The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

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9780029079379: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

"Karen Fields has given us a splendid new translation of the greatest work of sociology ever written, one we will not be embarrassed to assign to our students. In addition she has written a brilliant and profound introduction. The publication of this translation is an occasion for general celebration, for a veritable 'collective effervescence.'
-- Robert N. Bellah Co-author of Habits of the Heart, and editor of Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society
"This superb new translation finally allows non-French speaking American readers fully to appreciate Durkheim's genius. It is a labor of love for which all scholars must be grateful."
--Lewis A. Coser

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About the Author:

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) founded the French school of sociology. In 1893 he created the Annee Sociologique, which he edited until 1913, and he wrote seminal texts including The Division of Labor in Society, Suicide, and The Rules of Sociological Method.

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CHAPTER ONE

DEFINITION OF RELIGIOUS PHENOMENA AND OF RELIGION

In order to identify the simplest and most primitive religion that observation can make known to us, we must first define what is properly understood as a religion. If we do not, we run the risk of either calling a system of ideas and practices religion that are in no way religious, or of passing by religious phenomena without detecting their true nature. A good indication that this danger is not imaginary, and the point by no means a concession to empty methodological formalism, is this: Having failed to take that precaution, M. Frazer, a scholar to whom the comparative science of religions is nevertheless greatly indebted, failed to recognize the profoundly religious character of the beliefs and rites that will be studied below -- beliefs and rites in which, I submit, the original seed of religious life in humanity is visible. In the matter of definition, then, there is a prejudicial question that must be treated before any other. It is not that I hope to arrive straightaway at the deep and truly explanatory features of religion, for these can be determined only at the end of the research. But what is both necessary and possible is to point out a certain number of readily visible outward features that allow Us to recognize religious phenomena wherever they are encountered, and that prevent their being confused with others. I turn to this preliminary step.

If taking this step is to yield the results it should, we must begin by freeing our minds of all preconceived ideas. Well before the science of religions instituted its methodical comparisons, men had to create their own idea of what religion is. The necessities of existence require all of us, believers and unbelievers, to conceive in some fashion those things in the midst of which we live, about which we continually make judgments, and of which our conduct must take account. But since these notions are formed unmethodically, in the comings and goings of life, they cannot be relied on and must be rigorously kept to one side in the examination that follows. It is not our preconceptions, passions, or habits that must be consulted for the elements of the definition we need; definition is to be sought from reality itself.

Let us set ourselves before this reality. Putting aside all ideas about religion in general, let us consider religions in their concrete reality and try to see what features they may have in common: Religion can be defined only in terms of features that are found wherever religion is found. In this comparison, then, we will incorporate all the religious systems we can know, past as well as present, the most primitive and simple as well as the most modern and refined, for we have no right to exclude some so as to keep only certain others, and no logical method of doing so. To anyone who sees religion as nothing other than a natural manifestation of human activity, all religions are instructive, without exception of any kind: Each in its own way expresses man, and thus each can help us understand better that aspect of our nature. Besides, we have seen that the preference for studying religion among the most civilized peoples is far from being the best method.

Before taking up the question and in order to help the mind free itself of commonsense notions whose influence can prevent us from seeing things as they are, it is advisable to examine how those prejudices have entered into some of the commonest definitions.

I

One notion that is generally taken to be characteristic of all that is religious is the notion of the supernatural. By that is meant any order of things that goes beyond our understanding; the supernatural is the world of mystery, the unknowable, or the incomprehensible. Religion would then be a kind of speculation upon all that escapes science, and clear thinking generally. According to Spencer, "Religions that are diametrically opposite in their dogmas agree in tacitly recognizing that the world, with all it contains and all that surrounds it, is a mystery seeking an explanation"; he makes them out basically to consist of "the belief in the omnipresence of something that goes beyond the intellect." Similiarly, Max MÜller saw all religion as "an effort to conceive the inconceivable and to express the inexpressible, an aspiration toward the infinite."

Certainly the role played by the feeling of mystery has not been unimportant in certain religions, including Christianity. Even so, the importance of this role has shown marked variation at different moments of Christian history. There have been periods when the notion of mystery has become secondary and even faded altogether. To men of the seventeenth century, for example, dogma contained nothing that unsettled reason. Faith effortlessly reconciled itself with science and philosophy; and thinkers like Pascal, who felt strongly that there is something profoundly obscure in things, were so little in harmony with their epochs that it was their fate to be misunderstood by their contemporaries. Therefore, it would seem rash to make an idea that has been subject to periodic eclipse the essential element even of Christianity.

What is certain, in any case, is that this idea appears very late in the history of religions. It is totally alien not only to the peoples called primitive but also to those who have not attained a certain level of intellectual culture. Of course, when we see men imputing extraordinary virtues to insignificant objects, or populating the universe with extraordinary principles made up of the most disparate elements and possessing a sort of ubiquity that is hard to conceptualize, it is easy for us to find an air of mystery in these ideas. It seems to us that these men have resigned themselves to ideas so problematic for our modern reason only because they have been unable to find more rational ones. In reality, however, the explanations that amaze us seem to the primitive the simplest in the world. He sees them not as a kind of ultima ratio to which the intellect resigns itself in despair but as the most direct way of conceiving and understanding what he observes around him. For him, there is nothing strange in being able, by voice or gesture, to command the elements, hold up or accelerate the course of the stars, make the rain fall or stop it, and so on. The rites he uses to ensure the fertility of the soil or of the animal species that nourish him are no more irrational in his eyes than are, in our own eyes, the technical processes that our agronomists use for the same purpose. The forces he brings into play by these various means do not seem to him particularly mysterious. Certainly, these forces differ from those the modern scientist conceives of and teaches us to use; they behave differently and cannot be controlled in the same way; but to the one who believes in them, they are no more unintelligible than gravitation or electricity is to physicists today.

Furthermore, as we will see in the course of this work, the idea of natural forces is very likely derived from that of religious forces, so between the one and the other there cannot be the chasm that separates the rational from the irrational. Not even the fact that religious forces are often conceived of as spiritual entities and conscious wills is any proof of their irrationality. Reason does not resist a priori the idea that inanimate bodies might be moved by intelligences, as human bodies are, even though present-day science does not easily accommodate this hypothesis. When Leibniz proposed to conceive the external world as an immense society of intelligences, between which there were not and could not be any but spiritual relations, he meant to be working as a rationalist. He did not see this universal animism as anything that might offend the intellect.

Besides, the idea of the supernatural, as we understand it, is recent. It presupposes an idea that is its negation, and that is in no way primitive. To be able to call certain facts supernatural, one must already have an awareness that there is a natural order of things, in other words, that the phenomena of the universe are internally linked according to necessary relationships called laws. Once this principle is established, anything that departs from those laws necessarily appears as beyond nature and, thus, beyond reason: For what is in this sense natural is also rational, those relations expressing only the manner in which things are logically connected. Now, the idea of universal determinism is of recent origin; even the greatest thinkers of classical antiquity did not achieve full awareness of it. That idea is territory won by the empirical sciences; it is the postulate on which they rest and which their advancement has proved. So long as this postulate was lacking or not well established, there was nothing about the most extraordinary events that did not appear perfectly conceivable. So long as what is immovable and inflexible about the order of things was unknown, and so long as it was seen as the work of contingent wills, it was of course thought natural that these wills or others could modify the order of things arbitrarily. For this reason, the miraculous interventions that the ancients ascribed to their gods were not in their eyes miracles, in the modern sense of the word. To them, these interventions were beautiful, rare, or terrible spectacles, and objects of surprise and wonder (Řavµata, mirabilia, miracula); but they were not regarded as glimpses into a mysterious world where reason could not penetrate.

That mind-set is all the more readily understandable to us because it has not completely disappeared. Although the principle of determinism is firmly established in the physical and natural sciences, its introduction into the social sciences began only a century ago, and its authority there is still contested. The idea that societies are subject to necessary laws and constitute a realm of nature has deeply penetrated only a few minds. It follows that true miracles are thought possible in society. There is, for example, the accepted notion that a legislator can create an institution out of nothing and transform one social system into another, by fiat -- just as the believers of so many religions accept that the divine will made the world out of nothing or can arbitrarily mutate some beings into others. As regards social things, we still have the mind-set of primitives. But if, in matters sociological, so many people today linger over this old-fashioned idea, it is not because social life seems obscure and mysterious to them. Quite the opposite: If they are so easily contented with such explanations, if they cling to these illusions that are repeatedly contradicted by experience, it is because social facts seem to them the most transparent things in the world. This is so because they have not yet appreciated the real obscurity, and because they have not yet grasped the need to turn to the painstaking methods of the natural sciences in order progressively to sweep away the darkness. The same cast of mind is to be found at the root of many religious beliefs that startle us in their oversimplification. Science, not religion, has taught men that things are complex and difficult to understand. But, Jevons replies, the human mind has no need of properly scientific education to notice that there are definite sequences and a constant order of succession between phenomena or to notice that this order is often disturbed. At times the sun is suddenly eclipsed; the rain does not come in the season when it is expected; the moon is slow to reappear after its periodic disappearance, and the like. Because these occurrences are outside the ordinary course of events, people have imputed to them extraordinary, exceptional -- in a word, extranatural -- causes. It is in this form, Jevons claims, that the idea of the supernatural was born at the beginning of history; and it is in this way and at this moment that religion acquired its characteristic object.

The supernatural, however, is not reducible to the unforeseen. The new is just as much part of nature as the opposite. If we notice that, in general, phenomena occur one after the other in a definite order, we also notice that the order is never more than approximate, that it is not exactly the same at different times, and that it has all kinds of exceptions. With even very little experience, we become accustomed to having our expectations unmet; and these setbacks occur too often to seem extraordinary to us. Given a certain element of chance, as well as a certain uniformity in experience, we have no reason to attribute the one to causes and forces different from those to which the other is subject. To have the idea of the supernatural, then, it is not enough for us to witness unexpected events; these events must be conceived of as impossible besides -- that is, impossible to reconcile with an order that rightly or wrongly seems to be a necessary part of the order of things. It is the positive sciences that have gradually constructed this notion of a necessary order. It follows that the contrary notion cannot have predated those sciences.

Furthermore, no matter how men have conceived their experience of novelties and chance occurrences, these conceptions can in no way be used to characterize religion. Religious conceptions aim above all to express and explain not what is exceptional and abnormal but what is constant and regular. As a general rule, the gods are used far less to account for monstrosity, oddity, and anomaly than for the normal march of the universe, the movement of the stars, the rhythm of the seasons, the annual growth of vegetation, the perpetuation of species, and so forth. Hence, any notion that equates religion with the unexpected is wide of the mark. Jevons's reply is that this way of conceiving religious forces is not primitive. According to him, people conceived of them first in order to account for disorder and accident, and only later used them to explain the uniformities of nature. But it is unclear what could have made men impute such obviously contradictory functions to them, one after the other. Moreover, the supposition that sacred beings were at first confined to the negative role of disturbers is completely arbitrary. As indeed we will see, starting with the simplest religions we know, the fundamental task of sacred beings has been to maintain the normal course of life by positive action.

Thus the idea of mystery is not at all original. It does not come to man as a given; man himself has forged this idea as well as its contrary. For this reason, it is only in a small number of advanced religions that the idea of mystery has any place at all. Therefore it cannot be made the defining characteristic of religious phenomena without excluding from the definition most of the facts to be defined.

II

Another idea by which many have tried to define religion is that of divinity. According to M. Réville, "Religion is the determination of human life by the sense of a bond joining the human mind with the mysterious mind whose domination of the world and of itself it recognizes, and with which it takes pleasure in feeling joined." It is a fact that if the word "divinity" is taken in a precise and narrow sense, this definition leaves aside a multitude of obviously religious facts. The souls of the dead and spirits of all kinds and ranks, with which the religious imaginations of so many diverse peoples have populated the world, are always the objects of rites and sometimes even of regular c...

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