The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life Analysis

Émile Durkheim

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 599 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

La Capra, Dominick. Émile Durkheim: Sociologist and Philosopher, 1972.

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work, 1972.

Nisbet, Robert. The Sociology of Émile Durkheim, 1974.

Pickering, W. S. F. Durkheim’s Sociology of Religion: Themes and Theories, 1974.

Wolff, Kurt, ed. Émile Durkheim, 1858-1917: A Collection of Essays with a Bibliography, 1960.