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The elementary forms of religious life

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 2379 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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The elementary forms of religious life


Through his critical look at the most primitive religion, his epistemological inquiries into the genesis of thought, and his attempt to theoretically account for the functional and universal nature of all religions, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life has proven to be a seminal work both in the academic study of religion, sociology and social theory. Arguing ultimately that religion is the symbolic expression of society and social experience, Durkheim revolutionized the academic study of religion with his original and insightful approach.[1] I will begin with a brief recap of the argument laid out in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which will be followed by a discussion of the implications it has on the study of religion. Finally, I will discuss some of the major critiques of his theoretical approach and argument.

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Durkheim believes that in order to explain religion, we must identify its most primitive form (3). The fundamental elements which are found in primitive religion are “closer and more related to the initial motives that caused religious actions” (9). These elements provide the objective content through which we can understand all religions (7). Religion is defined as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart by prohibitions-beliefs and practices that unite adherents to a single moral community called a church” (46). The most elementary form must satisfy this definition.

For Durkheim, the two leading conceptions of the most elementary form of religion were animism and naturism. They attempt to explain what causes man to experience the sacred. Animism claims man experiences the sacred because of the misinterpretation of his dreams. This misinterpretation generates the notion of souls that are part of a separate reality (61). Naturism claims man feels a sacred reality because of the extraordinariness of natural phenomena (68). These theories suggest that man’s idea of the sacred is a “delirious interpretation” because there is nothing inherently sacred about man or nature (76). However, “it is a basic postulate of sociology that a human institution cannot rest on error or falsehood or it could not endure (4).” This means that any conception of an elementary religion must account for the sacred as a real force. Durkheim goes on to assert that there must be a religion even more primitive then animism and naturism which is able to explain where the force of the sacred actually comes from. This religion is totemism (77).

Totemism is most evidently found in primitive Australian tribes. The most important feature of these tribes is their division into clans (88). Each clan has a totem, which is its distinguishing feature. The totem is represented in the form of a plant or animal to which the clan has a special relationship. This totem, which is the identity of the clan, also has a religious character because of its prominent use in religious ceremonies (96). This totem is central to the clan because “things are classified as sacred and profane in relation to the totem’s religious character” (96).

The negative cult of totemism uses prohibitions and taboos regarding the totem to keep the sacred and profane separate (221). For instance, there are prohibitions on eating the totemic animal except during religious rituals. Also, women and uninitiated are prevented from coming into contact with sacred objects. These prohibitions are necessary because of the contagiousness of the sacred (237). Sacred objects are contagious because they confer sacrality to the things they touch. This suggests that some type of force resides in sacred objects. This force, or mana, was the object of the clan’s worship, not the animal or plant of the clan (147).

The positive cult of totemism uses ritual to put man in organized contact with this sacred force (221). In these rituals clan members gather together in large numbers. This is in contrast to the ordinary and monotonous experience the clan member has in which he exists more or less independently from others. When all the clan members come together “their proximity generates a kind of electricity that quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation (162)”. This collective effervescence takes man outside himself to the point that he feels he has been “transported into a special world entirely different from the ordinary” (164). When he calms down from this excitement he is left to believe that he exists in two completely separate realities: his daily life and his religious life (164). These two realities are essentially the profane and the sacred respectively. To understand how this collective effervescence gets its power we must understand the way in which the categories of knowledge are constructed by society.

For Durkheim, one leading theory of knowledge was empiricism which claims man constructs the categories of knowledge of time, space, genus, cause, number (etc.) exclusively from his individual experience (15). This is not valid because it does not explain how people from the same culture have identical notions of time and space, etc. The second leading theory, apriorism, solves this problem by claiming man inherits the categories of knowledge from a divine reason existing prior to his experience (16). There is no proof this divine reason exists. Moreover, it does not explain why the categories of thought vary within cultures. This implies, for Durkheim, that man gets his categories from society (13). Further evidence suggests this is the basic category of knowledge. Genus, the notion that similar objects belong to the same group, can be modeled from man’s experience of his relationship to society. After all, “a genus is indeed an ideal yet clearly defined grouping of things with internal bonds analogous to the bonds of kinship” (114). There were as many divisions of space as there were divisions of clans within the tribe (13). In addition, man had a sense the clans were all interdependent and formed a unified whole – the tribe. It is this reason why man’s classifications represented a complete set of categories through which everything could be accounted.

The categories of knowledge are the most basic types of collective representations and are informed by the collection of individual representations. However, when these individual representations are translated into collective representations they take on a new character: going from personal to impersonal. These collective representations outlive the individuals which contributed to them and gain a high degree of depth and complexity. They form a framework for reason that is “infinitely richer and more complex then that of the individual” and goes “beyond the range of empirical knowledge” (18). These categories establish the reality of society that is sui generis, or completely unique.

Man is unable to think without using the concepts he inherits from his society. This means man naturally transcends himself when he thinks and when he acts. He elevates himself beyond his individual experience and into the collective reality of society. When man feels the sacred from the collective effervescence it is this social reality he experiences. It is his feeling of being part of something greater than himself. When man feels this force he is unable to attribute a concrete cause, so he represents it externally through objects which he considers sacred. These sacred objects are at the heart of religion and ultimately express society.

Implications and Critique:

Essential to Durkheims theory is the dichotomy between the sacred and profane and how the practices relating to his religious categories effect the social world. Of further importance is his argument that (contrary to other theories of religion that argue it being centered around magic, superstition or a philosophical error) religion is a real social fact. As such, he argues:

“Our entire study rests upon the postulate: that this unanimous feeling of believers across time 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 (312).”

In regards to the elementary religion Durkheim studies, he concludes that it is the religious activity that allows individuals within the tribe to understand themselves as collective. Further, it is the religious activity that serves to symbolize the social order with the totemic figure as an objective representation of their own society. Through the conscious repetition of various myths and rituals, a real sense of social unity and collective sentiments for tribal members was fostered (through the collective effervescence). This, in turn, works to strengthen and continually reestablish the social connections within the group.

As an institution, understanding religion as having the authority to both command and garner compliance and awe is a unique concept in and of itself. Understanding religion as the symbolic expression of society is an original and path-breaking idea that has deeply influenced several academic fields and the direction of scholarly thought. As religion is a social fact, the objective entity behind religious symbolism and ritual can thus be understood as society (and not God). While I will return to this point, one must note that this idea would be intensely controversial for the religionist, as it implies that the individual participating in rituals is (at the very root) mistaken with regards to the objective phenomenon he is worshiping.

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When considering what Durkheim has done for the theoretical approach to defining and explaining religion, we can see his original approach to the social nature of religion as most telling. Before Durkheim, theoretical approaches to religion mainly focused on the individual and his understanding and philosophy of life or the interpretation of his reality (such as that of Otto, James or other phenomenologists). Durkheims work further shed light on the social role religion plays in organizing societies. By claiming that religions “(a)ll are true in their own fashion and all answer though in different ways to the given condition of human existence” Durkheim steered clear of questions of absolute truth (and theistic definition) which is ultimately beneficial for those interested in the comparative study of religion.

While Durkheims theory has been one of the most influential in the study of religion, it has been susceptible to various criticisms. For instance, while he worked to counteract previous theories and positivistic approaches to religion, one can see such elements in his own definition. If Durkheim is indeed right, then the individual participants in rituals and religious ceremonies are mistaken, since the actual object of worship is something other than they are aware of. If we listen to Durkheim, we must believe that his scientific methods (and his particular methodology/theoretical approach) is on a higher plan with regards to accuracy, as it his methods which clarify the actual object of worship for the believer. Thus, the main theory of Durkheim has been attacked by those who believe he is ‘reducing’ religion to something other than it is by claiming that it is the symbolic expression of society.

This criticism inevitably leads to ones that are aimed at attacking Durkheims neglect for the subjective value of religious experience. In Durkheim’s theoretical view, the individual subjective experiences with sacred reality is only important with regards to its social utility (with respect to the feelings the collective effervescence engenders). This type of approach is in direct opposition to a theorist like Otto or James.

With regards to his evidence for the most primitive form of religion (and his general belief that one could understand a complex phenomenon by finding and examining the phenomenon in its simplest form) is also quite questionable. As illustrated by the analyses of Clifford Geertz, one must note that it is difficult enough to interpret ethnographic findings when one is deeply immersed in the society. Since Durkheim himself did not participate in the ethnographic study (and never actually witnessed the culture), suspicious immediately rises (particularly as his argument hinges on the material). In The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz states:

The notion that one can find the essence of national societies, civilizations, great religions, or whatever summed up and simplified in so-called “typical” small towns and villages is palpable nonsense. What one finds in small towns and villages is (alas) small-town or village life. If localized, microscopic studies were really dependent for their greater relevance upon such a premise -that they captured the great world in the little- they wouldn’t have any relevance (Geertz, 1973).

The representations of religion can be seen as collective representations expressing a collective reality. Durkheimian thought points to the social nature of religion.

While there are some criticisms, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life has proven to be immensely influential, both with regards to the theory of religion as well as a variety of other fields.

In Geertzian terminology, then, one can see that Durkheim may be imposing his own contextual period (culture, history, scientific method) wrongly. How is Durkheim interpreting this evidence and is he “correcting them with regards to his more advanced worldview?”


[1] “If religion generated everything that is essential in society, this is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”


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