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: 217

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is a nonfiction book by Émile Durkheim. The book was published in 1912. The most prominent theme in the book, as well as Durkheim's central thesis, is the concept of sacredness within indigenous societies, such as among Australian Aboriginals. However, Durkheim posits that this is a microcosm of the overall religious system.

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Another theme in the book is the concept of religion as a feedback loop in totemic society. Meaning, the indigenous peoples would worship a god—usually an element in nature, as was usually the case with animist beliefs—and give that god human characteristics, which Durkheim believed reflected their own society. In essence, the people were worshiping their own cultural values, and not the principles given to them by a supernatural god. This is the opposite of Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, in which God himself speaks through a prophet, such as Moses, or an angel communicating divine ideas and prophecies, who acts as a messenger of God. The totemic religion of the indigenous societies that Durkheim studied were more human-centric and down to earth.

The underlying theme of the book is the concept of collective consciousness, or the system and tradition in which humans pass knowledge to each other, across generations, to form what could be considered a religion.

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