November 07, 2005

Social origin of religion

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. 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.

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 reverance, 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 reveance 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. 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.

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