The French sociologist Émile Durkheim had few problems in understanding disputes between those who marched to different religious drum beats. Religions as he saw it, emerged to meet very specific societal and cultural needs, and the agreed beliefs and patterns of behaviour so necessary for the smooth operation of the society leaned heavily on the specific religious principles. As he saw it, because each society had different history and different needs, different religions of necessity had different characteristics

In his article, ‘The Origin Of Beliefs’, Émile Durkheim attempted to be as dispassionate and scientific as possible. He appeared deeply interested in the part played by religion in holding complex modern societies together. His underlying supposition was that religions could be described adequately without necessarily worrying about the plausibility of their chosen set of beliefs. Durkheim considered that in all religions there was some attempt made to separate the sacred from the non-sacred (ie the profane) and he saw religious behaviour as favouring the sacred symbols and ceremonies while rejecting any form of alternate belief and behaviour structure as profane and hence unacceptable. Durkheim saw religions as typically having similarities in their beliefs and patterns of ceremonies from the more “primitive” through to Judeo/Christian/Moslem. These are:

1. Sacred/Profane division of the world;
2. Belief in souls,spirits, mythical personalities
3. Belief in divinity, either local or multi-local
4. Typically at least one negative or ascetic cult within the religion
5. Rites of oblation, communion, imitation, commemoration or expiation.

He argued that each of these five forms were communal experiences, thereby distinguishing religion from magic.

Those who place great store in the supernatural side of religion would propbably be horrified to hear that Durkheim thought that the model for relationships between people and the supernatural was in essence the relationship between individuals and the community. His best known statement on religion is probably seen as heresy by many: ie “God is society, writ large.” Durkheim believed that people saw the organisation of the physical world, the supernatural world, and the social world according to similar principles. His definition of religion, still used by anthropologists of religion today, was, “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Book 1, Ch. 1)

If Durkheim was right, religion at its best can be seen as having four functions in society.

1. It provides a disciplinary influence,
2. It is cohesive, bringing people together, forging strong bonds
3. It can be vitalizing, to encourage good spirits and motivation for purposeful activity.
4. Those taking part are more likely to feel euphoric, a good feeling, happiness, confidence, well-being

Unfortunately if he is right a corollary may be that those same purposes, together with the attitude that alternative beliefs and ceremonies are by implication profane, may be the very set of attitudes that makes the religious so often opposed to those not sharing their belief and religious behaviour set.

For example it may be totally arbitrary to follow a set of beliefs that require the priesthood to be celibate, exclusively male, and under the control of a particular denomination’s leadership – but those same factors – if felt to illustrate the divine, would regard any alternative model of ministry as being profane and by implication a barrier to accepting any genuine form of Church union. Certainly the fruitless attempts at Church union between Catholics and Protestants illustrates how fixed the battle lines can be drawn. Even the repeated battles within a single denomination eg the split over the acceptance of homosexual priests or women bishops in the Anglican Church show a form of inflexibility, as does the reluctance to accept the sacramental ministry across denominations. At worst, the alternative can be seen as threatening one’s faith and therefore be opposed by force if necessary and history provides numerous examples of how far religious groups are prepared to oppose such imagined threats. My favourite example is the burning of Russian orthodox heretics who had the temerity to hold their thumb against the wrong finger on the hand used when crossing themselves.

In a modern cosmopolitan society, religions and other belief sets are much more varied than once was the case, and in the multicultural society it takes a special effort to find ways for the various belief groups to work together for the smooth functioning of society. It may be that using Durkheim’s analysis, the sociologist observer of religion might more readily notice some features of the participant religions. Selling such an analysis to those who form the particular Church in such a way that the Church followers might more readily understand their own and others’ alternative Church behaviour is somewhat harder task. That is not to say that we should not begin.


  1. Makes very good sense!

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