The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life Critical Essays

Émile Durkheim


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In constructing his sociological theory of religion, Durkheim was influenced by the ideas of Robertson Smith and Fustel de Coulanges. Even more, he was negatively influenced by the theoretical views of Sir Edward Tylor and Max Muller, and Durkheim’s attempt to refute these views is one of the more interesting aspects of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Tylor’s theory of animism had postulated that early humans had acquired beliefs in souls and dismembered spirits as a consequence of dreams and reflections about deaths, and that this idea of dismembered spirits had been transferred upon animals, objects, and places of the physical world. With this perspective, Tylor argued that a “minimal” definition of religion would include a belief in spirits or souls. In contrast, Muller’s theory of naturalism assumed that early people had been overwhelmed by the forces of nature, and that the earliest gods and spirits were actually personifications of natural phenomena.

Durkheim argued that these two theories were demeaning to the very idea of religion, for they implied that religious beliefs were only “a tissue of illusions” which did not have any basis in reality. If religions were based on such a shaky foundation, they would not have survived in all known societies; Durkheim declared that it was “inadmissible” to suggest that irrational illusions could account for the great influence of religion in the evolution of law, morality, and science. Also, since religious phenomena were social in essence, Durkheim found it illogical to account for the origins of religion by reference to individual consciousness. His own sociological theory emphasized two ideas: First, religions had the important social functions of promoting group solidarity and cooperation; second, religious beliefs were ultimately founded on reverence for a reality which did exist—the reality of human society. Although he did not believe in the existence of gods, spirits, or totemic ancestors, Durkheim paradoxically wrote that all religions were true because of their foundations in social reality. He did not appear to understand why so many critics charged that his own theory raised the same objections as those of Tylor and Muller.

Making a distinction between symbols and what they symbolize, Durkheim argued that all sacred symbols were unconscious “representations” of society and that “the idea of society is the soul of religion.” As evidence, Durkheim pointed to three facts: First, the human species does not and cannot long exist as isolated individuals; second, societies usually continue to survive beyond the death of the individual; and third, all societies have rules which individuals are required to obey. The social collective, therefore, demands and is worthy of respect and veneration, but society is a complex abstraction which must be conceptualized in concrete images, symbols, and objects. According to Durkheim, the simplest form of social organization was the clan, and the clan’s concrete representation was its totem. He explained that “the totem is the clan’s flag” and that, like the flag of a country, the totem was an unconscious means of promoting loyalty, dedication, and group solidarity. Like the flag, moreover, the clan’s totem was important because of its use as a symbol, not because of its...

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