Emile Durkheim’s Theory of Religion

Emile Durkheim was the pioneering mind behind the modern field of sociology.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ He believed in creating a scientific discipline exclusively for the study of society.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ He wished to approach this new avenue of study using scientific method, much like a biologist or chemist.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ “He insisted that social facts, no less than stones or seashells, are real things, as solid in their way as physical objects are in theirs.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ (Pals, 95)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ As such, Durkheim developed a regimented, scientific method of studying sociology.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ As would be expected, the study of society by its very nature needed to include reflection on external disciplines and their function within the society.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

One of the most basic sociologic principles Durkheim proposed was that society operates on a set of laws.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ He believed that society was an “accumulated body of facts – of language, laws, customs, ideas, values, traditions, techniques, and products – all of which are connected to one another and exist in a manner quite Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½external’ to individual human minds.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ (Pals, 95)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ He goes on to theorize that this accumulation pre-exists individual birth, and surpasses individual death as a means to condition members to be contributing members of society who understand how to behave within its pre-determined rules.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ (Pals, 95)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ These theories on the functionalism of law in society are key to examining Durkheim’s theories on the existence and function of religion.

Durkheim’s theory of religion is one developed out of his critique of previous study of religion.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ As he began to study his predecessor’s works and form his critiques, he found something very wrong with the work done by E.B. Tylor and J.G. Frazer.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Tylor and Frazer had proposed that religion had been developed in prehistory and based in an ancient Animism. For this proposition they had no real evidence.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ They merely gathered information from travelers, and, in an attempt to assimilate it, categorized it into similar patterns from cultures all over the world, leaving the context each piece of information served within its specific culture largely unaccounted for.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ According to Durkheim, this is not science. (Pals, 95)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ “It rests everything on surface similarities and very little on substance.” (Pals, 95)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Durkheim believed asking the questions where and when was a grave error in the study of religion.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ “If we truly want to be scientific about religion, we cannot rely on guesses about how people thought at the dawn of history.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ (Pals, 101)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ He believed, instead, in asking the questions why, and what for.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ “We must try to look instead for the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ever-present causes’ on which religion rests, the things that at all times and places push people to believe and behave in religious ways.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ (Pals, 101)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ In order to do this, Durkheim believed he needed to find the most primitive society on earth and study every aspect of its practices.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ For this, he studied accounts of in depth observation done by researchers before him on Aboriginal peoples in , who practiced Totemism.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ From these accounts, Durkheim deduced the earliest form of religion must have been Totemism.

From his research on the Aborigines, Durkheim was able to form his two most important theories on religion.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ He believed that, “morality, the obligation of each to others and to all the standards of the group, is inseparable from religion…. both religion and morals are inseparable from a social framework.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ We can not have either without a social context.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ (Pals, 95)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Since the idea of morality is, in fact, the same concept as the previously mentioned natural rules of society, it is clear that Durkheim believed religion was the very cement that held society together.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ However, this view has been highly criticized, with good reason, as a reductionist theory.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ He is attacked for reducing religion to a function only of sociology.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ This is simply not a viable approach.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Sigmund Freud was also able to reduce religion to a psychological neurosis, as Karl Marx reduced it to economics and the class struggle.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ All three of these reductionist approaches can be very persuasive on their own merits, but when compared, none can be viable, because all seem to be, at least somewhat, applicable.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Religion is a phenomenon that touches almost every discipline of modern thought, and it can not be reduced to serving an exclusive purpose in only one field.

Durkheim’s second major theory about religion was that religion is, at its very essence, society worshipping itself.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ He claims that the totem of the group practicing Totemism is the nothing less than the symbol of the community.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ It is held as sacred, belonging to everyone, and used only in situations involving the community.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ (Pals, 104)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ When combined with the first theory, it is clear that Durkheim believed Religion was the vehicle for the laws of society, and that vehicle was the reverence in which the society held itself.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ This whole theory sounds a lot like Durkheim’s original theory of sociology.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Naturally, this circular logic is a major point of contention among modern religion theorists.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ It is too easy to find evidence that supports a claim, rather than a claim that supports the evidence.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ (Pals, 115)Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ It is clear that Durkheim’s theory has some merit, as it is easy to see the relationship between religious law and social law, but the weaknesses in the theory are too great to dismiss.

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