Elementary forms of Religious Life by Durkheim

Elementary forms of religious life: The general meaning of the term religion is understood as the belief, faith, rituals and traditions followed by an individual or individuals pertaining to a group or community. In the present modern society, there are many major religions working along with the complexities of social structures that define and project certain ideas and ideologies of the particular religious group which in-turn defines and organizes the group or community. But did religion already exist in its complex form since the beginning of time? If one says religion is one institute that holds a society together, what does it really mean? What is the role of religion in groups, communities or societies at large? These are the prime questions that one needs to ask in order to understand the term religion.

elementary forms of religious life

Emile Durkheim (1859-1917) a French sociologist and one of the dominant figures in the field of sociology and social sciences of the late 19th century and early 20th century opined that religion is found in all societies, primitive, medieval or modern and the simplest form of religion is found in the primitive society with no complexities and in its most elementary form. By complexities what one needs to understand is that the more a society evolves the more social structures it builds.  Therefore, he asserts that any social institute (here religion for instance) can be understood best in its most elementary form with no influences from other social structure of the society. However, it is not to defy the fact that all social institutions are interrelated or interconnected.

The ‘Elementary Forms of Religious Life’ published in 1912 and translated in 1915 is one of the exemplary books in understanding the primitive form of religion or rather the origin of religion. In his work, what Durkheim highlights is the relationship developed between man and nature which is the ground on which religion is established in the first place. In a primitive society, the relation between man and nature is a close relationship, one guarded by the respect and an inexplicable aura of nature’s power over man. A functionalist Theorist, Durkheim in his study of religion emphasized on the survival and functions of the structure of religion in the primitive society of the Australian Island. By functions, we understand the tactics of the structure of religion and society for maintaining equilibrium and organization opposed to the dysfunctions of the society.

Following Durkheim’s perspective of the study of religion and its structure, we can say that he emphasized the social nature and social aspect of religion. The world of religion in a society for him is divided into Sacred and Profane, “a unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden”. The concept of sacred and profane defines Durkheim’s study of religion. Moreover, it is the nature of the concept of Sacred, the inexplicable and authoritative aura that guided and maintains the system of belief in a primitive society.

The above two concepts are characterized by its binary forces, such as good and evil, clean and dirty, holy and defiled, etc. Durkheim in his study of religion emphasizes on three main activities that build the structure of religion,

i) maintaining a separation between sacred and profane,

ii) laying down a system of beliefs for the faithful,

iii) setting up a system of rules that forbid certain ways of acting.

Basically, emphasizing on the separation and demarcation between the two realms, sacred and profane. The former which is highlighted by its transcendental and extraordinariness and the later that of the everyday mundane activities and this form of distinction between the two realms is most distinctive and common in most society.

The Sacred embodies the transcendental gods and deities or natural things or objects, beliefs, rites and practices of words, expression or combination of words socially claiming of religious treatment. In Durkheim’s words, “The Sacred thing is par excellence that which the profane should not touch and cannot touch with impunity” and it is separated from the profane by its manifestation of ritual prescriptions and prescriptions. The Profane, on the other hand, is seen completely opposite to Sacred. For Durkheim, the Profane has the capacity to contaminate the Sacred by which one understands that Sacred is defined and distinguished in relation to profane. However rigidly defined, the two categories are interdependent to each other for the functioning and maintaining the structure of religion. However one must understand that an object is intrinsically neither sacred nor mundane but becomes one or the other under the influence of the ascribed value attached to it by the individuals of the society.

The Sacred is defined by the Totem which is an embodiment of an animal or ancestral figure of the particular clan or community. Totemism, as one understands, is the belief in the idea of relation to the spirits of animals or plants of the society which exuberate the idea of belongingness to the community. It is integrally connected with the clan system of organization, which is characteristic of the Australian Societies. One of the dominant features of the Totemic structure is that the name that denotes the identity of the clan group is that of the material object which becomes the Totem. The belief system of the community is guarded by the rituals and traditions of the community performed by the individuals collectively. This form of collective performance or activity in religious context instils in the individuals a sense of belonging, togetherness thereby developing the collective consciousness in the group/community.

As a result, religion, according to Durkheim, is a source of understanding the social world, the binding forces of social structure, and the development of communal emotion based on social beliefs and rituals practiced in a specific group or society. This forms the basis of development and maintaining collective solidarity in a society, sui generis which for him is an entity itself.

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