Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life [Selections]27 Sep 2012
Durkheim sets out in Elementary Forms to uncover the truth or reality behind “the religious nature of man”(1). (And in this case, man may be appropriately gendered – it is unclear from the selections I read how women are religious if they are identified with the profane.) His method for addressing this question is to begin with the “simplest and most primitive religion” and to uncover from there the universal structures of religious experience(1). He chooses totemism as his primitive religion and works from the particular practices of Australian Aborigines to the idea of Mana, which is the physical force and moral power undergirding totemic life and, he claims, all religions (201). Mana then is explained as society itself — the social experience is the source for the experience of moral power and collective emotion. That experience is then associated with particular items, and those items become “sacred.”
Some points of note:
- He distinguishes “magic” from “religion” by claiming that magic is individual and seeking particular advantage in the world where religion is social, the collective representation of collective realities (9).
- He insists on a sharp dualism between the sacred and the profane, claiming that beliefs divide the world into these two categories and that much of religious practice is maintaining that separation. (Interestingly, it is the sacred that is contagious - the concern seems to be that if everything becomes sacred, nothing is sacred … unsure here).
- In the conclusion, religious practices, or the cult, is described as “the sum total of means by which that faith is created and recreated periodically” (420).
- Durkheim is definitely building upon Kant, particular the his ideas surrounding space/time and his emphasis on the role of morality in religion. Durkheim attributes the source of these things in the social.
- I am unsure, but it seems that the roots for the idea of civil religion can be found here.
While I am uncomfortable with Durkheim’s approach (any search for essence makes me nervous) and his goal to explain religion and religious experience in natural and horizontal terms, his descriptions about the power of the social and the experience of the social raise some intriguing questions. There is something very powerful about social gatherings for a single purpose, as seen in the heightened religious experience often recorded at extended revivals. Camp meetings and innovations in religious experiences that come out of them could be explored along these lines.
I am also curious as to where Protestant, and particularly Calvinist, religious practice fits into Durkheim’s scheme. It is unclear to me where a religion that insists on the sacredness of all labor and the everyday would fit when sacred and profane are described as opposing and needing to be kept separate.