The concept of unity is present in social groups and is often created through the shared experiences and actions of group members. Both belief and unity can be seen as symbols and expressions of the absolute nature of human existence in relation to the absolute nature of the universe. Belief and unity can be found in both social and religious contexts. In particular, the concept of belief can be seen as the root of religious experience; it is present in all religious individuals, even if it is not always manifested in a belief in God or a specific deity. The concept of unity is present in social groups and is often created through the shared experiences and actions of group members. Both belief and unity can be seen as symbols and expressions of the absolute nature of human existence in relation to the absolute nature of the universe. Faith is the root force that allows believers to focus on God and faith is essential to religious belief. God is the object of love and the subject of seeking in the same way that he is the object of faith. Individual impulses are connected to the unbroken, general pulse of the group. In early cultures, religious groups were the only lasting and organized groups, and the unity of these groups was expressed through their shared worship of a deity. Religious festivals promote unity and universalism within and beyond individual groups, and religious communities are a place for resolving conflicts peacefully. Religion thus serves as a symbol and embodiment of social unity and peace.

The individual's membership in a group can be both constricting and liberating. The social structure of a group often takes on a religious form, and the tension between the demands of the group and the individuality of the individual can lead to conflict. The individual is both inside and outside of the group, and this duality is reflected in religious beliefs and practices. The individual's relationship to the group and to society is complex and multifaceted, and religion plays a role in mediating and shaping this relationship. Religion can be seen as a response to the formation of social unity, and religious festivals and practices can symbolize and promote social harmony and unity. There is a tension between individual freedom and social binding. A harmonious and integrated society could be one in which individuals are able to fully realize their own potential and contribute to the whole in a way that does not conflict with their own individual needs and desires. This idea of a harmonious and integrated society may be a utopian one, but it is not impossible to attain.

Concerning the relationship between the individual and the larger social and religious structures in which they exist: The division of labor and competition in society can lead to the suppression of individual potential and the narrow specialization of individuals, while religion offers a way for individuals to connect with a higher unity and find fulfillment in their personal relationships with the divine. The Christian concept of the invisible church creates a social dimension to individual spirituality, connecting individuals to one another in a spiritual community.

 The relationship between individual freedom and social cohesion is reflected in religious and social structures. In certain religious traditions, the individual's connection to the divine is seen as a fundamental part of their identity, and this connection should be protected and nurtured. In contrast, in certain social structures, such as the division of labor, the individual's role is defined by their contribution to the whole, and their individuality may be suppressed in the pursuit of efficiency. The role of priests and the idea of priestly ordination is a way of reconciling the conflicting demands of individual and social identity. Equality before God means that all souls are of equal value, regardless of individual differences or qualities, while in earthly contexts, value is often based on differences and relativity. Some people may be motivated by a belief in the inherent equality of souls, and this belief can influence social and political movements such as socialism. Priesthood represents an ideal form of social organization in which individuals are qualified for their roles through a mystical transfer of spirit, rather than based on their personal qualifications or abilities.

Simmel discusses different understandings of the concept of unity and their implications for the concept of God. One understanding is pantheism, in which God is identified with the entirety of reality and therefore there is no differentiation or distinction between different elements or phenomena. This understanding is incompatible with the concept of God in religion, which requires a relationship between God and the individual and the possibility of love and distance, devotion and abandonment. The other understanding of unity is as a kind of interaction or interdependence between different elements, which is what we refer to as a being whose elements are held together by mutual forces and whose fate is interconnected with that of other elements. This is the only form of unity that the world can have for our thinking, and it is symbolized and approached through the concepts of the organism and the social group. God, as the unity of being thought of in this way, can only be the carrier of this connection, the interaction between things, and the point at which all the rays of being meet. In many religions, the deity is only the god of a particular group and has no claim on those outside of that group. The Christian God is different in that he is the God of all being, and therefore it is not acceptable for the relationship with him to be indifferent alongside relationships with other deities. This concept has had a significant impact on the sociological structure of Christianity and has led to conflicts between different religious groups.

Simmel discusses the role of religion in society and how it is connected to social groups and the transcendent. Religion serves as a way for individuals to express their social relations and group dynamics in a transcendent form through the concept of a deity or gods. The exclusivity of certain religions, such as Christianity, and their rejection of other deities can be linked to their desire to spread their beliefs to all people and not just their own group. Religious rituals and practices reinforce group bonds and group cohesion is important in maintaining religious belief. Simmel also mentions the connection between religion and the natural world, with some religions viewing the natural world as divine and others viewing the divine as separate from the natural world. 

Religion as a fundamental psychological force 

The origins of religion cannot be fully understood through a genetic or historical analysis, but rather must be seen as a primary, fundamental aspect of human psychology. The various factors often cited as the origins of religion, such as fear, love, dependence, and devotion, are more like surface-level expressions of deeper, more abstract psychological forces, Simmel writes. These forces shape the way in which specific emotions, events, and interests play out in the religious domain, as well as in social, artistic, and ethical realms. Simmel concludes by stating that a more complete understanding of these psychological forces would allow for a deeper understanding of the structure and dynamics of the human psyche, and could potentially lead to the creation of a "pure psychology" that is able to grasp the essential nature of human subjectivity.