Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French sociologist who, alongside Max Weber, is considered the most important father of modern sociology theory and founder of sociology as an academic discipline. As a sociologist in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Durkheim had a fascination with religion that motivated him to produce The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912).
Durkheim’s Sociological Theory
Early on in his life, Durkheim was expected to become a rabbi. He came from a pious French Jewish family with his father having been a rabbi. However, Durkheim later found his way into philosophy and sociology, and taught in several schools and universities. In 1906, he became a professor of science and sociology.
In Durkheim’s view, society does not merely consist of people living in a particular geographical location but is rather a collection of ideas, sentiments, and beliefs realized through individuals (1). Society is like a group mind; it is like consciousness that has been “elevated to a very much higher power…” (2). One might think about how sports fans become one and attain unity with their preferred team. Durkheim refers to social facts that he defined as “a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him” (3). These social facts have an objective reality that is open to sociological analysis study in a way similar to how other scientists, such as physicists, study the physical world.
Durkheim was also a functionalist which means he acknowledged that society is divided into different organs, each one having a different function, much like one would imagine the various organs of the human body have different purposes. In his The Division of Labor in Society (1893), Durkheim outlines two types of social organization, a “primitive” one and a modern one. The primitive type is based on mechanical solidarity whereas a modern one is based on organic solidarity.
Hordes and clans are based on mechanical society within which there is little division of labor. Members of this society share common values and beliefs that constitute a “collective conscience” that supports the cooperation of society’s members. This society is held together by harsh (retributive) forms of punishment. Further, members share a common sense of unity because they share similar backgrounds and engage in similar work, hence the description ‘mechanical solidarity’.
Organic solidarity, on the other hand, constitutes advanced societies in which members engage in various kinds of work that benefit the overall society and its members. These societies are highly differentiated and their members adopt more specialized roles. Society’s members become more individualistic but also more interdependent on one another. There is also a decline in the collective conscience that was present in primitive societies. God, considered by Durkheim as a projection of the collective conscience, becomes increasingly more distant while religion becomes a sphere among others.
Another fascinating area of Durkheim’s sociological theory is his engagement with suicide. Durkheim’s work Suicide (1897) pursued the study of social solidarity with his topic of choice being suicide. He wanted to challenge the idea that suicide is merely a personal act in that a person has individual reasons for killing himself. Rather, Durkheim intended to demonstrate suicide to be a social phenomenon with its own social causes because doing so would strengthen sociology’s status as a legitimate science.
Durkheim argued that suicides are the result of “the supplement and prolongation of a social condition.” He witnessed such a condition in different religious groups. Durkheim found that one can correlate suicide rates in these groups, some of whom contributed to it. Catholics and Jews, for example, suffered from much lower rates of suicide than their Protestant peers. Durkheim theorized that Protestants, especially those within the Calvinist sect, experienced strong emotional costs and burdens due to their work, particularly in capitalist Calvinists who were in the process of overturning traditionalism. According to Durkheim, the Calvinist capitalist was disrupting comfortable social conventions and was thus making enemies and losing friends and support. Durkheim claimed that this made Calvinist capitalists particularly vulnerable to psychological stresses such as depression that can lead to suicide.
Durkheim on Religion
We find Durkheim’s most extensive elaboration on religion in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Elementary Forms contains various ideas that have been influential in the study of religion, such as Durkheim’s concept of the sacred and the sacred-profane dichotomy, and his engagement with totemic beliefs and rituals. The elements of a society, in Durkheim’s view, including morality and religion, are constitutive of the natural world and can be studied scientifically. Importantly, Durkheim was a strictly secular theorist. He considered religious phenomena to emerge from social factors and not from the divine. Religion, in his view, is the product of human activity, not divine intervention. This did not, however, deter Durkheim from noticing that the religious nature of man constitutes an essential aspect of humanity.
Crucial to understanding Durkheim’s theory is his definition of religion. He defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (4).
Here religion consists of four elements: a system of beliefs, practices, sacred objects, and a moral community: “Beliefs are sets of collective representations in a society; practices are rituals enacted in a society to celebrate and reinforce beliefs; the sacred is the referent matter of religious beliefs and practices; and the Church is the organization which structures religion socially” (5).
The Death of the Old Gods
Durkheim claimed that “the former gods are growing old or dying, and others have not been born” (6). He perceived a crisis for the future of Western civilization as the death of the gods was linked to the social disintegration of European society. Various factors contributed to this disintegration. Modernity and various transformations made former beliefs and practices irrelevant. In particular, religious institutions, among others (the political, economic, social, etc.), no longer captivated people as they once had.
Within this process belief in God waned. God’s presence was no longer felt in people’s lives and with this waning of faith there was a weakening of Christian morality and metaphysics. These were being replaced by science and modern understandings of justice. As Durkheim stated, other gods had “not been born”; in other words, there was no religion to replace Christianity. Society founds itself in a state of disaggregation characterized by a lack of cohesion, unity, and solidarity.
The Sacred and Profane
Of these components, the sacred is most important to Durkheim as he views it to lie at the heart of every religion and the other components in his definition depend on the sacred for their existence. For example, for them to be considered religious, beliefs and rituals must refer to the sacred. The Church, moreover, provides sacred beliefs and rituals through its organizational framework. Religion and religious rituals and cults cannot exist without belief in the sacred.
Durkheim articulates the sacred/profane dichotomy as follows,
“All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred (profane, sacré). This division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, is the distinctive trait of religious thought; the beliefs, myths, dogmas and legends are either representations or systems of representations which express the nature of sacred things, the virtues and powers which are attributed to them, or their relations with each other and with profane things” (7).
The sacred refers to things in society that were forbidden or set apart. It is also coupled with its opposite category, the “profane”. The profane, which are routine, mundane aspects in life (e.g. working a job, and other daily activities like eating, driving a car, etc.), is what desecrates the sacred and from which the sacred must be protected.
But the sacred draws awe, respect, and admiration from the members of society and is set apart. It is protected and isolated from everything else. Sacred things are also diverse: “by sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits; a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred” (8). Rituals, furthermore, become the “the rules of conduct which prescribe how a man should comport himself in the presence of these sacred objects.”
Religion as Social and Collective Effervescence
Religion is social as a fundamental aspect of social life. It is a unifying feature in society. It is also society’s most fundamental social institution since all other institutions, at some point in human history, emerged from it. An essential element to religion is that it provides social cohesion and group solidarity, elements that are ripe for sociological analysis.
Durkheim introduces the notion of “collective effervescence” referring to a phenomenon that sustains and legitimates religion (9). It is moments when members of society merge together to perform a religious ritual that serves to consolidate the unity of the group. Durkheim conveys collective effervescence as a feeling of electricity or energy to emerge from close contact between members of a group. This leads to states of collective emotional excitement that dominate society’s members.
Durkheim sees this force active in the lives of the great “prophets, the founders of religions, the great saints…” (10). These are men whose “religious consciousness is exceptionally sensitive, very frequently give signs of an excessive nervousness that is even pathological”. Such “pathological” traits are what predestined them to great religious roles.
This “force”, which Durkheim considers a reality rather than an illusion, is powerful leading to feelings of transcendence in the members of society. According to Durkheim, “these forces must be real; they must really be there inside me” (11).
Collective effervescence is real because the feelings it engenders through “a system of forces” are felt by the participants. However, this force is not a transcendent, independent divine reality. Rather, it is social. This collective energy is objectified and projected onto external symbols that visibly represent it. Projection is fundamental for a society to become conscious of this sacred force. The object upon which this force is objectified becomes sacred (these objects can vary and include rocks, totem polls, mountains, lakes, crosses, structures, etc.). The object is infused with the power of the community leading Durkheim to claim that religion is society worshipping itself.
Further, collective effervescence and the rituals it engenders are fundamental to the collective unity of a society, otherwise both social unity and religion will be in peril and be gradually forgotten. Religion in Durkheim’s view is an obviously necessary ingredient to society’s existence but also requires collective effervescence to survive.
Primitive Religion and Totemism
Elementary Forms right out the gate states its intent to “study the most primitive and simple religion which is actually known, to make an analysis of it, and to attempt an explanation of it” (12). Durkheim’s reason for studying “archaic” religion is clear: “If we have taken it as the subject of our research, it is because it has seemed to us better adapted than any other to lead to an understanding of the religious nature of man, that is to say, to show us an essential and permanent aspect of humanity” (13). The underlying belief here is that studying “primitive” religion, which many theorists of his day thought still existed at the present time of their theorizing, enables the sociologist “to make an analysis of it, and to attempt an explanation of it” (14).
To do so, Durkheim used the ethnographic data available in his time, especially that on the totemic religion of Australian aborigines, to understand the most fundamental essential elements of religious life (its sui generis). He notices how religion in archaic societies permeates everything: “It embraces, although in a very confused state, besides beliefs proper, ethics, law, the principles of political organization, and even science, or at least what passes for it” (15). Durkheim thought that by studying the Australian aborigines he had access to data concerning the earliest and most “primitive” form of religion. We could essentially explain ourselves by analyzing this ancient, “primitive” form of religion and culture.
The earliest form of religion was totemism since it is “what kindled religious feeling in humanity”. Totemism, as a belief system, has been of great interest to historical thinkers invested in religion. It is the human’s mystical relationship with a spirit being, such as a plant or animal out of which, Durkheim believed, the sacred emerged. Totemism represented an impersonal, supernatural, and universal power that united society in a moral community.
Durkheim’s emphasis on totemism as the earliest led him to criticize other theorists. He particularly criticized E. B. Tylor’s (1832-1917) animistic approach to religion and view of religion as belief in spiritual beings. As noted earlier, Durkheim provided a broader definition of religion taking into consideration several elements, which he found absent in Tylor’s narrow conception. Tylor’s theory posited that during sleep “primitive” people believed that the soul left their body and visited foreign places. This engendered belief in spirits that lived on after death and required placation with sacrifices and ritual practices. People also thought that natural phenomena, such as mountains, the sun, animals, and so on, could be inhabited by spirits.
Durkheim found Tylor’s animistic theory wanting. He questioned the notion that ancient people understood the soul as a double that could leave the body during sleep. Durkheim considered Tylor to place too much emphasis on dreams. He also doubted that ancient humans themselves paid so much attention to their dreams as Tylor assumed. Rather than animism, Durkheim considered totemism as the earliest form of religion.
It is important to note that the notion of totemism has come under sustained critique (16) and is mostly no longer used by scholars to identify the earliest form of religion (17). It has also been argued that Durkheim underestimated totemism by viewing it as the simplest and most “primitive” form of belief. For example, the Arunta sustained a complex system of totemic beliefs and practices that brings into question Durkheim’s theory (18).
Reflections and Considerations
Unlike several other theorists during his time, Durkheim, although not a believer, did not intend to go to war with religion. Rather, his Elementary Forms concerned itself with demonstrating the cohesive function of religion in society. He also considered religion to have contributed to human knowledge since “it has contributed to forming the intellect itself. Men owe to it not only a good part of the substance of their knowledge, but also the form in which this knowledge has been elaborated” (19). Hence, Durkheim’s is not a pejorative or condescending portrayal of religion.
It has also been noted that Durkheim rejected racist stereotypes often held by contemporaries. His critique of Tylor’s notion of early religion as animism is often considered as a critique of perceptions that “primitive” societies were inferior and radically different from European civilization (20). But as a thinker of the time, Durkheim did hold to the notion of “primitive” and “civilized” cultures. This binary distinction between “primitive” and “civilized” was linked to the need of imperial powers to establish dominance over subject peoples and thereby justify the imperial enterprise (21). Durkheim still assumed that societies followed the same path of progression that he equated with progress and growth, which produces a slippery slope threatening his ideas to slide down into some of the other prejudiced and problematic evolutionary views of his time.
Durkheim’s most appreciated contribution to the study of religion is his functionalist perspective highlighting the role of religion in society. Sociologists of religion all agree that religion has a societal and social dimension. Religion is embedded in society and it serves to collectively unify it and many of its members. There is ample evidence that religion produces social formations. Communities linked to churches, for example, serve to unify members who are encouraged by fellow believers to share similar beliefs, values, practices, and conceptions of the sacred. The social dimension is also apparent in how attending a formal religious service offers a significantly different experience to engaging in private religious activity in the confines of one’s home.
Scholars of religion will appreciate Durkheim’s secular approach. The academic study of religion is, after all, a secular discipline. Like Durkheim, scholars of religion do not appeal to God or trans-empirical forces to explain religion. Religion is explained on purely empirical and verifiable grounds, hence making it a strictly scientific oriented discipline.
Private religiosity is an important consideration because Durkheim’s definition of religion seems to leave it out. In his definition, religion takes place in a community, but what of other religionists, perhaps in various forms of neo-paganism and magic, who do not tend to engage in community and whose religion is largely a private affair? Durkheim predicts this objection but says that we should even consider these “distinct and autonomous religious systems, but merely aspects of the common religion of the whole Church, of which the individuals are members” (22).
But this is debatable. For example, one could raise the question as to whether or not religion can ever be a private affair. Further, how might one factor into this discussion the fact that some religionists do not want to be seen as participating in a religious community like a church? Also, some forms of neo-paganism lack centralization in the form of an organized body or institution like a church; there is no “church” of the Goddess and New Age movements, both of whom, rather than centralizing themselves, provide devotees significant amount of subjective religious and metaphysical creativity.
Durkheim’s views will no doubt invite discussion and debate. Some skeptics of religion will share his notion that God does not exist objectively “out there” but is explainable by some other natural means. This skepticism arrives in various forms but always views “God” as something else rather than an objectively existing entity. For instance, God has been said to be the product of projection (Ludwig Feuerbach), wish fulfillment (Sigmund Freud), or democracy (John Dewey). In Durkheim’s case, God is society (23). Many religionists will not want to accept these views because they all undermine their conception of God who exists objectively and transcendentally. Durkheim’s will be one minor component in the overall framework of contemporary debates on God’s existence and nature that continue today.
1. Carls, Paul. n.d. Émile Durkheim (1858—1917). Available.
2. Émile Durkheim quoted by Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. Location 5137.
3. Émile Durkheim quoted by Carls, Paul. n.d. Ibid.
4. Durkheim, Émile. 2012. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Dover Publications. p. 67 (ebook).
5. Orrù, Marco., and Wang, Amy. 1992. “Durkheim, Religion, and Buddhism.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31(1):47-61. p. 48-49.
6. Émile Durkheim quoted by Carls, Paul. n.d. Ibid.
7. Durkheim, Émile. 2012. Ibid. p. 53-54.
8. Kotzé, Zacharias. 2021. “Durkheim on ”Primitive” Religion: A Reappraisal.” Sociológia 53(3):225-237. p. 234.
9. Durkheim, Émile. 2012. Ibid. p. 310, 500.
10. Durkheim, Émile. 2012. Ibid. p. 310.
11. Émile Durkheim quoted by Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. Location 5116.
12. Durkheim, Émile. 2012. Ibid. p. 6.
13. Durkheim, Émile. 2012. Ibid. p. 6.
14. Durkheim, Émile. 2012. Ibid. p. 6.
15. Émile Durkheim quoted by Kotzé, Zacharias. 2021. Ibid. p. 234.
16. Meylan, Nicolas. 2017. Mana: The History of a Western Category. Leiden: BRILL.
17. Kotzé, Zacharias. 2021. Ibid. p. 235.
18. Kotzé, Zacharias. 2021. Ibid. p. 235.
19. Durkheim, Émile. 2012. Ibid. p. 17.
20. Kotzé, Zacharias. 2021. Ibid. p. 227.
21. Ashcroft, Bill., Griffiths, Gareth., and Tiffin, Helen. 2013. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. London: Routledge. p. 198.
22. Durkheim, Émile. 2012. Ibid. p. 67.
23. Strenskni, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. Location 5076.