Referencing Huston Smith's The World's Religions and Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, how did the emergence of sacred thought affect the development of early societies? In what ways was this influence expressed?

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Smith and Durkheim both maintain that sacred thought was a primary motivator in early societies. Huston Smith from his post-World War II perspective, aims to counter the dominance of secular views, while Émile Durkheim formed his ideas in the late 19th century. Smith, while clearly influenced by Durkheim in positively...

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Smith and Durkheim both maintain that sacred thought was a primary motivator in early societies. Huston Smith from his post-World War II perspective, aims to counter the dominance of secular views, while Émile Durkheim formed his ideas in the late 19th century. Smith, while clearly influenced by Durkheim in positively valuing the belief systems that predated organized religion, does not see religion as primarily social, which was Durkheim’s position. Also similarly to Durkheim, Huston Smith bases much of his analysis in Australian Aboriginal society; both analyze their contemporary beliefs for insights into religion in ancient times.

Huston Smith discusses the earliest or “primal religions” as moral guides that encoded positive values and enabled society to develop. He also calls them “tribal religions,” noting how they reflect the tribal thinking that binds people. Claiming that they predate writing and were transmitted orally, he emphasizes the importance of memory at the heart of religion and the social connectedness of person-to-person transmission. Because these religions helped people to understand the “mystic world” around them, they contributed to social formation and continuity. He emphasizes tribal peoples’ immediate involvement with nature, often shown through their selection of animal “totems” symbolizing potent forces as embedded within people and aiding their comprehension of the greater natural world in which they live.

While Smith discusses these “primal” systems as religions, he also distinguishes between supernatural forces and “gods.” For example, he maintains that the aboriginal Dreaming, through which they accessed their ancestors, was not worship. For him, religion contributed to but was not subsumed within the collective cohesion that created, maintained, and enforced social behaviors among groups of humans. Yet the tribal character of early societies, generally linked to specific places and locally understood natural phenomena, were limiting factors in the expansion of religious views and of social growth.

Durkheim, writing fifty years earlier, had taken a pioneering role in presenting religion as primarily social. He veered away from the then-accepted view that religion consisted mainly of the human quest to understand supernatural phenomena. Instead, he aimed to analyze the ways that what had become solidified into “religion” was another aspect of society. For Durkheim, it was the essentially social character of human beings that was expressed in religious practices. Not only what people believed but what they did helped form society. Those practices, both through selectively performed rituals and daily behavior, upheld the norms by which people lived their lives. His definition included not only what people should do but prescribed behavior—“things set apart” and emphasized human membership in a “moral community.” Thus, while he explored the importance of the “sacred,” he saw its intersection with the “profane,” and the idea of a strict difference between them, as equally significant in social development.

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In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim defined religion as composed of rites (modes of action) and beliefs (collective representations). He writes that all religious beliefs do the following:

They presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred.

In other words, the emergence of the idea of the sacred made it necessary to protect the sacred from the profane. Early societies developed systems in which sacred things and their differentiation from profane things were represented in religious beliefs. Religious rites developed as means of conduct that governed how people should behave in the presence of the sacred. Durkheim writes the following:

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbiddenbeliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.

That is, religion is the set of beliefs around what is sacred and the practices that unite everyone who follows them. The emergence of the sacred unified people who shared rites and beliefs. Different primitive religions had different ideas of the sacred. For example, animism believed that the sacred was in the spirits that filled natural objects. 

Huston Smith, author of The World's Religions, quotes the anthropologist Paul Radin, who writes, "Only when we have fully grasped the mystic and symbolic meanings inherent in most of the activities of primitive man can we hope to understand him." In other words, primitive people had a sense of the sacred in their everyday lives, and this sense helped them make meaning in their lives. By understanding the idea of the sacred in primitive societies, modern people can understand how primitive people made sense of their lives. By understanding what primitive people found sacred, we can understand what they valued and what they set apart from the everyday, or the profane. 

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