Sociology

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Durkheim on Religion

“If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion."
(Bellah, 1973, p. 191 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])

"For we know today that a religion does not necessarily imply symbols and rites, properly speaking, or temples and priests. This whole exterior apparatus is only the superficial part. Essentially, it is nothing other than a body of collective beliefs and practices endowed with a certain authority."

(1973, p. 51 [excerpt from "Individualism and the Intellectuals"])

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, the last major work published by Durkheim, five years before his death in 1917, is generally regarded as his best and most mature. Where Suicide focused on a large amount of statistics from varying sources, The Elementary Forms used one case study in depth, the Australian aborigines. Durkheim chose this group because he felt they represented the most basic, elementary forms of religion within a culture.

Durkheim set out to do two things, establish the fact that religion was not divinely or supernaturally inspired and was in fact a product of society, and he sought to identify the common things that religion placed an emphasis upon, as well as what effects those religious beliefs (the product of social life) had on the lives of all within a society.

Durkheim's finding that religion was social can best be described by this excerpt from The Elementary Forms:

"The general conclusion of the book which the reader has before him is that religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain, or recreate certain mental states in these groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to participate in this nature common to all religious facts; they should be social affairs and the product of collective thought. At least -- for in the actual condition of our knowledge of these matters, one should be careful to avoid all radical and exclusive statements -- it is allowable to suppose that they are rich in social elements."

(Thompson, 1982, p. 125 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])

Recognizing the social origin of religion, Durkheim argued that religion acted as a source of solidarity and identification for the individuals within a society, especially as a part of mechanical solidarity systems, and to a lesser, but still important extent in the context of organic solidarity. Religion provided a meaning for life, it provided authority figures, and most importantly for Durkheim, it reinforced the morals and social norms held collectively by all within a society. Far from dismissing religion as mere fantasy, despite its natural origin, Durkheim saw it as a critical part of the social system. Religion provides social control, cohesion, and purpose for people, as well as another means of communication and gathering for individuals to interact and reaffirm social norms.

Durkheim's second purpose was in identifying certain elements of religious beliefs that are common across different cultures. A belief in a supernatural realm is not necessary or common among religions, but the separation of different aspects of life, physical things, and certain behaviors into two categories -- the sacred and the profane -- is common. Objects and behaviors deemed sacred were considered part of the spiritual or religious realm. They were part of rites, objects of reverence, or simply behaviors deemed special by religious belief. Those things deemed profane were everything else in the world that did not have a religious function or hold religious meaning. But while these two categories are rigidly defined and set apart, they interact with one another and depend on...
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