What were Durkheims views on Religion ?

Durkheim presented his views on religion such that it is a group phenomena which unifies the group and binds people together. During the last years of his teaching life, Durkheim’s interest has grown in the reading of Religion. In his classical work “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”, published in the year 1912 develops his sociological theory of Religion. In his book, he has explored the origin and cause of religion, and his main interest was the ways in which society was bound together. He investigated the role of religion in keeping society together.

A Functionalist Perspective of Religion

Religion is a social institution. Functional perspective analyse religion in terms of its functions or contributions that the religion makes for meeting the functional pre-requisites of society like social solidarity, value consensus, harmony and integration between different parts of society. According to the Functionalist, religion is functional and ensures the survival of the social system. Religion is an integrating force that makes people feel belongingness to the society. It provides people ways to affirm to common values, beliefs and ideals. It is collective consciousness and also serves as a central value system.

Durkheim and Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Durkheim explores the functional role of Religion in his book ‘The Elementary Forms of Religious Life ‘. His aim was to understand the basic forms of Religious life in all societies and also to why it is a permanent social institution. He made in-depth study of the religion of Arunta tribe of Australian aborigines, which he called ” the simplest and the most primitive known today”. The book contains a description and a detailed analysis of the clan system and of totemism of Arunta tribes. He made a sociological investigation to the totemic beliefs and the structure of totemism and discovered the causes leading to the religious sentiment in society. Based on thus study he developed a general theory of religion.

Durkheim believed that study of the primitive religion and its basic structure will lead to understanding of religion and religious nature of society so he examined religion from the perspective of positive science rather than from a spirit world as done by earlier theorists like Taylor and Max Muller. According to him, scientific investigation of the observable aspects of religion would lead to discovery of most basic elements underlying the religious life, which he calls elementary forms. The study of these elementary forms will facilitate the discovery of what is fundamental to the religious life in all societies.

Durkheim insisted that religious phenomena is communal rather than individual and religion is essentially social. For him, humans are religious because they are members of collectivities, and neither the group nor the individual can exist without moral or religious constraint. Religion is not imaginary but real, it is expression of our collective consciousness which means it does not relate to any individual and its basis is society itself.

Durkheim’s Definition of Religion

In Durkheim’s view, religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices forbidden to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden…..beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them “.

It is clear from the above definition that the social principle related with religion of Durkheim is based on the difference between purity and ordinary and the feeling to create the difference was raised on the basis of Totemism. In this way, Totem is the first source of genesis of religion and finally it is society because Totem is the collective representation or symbol of religion. The mysterious attitude of fear and respect towards religion and the esoteric and supernatural relations of the members of the tribe with Totem makes the feeling of purity to grow on that basis. As the result feeling of brotherhood develops among the members of the group and they got united in to a moral community. And hence, here lies the foundation of religion because on the basis of Totem, the collective moral community deserve that power and have to bow in front of it.

As per Durkheim religion has two central parts.

First, all religions are  defined in terms of a system of rites and beliefs. Belief is set of ideas and attitudes which are in relation to sacred things. Whereas rites are system of action, which is developed towards the religious things or objects.

Second, religion is defined on the basis of its tendency to divide the world into two regions, sacred and profane.

Durkheim argued that religion is primarily concerned with three kinds of activities:

  • first, maintain a separation between the sacred and profane
  • Second, laying down a system of beliefs for the faithful
  • Third, Setting up of rule that forbids certain ways of acting.

Religion emerges in society where we make distinction between the sacred- the area that is set apart, transcendental and extraordinary  and the profane- the realm of everyday utilitarian activities. An object becomes sacred and profane when the men choose to consider its utilitarian value and not the instrumental value. According to Durkheim, this distinction between sacred and profane is common to all religions. The sacred thing, Durkheim wrote, ” is par excellence that which the profane should not touch and cannot touch with impunity “. The special character of the sacred is the religious prescriptions that separate it radically from profane. The profane, according to him is something low in dignity and is radically opposite to sacred. However, these two interact and depend on each other for survival.

According to Durkheim religion teaches its members to consider the clear difference between the two and stay away from profane work because being away from sacred life is religious corruption.  In this way religion gives ordination to people to do sacred actions so that they can be free from sinful results and the purpose of religious ceremonies is to sanctify sinners or to convert an ordinary person into a pious person or to lift a religious person to the maximum level. Precisely, religion as per Durkheim represents a collective ideal.


Please follow and like us:

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)