Emile Durkheim on Religion


In the last lecture we looked at Durkheim’s
ideas on the weakening of the collective conscience through modernity—the division of labor,
weakening of primary groups and general social change. As we saw, this left the individual
without much moral guidance. As Durkheim was concerned with moral behavior
and social justice he naturally turned to the study of religion All religions divide social life into two
spheres, the “sacred” and the “profane.” There is nothing intrinsic about a particular object
which makes it sacred. An object becomes sacred only when the community invests it with that
meaning. [Religion is] “an eminently collective thing”
(1954, p.47). It serves to bind a community together. “The believer who has communicated with his
god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is
a man who is stronger. He feels within him more force, wither to endure the trials of
existence, or to conquer them” (1954, p. 416). Durkheim then goes a step further. Religion
is not only a social creation; it is the power of the community itself that is being worshiped.
The power of the community over the individual so transcends individual existence that people
collectively give it sacred significance. “What essential difference is there between
an assembly of Christians celebrating the principal dates in the life of Christ, or
of Jews remembering the exodus from Egypt or the promulgation of the Decalogue, and
a reunion of citizens commemorating the promulgation of a new moral or legal system or some great
event in the national life?” (1954, p. 427). By worshiping God people are unwittingly worshiping
the power of the collective over them—a power that both created and guides them. They
are worshiping society itself. Durkheim thought that the model for relationships
between people and the supernatural was the relationship between individuals and the community.
He is reputed for suggesting that “God is society, writ large—-though I can find no
citation for the quote, but it seems to be an accurate reflection of his beliefs. Durkheim
believed that people ordered the physical world, the supernatural world, and the social
world according to similar principles. Religion is one of the main forces that make
up the collective conscience; religion which allows the individual to transcend self and
act for the social good. But traditional religion was weakening under the onslaught of the division
of labor; what could replace religion as the common bond? Durkheim believed that “society has to be
present within the individual.” He saw religion as a mechanism that shored up or protected
a threatened social order. He thought that religion had been the cement of society in
the past, but that the collapse of religion would not lead to a moral implosion. Durkheim
was specifically interested in religion as a communal experience rather than an individual
one. “…and when these hours shall have been passed
through once, men will spontaneously feel the need of reliving them from time to time
in thought, that is to say, of keeping alive their memory by means of celebrations which
regularly reproduce their fruits. ..” “We have already seen how the French Revolution
established a whole cycle of holidays to keep the principles with which it was inspired
in a state of perpetual youth…” Durkheim believed that religion is “society
divinised,” as he argues that religion occurs in a social context. He also, in lieu of forefathers
before who tried to replace the dying religions, urged people to unite in a civic morality
on the basis that we are what we
are as a result of society. While men are losing faith in the old religions,
new religions will be born. For all societies feel the need to express their collective
sentiments, ideas, and ideologies in regular ceremony. All societies need a set of common
values and moral guidelines to inspire their members to transcend their selfishness. While the forms and particular symbols may
change, religion is eternal. Next time we will be discussing Durkheim’s
overall evolutionary theory. If you are interested in the big picture you
should take a look at Macro Social Theory, a book that reviews the theories of classical
macro social theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim as well as the
work of many who extended their theories to better reflect modern times such as Immanuel
Wallerstein, Gerhard Lenski, and George Ritzer. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles
of Structure and Change to learn how these insights contribute to a fuller understanding
of modern societies. These books can be purchased at most online
bookstores or at Athabasca University Press. If you are short of funds Athabasca also offers
a free pdf version of the work. A significant portion of the royalties I receive
for these books go to the Rogers State University Foundation in support of students in the Liberal
Arts. I thank you for your support and interest.

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