This book is a sociological study on the religious nature of man based on Durkheim’s observations of Australian totemism and the Indian tribes of North America. He prefaces the work with a critique of other contemporary explanations of primitive religion (e.g., as speculation on unusual natural phenomena or the supernatural, or as a belief system that places man in relation to spiritual beings or divinity). These, he explains, are either advanced concepts which appear later or are not universal beliefs; in either case, they are not elementary forms of religion.
Central to Durkheim’s concept of religion is his distinction between two categories of things: the sacred and the profane. This duality is characteristic of all religious belief and is readily observable in both primitive and modern religion. The sacred is never objectively defined, but encompasses an aspect of reality that is separate from the ordinary. It is the opposite of the profane, which is where we live. The two are incompatible; the sacred must be isolated and protected from the profane. The function of religious belief is to represent these realities and to define the relationship between them. Religious rites prescribe proper modes of conduct in the presence of sacred things.
Religion then is defined as a ‘unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.’ These beliefs and practices unite practitioners into a single moral community. The communal aspect of religion is an essential attribute in Durkheim’s view. It is on this basis that he separates the practice of magic from religion. For while magic is like religion in that it consists of beliefs and special rites, it has no community.
In contrast to Freud, Durkheim is adamant about accepting religion as a given reality. His inquiry is scientific and in that spirit he admonishes ‘armchair’ theorists who base their studies on imagination rather than empirical facts. His main criticism of the theories of animism and naturism, for example, is that both theories reduce religious beliefs to ‘hallucinatory representations’ because they assume primitive man was not able to differentiate the animate and the inanimate. For Durkheim, it is unthinkable that religious systems could be ‘mere fabrics of illusions,’ for such a conclusion cannot explain why they have persisted and played such an important part in history. He asks ‘what sort of science makes its object of study disappear?’
The theories of animism and naturism presuppose a certain level of intellectual development and cultivation beyond that of the primitive; they cannot, therefore, be considered elementary forms of religion. Animism is based on the idea that the unseen world is populated with human souls and spiritual beings, concepts which likely arose from the need to explain dream images. Naturism, which conventional theory believed derived from animism, ascribes human and superhuman qualities to natural forces. This personification likely developed from the need to concretize the abstract and came about through the influence of language.
Both belief systems hold that the origin of the sacred-profane dichotomy grew out of natural phenomena (either biological or physical). But Durkheim argues against nature as the inspiration for religion because it could not have given rise to the idea of duality, since neither man nor nature is inherently sacred. Something more fundamental must exist. This something is totemism.
The totem is an object that designates a clan collectively. The totem object is usually a plant or an animal, but can also be an ancestor or group of ancestors (or even objects like the sun or moon). It represents the sacred, the source of the clan’s moral life. But the object itself is not the sacred thing. Rather, it is a symbol of both the clan and the god, which Durkheim calls the totemic principle or mana. It evokes in the individual a sense of the eternal for it both precedes and outlives him. Worship ofthe totem fosters in the individual a sense of connectedness and renews his loyalty to a greater reality; it is, in essence, the worship of the clan and all it contains. The totemic principle also gives rise to the notion of soul and the doctrine of immortality.
More fundamental than religious ideas and beliefs, however, is ritual conduct. Durkheim uses the term ‘cult’ to describe systems of rites and ceremonies that take place periodically within the clan. These include prohibitions and ascetic rites (negative cult) which serve to separate and protect the sacred from the profane. Others, like sacrificial banquets (positive cult), bring the cult closer to the sacred. Piacular rites are conducted on occasions of loss, such as death or disaster. On such occasions, the group comes together to mourn or lament the loss through certain customary actions which signify that it affects (and diminishes) the entire clan.
The purpose of ritual is to symbolically bring together the opposites: the sacred and profane, the individual and the collective, the past and present, ideas and feelings. Through these actions the individual, in the presence of the clan, experiences unity and connectedness – and transcendence of self. Society influences the individual through action and it is through common action that it becomes conscious of and affirms itself. This, says Durkheim, is why action in the form of ritual dominates religious life – because society (the collective) is its very source.