During his lifetime, Emile Durkheim was hailed as a famous French sociologist, psychologist and philosopher who, together with Karl Marx and Max Weber established the academic field we now know as social science. Durkheim published a number of seminal sociological works one of which was The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, which explained the origins of religion.
Durkheim (1912) believes that religion "is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things”. Durkheim referred to sacred things as “apart and forbidden.” Beliefs and practices may also be considered as “sacred” and they help unite a community through moral beliefs and practices under an institution called “Church.” Today, what is sacred and holy, according to Durkheim, evolved from the object to individual and individual rights, which individuals and organizations fervently fight for.
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) is considered by many the conclusive statement on religion of the Durkheimian school. In fact, this is rather a simplification of a more complicated intellectual history. A more careful evaluation of the examinations of religious phenomena by the members of the Durkeimian teams demonstrates some intriguing theoretical distinctions that give rise to broader differences in intellectual position-taking and helps explain serious differences in the trajectory influence of the Durkheimian school on subsequent generations of intellectuals. These differences stem largely from the description of the nature of the sacred in the Durkheimian tradition (Alexander and Smith, 2005).
The sacred is of course the key to the Durkheimian definition of religion. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim proceeds in typical fashion toward a working definition of thise difficult category by eliminating competing definitions, only offering his own after all others examined have been effectively annihilated. Religion he argues can only adequately and inclusively be characterized as ideas and rites oriented toward the setting aside and protection of sacred things. In my point of view, sacred may be defined merely as those things set aside and protected in any given society. But this is clearly a circular definition. In any society, Durkheim asserts that there things sacred and there are things profane.
The profane is someone content to leave with a negative definition: that which is not sacred (example, the profane), as this is the substantive category upon which his entire theory of religion is based. The sacred inspires respect, but why? What is it about sacred things that so inspire us and that allow us to distinguish them from profane things? Is it also possible that this awe-inspiring capacity monolithic and identical in all sacred things?
Totem as the Symbol of the Clan and its God
In talking about God and the society, Durkheim makes use of the concepts of totem and totemic principle. A totem is an object or a living thing, such as a bird, animal or plant that a group regards with special awe, reverence and respect. It is what has often been mistaken by outside observers of so-called primitive people as an object of worship-a false god or idol-in Christian terms. Durkheim says the object is not worshipped per see. What is important is what the totem represents; what it represents is worshipped. The totem is only a symbol of something more fundamental (Johnstone, 2007).
The totem symbolizes something. It stands for a concrete expression of the superficial and apparent. It stands for what you see about the totemic belief of god. On the other hand, it also represents a clan, society or community. It gives the clan its meaning, that uniqueness that makes it stand apart from other else. It is the meaning that gives the clan the reason why it exists so. It gives its men its identity and stamps ownership to animals and things the clan deems belongs to it.
Therefore if the totem means the existence both of god and of society, does this mean that society and god are of the same entity? Is it possible that the insignia of the clan is also its deity? Or are they two separate entities? Or, could it also be that the totemic principle itself is the clan transformed and looked upon in a more sacred manner through representations of objects or animals that the clan decided it should considered as its totem?
The Power of Religious Ceremonies
Durkheim's perspectives explain both the extrinsic sacredness of religious symbols and the intimate link between groups and symbols. He rejects the argument that the inherent qualities of what the totems ostensibly represent inspire these feelings, because the totems represent not awesome forces of nature, such as thunder and lightning but the most extraordinary, mundane objects of everyday existence, such as plants, or more typically, animals like kangaroos or crows. Furthermore, these things themselves are not sacred (Stones, 2008).
Clearly, the totem's sacredness is not intrinsic but superimposed. But by what? Participants feel the power and emotion generated by religious ceremonies. Unable to explain the origin of that power, they attribute it to some object in their presence, which thereby becomes sacred. Furthermore, Durkheim argued, if the totem stands for the clan, is that not not because the clan and the totem are ultimately the same thing, because the totem represents the power of society that is especially manifest during collective religious ceremonies? Durkheim concluded that religion is simple society worshipping itself. He explained how a particularly intense form of interaction, religious or ritual interaction, creates an especially powerful form of integration.
Hechter, M. and C. Horne (2003). Theories of Social Order: A Reader. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Johnstone, R. L. (2007) Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion. Oxon: Routledge.
Alexander, J.C. and P. Smith, eds. (2005). The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stones, R., editor (2008). Key Sociological Thinkers: Second Edition. New York: Palgrave McMillan.