An External Analysis of Religion Through Durkheim’s Notion of Religion As “Eminently Social”

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Image: Rife Magazine, 2017, Euella Jackson, Do Young People Care About Religion?

An External Analysis of Religion

A study of the function of religion is the theorist’s attempt to understand the phenomenon of religion externally, an approach expressed well within an examination function of religion (Capps 1995, 132). As stated elsewhere, this is motivated by the attempt to make the “subject of religion intelligible” (Capps 1995, 9; 345). It is also the effort to be objective by providing a methodological inquiry into religion that is objective, open-minded, and impartial (Capps 1995, 147). For example, on the question of function the theorist attempts to determine the role religion plays within society (Capps 1995, xxiii; 109; 133-140). This often encompasses an inquiry into the teleological factors involved because, as notable theorists such as Emile Durkheim (France) and Max Weber (Germany) have observed, religion has an evident purpose and/or objective within societies (we look to Durkheim’s inquiry below). The theorist will therefore attempt to provide an explanation of the function of religion within society by examining its social, political, and economic roles (Capps 1995, 158).

Methodological Differentiation From Primordium (Origin) or Sine Qua Non (Essence)

An analysis of the function of religion includes a differentiation of approach in that theorists are no longer looking for a primordium (origin) or an essence (core or underlying root) of religion. As stated, this is a differentiation in inquiry as an internal analysis entertains questions concerning essence and origin believed to lie within (internally to) religion itself. Alternatively, a theorist such as Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) engaged in an external inquiry of religion. Durkheim viewed religion as consisting of a number of socially constructed components which was to him of much more significance than its primordium or sine qua non. The paradigmatic shift is to view religion as something empirical and perceptible. Why? Because much evidence suggests that religion has something fundamentally to do with human society and culture, and thus theorists probe towards a more systematic and comprehensive explanation for religion. In the case of Durkheim, one feature of his investigation was an attempt to seek after a primal state of religion as a means to understand the human intellect. For Durkheim, this was neither a pursuit in the way of the origin or the essence of religion, but rather early religion and how it came influence the formation of the human intellect and society, which he clearly believed it had.

Emile Durkheim: Religion as “Eminently Social”

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim, alongside Max Weber, is largely responsible for approaching religion in socio-functional terms as best demonstrated in his work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). In his work, Durkheim shows several major interests, two of which include primal, primitive religion and a sociological explanation for religion.

For instance, Durkheim attempted to identify, analyze, and describe “the most primitive and simple religion,” believing that by pursuing this he would arrive at valuable insight into the religious and intellectual “nature of man” as a social being (Durkheim & Pickering 2011, 102). This approach rested well within the framework of Durkheim’s sociological pursuits in which he hoped to discover what was rudimentarily human, a sine qua non (essence) of the human being, so to speak. In fact, so basic was religion to human beings that Durkheim suggested that one would not fully understand them if he or she did not to consider their religious instincts; religion was basic to human intelligence and thus influenced the very structure of human life itself (Capps 1995, 159).

In his sociological analysis, Durkheim saw religion as an organic system and sought after a description of it. In his summation, early religion was a “system of organic coordinates” and that it should be understood as “something eminently social” (Capps 1995, 161). From this social perspective Durkheim examined religion externally, outside of any one or more religious traditions. He then proposed an additional concept, namely the “collective representation” or consciousness which was the way through which social groups assembled patterns of consciousness through how they understood and viewed their own identity and sense of shared destiny (Capps 1995, 160-161). Religion was important to this collective consciousness as it allowed for the formation and enrichment of the human intellect. Durkheim defined this as the so-called “we-feeling,” namely a collective, social reality constructed by the social order (Capps 1995, 160-161). This socially constructed conception of reality ultimately formed the foundation for co-operative action and endeavour, and was the source of society’s collective cultural ideals, moral values, and religious aspirations. Durkheim claimed that human intelligence was constituted by the social order and the collective consciousness. Ultimately, human beings owed their comprehension of the world and reality (such as their understanding of space, time, substance, class, number, cause etc.) to the reality constructed by the social order. In Durkheim’s own words, the social order and the collective conscience “are like the solid frame which enclosed all thought…” (Capps 1995, 161; Erickson & Murphy 2013, 75). Human intelligence was thus deemed fluid in that it was socially and collectively constructed and would change over time (Capps 1995, 161). What was also clear to Durkheim was that religion influences the social through its tendency to differentiate between the sacred and the profane (Capps 1995, 161). Religions divided reality into two categories, namely, two categories which encompassed all of reality but which are also incompatible with one another. For example, sacred objects are welcomed and protected while the profane are forbidden and seen as contaminants to be kept at a distance. Because of this Durkheim argued that religion functioned as the basis of social causation and that it was the fundamental formative element to collective consciousness (Capps 1995, 162). The sacred and profane thus form an important social function and cannot be ignored if one wishes to understand human society.


Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press

Durkheim, Emile & Pickering, W. S. F. 2011. Durkheim on Religion. Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers.

Erickson, Paul & Murphy, Liam. 2013. Readings for A History of Anthropological Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


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