The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

by Émile Durkheim

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life was written in 1912 by Emile Durkheim. The author wrote the book as a way to try to understand religion’s role in society, especially as a source of socialization. In pursuit of this goal, Durkheim decided to study the religion of Australian Aborigines and “totemism”. The idea was to study a religion that was more common in humanity’s past in order to be able to understand how modern religions developed.

This belief system combines a person with something like a plant, animal or object. There ends up being subdivisions focused on particular objects. Each totem spirit would have the ability to aid the humans that connect to it in some way. From here, religions could develop to more complex relationships between the object of religious belief and the person.

The author also goes on to describe other aspects of beliefs and how they originated and developed. For example, he discusses where the idea of a soul came from in various different religions. This discussion also includes beliefs in nature or the idea that all parts of nature have a spirit of some kind, such as in Animism.

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