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Emile Durkheims Theory of Religion Prof Bhupinder Singh

I. Preliminaries: The Background With the advent of modernity in the 16th century, but especially after the Enlightenment that spanned the 18th century, the European thought increasingly turned atheistic or agnostic and came to regard traditional religion as some kind of a false consciousness. The Enlightenment slogan was Reason, Science and Progress and over time it metamorphosed into the ruling meta-narrative or paradigm for the whole of the western world. Rationalism and empiricism, on one side, and humanism, on the other, rose to ascendancy culminating in the French Revolution (1789), which ushered in bourgeois democracy, and Industrial Revolution (roughly 1760-1840), which consolidated the rule of capital and industrial technology in Europe and of European imperialism in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Religion had provided ideological support and framework for premodern social order in Europe. Now with religion reduced to the status of an illusion or delusion, what could take its place? One approach was to retain religion, but with a new, more or less secular face. Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, for instance, followed this approach by inventing respectively the doctrines of New Christianity (Nouveau Christianisme) and Religion of Humanity. The assumption was that religion in some form was indispensable for the

preservation and functioning of social order. In the more radical approach of Karl Marx, however, religion was rejected in toto in favour of a new dialectical-materialist vision of the world. Emile Durkheim, the outstanding French sociologist, chose to follow his French positivist predecessors, Saint-Simon and Comte, but in his own way. He did believe, much

like Marx, that religion had a social basis, but for him religion was not an off-shoot of alienation, nor was it dysfunctional for society as Marx held. Religion, according to

Durkheim, is born out of and satisfies social needs: It is not only a reflection or symbolic representation of society; it also produces and reproduces society itself. For Durkheim, religion and society are thus deeply and radically intertwined, one being the condition for the other. The present essay will [i] briefly introduce Durkheims life, academic career and theoretical orientation, [ii] detail the important features of his theory of religion and then [iii] explain his theory of religion proper. II. Durkheim: A Brief Introduction A. Life and Career Durkheim was a founding figure of modern sociology and is universally acknowledged as a great sociologist. Born in South France in 1858, Durkheim came of Jewish, indeed rabbinical descent. Marcel Fournier writes: He was the son of a rabbi, Mose (180586), the Chief Rabbi of the Vosges and Haute-Marne and the grandson of a rabbi, Israel David. According to the collective memory of the family, they were an unbroken line of eight generations of father-son rabbis. And, as Marcel Mauss has stated, it was a very long line ( 2005:44 ). However, Durkheim lost his religious faith in early youth and became an agnostic instead of a rabbi as he was destined. But it seems that he never lost sight of religion and its positive role in society, nor did Jewishness disappear from his life and thought. In later years specially, Durkheim believed that religion can change its form, but it cannot be dispensed with. All societies, primitive or modern, need religion of one kind or another. After learning Hebrew and receiving religious training in his early years, Durkheim completed his secondary studies (baccalaurat) and was able to make it to the prestigious

Ecole Normale Suprieure for higher education in 1879 after two unsuccessful attempts. He obtained his agrgation in philosophy in 1882. Writing about his academic career, Marcel Fournier remarks:
Placing Durkheims life and career in particular periods is quite simple: (1) he was a philosophy teacher at the Lycee du Puy, de Sens,7 Saint-Quentin his nickname was Schopen and, after a journey in Germany, at the Lycee de Troies (18847); (2) he became a charge de cours and professor of social science and pedagogy at Bordeaux (18871904); and (3) he began an appointment in 1902 at the prestigious Sorbonne, suppleant of Ferdinand Buisson (who had been elected to the Chamber of Deputies) for the Science of Education and in 1913 became professor of the Science of Education and Sociology. The Bordeaux period seems to have been the most productive. It marked the publication of The Division of Labor in Society (1893) (hereafter Division of Labor), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) (hereafter The Rules), and Suicide (1897), as well as the 1896 founding of the journal LAnnee sociologique and the publication of its first issue two years later (2005:43).

From teaching in Lycees or secondary schools for five years (1882-87) to University of Bordeaux (1887-1902) as Charg d'un Cours de Science Sociale et de Pdagogie, and thence to his cherished goal Paris and Sorbonne (1902-1916) this sums up Durkheims long academic career. Out of Durkheims four best known works, three were written while he was at Bordeaux, namely, The division of labour in society (1893), which was his main doctoral dissertation, The rules of sociological method (1895), a seminal work on sociological methodology, and Suicide (1897), a classic in which theory, method and data come together in a brilliant synthesis. Durkheim also launched his journal LAnnee sociologique during his tenure at Bordeaux. His last outstanding work was on religion entitled The elementary forms of the religious life (1912). It is this book, which will be our concern in the present essay. Durkheim died in 1917 devastated by the death of his only son Andre in the First World War. As Fournier points out, Durkheim was prone to melancholy and neurasthenia even in normal circumstances and Andres death was naturally too much for him to bear. B. Durkheims Sociology and Theoretical Orientation Considered as a whole, Durkheims sociology has three major concerns: to i. clarify the nature of society or social facts, ii. grasp the specificity of modern society based on

organic solidarity and iii. establish sociology on an empirical basis. To these three concerns one could add Durkheims overarching concern for harnessing scientific knowledge to social reform, specifically to the cause of social solidarity in modern societies based on division of labour and individualism. The general approach that Durkheim followed in addressing the above concerns is known as sociologism, which combines the substantive doctrine of social realism with the methodological orientation of positivism. Durkheim believed that society is not merely an aggregation of individuals, but has a reality of its own: Society is a reality sui generis. In Durkheims vision, society, which is made up of social facts viz collective representations, institutions and social morphology is not only external to the individual and coercive, but also transcendental and even divine inasmuch as God is nothing but the symbolic representation of society. Such a vision gets the name of social realism. Durkheim also held that social facts should be studied in the same way that scientists study the facts of nature, that is, objectively, without preconceptions. In his The rules of the sociological method, he laid down clear rules for the observation, classification and explanation of social facts. The rules were guided by the aphoristic declaration: Treat social facts as things, that is, as facts of nature with real external existence. While rules of

observation were meant to control bias and subjectivism in observation, the explanatory rules posited an anti-reductionist strategy stipulating that social facts ought to be explained in relation to other social facts and not in relation to human biology or psychology. Thus, Durkheim was after a natural science of society and this was clearly a positivist project. However, in a recent article Francesco Callegaro has objected to such a description:
there is a double novelty in Durkheims position that needs to be understood in order to rediscover the novelty of his own sociology. The first new thing is society as such, conceived in its radical difference from nature. But then, secondly and inevitably, it is the novelty of modern societies that needs to be understood, within a movement that leads us to understand the connection between modernity and sociology itself. Understood as the self-expression of modern societies project, Durkheims sociology will thus appear to us as completely distinct from any possible positivist framework (2012:454).

Callegaro is right about Durkheims double novelty, but his claim that Durkheims sociology is completely distinct from any positivist framework is very problematic. To say that Durkheims sociology is the self-expression of modernity does not invalidate its positivist orientation. C. Main Intellectual Influences Durkheims closely followed Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte in his sociological orientation. E.E. Evans-Pritchard makes bold to say that, It is customary, and right, for us to pay tribute to Durkheim but there is little of methodological or theoretical significance in his writings that we do not find in Comte if we are earnest and persevering enough to look for it (1970). As is well-known, Comte was the originator of positive philosophy. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the great German philosopher, also influenced Durkheims thought although not directly, but through the writings of the French neoKantian, Charles Bernard Renouvier (1815-1903). Durkheims sociology of knowledge is sometimes labelled as sociological Kantianism. As for Durkheims views on religion, they were very largely shaped by William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) British anthropologist and biblical scholar. Steven Lukes points out that Durkheims debt to Robertson Smith was multiple:
[Durkheim] accepted Smiths sociological view of religion...; his conception of its regulative and stimulative functions; his contrast between religion as within the communion of the church and magic as outside it and residual; even his association of religion and political structure. More specifically, he accepted Smiths interpretation of clan totemism as the earliest known form of religion, involving the idealization and divinization of the clan, personified by the god and materially represented by the totemic animal. He also accepted in part Smiths anal ysis of sacrifice as originally a sacramental meal creating social bonds of the same nature as the kinship. The clan, according to Smith, periodically expressed its unity, binding its members to each other and to their god, and revitalized itself at this communal sacrifice in which the god and his worshippers unite by partaking together of the flesh and blood of a sacred victim. In this way, commensality can be thought of (1) as confirming or even (2) as constitution kinship in a very real sense. Of Robertson Smith and Frazer, Durkheim wrote that they had contributed, more than anyone, to giving the sense of the extreme complexity of religious facts, the deep lying causes on which they depend, and the partly unconscious evolution from which they result (1972:450-51).

All the important elements of Durkheims theory of religion are to be found here and one wonders what really is so original in Durkheims theory! Actually, Durkheim accepted Smiths theory as developed in the latters Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889) because it was in line with his own social realism or sociological Kantianism. Durkheims original contribution lies in demonstrating the truth of the theory systematically and empirically. It will be inappropriate not to mention the influence of Fustel de Coulanges, Durkheims teacher at Ecole Normale, on Durkheims religious ideas. W.S.F. Pickering writes: There can be no doubt that in his formative years, Durkheim was far more influenced by Fustel de Coulanges in the matter of religious analysis than by Saint-Simon or Comte (2009:56). Pickering explains how Durkheims view of religion parallels that of Coulanges:
Keeping in mind ideas which Durkheim was to be identified with in later years, particularly during the second period, it should be noted that Fustel held that religion was the absolute master, for everything had come from religion, that is to say, from beliefs which men held about the divinity. Religion, law and government were compounded and were but three different aspects of the same thing. What is more important for sociologists as a whole is that Fustel holds that ideas bring about social changes, that worship symbolized by the sacred fire is at the centre of family life in the classical world and that religion is at the centre of social life itself (ibid.: 57).

III. Durkheims Theory of Religion A. Distinctive Features Although Durkheim had touched on religious issues in his earlier works, such as The division of labour and Suicide, and his theory of religion was long in the making, the theory itself was fully articulated, developed and demonstrated only in The elementary forms of the religious life published in French in 1912. This classic work, originally titled The elementary forms of thought and religious practice, was first translated into English in 1915 by J.W. Swain. The second complete translation by Karen E. Fields with a detailed introduction
appeared in 1995. An abridged translation by Carol Cosman also exists; it was published in 2001.

This section will describe the important features of Durkheims theory of religion as a prelude to the later exposition of the theory proper. However, before we enumerate the features, the following point made by Pickering be always kept mind: in a way, it captures the essence of Durkheims theory:
The prime issue which faced rationalists, and amongst them one would initially place Durkheim, was that of the truth of religious beliefs. No thorough-going rationalist could accept the proclaimed truth of any religion, let alone that in which they found themselves, namely Christianity. They were atheists or agnostics and that was certainly Durkheims position religiously speaking. But for him, and here he differed from other rationalists, it did not mean that religious beliefs were illusory. He calmly proclaimed there are no false religions. If they were completely false, they would quickly dissolve. Truth persists: the lie disappears. Durkheim holds that the truth of religious beliefs is that they are socially effective and constitute part of the social reality...(2009:6).

And now to the features. Firstly, Durkheim offers a new definition of religion in terms of the sacred-profane dichotomy. All earlier definitions of religion as a system of belief in the supernatural are rejected by him. Durkheim points out that the idea of the supernatural vs the natural is recent in human history and is not even applicable to an atheistic religion like Buddhism. Hence it cannot define religion satisfactorily. On the other hand, the sacred-profane dichotomy is universal and can encompass all religions. All societies classify phenomena into the sacred and the profane and set them apart through taboos. Religion belongs to a distinct category of the sacred. A religion, defines Durkheim, is a [a] unified system [b] of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices [c] which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them(1995:44). All the three elements parenthesised above are necessary to define religion. Secondly, following Robertson Smith closely Durkheim draws a clear distinction between religion and magic. Although both belong to the category of the sacred, they are nonetheless distinct. While a religion has a church or a community of followers and a set of obligatory beliefs and rites in place for them, magic possesses no such characteristics. The

relationship between the magician and his client is on the lines of doctor-patient relationship. To consult or not to consult the magician is an individual decision and is not bound by any social or moral obligation. Writes Pickering: The contrast is made on the basis of his definition of religion. In magic there is no church, but there is in religion. The magician creates a clientele, not a band of devoted followers who constantly consult him and who create relationships one with another by reason of common beliefs and practices. Magic is diffuse and individualistic: religion is social (2009:64). Thirdly, Durkheim regards totemism and not animism (Tylor) or naturism (Max Muller) as the most elementary form of religion. In common with Smith, the early Frazer and Jevons, as well as Wundt and Freud, writes Lukes, he accepted the view, going back to McLennan, that totemism was the most primitive form of religion and was its evolutionary origin, or its earliest known form (406). The notion of elementary form as used by Durkheim has posed problems: Does it mean the simplest or the earliest form of religion? According to Lukes, Durkheim simply took it as axiomatic that there is an identity between (cultural and structural) simplicity and evolutionary priority. Since the cult of totemism occurs in the most primitive and the simplest type of society, argues Durkheim, it must be the most primitive and fundamental form of religion. It follows that if totemism is understood, the general nature of religion as well as its more complex transformations will also be understood. Durkheim explains his choice of totemism as the most elementary form of religious life as follows:
Since neither man nor nature has in themselves a sacred character, they must get it from another source. Apart from the human individual and the physical world, there must therefore be some other reality in relation to which this type of delirium in which all religion, in a sense consists gains a significance and an objective value. In other words, beyond what has been called naturism and animism, there must be another cult, more fundamental and more primitive, of which the former are probably only derived forms or particular aspects. This cult exists in fact; it is that to which ethnographers have given the name of totemism (Quoted in Lukes 1972:480-81).

Fourthly, for understanding the nature of totemism, Durkheim chose to concentrate on the totemism of a single tribe called Arunta or the Australian Blackfellows. He never did fieldwork himself, but depended for data on the ethnographic work of Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen, whose The native tribes of central Australia was described by Mauss as one of the most important books of ethnography and descriptive sociology (Lukes 1972:452). Why did Durkheim choose to focus only on the Arunta of Central Australia is explained by Pickering thus:
In accordance with the aims of science Durkheim wished to establish generalizations about religion and its place in the structure of society. Such generalizations would have universal applicability, irrespective of the type of religion and the society in which it was found. To create these universals it was necessary to examine carefully a particular society, or in other words, in the spirit of science, to undertake one well -conducted experiment from which laws could be deduced. Such an experiment stood at the heart of Les formes elementaires (2009: 120).

Durkheim himself wrote that the essential thing is to ensemble, not a large number of facts, but facts that are at once typical and well-studied. Rather than extending indefinitely the field of comparison..., one must limit it with discrimination and method (In Lukes 1972: 452). Fifthly, between totemtic beliefs and rites, Durkheim prefers to focus more on the latter, which are collective and easily accessible to observation. This is consistent with the general rules laid down by Durkheim for the observation of social facts. Lastly, Durkheim offers a sociological or sociologistic explanation of totemism. Every constituent clan in the Arunta tribe identifies with and worships a totem, which is normally a plant or animal species. Durkheim tries to show that the totem is a deity only on the surface; in fact it is the symbolic representation of the clan itself. In worshipping the totem, the members worship the clan itself and thereby affirm its unity and identity. God is only a transformation of the totem and has the same status in relation to society that a flag has in relation to a nation. We take up Durkheims theory of totemism in detail in the next section.


B. Theory of Religion Durkheims theory of religion is essentially his theory of totemism. As explained above, for Durkheim Arunta totemism is religion in its embryonic or elementary form and once it is understood the very basis, nature and purpose of religion in general can be understood. It is relevant to point out that Durkheim had titled his 1912 book on religion Les forms elementaires de la vie religieuse: Le system totemique en Australia. The subtitle of the book clearly mentions that the book is devoted to the totemic system of Australia. To be sure, the Arunta have other religious beliefs e.g. belief in spirits or belief in a supreme being but, according to Durkheim, all of these beliefs are derived from totemism. Durkheims theory of totemism can be couched in the form of three propositions: (i) Totemism is the most elementary form of religion; (ii) totemism is a clan cult; and (iii) totem is the clan itself divinised. The first proposition has already been explained; to explain the other two propositions requires a brief description of the totemism of the Australian Blackfellows. As Durkheim describes them in his book, the Arunta or Blackfellows are a primitive tribe of hunters and food-gatherers and Durkheim assumes that only the simplest form of religion can exist in such a society. The tribe is divided into clans and clans into hordes. Most of the time, the Arunta hordes roam the forests in search of game and food, but they come together to perform increase rites for the totems of their respective clans. Indeed, the totem belongs to a clan, not to the tribe as a whole or the horde. But what is a totem? A totem is a natural species of plants or animals held sacred and worshipped by the members of the clan. Such humble creatures as frogs and lizards can serve as totems or the totems can be purely imaginary. Interestingly, it is the pictorial designs (churingas) the Arunta make of their totems that are held to be more sacred than the actually existing species plant or animal.


In any case, the totem is regarded as the deity and the ancestor of the clan. The clan identifies with the totem and gets its name from it. A totem the plant, bird or animal - is not to be harmed or eaten and the members of the clan are not to intermarry because they have a common ancestor. When the Arunta tribals wander about in forests in groups or hordes, they lead a dull uniform life. However, when they get together to perform increase rites (intichiuma) and worship their clan totem, amid singing, dancing and feasting their emotions run high to the point of frenzy. In an atmosphere of what Durkheim calls effervescence, the totem is ritually sacrificed and consumed. The clansmen experience the presence of a force or power (mana) that they associate with their totemic god. Thereafter, the Arunta disperse to resume their humdrum, individualistic and utilitarian life of hunting and collecting food. Durkheim contends that although the totem is a god in the eyes of the members of the clan, in reality it is only a symbol or symbolic representation of the clan. The totem derives its sacredness and power from society, not from any supernatural source. In worshipping the totem, the clan merely reaffirms itself and its unity and identity. How does Durkheim establish the equation between clan and totem? Several

arguments are advanced by him. The first is that totemism is a clan cult: the totem belongs neither to the tribe nor to the horde, but to the clan and this suggests an intrinsic connection between the two. The impression is strengthened by the fact that it is only during the collective effervescence generated on ritual occasions like intichiuma that clansmen experience the power of the totem. The members of a clan feel that the experience flows from the totem, but in fact it is the result only of heightened communication and interaction among them. Secondly, clan totems are often very humble creatures and they by themselves cannot become objects of respect or worship. It is only because they signify social groups


the clans that they get charged with power and sacredness. It is the investment of societal power that transforms plants and animals into sacred objects and powerful symbols. Finally, there is a similarity in the tribals attitude to their god and to society at large. According to Durkheim, a society has everything necessary to arouse the sensation of the divine in minds. It has absolute power over them, and it gives them the feeling of perpetual dependence; and it is the object of venerable respect (Evans-Pritchard 1965:57). All these arguments lead only to one conclusion that the totem and the clan or the sacred and the social are radically identical. Totem has the same status in relation to the clan that a flag has in relation to the nation. The question remains why the clans need such an indirect mode of self-representation? Durkheims answer is that the primitive people are unable, because of their rudimentary intelligence, to conceive of their society in an abstract way. Hence they need concrete symbols and rites to express and affirm their collective or corporate existence. We can sum up Durkheims theory of totemism as follows: Structurally, totem is the symbolic representation of the clan; functionally, the purpose of intichiuma ceremonies or increase rites is to ensure the identity and solidarity of the clan. The relationship between the clan and totemic cult is thus reciprocal or two-way neither can exist without the other. In the end, it needs to be pointed out that Durkheim recognises that the Arunta has religious conceptions other than totemism, such, for instance, as belief in souls and spirits or belief in God. However, Durkheim holds that all such beliefs can be derived from his theory of totemism. E.E. Evans-Pritchard explains the point lucidly:
Durkheim recognized that Australian aborigines had religious conceptions other than what is labelled as totemism, but he held that they were equally explicable in terms of his theory. Te idea of the soul is nothing more than the totemic principle, mana, incarnate in each individual, society individualized. It is his society in each member of it, its culture and social order, that makes a man a person, a social being instead of a mere animal. It is the social personality as distinct from the individual organism. Man is a rational and moral animal, but the rational and moral part of him is what society has superimposed on the organic part... As for the spiritual beings ...they seem, he believed, to have been totems at one time. However that may be, they now correspond to tribal groups. In each territory many clans are represented, each with its distinctive totemic cults, but all alike belong to the tribe and have the same

religion, and the tribal religion is idealized in gods. The great god is simply the synthesis of all the totems, just as the tribes are syntheses of all the clans, represented in them; and it is intertribal also in character, mirroring social relations between tribe and tribe, especially the assistance of members of other tribes at tribal ceremonies of initiation and sub-incision. So while souls and spirits do not exist in reality, they correspond to reality and in that sense they are real, for the social life they symbolize is real enough (1965: 45-46).

What Durkheim has been able to establish on the basis of his study of Australian totemism is this: society externalised is God and society internalised is soul. Society is all in all for Durkheim. C. Critique Durkheims theory of religion has been criticised on several grounds. Its very assumptions, the ethnographic evidence on which it is based, and the reductionist strategy that it follows (of reducing religion in its entirety to society) -- all have been questioned. For instance, Evans-Pritchard, after remarking that Durkheims theory of toemism is brilliant and imaginative, even poetical, observes:
But I am afraid that we must once more say that that it is also a just-so story. Totemism could have arisen through gregariousness, but there is no evidence that it did; and other forms of religion could have developed, as it is implicit in Durkheims theory that they did, from totemism, or what he calls the totemic principle, but again there is no evidence that they did. It can be allowed that religious conceptions must bear some relation to the social order, and be in some degree in accord with economic, political, moral, and other social facts and even that they are a product of social life in the sense that there could be no religion without society, any more than there could be thought or culture of any kind; but Durkheim is asserting much more than that. He is claiming that spirit, soul, and other religious ideas and images are projections of society or of its segments, and originate in conditions bringing about a state of effervescence (1965:64).

Anthony Giddens raises several specific objections:

The elementary forms was written at the initial stages of the development of modern anthropological field-work, and it is not surprising that the empirical basis of the work today appears suspect. Durkheim used as a case-study Australian totemism which he believed, being the simplest type of religious system known, would clarify the main elements of religion as a whole. Subsequent research indicates, however, that the totemism of the tribes to which Durkheim referred most extensively, those inhabiting Central Australia, is not even typical of Australian totemism as a whole, let alone totemic systems in other parts of the world... However, there is another empirical consideration which has direct and serious implications for the basic ideas in his theory of religion. Durkheims definition of religion depends upon the polarity of the sacred and the profane as discrete and opposed spheres. But although such a polarity can be clearly discerned in certain religious systems, particularly those of JudaeoChristian origins, it is by no means universal. On the contrary, it seems that more often than not what Durkheim distinguished as the sacred and the profane intermingle in every day conduct (1978:101-102).


The above two quotes bring out the several inadequacies of Durkheims theory of totemism and religion. Totemism or religion has a social dimension, but cannot be simply reduced to it. References Cited Callegaro, Francesco 2012. The idea of the person: Discovering the novelty of Durkheims sociology. Journal of classical sociology, 12(-4):450-478. Durkheim, Emile 1995 [1912]. The elementary forms of the religious life, transl. Fields, Karen E. New York: The Free Press. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1965. Theories of primitive religion. Oxford University Press. 1970. The sociology of Comte: An appreciation. Manchester Univ Press. Fournier, Marcel 2005. Durkheims life and context: Something new? In Alexander, Jeffrey C. And Philip Smith, eds, The Cambridge companion to Durkheim, pp. . Cambridge Univ Press. Giddens, Anthony 1978. Durkheim. Fontana Lukes, Steven 1972. Emile Durkheim His life and works. London: Harper and Row, Publishers. Pickering, W.S.F. 2009. Durkheims sociology of religion: Themes and theories. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co

Further Readings

1. Durkheim, Emile. 1995 [1912]. The elementary forms of the religious life, transl. Fields, Karen E. New York: The Free Press. 2.. E.E. Evans-Pritchard. 1965. Theories of primitive religion. OUP. 3.. Giddens, Anthony. 1978. Durkheim. Fontana. 4. Allen,N.J. et al. 1998. On Durkheims elementary forms of religious life. Routledge. (Note: Read only select chapters)