Durkheim on Religion “If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion."
(Bellah, 1973, p. 191 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])
"For we know today that a religion does not necessarily imply symbols and rites, properly speaking, or temples and priests. This whole exterior apparatus is only the superficial part. Essentially, it is nothing other than a body of collective beliefs and practices endowed with a certain authority."
(1973, p. 51 [excerpt from "Individualism and the Intellectuals"])
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, the last major work published by Durkheim, five years before his death in 1917, is generally regarded as his best and most mature. Where Suicide focused on a large amount of statistics from varying sources, The Elementary Forms used one case study in depth, the Australian aborigines. Durkheim chose this group because he felt they represented the most basic, elementary forms of religion within a culture.
Durkheim set out to do two things, establish the fact that religion was not divinely or supernaturally inspired and was in fact a product of society, and he sought to identify the common things that religion placed an emphasis upon, as well as what effects those religious beliefs (the product of social life) had on the lives of all within a society.
Durkheim's finding that religion was social can best be described by this excerpt from The Elementary Forms:
"The general conclusion of the book which the reader has before him is that religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain, or recreate certain mental states in these groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to participate in this nature common to all religious facts; they should be social affairs and the product of collective thought. At least -- for in the actual condition of our knowledge of these matters, one should be careful to avoid all radical and exclusive statements -- it is allowable to suppose that they are rich in social elements."
(Thompson, 1982, p. 125 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])
Recognizing the social origin of religion, Durkheim argued that religion acted as a source of solidarity and identification for the individuals within a society, especially as a part of mechanical solidarity systems, and to a lesser, but still important extent in the context of organic solidarity. Religion provided a meaning for life, it provided authority figures, and most importantly for Durkheim, it reinforced the morals and social norms held collectively by all within a society. Far from dismissing religion as mere fantasy, despite its natural origin, Durkheim saw it as a critical part of the social system. Religion provides social control, cohesion, and purpose for people, as well as another means of communication and gathering for individuals to interact and reaffirm social norms.
Durkheim's second purpose was in identifying certain elements of religious beliefs that are common across different cultures. A belief in a supernatural realm is not necessary or common among religions, but the separation of different aspects of life, physical things, and certain behaviors into two categories -- the sacred and the profane -- is common. Objects and behaviors deemed sacred were considered part of the spiritual or religious realm. They were part of rites, objects of reverence, or simply behaviors deemed special by religious belief. Those things deemed profane were everything else in the world that did not have a religious function or hold religious meaning. But while these two categories are rigidly defined and set apart, they interact with one another and depend on each other for survival. The sacred world cannot survive without the profane world to support it and give it life, and vice versa. In general, those aspects of social life given moral superiority or reverence are considered sacred, and all other aspects are part of the profane. For example, the Catholic Church respects the crucifix and the behaviors and actions performed during mass as sacred, while other behaviors and objects are not. While Native American societies differed greatly in the details, those religions also held certain objects and behavior sacred, such as certain animals and the rituals and rites performed by the shaman. This division of things into two separate but interacting spheres is common among all religions.
"...sacred things are simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects."
(1973, p. 159 [excerpt from "The Dualism of Human Nature and its Social Conditions"])
Durkheim, concerned with social solidarity throughout his academic career, was primarily concerned with religion as a functional source of social cohesion. As said before, religion acts to pull people together (mentally and physically, in the form of religious services or assemblies). By doing so, religion is able to reaffirm collective morals and beliefs in the minds of all members of society. This is important, because if left to their own for a long amount of time, the beliefs and convictions of individuals will weaken in strength, and require reinforcement. Religion maintains the influence of society -- whereas "society" represents the norms and beliefs held in common by a group of individuals.
"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden -- beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."
(1982, p. 129 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])
"This system of conceptions is not purely imaginary and hallucinatory, for the moral forces that these things awaken in us are quite real -- as real as the ideas that words recall to us after they have served to form the ideas."
(1973, p. 160 [excerpt from "The Dualism of Human Nature and its Social Conditions"])
"Since it is in spiritual ways that social pressure exercises itself, it could not fail to give men the idea that outside themselves there exist one or several powers, both moral and, at the same time, efficacious, upon which they depend."
(1973, p. 171 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])
"Since religious force is nothing other than the collective and anonymous force of the clan, and since this can be represented in the mind only in the form of the totem, the totemic emblem is like the visible body the god."
(1973, p. 184 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])
"But from the fact that a 'religious experience,' if we choose it this, does exist and that it has a certain foundation ... it does not follow that the reality which is its foundation conforms objectively to the idea which believers have of it."
(1973, p. 190 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])
"That which science refuses to grant to religion is not its right to exist, but its right to dogmatize upon the nature of things and the special competence which it claims for itself for knowing man and the world. As a matter of fact, it does not know itself. It does not even know what it is made of, nor to what need it answers."
(1973, p. 205 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])
Sources: Bellah, Robert N. 1973.
Emile Durkheim: On Morality and Society, Selected Writings. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Thompson, Kenneth. 1982.
Emile Durkheim. London: Tavistock Publications.