Elementary Forms

25718845420_4cfa5f527e_bEmile Durkheim desired to study religion scientifically. According to a social-scientific paradigm, the only way to do this was to maintain that religion was part of “the real.” To dismiss religion or religious belief as absurd was to negate the category of religion altogether. Durkheim set out to show how religion was in the real by claiming: religion is social, god and society are coequal, and that there is an essential distinction between the sacred and the profane. His thesis in the Forms is “that religious life both expresses and constructs the logical life of humankind…the elemental categories in which we think—time, space, number, cause, class, person, totality—have their origins in religious life.” This highlights Durkheim’s engagement with Immanuel Kant. For Durkheim, the Kantian categories are not hardwired into the brain. Categories have social origins and are collective products that have become sacralized, which then carry the authority of immutable, a priori truths. Religion, for Durkheim, is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things…things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community…all those who adhere to them.” Religious ideas can only be studied as they are being done or performed. One performance capable of being studied is the religious rite, which reveals the actuality of religious forces. At moments of collective effervescence (rituals), humans believe themselves to be and are in fact transformed. This is not some ethereal spirit of transformation, but rather a force experienced as external to each individual that is also created by the fact of assembling and temporarily living a collective life that transports individuals beyond themselves. Again, and this cannot be stressed enough, religion is eminently social. The power or force of religion is real when it is understood as humanity’s collective conscience and consciousness. The gods depend on humanity, not the other way around. In each society, there is a characteristic dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. This originates from the process of collective human doing. Sacredness is the very real and very human act of setting something apart and forbidding it. Humans then act as if that something had also been intrinsically sacred. In this way, the sacredness of an object is not only real, but also has real social sway. “Phenomena held to be religious consist in obligatory beliefs, connected with clearly defined practices which are related to given objects of those beliefs.” Durkheim is not setting out to debunk belief or practice, but rather to make it viable for social-scientific study.

*Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen E. Fields. New York: Free, 1995.

*This summary is for my upcoming comprehensive exam in the study of religion. Each week, I pick what I find to be the most interesting book of the current section and post a short summary of it.


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