Is totemism a religion? An analysis of Emile Durkheim's view of totemism in 'The Elementary Forms of Religion'

Topics: Religion, Sociology of religion, Anthropology of religion Pages: 5 (2014 words) Published: December 14, 2002
Defining what constitutes a religion is a difficult, if not an impossible quest. However, before determining whether or not certain belief-systems and/or ritualized practices can be considered a religion, a definition is imperative. For our purposes, I am going to use the extremely elementary definition from Webster's New Dictionary , "A system of faith and worship." In The Elementary Forms of Religion, Emile Durkheim, a French Sociologist from the 19th Century, examines totemism in an effort to draw universals between all religions. Durkheim sets his focus on Australian totemism, because it is the most "primitive culture" with the most resources available. From Durkheim's perspective, the basis of totemism is to create lasting societal bonds. Totemic tribes are assorted into clans whose unity results not from kinship, but from the religious relationship between the members. From Durkheim's perspective, the totemism in this culture is based on the sacred relationships developed by the clan's members in addition to some totemic unit, which is usually a plant or animals species common to the area. If an entire society is based around its sacred ritualized practices, it is only fair to consider those ritualized beliefs and practices as constituting a religion. Thus, the real question is, can a society whose spirituality is based on kinship, and whose idea of sacred lies only in the ties within the clan and not on a god or gods of some sort be considered a religion? The answer to this question is yes. Although totemic practices may not be familiar to many Westerners, when real speculation is given to various totemic religions, it is easy to see the complexity that underlies many forms of totemism. In addition, when looking at the religions that are common to us Westerners, can we really argue that our common religions are more logical than theirs? Through the totemic principles of the universe, and the worshiping of idols, even if these idols do not represent G-ds, it proves that totemism is most certainly a religion.

Durkeim uses totemism as a basis from which answers to our lingering questions about modern religions can be drawn. "In our eyes, the question whether totemism has been more or less universal or not, is quite secondary. If it interests us, it does so before all because in studying it we hope to discover relations of a nature to make us understand better what religion is( Durkheim, 176)." Durkheim is using totemism as the platform from which all other religions shall be compared to derive new and provoking ideas about religion. Durkheim believes totemism contains obvious religious qualities, even with the lack of a god or gods. " Finally, that which we propose to study in this work is the most primitive and simple religion which it is possible to find ( Durkheim 176)." Durkheim clearly considers totemism a valid although "simple" religion. Of course, this is only the opinion of one, we must delve into totemic rituals and beliefs before it can be proven that totemism is just as much of a religion as any other.

Before arguing the attributes of totemism that allow it to be classified as a religion, a more thorough understanding of various totemic practices and the principle's and beliefs behind those practices is necessary. The first and most prominent example that will be used to describe totemism, will be from the various Australian tribes described by Durkheim. The critical belief in Australian totemism, is the notion that the totemic entity, whatever it may be, is sacred. The entity is thought to bestow sacredness on whatever carries its mark. The totemic entity is used to mark various objects such as stones, sticks, wood, etc. in various rituals. "The totem is in fact a design which corresponds to the heraldic emblems of civilized nations, and each person is authorized to bear it as proof of the identity of the family to which it belongs ( Durkheim 180)." It is true that we have symbols and emblems that...
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