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The Religious Impulse

The Religious Impulse


This lesson will discuss the psychological, moral, spiritual, and emotional motivations that underlie the drive toward religious thinking and practice.

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The religious symbols. People and cultures around the world have sought to express their wonder, their awe at the things they saw around them, as can be seen in this is Cycladic figurine from ancient Greece. The religious impulse seems to be everywhere. But what exactly is it?

We can name a number of questions that religion tries to answer. Who am I? Why do I exist? What is the nature of the world around me? Is there a god or gods? What is my purpose? Do I even have one? What is death? What happens after I die? These and others might count as religious questions.

Friedrich's Schleirmacher was a theorist of religion who lived in the late 18th and early 19th century. Influenced by Moravian pietism, or heart religion, he placed the subject at the center of religious experience. He posits an imminent god within, and finds the essence of religion in a feeling of what he called utter dependence.

Rudolph Otto in 1923 wrote a book called "The Idea of The Holy." Otto said that the essence of religion is to be found in what he called the mysterium tremendum or terror before the sacred. The essence of religion is to be fascinated and enraptured by the holy. French sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote a book called "Elementary Forms of The Religious Life" in 1912. He saw in religion a force of social cohesion. A holy or sacred object is nothing more than an externalization of the community itself. Worship of a sacred object is nothing other than worship of the community.

Mid 20th-century philosopher of religion Gerard S Van der Leeuw finds in religion a response to power that happens before moral reflection or outside of moral reflection. The Savior figure expresses itself as a mode of male power in society. 20th century theologian Paul Tillich said that the religious experience addresses itself to ultimate concern, as people must control their situation before God, who is defined as the ground of all being.

All of these theorists in one way or another sought to define the religious experience, the situation that individuals have in the world and the way that they make sense of that situation through religion.

Just to recap, we said that the religious impulse exists in various different cultures around the world, and that despite the fact that we find this impulse everywhere, it can be difficult to describe. Several different theorists tried to discuss this religious impulse. Schleirmacher found it in what he called utter dependence, Otto in what he called terror before the sacred, Durkheim in social glue theory, and Van der Leeuw in power, also Tillich in what he called ultimate concern. All of these are attempts to describe the religious impulse. Thanks for watching.

Terms to Know
"Social Glue Theory"

A key component in the religious scholarship of Durkheim.

"Terror before the Sacred"

A concept in Otto's religious scholarship.

"Ultimate Concern"

A key component of Tillich's religious scholarship.

"Utter Dependence"

A concept in the religious scholarship of Schleiermacher.


A non-rational drive or desire.


A key concept in the religious scholarship of van der Leeuw.