In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Durkheim argued that all societies divide the world into two basic categories: the sacred and the profane:
- The profane refers to mundane ordinary life: our daily routine/ grind of getting up in the morning, doing our ablutions, going to college, eating our daily Nachos, and doing the dishes.
- The sacred refers to anything which transcends the humdrum of everyday life: which typically take the form of collective representations which are set apart from society (spiritual places such as churches or mosques are the most obvious examples of ‘sacred’ spaces.)
For Durkheim, Religion is the collective practice of marking off and maintaining distance between the sacred and the profane, which is typically done through rituals, such as those associated with the daily or weekly visit to the church or mosque: prayer is an obvious example of an ‘occasional (sacred) ritual’ is marked out from ordinary mundane (or profane) life.
Or in Durkheim’s own words:
Importantly for Durkheim, anything can be sacred (or rather, a society can determine that anything is sacred): there is nothing in any object or action that makes it inherently sacred: anything can be sacred: not only churches, mosques, and religious books, but in some cultures, trees, or even rocks may be regarded as sacred.
Durkheim believed that in order to understand the role of religion in society, the relationship between sacred symbols and what they represent must be discovered.
A work in progress, to be updated shortly!
Durkheim saw Totemism as one of the earliest and simplest form of religious practice. It is most commonly found among aboriginal peoples, such as the Australian aborigines, and North West Native American Indians, who have clan based societies.
Durkheim used the totemic religion of Australian aborigines to develop his theory of religion. Aboriginal society was divided into a number of clans, and members of the clan had certain obligations that had to be fulfilled – such as mourning the death of other clan members or helping seek vengeance if another member was wronged by someone external to the clan. Each clan was also exogenous – people had to marry someone outside of the clan.
Each clan had a totem, typically an animal or a plant which was represented by drawings or carvings made on wood or stone, typically linked to a ‘creation myth’ that explained the origins of that clan and linked current members into that history. The totem served to distinguish the clan from all other clans.
To clan members, the totem was as sacred object, nothing less than ‘the outward and visible form of the totemic principle or god’ – their animal/ plant was sacred and the totemic representation just as sacred if not more so.
Durkheim’s ‘big idea’ is that by worshipping the totem, clan members are actually worshipping society, and thus individuals are reminded that society is more important than the individual, which is essential in Functionalist theory because individuals are dependent on society.
The reason why humankind needs a totem to worship rather than just literally worshipping society (or the clan in the case of Aborigines) is because the clan is too complex a thing for people to conceptualise – religious symbols are just much simpler entities to worship!
Sources used to write this post
- Haralamabos and Holborn: Sociology: Themes and Perspective, eight edition.
- Social Theory Rewired – Sacred and Profane, Emile Durkheim
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Signposting and Related Posts
This material is mainly relevant to students opting for the beliefs in society module as part of second year A-level Sociology.
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