Anthropology Friday: Emile Durkheim’s The Origin and Development of Religion:

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (April 15, 1858 – November 15, 1917), Karl Marx, and Max Weber are the fathers of modern social science and sociology, so I decided to read Durkheim’s essay, The Origin and Development of Religion.
According to Wikipedia,

Much of Durkheim’s work was concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in modernity; an era in which traditional social and religious ties are no longer assumed, and in which new social institutions have come into being. His first major sociological work was The Division of Labour in Society (1893). … Durkheim’s seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a study of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant populations, pioneered modern social research and served to distinguish social science from psychology and political philosophy. …

Durkheim noted there are several possible pathologies that could lead to a breakdown of social integration and disintegration of the society: the two most important ones are anomie and forced division of labour; lesser ones include the lack of coordination and suicide.[61] By anomie Durkheim means a state when too rapid population growth reduces the amount of interaction between various groups, which in turn leads a breakdown of understanding (norms, values, and so on).[62] By forced division of labour Durkheim means a situation where power holders, driven by their desire for profit (greed), results in people doing the work they are unsuited for.[63] Such people are unhappy, and their desire to change the system can destabilize the society.[63] …

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim’s first purpose was to identify the social origin and function of religion as he felt that religion was a source of camaraderie and solidarity.[44]

Durkheim saw religion as the most fundamental social institution of humankind, and one that gave rise to other social forms.[60][76] It was the religion that gave humanity the strongest sense of collective consciousness.[81]

His work on Suicide is notable enough to have its own Wikipedia page:

Durkheim explores the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, [in Germany] arguing that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. According to Durkheim, Catholic society has normal levels of integration while Protestant society has low levels. …Durkheim concluded that:

  • Suicide rates are higher in men than women (although married women who remained childless for a number of years ended up with a high suicide rate).
  • Suicide rates are higher for those who are single than those who are in a sexual relationship.
  • Suicide rates are higher for people without children than people with children.
  • Suicide rates are higher among Protestants than Catholics and Jews.
  • Suicide rates are higher among soldiers than civilians.
  • Suicide rates are higher in times of peace than in times of war (the suicide rate in France fell after the coup d’etat of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, for example. War also reduced the suicide rate: after war broke out in 1866 between Austria and Italy, the suicide rate fell by 14% in both countries.)
  • Suicide rates are higher in Scandinavian countries.
  • The higher the education level, the more likely it was that an individual would choose suicide. However, Durkheim established that there is more correlation between an individual’s religion and suicide rate than an individual’s education level.

Well, that is enough introduction. Let’s get on to the essay. (As usual, I will be using “” instead of blockquotes for Durkheim’s work.) I have excerpted what strikes me as the core of Durkheim’s argument:

“The really religious beliefs are always common to a determined group, which make profession of adhering to them and of practicing the rites connected with them. They are not merely received individually by all the members of this groups; they are something belonging to the group, and they make its unity. The individuals which compose it feel themselves united to each other by the simple fact that they have a common faith. A society whose members are united by the fact that they think the same way in regard to the sacred world and its relation with the profane world, and by the fact that they translate these common ideas into common practice, is what is called a “Church.””

EvX: Note that Durkheim is not limiting his use of “Church” to Christian denominations.

“In all history, we do not find a single religion without a Church. Sometimes the Church is strictly national, sometimes it passes frontiers; sometimes it embraces an entire people (Rome, Athens, the Hebrews), sometimes it embrace only part of them (the Christian societies since the advent of Protestantism), sometimes it is directed by a corps of priests, sometimes it is almost completely devoid of any official directing body. But wherever we observe the religious life, we find that it has a definite group as its foundation. …

“It is quite another matter with magic. To be sure, the belief in magic is always more or less general; it is very frequently diffused in large masses of the population, and there are even peoples where it has as many adherents as the real religion. But it does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a common life. There is no Church of magic. Between the magician and the individuals who consult him, as between these individuals themselves, there are no lasting bods which make them members of the same moral community, comparable to that formed by the believers int he same god or the observers of the same cult. The magician has a clientele and not a Church, and it is very possible that his clients have no relations between each other, or even do not know each other; even the relations which they have with him are generally accidental and transient, they are just like those of a sick man with his physician. …

“Thus we arrive at the following definition: A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. … by showing that the idea of religion is inseparable from that of the Church, it make it clear that religion should be an eminently collective thing.”

EvX: I find it interesting that all of the “social sciences”–anthropology, sociology, political economy, psychology, and possibly economics–became prominent at about the same time (compared to, say, History, which got its start with Herodotus in the 5th century BC.) As we’ve been discussing, the late 1800s was a time of great social turmoil due to the economic dislocations and changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and mass movement of millions of peasants from their traditional homes in the countryside to ghettos and tenements of the cities.

Communism–most notably in its Marxist form–was one reaction to this dislocation.

Durkheim, while a socialist, was not an internationalist, and he seems to disagree pretty strongly with Karl “religion is the opiate of the masses” Marx on the importance of religion to society. To Durkheim, religion (as opposed to magic) was absolutely foundational to a functioning society, and believed that despite the increasing atheism of his age, nothing functionally similar to religion existed.

But–from an anthropological perspective–is Durkheim correct? Do the members of a “Church”–and note here the implication that for people to have this collective identity, there must be some homogenous thing that they all believe, not some hodgepodge of “individual interpretation–see themselves as a collective group, and do the believers in “magic,” inversely, fail to see themselves as similarly collective?

My personal experience with NeoPagans and the like suggests that they do see themselves as a collective thing, similar to other religions. So do, from what I have read, practitioners of Voodoo and perhaps other related animist religions. But these are modern (even “neo”!) beliefs, so perhaps these belief systems have been influenced by their practitioners’ familiarity with other “Churches.”

Wikipedia also notes:

Durkheim’s work on religion was criticized on both empirical and theoretical grounds by specialists in the field. The most important critique came from Durkheim’s contemporary, Arnold van Gennep, an expert on religion and ritual, and also on Australian belief systems. Van Gennep argued that Durkheim’s views of primitive peoples and simple societies were “entirely erroneous”. Van Gennep further argued that Durkheim demonstrated a lack of critical stance towards his sources, collected by traders and priests, naively accepting their veracity, and that Durkheim interpreted freely from dubious data. At the conceptual level, van Gennep pointed out Durkheim’s tendency to press ethnography into a prefabricated theoretical scheme.[84]

But perhaps we should let Durkheim defend his points.

Durkheim then runs through in the essay a couple of the more popular (atheistic) theories of his day on the origins of religion, such as “primitive man was amazed by nature and assumed therefore that natural phenomena must be the work of divine creatures,” and dismisses them on the grounds that they are inadequate to explain the fervency of people’s religious devotion. The fact that rain falls from the sky may be amazing, but even primitive man was not particularly wowed by this fairly regular and ultimately mundane occurrence.

(Personally, while I admire Durkheim’s quest for something deeper than “wow,” I think it might be adequate, at least when I look at the stars on a truly dark night. [Actually, I find being outside in true darkness with no lights and no other people pretty terrifying.])

Durkheim turns to Aboriginal “totemism,” deeming it the most “elementary religion,” from which animism and naturistic religions are derived:

“Finally, that which we propose to study in this work is the most primitive and simple religion which it is possible to find. … Not only is their civilization the most rudimentary–the house and even the hut are still unknown–but also their organization is the most primitive and simple which is actually known; it is that which we have elsewhere called organization on basis of clans. …

“At the basis of nearly all the Australian tribes we find a group which holds a preponderating place in the collective life: this is the clan. … the individuals who compose it consider themselves united by a band of kinship, but one which is of a very special nature. … This relationship does not come from the fact that they have definite blood connections with one another; they are relatives from the mere fact that they have the same name. … When we say that they regard themselves as a single family, we do so because they recognize duties toward each other which are identical with those which have always been incumbent upon kindred: such duties as aid, vengeance, mourning, the obligations not to marry  among themselves, etc.

“The species of things which serves to designate the clan collectively is its totem. The totem of the clan is also that of each of its members.”

So Durkheim goes on about totems for a while. Whether or not he is accurate I must leave to the experts–here is one take:


I note that as we discussed in Anthropology Friday: Aboriginal Folklore, William Ramsay Smith’s book  Aborigine Myths and Legends, published 1930 (that is, after Durkheim,) also discusses totems:

This totemism plays an important part in the social life of the aboriginals. If, for example, a person has committed an offense, or has broken tribal law, he becomes a fugitive. He may travel to some distant part of the country. … He creeps along stealthily, listening intently for any sound, peering through the dense foliage in every bay or cove to see whether his path is clear, noticing every footprint on the way, reading every mark on the tree-trunks and on the surface of rocks, and scanning every mark to see whether there is hope of protection and friendship. To be seen would mean death to him. By and by the keen eye of the fugitive catches sight of the figure of his mother’s totem. Casting aside all fear, he walks boldly along the beaten track that leads to the camp, and presents himself to the chief. He produces a string of kangaroo teeth, made in bead fashion, and a bunch of emu feathers… . This is a sign that he belongs to the Kangaroo totem tribe, and that his mother belongs to the Emu totem tribe. He is received into either of these tribes, and becomes one with them, and participates in all their privileges.

Ramsay recounts a number of folktales in which tribal membership (symbolized by the tribal totem) is important, including a number of tricksters tales in which a character cheats members of another tribe by claiming to be a member of their tribe via some ancient union between their peoples.

Totemism of some form was likely therefore important to at least some of the Aborigines. The totem itself operates, in my opinion a kind of flag (or mascot.) The totem represents the tribe and is carved on things to show that they belong to the tribe or to mark the tribe’s territory, just as a flag represents a country and marks the country’s territory. Likewise, just as tribes award their totem animals a kind of “sacred” status that makes eating (or breaking objects inscribed with their image) them taboo, so do most Americans abstain from eating bald eagles or destroying American flags (indeed, some people think that burning the American flag should be illegal!)

I must caution against overuse of the word “sacred.” For while we might not approve of hunting bald eagles for sport, we wouldn’t typically call bald eagles “sacred” in the religious sense.

Anyway, back to Durkheim:

“Thus the totem is before all a symbol, a material expression of something else. But of what?

“… it is the outward and visible form of what we have called the totemic principle or god. But it is also the symbol of the determined society called the clan. … if it is at once the symbol of the god and of the society, is that not because the god and the society are only one? … The god of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and presented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem. …

“In fact, a god is, first of all, a being whom men think of as superior to themselves, and upon whom they feel that they depend. … the worshiper, in the one case as in the other, believes himself held to certain manners of acting which are imposed upon him by the nature of the sacred principle with which he feels he is in communion. Now society also gives us the sensation of a perpetual dependence. … It requires that, forgetful of our own interests, we make ourselves its servitors, and it submits us to every sort of inconvenience, privation, and sacrifice, without which social life would be impossible. …

“Since religious force is nothing other than the collective and anonymous force of the clan, and since this can be represented in the mind only in the form of the totem, the totemic emblem is like the visible body of the god. …

“We are now able to explain the origin of the ambiguity of religious forces as they appear in history… They are moral powers because they are made up entirely of the impressions this moral being, the group, arouses in those other moral beings, its individual members; they do not translate the manner in which physical thing affect our senses, but the way in which the collective consciousness acts upon individual consciousnesses. Their authority is only one from of the moral ascendancy of society over its members. … It is this double nature which has enabled religion to be like the womb from which come all the leading germs of human civilization.”

Evx: So, to summarize: the collective moral force of the community gives rise to the idea of the sacred, which creates religion, which in turn creates society, civilization, and all of the good things.

Which is circular, but so is gene-culture-co-evolution, so I suppose I can’t fault him on that count. The obvious critique here comes from religion: believers would likely object that their religion hails from an actual, real encounter between men and God(s). This explanation, though, runs into the difficulty of explaining all religions besides one’s own. Durkheim is attempting to create an explanation that applies equally to all religions, without appealing to any actual divine agents.

Leaving aside the reality of divinity, does Durkheim’s theory ring true? I am not convinced that he understands totemism, nor am I wholly convinced on the matter of magic, either. However, I his basic theory about the importance of religion underlying society, and possibly the importance of society underlying religion, seems on the correct track. Some form of common belief in the unity of the people of a society seems important to an actual society.

Let us suppose, for a moment, a society in which there are many ethnic groups, but they all believe in the same religion. This seems like a reasonably workable society where people can see themselves as having enough in common to work together. For example, Israel is a nation composed of many different ethnic groups which, nonetheless, all believe in Judaism and share an identity of themselves as “Jewish.” This works for them.

Let us also suppose a society with one ethnic group, but many religions. Since people prefer to marry within their own religion, creating the conditions for ethnic differentiation, we must suppose that the religions involved are sufficiently similar that people are still willing to inter-marry. This also seems like a reasonably workable society.

According to Pew, Taiwan and Vietnam are among the world’s most religiously diverse countries, but they are (as far as I know) ethnically quite homogenous. I confess that I don’t know much about civic life in Taiwan or Vietnam, but they seem to be holding together.

But suppose a third society, in which people belong to many different ethnic and religious groups: this seems in danger of becoming several different societies living in close proximity to each other.

The US is an interesting mix of forms. The initial founding stock consisted largely of Christians from northwest Europe and animists from Sub-Saharan Africa who quickly converted to Christianity. Most immigrants to the US have been Caucasian and/or Christian of some variety, eg, Mexicans, Quakers, Italians, Ashkenazim, Irish, Poles, and Puritans.

By contrast, when Malcolm X decided to convert to Islam, this was–at least symbolically–a way of breaking from the religious continuity of American Christianity. As a black separatist, he was no longer linked to white American society.

Personally, I don’t think it’s a big deal for a country to have small groups of disparate peoples within their borders. A few Buddhists or followers of traditional Native American religions aren’t hurting me. But large groups of people who see themselves as having nothing in common with each other seem problematic to the large-scale functioning of civic life in a nation, especially a democracy. (Might be just fine in an empire.)




7 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: Emile Durkheim’s The Origin and Development of Religion:

  1. Since you are reading Durkheim, you might also like E. J. Michael Witzel’s “The Origins of the World’s Mythologies,” Oxford University Press (2012). This is an attempt to trace various elements of myth back to their African origins before the Out of Africa events and in particular to the peopling of Eurasian and America.


  2. I don’t think gene-culture co-evolution is circular. Each exerts an influence on the other to a greater or lesser degree depending on time and space. Not circular in the sense of argument, anyway.


  3. Just to comment on Taiwan, having lived there a few times. The diversity in religion is deceptive. There are countless deities and shrines in Taoism (which is just what they call any folk religion in Taiwan), but they are more or less the same. People may in practice only worship at the shrine of Tudi Gong, but they are not functioning under different paradigms from other Taoists. New religious movements exist and abound, but really are as powerful or common as I understand some of them are in Vietnam. The question of Buddhism in Taiwan is also quite interesting, because although people may nominally be Taoists, they will still offer incense and bow at a Buddhist shrine, though they may not know the doctrines. Officially, the numbers of Buddhists are usually on par with the numbers of Taoists, but while many devout Taoists will worship at a Buddhist shrine, there are many Buddhists who will not bother to worship at a Taoist shrine, as it is rather folky or unsophisticated when the alternative is meditation and philosophical contemplation. Secularisation is a theme in Taiwan, as elsewhere, but hardly as powerful as may have been predicted in the 1990s. Less materialistic young people are still interested in religion.

    As regards suggestions, I would like to second Bob Sykes’ suggestion of Michael Witzel’s work. In addition, for older material, might I suggest Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” and for a modern take thereof, the introduction to Declan Quigley’s “The Character of Kingship?” The matter of the primeval king as priest and sacrificial victim is extremely fascinating.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s