The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

by Émile Durkheim
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

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The most barbarous and the most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social. The reasons with which the faithful justify them may be, and generally are, erroneous; but the true reasons do not cease to exist, and it is the duty of science to discover them.

As the above quote illustrates, Durkheim's endeavor is to subject religion to rational, scientific study. While the external beliefs and practices of religions may be wrong, Durkheim's goal is to excavate the underlying need that religion satisfies in a culture. Durkheim participates in a rationalist or Enlightenment worldview that, starting with Descartes, placed reason above religious belief. Durkheim also asserts that while the religions he studies may be considered primitive, they contain deep fundamental truths about the intersection of faith and society.

Our entire study rests upon this postulate that the unanimous sentiment of the believers of all times cannot be purely illusory....we admit that these religious beliefs rest upon a specific experience whose demonstrative value is, in one sense, not one bit inferior to that of scientific experiments, though different from them. We, too, think that "a tree is known by its fruits, and that fertility is the best proof of what the roots are worth. But from the fact that a "religious experience," if we choose to call it this, does exist and that it has a certain foundation—and, by the way, is there any experience which has none?—it does not follow that the reality which is its foundation conforms objectively to the idea which believers have of it.

Durkheim emphasize that religion is not merely a tissue of lies and deceptions. He is concerned with unraveling the truth it contains, which, he asserts, over and over, is different from scientific truth. Religion is true in that it is a social force, a powerful glue that holds societies together and is foundational to the very creation of society. Religions that last are based in some form of true need: otherwise they would wither and not bear fruit.

Religious forces are therefore human forces, moral forces.

Durkheim wants to be clear that religion is a human invention, not a supernatural one. It has a truth value in that it satisfies a collective need but it arises from human needs and reflects a society's idealized vision of itself. It constantly reasserts and reteaches a version of the group's history to ground the society in an idealized moral vision.