In his work “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”, sociologist Durkheim proposed a theory of religion based on the sacred, which transcends ordinary life, and the profane, referring to mundane routines. He saw religion as a mechanism to distinguish between these and argued that religious rituals reinforce social bonds and collective conscience. Moreover, Durkheim identified totemic religion, found among Aboriginal societies, as the simplest religious practice. Noting that worship of the totem signifies respect for society, he argued that societies, in essence, worship themselves through religion. Criticisms of his theory include lack of generalizability and less relevance to complex societies.
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.
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!
Religion and the Collective Conscience
The collective conscience is society’s shared values and beliefs. One of religion’s most important functions is to reinforce the collective conscience. Society cannot exist without it, according to Durkheim.
Because the worshipping of religion is also the worshipping of society, religion imbues society with a sacred quality. This means it it has greater power to influence social action and create social solidarity.
When people come together in religious rituals they are reinforcing their social bonds. Through worship, they express their faith in their common values.
Through worshipping religion people recognise their duties to the social group and their dependence on society.
Religious rituals are especially powerful social bonding mechanisms in traditional societies. In such societies, ancestors are often the focus of worship. The collective conscience thus exists in the souls of ancestors, and thus religious ceremonies reinforce the idea of the collective conscience existing within the individual.
Evaluation of Durkheim’s theory of religion
Durkheim is one of three Functionalist theorists of religion along with Malinowski and Parsons. Most of the general criticisms of the functionalist theory of religion can be applied here.
There are three main specific criticisms of Durkheim:
- The sample of Aboriginal groups Durkheim used may be unrepresentative of all Aboriginal groups. Thus it may not be possible to generalise his theory to all traditional societies.
- Durkheim’s theory may be relevant to small scale societies where integration is tight. It is much less relevant to more complex industrial societies.
- There are many examples where religious beliefs are opposed to mainstream societies. This is the case with many World Rejecting New Religious Movements, for example.
Despite these criticisms there are many examples today of where religion can promote social solidarity. The symbolic importance of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for Jews is an example of this.
Sources used to write this post
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Signposting and Related Posts
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