The Sociologyof Religion

Durkheim's earlier concern with social regulation was in themain focused on the more external forces of control, moreparticularly legal regulations that can be studied, so he argued,in the law books and without regard to individuals. Later he wasled to consider forces of control that were internalized inindividual consciousness. Being convinced that "society hasto be present within the individual," Durkheim, followingthe logic of his own theory, was led to the study of religion,one of the forces that created within individuals a sense ofmoral obligation to adhere to society's demands.

Durkheim had yet another motive for studying the functions ofreligion--namely, concern with mechanisms that might serve toshore up a threatened social order. In this respect he was inquest of what would today be described as functional equivalentsfor religion in a fundamentally a-religious age.

Durkheim stands in the line of succession of a number ofFrench thinkers who pondered the problem of the loss of faith.From the days when the Jacobins had destroyed Catholicism inFrance and then attempted to fill the ensuing moral void byinventing a synthetic Religion of Reason, to Saint-Simon's NewChristianity and Comte's Religion of Humanity, French secularthinkers had grappled with the modern problem of how public andprivate morality could be maintained without religious sanctions.They had asked, just like Ivan Karamasov: "Once God is dead,does not everything become permissible?" Durkheim would nothave phrased the question in such language, but he was concernedwith a similar problem. In the past, he argued, religion had beenthe cement of society--the means by which men had been led toturn from the everyday concerns in which they were variouslyenmeshed to a common devotion to sacred things. By thus wrenchingmen from the utilitarian preoccupations of daily life, religionhad been the anti-individualistic for par excellence,inspiring communal devotion to ethical ends that transcendedindividual purposes. But if the reign of traditional religiousorientations had now ended, what would take their place? Wouldthe end of traditional religion be a prelude to the dissolutionof all moral community into a state of universal breakdown andanomie?

Such questions intensified Durkheim's concern with thesociology of religion, adding to the intrinsic interest he had interms of the internal logic of his system. Basic to his theory isthe stress on religious phenomena as communal rather thanindividual. "A religion is a unified system of beliefs andpractices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things setapart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite in onesingle moral community called a Church, all those who adhere tothem."19 In contrast to William James, forexample, Durkheim was not concerned with the variety of religiousexperience of individuals but rather with the communal activityand the communal bonds to which participation in religiousactivities gives rise.

Durkheim argued that religious phenomena emerge in any societywhen a separation is made between the sphere of the profane--therealm of everyday utilitarian activities--and the sphere of thesacred--the area that pertains to the numenous, thetranscendental, the extraordinary. An object is intrinsicallyneither sacred nor profane. It becomes the one or the otherdepending on whether men choose to consider the utilitarian valueof the object or certain intrinsic attributes that have nothingto do with its instrumental value. The wine at mass has sacredritual significance to the extent that it is considered by thebeliever to symbolize the blood of Christ; in this context it isplainly not a beverage. Sacred activities are valued by thecommunity of believers not as means to ends, but because thereligious community has bestowed their meaning on them as part ofits worship. Distinctions between the spheres of the sacred andthe profane are always made by groups who band together in a cultand who are united by their common symbols and objects ofworship. Religion is "an eminently collective thing."20It binds men together, as the etymology of the word religiontestifies.

But if religion, the great binding force, is on its deathbed,how then can the malady of modern society, its tendency todisintegrate, be upheld? Here Durkheim accomplished one of hismost daring analytical leaps. Religion, he argued, is not only asocial creation, but it is in fact society divinized. In a mannerreminiscent of Feuerbach, Durkheim stated that the deities whichmen worship together are only projections of the power ofsociety. Religion is eminently social: it occurs in a socialcontext, and, more importantly, when men celebrate sacred things,they unwittingly celebrate the power of their society. This powerso transcends their own existence that they have to give itsacred significance in order to visualize it.

If religion in its essence is a transcendental representationof the powers of society, then, Durkheim argued, thedisappearance of traditional religion need not herald thedissolution of society. All that is required is for modern mennow to realize directly that dependence on society which beforethey had recognized only through the medium of religiousrepresentations. "We must discover the rational substitutesfor these religious notions that for a long time have served asthe vehicle for the most essential moral ideas."21Society is the father of us all; therefore, it is to society weowe that profound debt of gratitude heretofore paid to the gods.The following passage, which in its rhetoric is ratheruncharacteristic of Durkheim's usual analytical style, revealssome of his innermost feelings:

Society is not at all the illogical or a-logical, incoherent and fantastic being which has too often been considered. Quite on the contrary, the collective consciousness is the highest form of psychic life, since it is the consciousness of consciousness. Being placed outside of and above individual and local contingencies, it sees things only in their permanent and essential aspects, which it crystallizes into communicable ideas. At the same time that it sees from above, it sees farther; at every moment of time it embraces all known reality; that is why it alone can furnish the minds with the moulds which are applicable to the totality of things and which make it possible to think of them.22

Durkheim did not follow Saint-Simon and Comte in attempting toinstitute a new humanitarian cult. Yet, being eager as they wereto give moral unity to a disintegrating society, he urged men tounite in a civic morality based on the recognition that we arewhat we are because of society. Society acts within us to elevateus--not unlike the divine spark of old was said to transformordinary men into creatures capable of transcending thelimitations of their puny egos.

Durkheim's sociology of religion is not limited to thesegeneral considerations, which, in fact, are contained in only afew pages of his monumental work on The Elementary Forms ofReligious Life. The bulk of the book is devoted to a closeand careful analysis of primitive religion, more particularly ofthe data on primitive Australian forms of cults and beliefs.Here, as elsewhere, Durkheim is concerned with elucidating theparticular functions of religion rather than with simplydescribing variant forms. In a well-known critique, theDurkheimian scholar Harry Alpert23 convenientlyclassified Durkheim's four major functions of religion asdisciplinary, cohesive, vitalizing, and euphoric social forces.Religious rituals prepare men for social life by imposingself-discipline and a certain measure of asceticism. Religiousceremonies bring people together and thus serve to reaffirm theircommon bonds and to reinforce social solidarity. Religiousobservance maintains and revitalizes the social heritage of thegroup and helps transmit its enduring values to futuregenerations. Finally, religion has a euphoric function in that itserves to counteract feelings of frustration and loss of faithand certitude by reestablishing the believers' sense ofwell-being, their sense of the essential rightness of the moralworld of which they are a part. By countering the sense of loss,which, as in the case of death, may be experienced on both theindividual and the collective level, religion helps toreestablish the balance of private and public confidence. On themost general plane, religion as a social institution serves togive meaning to man's existential predicaments by tying theindividual to that supra-individual sphere of transcendent valueswhich is ultimately rooted in his society.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 136-139,



  1. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York, The Free Press, 1954), p. 47.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Emile Durkheim, Moral Education (New York, The Free Press, 1961), p. 9.
  4. The Elementary Forms, p. 444.
  5. Harry Alpert, Emile Durkheim and His Sociology (New York, Columbia University Press, 1939), pp. 198-203.


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