The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

by Émile Durkheim
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1363

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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 intrinsic value as an object.

With the assumption that totemism was the earliest form of religion, Durkheim presented an interesting, if somewhat speculative, theory of how religious evolution had occurred. The sense of clan solidarity led to the idea that souls of dead ancestors entered the bodies of babies born into the clan, and the belief in the immortality of the soul was a symbolic way of expressing the truth that the clan as well as the larger society would continue after the death of the individual. With the belief in the existence of dismembered souls of tribal ancestors, it was logical that some of these souls would be venerated and elevated to the status of “high gods.” Thus, totems, souls, spirits, and gods all had their origins in society and its needs for social cohesion. Even modern society had not outgrown the need for a common religion, but since science and the modern worldview had made it impossible to believe in gods or spirits, Durkheim expected the emergence of an abstract religion in which humanistic symbols would acquire the status of the sacred.

Beginning with the pessimistic view that individuals tended to seek selfish satisfactions at the expense of the needs of society, Durkheim was convinced that a common religion was necessary to promote the costly sacrifices necessary for social survival. Many sociologists have noted that the problem of order was one of the major themes in all Durkheim’s writings. Fearing that hyperindividuality would promote an unhealthy condition he called “anomie” (a failure to internalize appropriate norms), he was convinced that religion had the positive consequence of establishing a shared sense of cohesion and solidarity. A rather negative view of human nature is reflected in his declaration that “there is no morality which is not fused with religiosity; even to the secular mind, duty—the moral imperative—is a thing which is august and sacred.”

This ethical perspective was in the background when Durkheim insisted that a well-integrated society required a “collective conscience,” for the French word for “conscience” refers both to an ethical sense and to consciousness. Influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “general will” and to Auguste Comte’s “consensus,” Durkheim defined the collective conscience as “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of the same society.” The various components of this system of beliefs were called “collective representations” (images, symbols, and concepts), and one of the key representations was a cosmology (or worldview). By the term “collective conscience” Durkheim did not mean some kind of mysterious collective mind; rather, individuals learned to accept the collective conscience through a process of social education, and Durkheim wrote that “consciousness cannot exist except in and through individual minds.” This meant that there was always a double aspect to humankind: the individual and the social aspects. Certainly individuals were capable of some unique and innovative ideas, and such innovations could be joined with existing concepts to form “a synthesis of particular conceptions.” Although he endorsed an authoritarian enforcement of social norms, Durkheim’s theory of a collective conscience was entirely compatible with the possibility for social change.

In addition to being necessary for maintaining order, religion was the “primordial” matrix which made it possible for other cultural elements to emerge. In fact, Durkheim went so far as to argue that the fundamental categories of thought had their origins in religious beliefs and practices. Periodic rituals provided a sense of regularity necessary for measuring time; religious myths included a category of causation which was a prerequisite for the growth of science; religious duties and taboos provided a foundation for the evolution of laws and morality; and beliefs in totems and ancestral spirits were the earliest forms of kinship systems. Durkheim even thought it was possible that economic practices had their foundation in religion. Unfortunately, there was not much empirical evidence for these conclusions, but Durkheim did correctly observe that in the so-called primitive cultures, religion appeared to fulfill many more functions than was true of more developed cultures, implying that the functions of religions were progressively being replaced by other beliefs and practices.

With his emphasis on the communal and emotional components of religion, Durkheim was naturally fascinated by the ceremonies and rituals of the Australian aborigines. He divided the cult practices into five categories: Sacrifices were concerned with offerings and communion; mimetic rituals were related to attempts at causation; ritual taboos were useful in enforcing social interdictions; commemorative rituals kept alive a common awareness for past events; and piacular rituals helped maintain courage following sorrowful tragedies such as death. According to Durkheim, such cult practices “give rise to the expression of joy, of interior peace, of serenity, of enthusiasm; for the faithful they are like an experimental proof for their beliefs.” Within his own European experiences, Durkheim was favorably impressed with the sense of the sacred preserved in Judaism and Catholicism, but he was very critical of the tendency for Protestants to minimize the importance of ritual and emotional experiences.


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