Skip to main content

Homo Religiosus


HOMO RELIGIOSUS . When the Swedish botanist Linnaeus developed his system of biological classification in the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment's ideal of rationality strongly governed views of humanity. As a result, Linnaeus designated the human species Homo sapiens. Soon, however, the Romantic movement and the incipient human sciences accentuated other dimensions of humanity than the rational. In time, new terms were coined on the Linnaean model to designate humanity in various distinctive aspects: homo ludens (G. F. Creuzer and, later, Johan Huizinga), homo faber (Henri Bergson), homo viator (Gabriel-Honoré Marcel), and others. Perhaps the nineteenth century's growing awareness of the universality of religion, especially in the realm of the "primitives" (as they were then known), made it inevitable that a phrase would emerge to express that aspect of humanity that the Enlightenment's ideal had so opposed: homo religiosus, "the religious human." In some circles the expression has gained wide currency, but its sense has not remained constant. Three general meanings of homo religiosus are most important to students of religion.

Homo Religiosus as Religious Leader

In one meaning, homo religiosus refers to a particularly religious person within a given (religious) community, that is, to a religious leader. The roots of this usage are much older than the Enlightenment and Linnaeus's Systema naturae. In antiquity religiosus denoted persons who were scrupulously but not excessively attentive to observances due to gods and humans (Festus, pp. 278 and 289 M; Cicero, De natura deorum 2.72). In this sense, Cicero could speak of homines religiosi (Epistulae ad familiares 1.7.4). Christianization brought overtones of distinctivenessreligiosi became persons of special ecclesiastical standingand this usage was transferred to the vernaculars, as in the English noun religious and expressions such as "religious folk" (Romance of the Rose 6149).

Later, in reaction to the Reformation's universalization of the religious life, Pietist and Puritan movements emphasized a religious distinctiveness whose center was subjective and individual rather than objective and institutional (a personal Nachfolge Christi ). Friedrich Schleiermacher thought of religion as neither knowing nor doing but as an experiential awareness of one's absolute dependence upon God. He conceived Christ as the unique person in whom this consciousness received ultimate expression, the person whose fully immediate and perfectly open relationship with the Father qualified him to be the mediator of the divine.

In the twentieth century homo religiosus as religious leader has inherited both the medieval meaning of religiosus and the liberal Protestant tradition initiated by Schleiermacher. According to Max Scheler, who developed a full version of this view, homo religiosus is a particular type of human personality: "the man who has God in his heart and God in his actions, who in his own spiritual figure is a transformer of souls and is able in new ways to infuse the word of God into hearts that have softened and yield" (Scheler, 1960, p. 127).

Scheler distinguished the homo religiosus from four other exemplars of value: the artist, the leading spirit of a civilization, the hero, and the genius. These other figures are each exemplary in some aspect or other: the hero in deeds, for example; the genius in works. Homo religiosus, however, is exemplary in his entire being, which in its totality calls for unquestioning imitation (Nachfolge). Moreover, Scheler distinguished several types of homo religiosus. Of these, the most significant is the original homo religiosus, for historical religious traditions, the founder. Unique in his or her own community, the founder is the medium for a positive revelation of the holy. The various derived homines religiosi followers, martyrs, reformers, priests, theologians, and othersare lesser in stature and reflect the absolute claim advanced by the existence and nature of the perfect homo religiosus.

Among modern historians of religions, Joachim Wach spoke of homo religiosus in this sense. Unlike Scheler, however, Wach was heavily indebted to Max Weber. He saw the distinctive character of the homo religiosus not in an intrinsic quality or activity of the personality but in the historical and sociological effect of his personal or official charisma.

Religious Humanity

Today, two other senses of homo religiosus have eclipsed the definition of homo religiosus as religious leader, at least in Anglo-American scholarly parlance. In both cases the term is employed not in a particularistic sensethe homo religiosus or homines religiosi but in a generic sense, homo referring not to an individual but, as with Linnaeus, to humanity. In one usage, the term is a general designation for all human beings, referring specifically to religion as one constitutive aspect of humanity distinct from others. This usage assumes a fundamental unity of all humankind that is much more than biological, and its proponents speak more of the human condition than they do of concrete religious phenomena.

The Dutch historian of religions Gerardus van der Leeuw openly set this sort of homo religiosus in opposition to Scheler's. For van der Leeuw, the human as such emerges in the existential tension between two poles: on the one hand, a fully united collective identity in which the individual is submerged (that is, a primitive mentality, the realm of mysticism); on the other, a duality of subject and object in which a human being strives to render everything a technical object, in the end even itself. With humanity there emerges at the same time both conscientia (conscience and consciousness) and, from existential anxiety, a sense of sinhence God and religion. While van der Leeuw is not unaware of the existence of atheists and agnostics, in his formulation such persons can never escape their own selves, their own conscientiae.

More recently, Wilhelm Dupré has seen religion as both a "universal pattern of human self-realization" and a "constitutive presence in the emergence of man" (Dupré, 1975, p. 310). Dupré exposits his conception of humanity by using three expressions, homo existens, homo symbolicus, and homo religiosus, each of which necessitates the next. The symbol, not the existential situation of the subject in the world, is the pivot upon which Dupré's conceptions turn. Because religion is for him both the quality that gives intensity to any process of symbolization and the dimension in which symbolization originates, Dupré sees humanity as inevitably religious.

Homo Religiosus and Homo Modernus

In a third meaning, as in the second, homo religiosus is a generic term, but here it does not extend to the entire species. Instead, it characterizes the mode of human existence prior to the advent of a modern, secular consciousness. Thus, this usage differs from the second in the seriousness with which it takes secularization as an abandonment of religion and in the weight it assigns religious elements within the modern, secularized world. Its adherents are able to conceive religion in terms of concrete phenomena normally considered religious (such as myths and rites), without recourse to subtle redefinitions governed by their views of humanity in general. At the same time, they may still appreciate religion's secular manifestations. Because this view appears above all in the influential writings of Mircea Eliade, it is perhaps the most widely known modern use of homo religiosus.

Eliade is struck by the difference between the nature and use of symbols in the ancient classical religions and especially among archaic cultures as opposed to the modern Western intelligentsia. He contrasts two distinct modes of existing in and experiencing the world. His homo religiosus is driven by a desire for being; modern humanity lives under the dominion of becoming. Homo religiosus thirsts for being in the guise of the sacred. Homo religiosus attempts to live at the center of the world, close to the gods and in the eternal present of the paradigmatic mythic event that makes profane duration possible. The experience of time and space for homo religiosus is characterized by a discontinuity between the sacred and the profane. Modern humanity, however, experiences no such discontinuity. For homo religiosus, neither time nor space is capable of distinctive valorization. Homo religiosus is determined indiscriminately by all the events of history and by the concomitant threat of nothingness, which produces a profound anxiety.

The break between the two, however, cannot be complete. Determined by history, modern humankind is thereby determined by its unrenounceable precursor, homo religiosus. For support, Eliade points to religious structures in the modern world, such as mythic images suppressed in the modern unconscious and the religious symbols and functions of modern entertainment. Nonetheless, there is a profound difference between archaic reality and modern relic. For homo religiosus, recognized structures determine a whole world and a whole person. For modern humanity, these unrecognized structures are particular and private, repressed or relegated to peripheral activities.

The influence of Eliade's notion of homo religiosus can be gauged by the amount of discussion it has provoked among scholars. Some, especially anthropologists, question Eliade's data and methods and have come to the radical conclusion that Eliade's homo religiosus is never encountered in the field (see Saliba, 1976).

Others point out hidden biases that have skewed what they see as otherwise careful work. Those concerned with women's issues, for example, may find Eliade's view of the genuine human life basically androcentric: Eliade's homo religiosus is actually vir religiosus (see Saiving, 1976).

A third tack grants Eliade's universal structures but challenges the inferences that he draws. Some wonder, for example, whether archaic structures and their modern survivals might not simply arise from "the organic and psychological constitution of Homo sapiens " (Brown, 1981, p. 447). Given human biological unity, they question whether Eliade's differentiation of modern humankind from homo religiosus is relevant.

A final critique questions not Eliade's notion of homo religiosus but what it sees as his program of revitalizing religious humanity. For example, Kenneth G. Hamilton, a proponent of the death-of-God theology, finds Eliade's preferences opposed to historical faith (see Hamilton, 1965). Religious humanity surrenders questioning and particularity for openness and universality, and as a result abandons history and morality.

Homo Religiosus in the Study of Religion

Clearly, scholars give the term homo religiosus a variety of distinctive meanings. In addition, they use it with great variation in specificity and frequency. The expositions given here rely on careful and exact discussions, but many scholars also use the expression casually, and the precise meanings they intend are often difficult to determine. Again, some in the field assign homo religiosus a prominent place in their thought, but others do quite well without mentioning the term at all.

The formulation of an adequate concept of homo religiosus as such is only rarely a primary scholarly goal. As the varied and often incompatible meanings of the term show, scholars are generally driven by deeper and more substantive questions about religion, and they formulate different views on religious matters in which a phrase like homo religiosus a Latin expression that attracts the reader's attentioncan perform a range of services. Nonetheless, so long as the study of religion is conceived of as a human study, some students will find homo religiosus a convenient and useful expression.


No general survey is available that covers the entire range of uses of the term homo religiosus. The most convenient source for Friedrich Schleiermacher's Christology is his systematic work The Christian Faith, translated by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (1929; reprint, New York, 1963). Max Scheler provides hints of a concrete phenomenology of homo religiosus in On the Eternal in Man, translated by Bernard Noble (London, 1960); a succeeding volume was to include a fuller exposition but was never written. Details are provided by Scheler's essay "Vorbilder und Führer," in Schriften aus dem Nachlass, vol. 1, Zur Ethik und Erkenntnislehre, 2d rev. ed., edited by Maria Scheler (Bern, 1957), pp. 255344. For Joachim Wach's views, see his Sociology of Religion (1944; reprint, Chicago, 1962), especially chapter 8, "Types of Religious Authority." An internal, experiential dimension is added by scattered but infrequent references to homo religiosus in Wach's posthumously published lectures, The Comparative Study of Religions (New York, 1958).

Gerardus van der Leeuw develops his views on homo religiosus in the context of a discussion of primitive mentality; see his L'homme primitif et la religion: Étude anthropologique (Paris, 1940). Similarly, Wilhelm Dupré comes to reflect on the universality of religion when he examines primitive peoples in his Religion in Primitive Cultures: A Study in Ethnophilosophy (Paris, 1975).

Indispensable for Eliade's view of homo religiosus is his The Sacred and the Profane (New York, 1959), which discusses the experience of homo religiosus with reference to space, time, nature, and life. The volume contains dispersed contrasts of homo religiosus and modern humankind. For these contrasts, see also, among other writings, Eliade's Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities (New York, 1960) and his Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York, 1954). A recent article by Eliade discusses technology and mythology in the archaic and modern worlds: "Homo Faber and Homo Religiosus ", in The History of Religions: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa (New York, 1985).

Discussions of Eliade's notions are still in progress, and a definitive verdict cannot be given. Representative of various critiques of his notion of homo religiosus are John A. Saliba's "Homo Religiosus" in Mircea Eliade (Leiden, 1976); Valerie Saiving's "Androcentrism in Religious Studies," Journal of Religion 56 (April 1976): 177197, which discusses particularly Eliade's treatment of men's and women's initiation rites; Robert F. Brown's "Eliade on Archaic Religion: Some Old and New Criticisms," Studies in Religion / Sciences religieuses 10 (1981): 429449; and Kenneth G. Hamilton's "Homo Religiosus and Historical Faith," Journal of Bible and Religion 33 (July 1965): 213222.

New Sources

Braun, Hans-Jürg, Karl H. Henking, and Cornelia Vogelsanger. Homo religious. Zürich, 1990.

Christ, Carol P. "Mircea Eliade and the Feminist Paradigm Shift." Feminist Studies in Religion 7 (fall 1991): 7594. Reprinted in Feminism in the Study of Religion, edited by Darlene M. Juschka, pp. 571590.

King, Ursula. "A Question of Identity: Women Scholars and the Study of Religion." In Religion and Gender, edited by Ursula King, pp. 219244. Oxford, 1995.

Power, William L. "Homo Religiosus: From a Semiotic Point of View." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 21, no. 2 (1987): 6581.

Schmuck, Josef. Homo Religiosus: Die Religiöse Frage in Der Wissenssoziologie Max Schelers. Munich, 1987.

Gregory D. Alles (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Homo Religiosus." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 17 Oct. 2018 <>.

"Homo Religiosus." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (October 17, 2018).

"Homo Religiosus." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved October 17, 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.