The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

by Émile Durkheim
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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life extends Durkheim's past work in the tradition of French sociology, applying the field's concepts to religion. He casts religion as a purely social phenomenon which developed as a way of providing people with group identification and emotional security, not unlike the benefits of group living.

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One of Durkheim's central analyses is about the totem, which is the term for any material object of worship. He argues that totems are made to stand in for the societies worshipping them, symbolizing a social unity. Holding that the totem stands in both for the society and its god, he argues that through substitution, the society becomes its own god.

Finally, viewing most social constructs as predicated on totemic substitution, Durkheim asserts that totems are the primary vehicle for inscribing new symbols to the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is therefore the most capacious body of knowledge that humans can possess about their social realities.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

Émile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of the modern discipline of sociology, was fascinated with religion in the same way that Karl Marx was fascinated by economic forces. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life his goal was to present a sociological theory of the origins and functions of religious institutions, writing that he wanted “to study the most primitive and the simplest religion which is presently known, to make an analysis of it, and to attempt an explanation of it.” He chose to concentrate on the religion of the Australian aborigines because at that time their culture was considered the most ancient in existence, and with his lineal conception of cultural evolution, Durkheim assumed that the study of the earliest known religion would provide insight into the essence of all other religions. Although an atheist, Durkheim believed that social organizations were based on religious foundations; therefore, he expected that this examination of Australian religion would make an important contribution to understanding the dynamics of human society and toward revealing “an essential and permanent aspect of humanity.”

Durkheim used a broad definition of the concept of “religion,” a definition based upon a division of society into two realms, the sacred and the profane:A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden; these beliefs and practices unify the adherents into one moral community which is called a church.

More important for the study of Australia, Durkheim classified totemism (the belief that social groups had descended from a common animal or plant) as a form of religion. He did not classify magic as a religion, however, for he concluded that magical practices did not include an attitude of sacred reverence of worship, meaning there was no magical church. Since he assumed that religion was a social institution before anything else, Durkheim emphasized the role of the church and also the importance of ceremonies and rituals (to which he referred as “cults”).

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is a large, impressive volume which is organized into an introduction, three major divisions (which are called books), and a conclusion. Book 1, which includes four chapters, is devoted to the definitions and fundamental...

(The entire section contains 804 words.)

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