Emile Durkheim: Elementary Religious Forms…Shedding Light on Belief

By Ian G Graham.

durkhiemThe French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), argued in his timeless classic Elementary Forms of the Religious Life that a common thread appears in the characterization of all religious belief systems from their simple to complex forms. Within these systems a presupposed process occurs dividing and classifying things in the world as “real and ideal.” Further division takes place, writes Durkheim, when humans assign things to “classes and groups” that adjudge them to be either “sacred or profane.” Once they enter the world they are constructed as two monoliths of knowledge, one that is sacred and the other which is profane – underpinning all religious thought – magic, beliefs, myths, superstitions, legends and dogmas. It is in the expression of sacred virtues and powers connected with these that representational systems emerge.

Durkheim’s work is important to any discussion concerning God and religion because it looks at how basic forms of belief were initiated from a raw base of understanding of objects in the world  and projected forward in time and space through human dualistic conceptions of reality (and I my opinion, apply to not only religious systems we are familiar with but to quasi-religions in the modern age – see below and in further posts).

What Durkheim affirms is that something is firmly rooted in humans – a continual need to construct identity through our judgments about what we perceive are essential ideas about the world – those ideas which dominate our intellectual life.

Philosophers like Aristotle posits Durkheim, referred to these as “categories of understanding” – ideas that surround space and time, number, substance, personality, class and cause, all of which relate to the “universal properties of things”.

They stand rock solid in time and permeate human thought. For example, wouldn’t it be impossible to think of objects not represented by number in space and time? (See Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Free Press New York 1965. Introduction pp. 13-15, 16-25, 51-7.)

In an article titled “Environmentalism as Religion”, author Michael Crichton sees the basic structures Durkheim writes about reflected in modernity in the case of environmentalism (something many contend is a quasi-religion) however, he makes this general statement about the formation of belief systems in secular society:

“I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can’t be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people—the best people, the most enlightened people—do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You cannot believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.” (See M Crichton, “Environmentalism is a Religion.” Hawai’i Free Press, April 22, 2015.)

Crichton is undoubtedly right, in my opinion, because humans so to speak, need to nail their colors to the mask and wrap their intellect around a set of values and morals within a commonly agreed system. Humans continually form judgments about others and how one measures up based on one’s actions. Again most would deny they are somehow connected in some way or form to a belief system, whether it happens to be religious or secular, yet I don’t’ see how one can escape it, unless of course one is able to refrain from giving some sort of definition to the world one lives in. Take an animal rights activist associating with people at a Sunday afternoon barbecue, where they are all sitting around laughing and enjoying every bite from a plateful of mixed grills. Don’t you think he might feel guilty and compelled to say something when he’s formed a rock solid judgment that what’s going on in front of him is morally wrong?