The Totem as the Symbol of Both God and Society - Durkheim's the Elementary Forms of Religious Life

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The Totem As the Symbol of Both God and Society

In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim affirms that religion is a man-made construct that serves the role of a social organizer through its practices and beliefs, which can be classified as either sacred or profane. He explains the mutual exclusivity of the profane and sacred by depicting the duality present in the lives of prehistoric Australian aboriginal tribesmen. The tribe members spend the majority of their time in the profane world, living in scattered settlements, performing monotonous basic subsistence functions such as farming and hunting. During special religious events, however, the entire tribe reconvenes and participates in sacred religious ceremonies. These religious ceremonies are associated with intense stimulation and heightened energy, which pervades throughout all members of the tribe. This otherworldly feeling, named collective effervescence, is associated with the clan’s symbol called the totem. Durkheim argues that the totem carries the tribe’s name and is a vital component of the clan’s spiritual beliefs, which is responsible for this enhanced emotional state observed during religious gatherings. Therefore, the totem represents the group as a collective. It follows thereafter that since religion is a socially constructed phenomenon, the religious gods, which are deemed responsible for collective effervescence, are also embodied in totems and are simply the transfigured representations of society. The totem, society, and gods are ultimately the same thing characterized in different ways.
According to Durkheim, at the most basic level, all religious principles presuppose that the world is partitioned into two domains, the sacred and the profane. Religious beliefs are “systems of representations that express the nature of sacred things, the virtues and powers attributed to them, their history, and their relationships with one another as well as with profane things” (34).

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