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The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Intro. 'Subject of our Study: Religious Sociology and the Theory of Knowledge.'

According to DH, a religious system is most primitive when it is found in a society with the simplest form of organization, and when it is possible to explain the religious system without using any element borrowed from a previous religion. The study of simple religions shows us an essential and permanent aspect of humanity, as well as leads to an understanding of the religious nature of man (13). At the foundation of all systems of beliefs there are a number of fundamental representations, concepts, and ritual attitudes which, despite the diversity of their forms, have the same objective significance and fulfill the same functions everywhere (17).

Primitive civilizations offer privileged cases of the study of religion. These societies are characterized by simplicity and conformity of thought and conduct. The religion Durkheim will analyze in this book is foreign to any idea of a god or divinity. The 'forces' to which the rites are addressed are very different from those in modern religions, yet they aid us in understanding modern religions (19). When primitive religious beliefs are systematically analyzed, the principal categories of understanding are found . In fact, they are a product of religious thought (22).

Religion is eminently social. Religious representations express collective realities. Religious rites are a manner of acting which arises from assembled groups and are destined to excite certain mental states in these groups. The categories of understanding are of religious origin; they are social affairs and the product of collective thought (22). these categories include time, specie, class, force, personality, and efficacy (23-5).

DH states that society is the highest representation of nature. 'The social realm is a natural realm which differs from the others only by greater complexity' (31). However, nature does not differ radically from one case to another. The relations that exist between things are essentially similar across realms (31). Although the categories of time, space, class, cause and personality are constructed out of social elements, their social origin points to the fact that they have a foundation in the realm of nature (32).

Thus DH unites two opposing viewpoints in his theory of knowledge (the categories of understanding). The apriorists believe that knowledge is made up of empirical fact and representation. On the other hand, the empiricists only study positive knowledge. DH claims that the theory of knowledge (wherein the categories of thought have a dual social and natural nature) combines all the principles of the apriorists and the empiricists. According to him, the categories of understanding are no longer single empirical facts but are 'complex instruments of [human thought]' (32).


In this chapter DH also postulates on the dual nature of man. There are two beings in man: an individual whose foundation is in his body and whose circle of activity is very limited, and a social being which represents the intellectual and moral order of society (29).

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Book 1 Chp1 'Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion'

In this chapter Durkheim defines religion. In the first two sections, he sets forth definitions of religion which are erroneous, in order to assist readers in freeing their minds of misconceptions. to begin with he argues that the supernatural is not a characteristic of the religious (39). in order to say something is supernatural, it must happen out of the natural order of things (41). However, the idea of a necessary order did not exist before the construction of the positive sciences. Furthermore, religion's main goal is to explain every day events. It is not true that the notion of religion coincides with the extraordinary or the unforeseen. hence the idea of the supernatural is not of primitive origin; man has forged it as he has developed science (43).

Next, DH asserts that all religions cannot be associated with divinity or the worship of a supreme deity. Some religions, Buddhism for example, stress other practices instead. In Buddhism, salvation is the worshippers' primary concern -- not Buddha (47). DH also contends that even with the deistic religions, there are many rites which are completely independent of any idea of gods (e.g.: the Bible forbids wearing garments of flax and hemp) (49). hence, all religious powers do not emanate from divine personalities (50).

DH now begins his discussion of religion. first, he characterizes all the elementary phenomena which comprise religion (51). Religious phenomena can be classified in two fundamental categories: beliefs and rules. Beliefs are states of opinion and consist in representations, whereas rites are determined modes of action (51).

All religious beliefs classify things as either profane or sacred. Sacred things are considered superior in dignity and power to profane things, particularly men (52). Men typically consider themselves inferior to anything sacred; yet if man depends on gods, this dependence is reciprocal. without the offerings and sacrifices of man, gods would die (53).

Despite the heterogeneity of sacred and profane things, it is possible for the profane to pass into the world of the sacred. For example, this occurs when men are initiated into religious life with certain ceremonies (54).

However, the sacred and the profane are so heterogeneous that their differences eventually break down into antagonism. men are exhorted to withdraw themselves completely fro the profane world in order to lead an exclusively religious lives. the profane and the sacred cannot approach each other and keep their own nature at the same time (55).

Hence, we arrive at the criteria for religious beliefs. 'Religious beliefs are the representations which express the nature of the scared things and their relations with each other or with profane things. Rites are the rules of conduct which prescribe how a man should comport himself in the presence of these sacred objects' (56).

The totality if these beliefs, when organized in a way so as to form a system having a certain unity and a strict independence from other systems, constitutes a religion . A religion is not made up of a single idea; it is a whole made up of distinct parts. All religions recognize a plurality of sacred things, in addition to the system of cults -- each with some autonomy (56). Because of the variety of cults, there exist groups of religious phenomena which do not belong to any specific religion. If a cult survives while the group of people which practiced it disintegrates, the cult may remain as folk lore.

There is a distinction between magic and religion. Magic , like religion, is made up of beliefs and rites. It also has its dogmas, but they are less speculative because they have utilitarian ends. However, whereas religion has a church and a community of worshippers with common beliefs, there is no church in magic (60). The magician has a clientele and it is quite possible that none of them know each other (59-60). magic lacks the moral community formed by all the believers in a single faith (61). From this DH derives a more detailed definition of religion: 'a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things...things set apart and forbidden -- beliefs and practices which unite all those who adhere to them into one moral community ' (62). Because religion is inseparable from the church, it is clear that religion is eminently collective (63).

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Book 3 Chp 4 'The Positive Cult -- cont'd'

Religious rites are observed not for the physical effects they might produce, but to remain faithful to the past and to maintain the groups normal physiognomy. Rites remake individuals and groups morally (414-5).

DH uses the cases of the Warramunga, the Intichuma, and the Arunta to illustrate the above proposition. Although they are separate entities, each tribe has a rite which commemorates a single ancestor. This rite recollects the past and also brings it to the present through a dramatic representation. The officiant is not an incarnation of the ancestor, but an actor playing a role(416).

These ceremonies are dramas which are believed to act on the course of nature (418). However, their most important function is to sustain the vitality of the mythic beliefs common to the group, and hence, revivify the most essential elements of the collective consciousness. Through ritual, individuals are strengthened in their social natures. The rite exercises a moral action more so than a physical action.

Not all rituals are performed with the external goal of acting on nature for material ends. Some simply represent the past for the sake of representing it (420). When the participants leave the ceremony, they go with a sense of moral well being (423). Ceremonies attach themselves to totems, which are incapable of physical effect. They can only exist in representations whose object is to commemorate the past (424).

Aside from illustrating the nature of a certain cult, ritual representations also serve recreative and aesthetic purposes. Rituals restore the moral of the group. They allow men to pass from the real world to an imaginary one. They even pass from the commemorative rite to public merrymaking. Some religious ceremonies, whose soul object is to distract, were probably ancient rites. Even games and art have retained a religious character (425). Recreation is one of the forms of moral remaking, which is the principal goal of the rite.

A religious rite can have a plurality of specific purposes. For instance, fasting is a penance, a preparation for communion, and it even confers 'positive virtues.' Inversely, many rites can produce the same effect and mutually replace one another. For instance, to assure the reproduction of the totemic species, one can resort to oblations, imitative practices, or commemorative representations. This proves the plasticity and extreme generality of useful action which stems from the rites (431). Most importantly, common sentiments are expressed in common acts. The particular nature of these acts is secondary.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life


In the final chapter, Durkheim equates religion to society. He says that society is the cause of the sui generis sensations of the religious experience. Furthermore, social action dominates religious life (466).

In addition, the fundamental categories of thought and science have religious origin. In fact, nearly all great social institution, moral and legal rules, have a basis in religion. Religion is the concentrated reflection of collective life, and its principal purpose is to influence moral life (466-7).

Religion systematically idealizes. Collective life 'awakens' religious thought in order to bring about a state of effervescence which changes the conditions of psychic activity. Thus man places another world -- a sacred, ideal; world -- above his every day profane life (469). In creating new ideals, society remakes itself (470).

Although certain religious symbols mat disappear with time, every society will always feel the need to reaffirm the collective sentiments which make up its unity (474-5).

There are two elements of religious life. Feasts and rites (the cult)are a system of practices oriented toward action. The second is a system of ideas whose object is to explain the world (476). religion attempts to explain realities by connecting things with each other -- to systematize them. Scientific logic actually stems from the methodology of religion.

DH next begins a discussion on the concept as a collective representation. Although a concept may not apply to every individual, it corresponds to the way in which society considers the things of its own experience (483). By the mere fact that society exists, there is a whole system of representations by means of which men understand each other.

A collective representation guarantees objectivity because it is collective. It was been able to maintain and generalize itself because it has sufficient reason -- the men who accept it verify it by their own experience. Thus, DH takes it as an axiom that religious beliefs contain a truth which must be discovered (486).

DH reiterates that the categories of knowledge (time, space ,etc.)are social. Since they are concepts themselves, they are the work of the group (488). The relationships which they express could only have been learned through society (491). Time, space, and class were all created out of cooperation (492). Yet logical organization differentiates itself from its original social organization as societies expand and integrate. Social moulds must readapt. human thought is not a primitive fact, but it is a product of history (493).

Hence there is not really such a great antinomy between science and religion. Both systems of thought are directed toward the universal and imply that the individual can raise himself above his own point of view and live an impersonal life. Impersonal reason is synonymous with collective thought.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

Book 2 Chp 7 'Origins of these Beliefs'

In this chapter, DH discusses how men have constructed the belief in totems. A totem in religion is ' a symbol, a material expression of something else' (236). it symbolizes god, but also the society which worships it (the clan). In fact, the god of the clan is nothing else than the clan itself, personified under the visible form of the totem (typically animal or vegetable) (236). The totem's efficacy comes from its psychical power over its worshippers as well as its moral authority over the society (238).

Because people do not perceive what the cause of the force of the collective conscious is, they believe it comes from a force outside themselves. This is the moral conscience and men have always represented it with religious symbols (242).

Consequently humans get the impression that there are two sorts of reality: on the one hand there are profane things, and on the other, there are sacred things. Society constantly creates sacred things out of ordinary ones (243). humans add sacred qualities to objects (261). Society consecrates men and ideas.

The individual cannot penetrate the sacred without 'entering into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy' (250). Hence, in the midst of this effervescence, DH contends, the religious idea seems to be born (250). By concentrating itself almost entirely on in specific moments, collective life has been able to attain its greatest intensity and efficacy, as well as give men a more active sentiment of the double existence they lead (251).

DH explains how collective forces come to be thought of under the forms of totems, especially in the shape of an anima or plant. he first contends that the transfer of sentiments to a thing comes from the fact that the idea of a thing and the idea of its symbol are closely related in our minds. The result is that emotions provoked by the one extend to the other. Since widespread emotions are common to a group, they must be associated to something that is common to all (primitive clans: plants and animals). This is the totemic emblem(252).

The totemic emblem is like the visible body of god; it represents the collective force of the clan -- its religious force (253). Religious forces are moral powers because they translate to the way in which the collective conscious acts on individual consciousnesses (254). Totems have a dual purpose: they animate and discipline minds, but they also [are believed to] make plants grow and animals reproduce.

Religion is a system of ideas with which individuals represent to themselves their own society, and the obscure but intimate relations which they have with it (257). Religion strengthens the bonds attaching the individual to the society of which he is a member (258).

The clan chooses to rally around an emblem because not only does it clarify the sentiment society has of itself, but it also serves to create this sentiment (262). If social sentiments are connected with something that endures (emblem), the sentiments themselves become more durable. Emblems constantly bring collective sentiments to the fore (263).

Social life is only made possible by a vast system of symbols. Yet the clan is not the only society which uses totemic practices. generally speaking, a collective sentiment can become 'conscious of itself' only by being fixed on some material object. Social necessity brings about this fusion of things and social life facilitates their union.

Durkheim also reiterates that because religion fostered the idea that there are internal connections between things, it opened up the way for science and philosophy. This is of course, because religion is a social affair which stems from collective thought.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Book 3 Chp1 'The Negative Cult and its Functions: the Ascetic rites.'

In this chapter DH will illustrate the characteristic attitudes which the primitive observes in the celebration of his cult, and will classify the most general forms of his rites as well as explain their origins. DH asserts that every cult has a double aspect --negative and positive. Two sorts of rites are closely associated to this double aspect (337).

The purpose of the negative cult (or rites) is to separate sacred and profane beings. These rites forbid certain ways of acting in the form of interdictions. Religious interdiction implies the notion of sacredness (338-9).

Some examples of religious interdictions are: Australian tribe members (profane) are forbidden to carry the bones of a dead men (sacred) unless they are wrapped in bark. A moral general example is: people (profane) cannot consume certain forbidden animal meats (sacred). (341-2). moreover, if certain foods are forbidden to the profane because they are sacred, other foods are forbidden to sacred person because they are profane. In either case, contact between the two is forbidden.

Nothing which either directly or indirectly concerns the profane life should be confused with the religious lie (344). In general all acts characteristic of the ordinary life are forbidden while religious events are taking place (345-6). These rules are strongest for the public cult, or public practice of religion, as opposed to an individual's private practice of religion (which DH contends is still influenced by social religion) (347).

Up to this point, the negative cult appears only to be a system of abstentions. Nonetheless, it is found to exercise a positive action on the religious and moral nature of the individual. The individual cannot lead any religious life unless he begins to withdraw somewhat from temporal life. In this manner then, the negative cult is a condition of access to the positive cult (348). For instance, the result of the numerous interdictions of the negative cult in primitive religions is to bring about a radical change in the initiate to the given religion. after he takes part in the rather primitive negative rites, he acquires a sacred character and is considered reborn by the rest of the group (350). y The understanding of the positive effects of negative rites allows us to better understand the purposes of asceticism. Both ancient and modern religions attribute a sanctifying and strengthening power to suffering (354-5). DH explains the reason for this :'suffering is the sign that...certain of the bonds attaching [the individual] to his profane environment are broken; so it testifies that he is partially freed from his environment' (355). In order to serve his gods (the positive cult), the individual must sacrifice his profane interests (356).

But asceticism and the negative cult do not serve only religious purposes. Religious interests are only the symbolic form of social and moral concerns. Not only do the gods demand suffering and abnegation from their followers, but so does society. To fulfill his duties to society, the individual will always have to suppress his instincts, whatever the dogmas or mythologies of the time (356).

The main reason for the necessity of the separating powers of the negative cult is the 'contagiousness' of the sacred world. Certain rites, objects, or people are sacred, yet they cannot help but to come into contact with the profane, by virtue of the multitude of other things they are associated with. The sanctity of sacred things is contagiously transmitted to everything which evokes the idea of them (359). Hence, even the least proximity (material or moral) can draw religious forces out of their domain. Precautions in the form of the negative cult are essential to keep things in their separate domains (358-360). From this, DH concludes that 'every profanation implies a consecration'(560).

The extreme facility with which religious forces diffuse is not surprising. Religious forces are collective moral forces which are made up of ideas that stem from society sui generis (362). The sacred contagion' is not a process where religious forces leave the objects in which they are embodied. The religious value of objects was conferred to them by society. Thus, the same religious principle can animate very different objects and this explains how plants, animals, people, and even rocks are made into totems (i.e. Jesus - lamb - fig leaves- -crosses).

To close this chapter, DH draws a relationship between religion and the sciences (for the ten millionth time). Scared contagion, by showing the connectedness of things, opened the way for future scientific thought which utilizes the important concept of relationships between things that do not appear to be connected (365).

Note: negative rites: separate the sacred from the profane via prohibitions positive rites: stess the individual's commitment and membership in the social community piacular (expiatory) rites: confirm the loss of group members by specifying ways of cpoing. 'funeral are for the living.'


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