Skip to main content



INTELLECTUALS are persons who produce or intensively study intellectual works. Intellectual works are coherent complexes of symbolic configurations that deal with the serious or ultimately significant features of the cosmos, the earth, and human beings. An intellectual work is unified by logical connectedness and the substantive identity of its subject matter, and it is set forth in a conventional form.

Religious intellectual works are those that deal with transcendent powers and their verbal, physical, and inspirational manifestations. They deal with the relations of transcendent powers to texts that are regarded as sacred, and with the influence of transcendent powers in the genesis and working of the cosmos, in human life and destiny, and in the norms that guide human action.

Religious activities, both intellectual and practical (i.e., religious practices), have as their objective the engendering or maintaining of a state of belief that comprises a relationship to transcendent powers. Religious intellectual activities, embodying this particular state of mind or belief, aim at attaining and transmitting knowledge or understanding of transcendent powers and their manifestations. The attainment of a religious state of mind encompasses practices such as the performance of prescribed rituals, the incantation of sacred songs, the reiteration of sacred words, and the ingestion, handling, and bearing of sacred objects. Such practical religious activities are infused with symbolic components and are hence intimately related to the intellectual religious activities that have constructed their underlying symbolic configurations. The intellectual elucidation of the meaning of practical religious activities and objects creates an intimate bond between the intellectual and practical spheres of religious activity.

Bodies of religious beliefs and practices differ, however, in the degree to which beliefs and practices have been elaborated and rationalized. Religions that are built around sacred texts are more susceptible to an elaborate variety of interpretations than are those that have no sacred texts. These elaborate interpretations are possible only on the basis of prolonged and intensive study by religious intellectuals who study the religious intellectual works that are central to the complex of beliefs espoused by the religious community and who produce works of their own.

"Primordial" and "World" Religions

Not all religious communities, that is, communities with common religious beliefs and practices, cultivate or depend upon intellectuals. The majority of these religions without intellectuals are primordial religions, that is, the religions of societies that define themselves by locality and lineage and in which no written texts contain their fundamental ideas. Such religions have beliefs and ritual practices, but they do not have doctrines. Their religious beliefs remain centered on local, occasional, and functional deities. Their rituals often have been codified, as was the case with Roman religion, and they sometimes have developed priesthoods as distinct professional strata; but, having no sacred books, they generally have no religious intellectuals to construct doctrines that could become integrally connected with their ritual observances. The larger, differentiated, and literate societies that continue to adhere to their primordial religions have produced intellectuals, including religious intellectuals, but the latter have had no ecclesiastical role. In these societies, such as those of ancient Greece and Rome, the construction of theological-philosophical theories has been left to laymen whose theories remained outside the realm of religious practice and in-fluence.

Both in theory and in fact, however, the line dividing primordial religions from "world" or "universal" religions, that is, doctrinal religions that have acquired their doctrines through the work of religious intellectuals, cannot be precisely delineated. A primordial religion could in principle acquire an intellectual constituent. Its mythological pantheon could be rationalized and its rituals given a more pronouncedly transcendent reference; its magical procedures could be given a more explicit symbolic interpretation. World religions contain much that has been taken from the primordial religions that were indigenous to the territories from which they emerged or into which they entered. Yet no primordial religions that were indigenous to the territories from which they emerged or into which they entered can be turned into world religions without sacred or canonical texts and without intellectuals to construct doctrine from these texts.


The world religions have been primarily doctrinal religions in which articles are defined and ritual observances prescribed; belief and observance are required of members. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are unqualifiedly such religions. Confucianism has no primordial qualifications: It is open to all who can study the classical texts. In Hinduism, one is in principle a Hindu by being born into a Hindu caste, but it is also a religion centered around sacred writings and the rituals prescribed in the sacred writings. In this respect, Judaism is also in a marginal position. It is certainly a religion of doctrines insofar as it has a tradition contained in a sacred text and elaborated by commentary, but it is also a primordial religion: A Jew is one who is born of Jewish parents. Nevertheless, both of these world religions, despite this primordial element, have allowed prominent places to religious intellectuals.

Although the world religions, once established, recruit their members from among the offspring of their existing members, in order for transmission and expansion to occur, there must be a doctrine that is susceptible to simplification and exposition. Even if the founder of the religion is, in Max Weber's terms, an "exemplary" rather than an "ethical" prophet, this exemplification has to be transformed into expoundable and teachable doctrine as a condition of its expansion. The doctrine is precipitated into intellectual works; the construction of this doctrine is the accomplishment of religious intellectuals.

Primordial religions have expanded territorially with the movement of their adherents, but they have not expanded to become the religions of entire societies to which they were not indigenous. Having no doctrines, they could not become world religions.

The combination of the written works, commentary, and systematic speculations of religious intellectuals has given to the world religions an influence in world history that the fragmentary, unwritten, and inchoate beliefs of the devotees of primordial religions could not achieve. The self-confidence of the propagators of the world religions within and outside the societies of their origin has rested, in part, on the collective consciousness of participation in a system of beliefs that answers urgent ultimate questions. It was difficult for the devotees of doctrineless religions to stand up against the forceful proclamations and denunciations of a world religion that possessed an elaborated and rationalized doctrine. To the charismatic force of the prophetic founder and his sacred text was added the derivative charismatic force of an elaborated doctrine that expanded the concentrated and intense charisma of the founder. Local primordial religions fell before the expansion of the world religions pushing outward from their centers of origin.

In contrast, world religions have been resistant to one another's expansion. The Chinese, for example, were fortified by the intellectually elaborated outlooks of Confucianism and Buddhism against the intellectual argument of Christian missionaries. The expansion of world religions has been made primarily at the expense of primordial religions that have had no significant intellectual rationalization to resist attacks from an intellectually elaborated world religion. As world religions have expanded, the primordial religions, as visible collective entities, have been all but obliterated. They have survived within this expansion only through their unacknowledged assimilation. Their traditions were powerful enough to survive in fragmentary form, but they were not sufficiently rationalized to be able to survive as recognizable wholes.

Tradition and Originality

An affirmative attitude toward a particular tradition is inherent in the activities of religious intellectuals, because they claim to carry forward sets of beliefs that rest on the revelations of a founder, or a divinely engendered sacred text, or both. Religious intellectuals are committed to a tradition that continues, with some attenuation, the sacrality of the founding moment or period in the past. All subsequent truths must be demonstrably continuous with that sacred past event or sequence of events.

Originality in the world religions is admitted only for the founder of the religion or for the sacred scriptures in which the founder serves as the voice of a transcendent power. This conception of the originating sacredness of a body of scriptures does not acknowledge any subsequent originality by the religious intellectuals who take upon themselves the responsibility for expounding and interpreting them.

Propheticcharismatic, founding, and renewingoriginality is acknowledged in most world religions. Interpretative rationalizing originality is not acknowledged as originality. Yet originality does occur within the traditions of Buddhism and in the work of Jewish rabbis, Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians, Islamic theologians and Hindu philosophers. It is not, however, regarded as originality. It is treated either as clarification of unchanging doctrine or it is rejected as heretical. In addition to rationalizing interpretative originality, there is in the world religions the originality of the mystic who, while affirming his acceptance of the most fundamental objects of the religion, breaks out of the constraints of rationalized theological doctrine and routine ritual.

Religious intellectuals are not less creative or less original than secular intellectuals who produce works of science, literature, and art that are appreciated for their creativity or originality. Because the meaning of a sacred text is not self-evident, interpretation is necessary. Interpretation is intended to discern the "true," or preexistent, meaning of a sacred text. The successful discovery of this "true" meaning is perceived to be not an addition to existing knowledge but a reassertion and confirmation of an already existent truth. Nevertheless, a considerable degree of originality within the tradition might in fact be attained.

When intellectuals elaborate doctrines that are based on inherently problematic sacred texts, divergent and hence conflicting doctrinal currents of belief appear. Such conflicts have occurred in every world religion and have led to intense disputes until one current has become prevalent over the others and has been established as the orthodox position. There is, however, an important difference between a prevailing doctrine that is orthodox solely through a substantial intellectual consensus and a prevailing doctrine that is promulgated as orthodox by an authoritative institution. An authoritatively promulgated doctrine is a dogma. Where there is dogma, heterodoxies are proscribed, and their intellectual proponents are suppressed.

The authorities that the religious intellectuals must confront are the authority of the sacred writings and the doctrines formed from them, the authority of the religious intellectual community, and that of ecclesiastical institutions. In principle, the authority of the sacred writings is inviolable. In fact, however, the authority of these writings is the authority of the prevailing doctrinal tradition and of those who espouse it within the institution. Critical interpretation of sacred texts is thus perpetually a potential threat to the effective "official" authority of the religious institution.

Within more complex societies, even those of very restricted literacy, there have been some self-taught laypersons different in their occupation and status from the majority of religious intellectuals in their society. They may be called lay or amateur religious intellectuals. Sometimes they have been merchants or craftsmen, sometimes scribes, officials, or soldiers. These laymen have studied the texts zealously and sometimes arrived at conclusions different from the prevailing doctrines. They have also resented the pretensions of the officially acknowledged and self-assertive priestly, academic, or monastic religious intellectuals. Their dissenting interpretations of sacred writings have occasionally broken into passionate public dissent from the prevailing doctrines and from the priestly and academic representation of those doctrines. These autodidactic intellectuals, sometimes reinforced by renegades from the more established stratum of religious intellectuals, have often furiously denounced the main body of the priesthood as departing fundamentally from the "true" meaning of the sacred texts. The priests, and especially the higher level of the priestly hierarchy, have been accused of excessive subservience to the ruling house and to the powerful landowning families.

Heterodox or dissenting doctrines have occasionally been the work of intellectuals within the priesthood itself. Such interpretations at first lived an "underground" life. Some of them were cultivated in seclusion by dissenting, autodidactic religious intellectuals. The latter have often been subtle, learned, and ingenious.

Among the greatest of these intellectuals who were critical of the priestly or orthodox interpretation have been those prophets who were founders of new religions, that is, religions that declared themselves to be distinct from the hitherto prevailing body of religious belief and its proponents. The Buddha, Jesus, and Muammad were such prophets. They were the beneficiaries of new revelations or illuminations.

Jesus said he was divinely chosen to fulfill the mission of earlier prophets. The Buddha was a profoundly original prophet, but he too was a continuator of Hinduism. Muammad claimed to be not only the recipient of a new revelation but to have realized more truly the religion of Abraham and Jesus. In contrast, Confucian scholars in China claimed no authority from revelation, and they did not bring forth prophets from their ranks.

There have also been prophets who have claimed to realize the true intentions of long-accepted doctrines against those who had falsified them. The Hebrew prophetic intellectuals did not claim at any time to found a new religion. They demanded the restoration of the religion of the Jews to its prior condition of purity. Martin Luther, John Wyclif, and the monastic reformers of Christian religious orders must be placed in the same category as the prophetic intellectuals who thought that their religious community had departed from its original meaning and had succumbed to the ways of the earthly world.

Religious intellectual traditions alter as they pass from region to region and from generation to generation. The world religionsHinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islamhave experienced numerous doctrinal vicissitudes and variations. They have survived largely because their doctrines have been received and retransmitted with modifications and increments by religious intellectuals. Without the constant reaffirmation and modifications of doctrinal traditions by religious intellectuals, there could be no religious communities with more or less uniform practices and beliefs over extended periods and large geographical areas.

Secular and Religious Intellectual Activities

In no large societies have religious intellectual activities been the only intellectual activities. Yet except in ancient Greece and Rome, most intellectual activities in the societies of the ancient world were carried on by religious intellectuals. In the modern age, the increased volume of intellectual works, the increased differentiation of objects of intellectual activity, and the increased specialization of intellectuals in dealing with aspects of the world (which is now thought to be relatively independent of transcendent powers) have been associated with a great increase in the proportion of secular intellectuals and a recession of the jurisdiction of religious intellectuals.

In territories where autonomous intellectual traditionsboth religious and secularwere well developed, religious intellectuals often assimilated intellectual traditions that lay outside their own religious tradition. This occurred, for example, in Christianity and later in Islam when they became established in the territory of Hellenistic civilizations. Christian intellectuals found affinities between their own Christian beliefs and Platonic, and later Aristotelian, philosophy. Islamic intellectuals quickly absorbed the Hellenistic philosophical and scientific knowledge that had been cultivated in Syria and other parts of the Middle East under the Seleucids and the Romans. By the end of the European Middle Ages, Christian religious intellectuals drew knowledge directly from ancient secular Western sources. By the seventeenth century, both the quantity and the intellectual authoritativeness of secular intellectual works gained the ascendancy. Religious intellectuals absorbed some of this secular knowledge and attempted to render it compatible with Christian belief.

The humanistic intellectuals of the Renaissance, taking up the traditions of the secular cultures of Greece and Rome, continued to be Christians, but their attention moved toward the study of earthly things. After the Reformation this differentiation and multiplication of secular intellectuals continued. Religious intellectuals also declined more and more in status in comparison with secular intellectuals.

Religious intellectuals now constitute a small minority of the intellectuals of European and American societies. Many of them have made very far-reaching concessions to the substantive and technical standards of secular intellectuals. They have accepted the findings of the research of physical and biological scientists and the approaches and analyses of secular historians and social scientists.

In modern times, religious intellectuals have confined their intellectual activities to religious objects in a restricted sense: theological studies, textual and historical analysis of sacred writings and their commentaries, the archaeology of sacred sites, church history and the history of religious doctrines, and closely related topics. But even within some of these restricted spheres of religious study, a secular criterion of validity has prevailed. Secular modes of study in the analysis of religious phenomena have become predominant, and in certain fields, such as church history, the history of doctrines, and the sociological and anthropological study of religion, the techniques of research and the interpretations of secular intellectuals have come to predominate.

For centuries, religious intellectuals were an integral part of the political life of their respective societies. The earthly centers of power could not claim the legitimacy of their ascendancy without its attestation by religious intellectuals. It was thought that social order could be assured only if the earthly center was properly aligned with the transcendent center. The earthly centers called upon religious intellectuals for administrative services. The education of young persons and children was entrusted to religious intellectuals. There was, by and large, a relationship of mutual support between religious intellectuals, princes, and great landowners. In the bourgeois age, religious intellectuals became more critical of the new plutocratic elite and of the bourgeois order of society. In Western European countries and North America religious intellectuals increasingly joined with secular intellectuals in oppositional political activities.

In the once-colonial territories, now sovereign states, "traditionalistic," revivalistic religious intellectuals have become more active. In these countries, during the period of foreign rule, traditional religious intellectuals had been mainly passive toward the foreign rulers. Indigenous rulers enjoyed the same submission of intellectuals in Asian societies that remained independent. Such passivity among traditional religious intellectuals is no longer so common. In Iran, for example, they have succeeded in establishing a theocracy. In a few other Islamic countries, they have been influential enough to compel secular military and civilian rulers to designate their states as "Islamic" and to install "Islamic constitutions." Christian religious intellectuals in the formerly colonial societies have not been so active politically; in their religious intellectual activities, they have sought to overcome their "alien" situation by reinterpreting Christianity to render it compatible with indigenous cultural traditions.

In Western countries in the twentieth century religious intellectuals narrowed their intellectual activities in accordance with the prevailing tendencies toward specialization and professionalization. At the same time, they acquired many of the scientific, cultural, moral, and political traditions of the secular intellectuals. In many respects, religious intellectuals in Western countries have become very much like secular intellectuals.


Arnold, Thomas W. The Caliphate. 2d ed. Oxford, 1965.

Baron, Salo W. The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1942.

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Eliot, Charles. Hinduism and Buddhism. 3 vols. 3d ed. London, 1957.

Gibb, H. A. R., with Harold Bowen. Islamic Society and the West, vol. 1, Islamic Society in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford, 1950.

Goldziher, Ignácz. Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung (1920). Leiden, 1952.

Harnack, Adolf von. The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries. London, 1910.

Hooke, S. H. Prophets and Priests. London, 1938.

James, E. O. The Nature and Function of Priesthood. London, 1955.

Le Bras, Gabriel. Institutions ecclésiastiques de la chrétienté médiévale. Paris, 1959.

Marrou, Henri Irénée. A History of Education in Antiquity. New York, 1956.

Moore, George Foot. Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, the Age of the Tannaim. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 19271930.

Nilsson, Martin P. Geschichte der griechischen Religion. 2 vols. 3d ed. Munich, 19671974.

Ryan, John. Irish Monasticism: Origins and Early Development. Dublin, 1931.

Schacht, Joseph. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford, 1950.

New Sources

Belief in God and Intellectual Honesty. Ruurd Vuldhuis, Andy F. Sanders and Heine J. Siebrand, editors. Assen, Netherlands, 1990.

Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy in Late Antiquity: Essays in Tribute to George Christopher Stead, 9th April 1993. Lionel R. Wickham and Caroline P. Bammel, editors. Leiden, Netherlands, 1993.

Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Knud Haakonssen, editor. New York, 1996.

Exchange of Ideas: Religion, Scholarship and Art in Anglo-Dutch Relations in the Seventeenth Century. Simon Groenveld and Michael Wintle, editors. Zutphen, Netherlands, 1994.

Meeting of Minds: Intellectual and Religious Interaction in East Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Honor of Wing-tsit Chan and William Theodore de Bary. Irene Bloom and Joshua A. Fogel, editors. New York, 1996.

Religion and Twentieth-century American Intellectual Life. Michael J. Lacey, editor. New York, 1996.

Religion, Learning, and Science in the Abbasid Period. M.J.L. Young, J.D. Latham, and R.B. Serjeant, editors. Cambridge, 1989.

Taylor, Clarence. Black Religious Intellectuals: The Fight for Equality from Jim Crow to the Twenty-First Century. New York, 2002.

Edward Shils (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Intellectuals." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 23 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Intellectuals." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (January 23, 2018).

"Intellectuals." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved January 23, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.