Emile Durkheim: The Social As Sacred
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French professor of scientific sociology, a discipline he helped popularize and make so commonplace that we think of it now as commonplace and mundane. He was born in Strasburg, in the North of France in a predominantly Catholic city, the son of a rabbi who eventually converted to Catholicism, Durkheim was raised as a Jew in a predominantly Catholic city. He graduated from the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure and eventually became a professor at the University of Paris when he was 44 years of age only. His books were pivotal for the time he wrote them. “The Division of Labor” (1893), “the Rules of Sociological Method” (1895) “Suicide” (1897) and his classic text in the theory of religion “Elementary Forms of the Religious Life” (1912). He died in 1917, after a massive stroke, crushed by the death of his only son in the World War I.
For Durkheim humans do not just exist, they belong because they are bound to their community, family, clan, church, political party etc. It is in his theory society that is shaping every thought and behavior of the human. He examined and was determined to explain every aspect of the human behavior: work and leisure, crime and punishment, language and logic, self and other, education, politics, arts, and most importantly religion.
Durkheim did not believe in a supernatural spiritual being. He reduced religion to a separation between all things sacred (important matters or great concerns that affect the community) and all things profane (things that are personal, private and concern the minor daily needs of the individual). He looks at the social aim and the purpose of worship, at the ideas of the soul, consciousness and immortality, at the belief in ancient spirits, gods, the “god” of the community, the ancestors as gods and simplifies ritual in a basic form. Durkheim states that the man needs the god (life is organized around the worship) as much as the god needs the man (god would not exist without the worship). God is an authority upon which humans depend and a strength upon which the human strength lies. Conversely the god needs the human worship and sacrifice for its own survival. He finds the existence of god and religious to be an integral and necessary part of society.
For Durkheim a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things (things set apart and forbidden) which unite into one single, moral community called “a church” all those who adhere to them. A religion is comprised of intellectual conceptions and ritual practices.
At the center of religion Durkheim places the worship of the totem, which he claims is the visible force of god for those who believe in the god. The totemic principle, an impersonal force within and around the totem, is the “god” of the clan. For Durkheim rituals are more sacred than beliefs and performed in three distinct manners: positive rituals (celebration, worship, positive reinforcement, afirmation); negative rituals (taboo, rituals of denial); and piacular rituals (rituals of atonement centered upon violent events of societal disruption like death).
Durkheim goes as far as explaining the concept of the soul in his reductionary theory. The soul is united to the body and yet it is separate from the body. He claims there are two souls, one that is within us and one that is above us whose function is to control and assist the first soul. He also examines the theory of the “mana” or life force of the individual. In this instance I agree with his theory that the stronger the mana is the higher or more prominent a place a human will achieve in society, until the individual breaks free of society that is.
Durkheim explains religion in rational terms as a system of societal based ideas. Thus there is something destined to survive all the peculiar symbols it is enveloped with. Religion survives because individuals get together through reunions, assemblies, meetings and ceremonies and reaffirm their set of beliefs. It is said that science denies religion but religion exists as a reality. So Durkheim framed religion in this theory in a way that allows religion to transcend the god it serves and to exist purely as a societal phenomenon.