Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), born in Lorraine, France, was a sociologist and moral theorist. He descended from a long line of rabbis, had a great love for France, and in 1992 became the Professor of the Science of Education at the University of Paris. Ten years later he produced his important work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), a text which stands in as a landmark in sociological theory and in the history of the academic study of religion.
Attempt to Make Religion Intelligible
Durkheim wished to both understand and explain religion, and therefore make it intelligible. He begins by noting that religion is a reality and that it is worth investigating. According to Durkheim it has “been too widespread throughout humanity and is too established to be illusory. An illusion does not last this way for centuries” (1). Religion thus constitutes a reality: it is not only a “system of ideas” but “is above all a system of forces.” Religion is felt, and is therefore real because people feel it.
Religion as Eminently Social
Durkheim was convinced that the best way to access religion was through the group as he understood religion to be “something eminently social,” and this led him to examine it with a social eye (2). Society, for Durkheim, is understood as a collectivity (akin to a group mind) consisting of spiritual and immaterial forces which dominate and exercise influence over people: the feeling of unity, for example, is most felt and experienced within group settings such as at sporting events and concerts. It is ultimately such collective, group situations which give rise to feelings and experiences that are superior to the ordinary. Durkheim explains that under the “influence of collective enthusiasm,” people “are sometimes seized by a positive delirium which compels them to actions in which they do not recognize themselves” (3). Durkheim’s view of religion is similar, and he penned that “There exists in us, outside us, religious forces which… [exist] by the mere fact of coming together, thinking together, feeling together, acting together” (4). In fact, so basic is religion to human beings that Durkheim suggested that one would not fully understand the human being should he or she have not considered their religious instincts. Religion is basic to human intelligence and thus influenced the very structure of human life itself.
Many have considered Durkheim to be a sociological reductionist given that he believed that all references to God (or to other sacred, supernatural beings) were mistaken references to society. Essentially, religious experiences in human beings came from their participation in groups, and that although experiences of God could be doubted, people could have experiences which felt like experiences of God (5). As such, an experience of God is really an experience of society, and it is quite clear that for Durkheim there is no religiousness outside of the forcefield of society itself.
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
Durkheim’s Elementary Forms, both a text on the social aspect of religion and on the religious aspects of society, studied the small-scale religious life of Australian Aborigines. The text displays several interests, two of which include primal, primitive religion and a sociological explanation for religion. Durkheim hoped to pursue and arrive at “an understanding of the religious nature of man, to show us an essential and permanent aspect of humanity” (6). Like some other evolutionary-developmentalists of culture, society, and religion, Durkheim believed that cultural and social realities developed out of previous stages of growth. He believed that modern, “primitive” man’s ancestors lived in small-scale societies, and that it was possible for modern man to discover cultural traits of religion that were of an elemental or simpler kind. Modern humans were only more complex, developed, and sophisticated versions of peoples such as the Aborigines, and it was through examining these simpler people that one could learn more about modern man. Durkheim also appreciated the social cohesion of these simple societies, and thought that modern man could learn from them. Elementary Forms was penned in order to show how Aboriginal society obtained and cultivated a level of social cohesion that could serve as a model for France. Durkheim suggests that Aboriginal social cohesion was a function of the religious life of the people and particularly as a result of their sacrificial rituals, which Durkheim discusses at some length.
Collective Representation and the Sacred/Profane
Durkheim also introduced the concept of “collective representation” or consciousness to which religion was important. This was the way social groups assembled patterns of consciousness through how they understood and viewed their own identity and sense of shared destiny. Durkheim called this as the so-called “we-feeling,” namely a collective, social reality constructed by the social order (7). This too 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 to the reality constructed by the social order, and Durkheim saw these as “the solid frame which enclosed all thought…” (8). Durkheim also believed that religion influences the social through its tendency to differentiate between the sacred and the profane (9). 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. The sacred and profane thus form an important social function and cannot be ignored if one wishes to understand human society.
1. Durkheim, E. & Pickering, W. S. F. 2011. Durkheim on Religion: A Selection of Readings with Bibliographies and Introductory Remarks. p. 182.
2. Capps, W. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 161.
3. Durkheim, E. & Pickering, W. S. F. 2011. Ibid. p. 183.
4. Durkheim, E. & Pickering, W. S. F. 2011. Ibid. p. 185-186.
5. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. p. 134.
6. Durkheim, E.1915. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. p. 13.
7. Capps, W. 1995. Ibid, p. 160-161.
8. Capps, W. 1995. Ibid. p. 161.
9. Capps, W. 1995. Ibid, p. 161.