Why Durkheim studied religion

Durkheim’s grew up in a religious atmosphere, though he himself became dis-interested in theology. His work, The elementary forms of religion, aimed at exploring the empirical elements in all religions. He does not believe in God, or, God is not the ultimate form of reality for him. Instead, what interests him is the essence of religion, i.e. the symbols, rituals etc. , which all religions have in common; these are the social facts, the objective manifestations of religion and society which Durkheim is interested in exploring.

The sacred and the profane

“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 a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” – Emile Durkheim

According to Durkheim, there are three main components of a religion –

  1. belief and practices,
  2. sacred things, and
  3. a moral community called Church.

Sacred is, by definition, opposite to the profane. Every religion has some sacred symbols which gives its followers a sense of connectedness with that religion. According to Durkheim, human society came into being because of this emotional connectedness generated by religion. The emotions led to the creation of sacred things, which are nothing but symbols defining the moral behaviour in a society. The patriotism we feel when we hear our national anthem – this is the emotional connectedness, albeit, in this example, it is related to a “civil religion”.

Religious Rituals

People perform religious rituals to remind themselves of the distinction between the sacred and the profane. These rituals, along with other beliefs and practices, are patterned over time in society into a moral community called the Church.

The rituals keep the collective consciousness alive. Collective consciousness is the collective belief, practices, symbols etc. , and the emotions attached with them, that connect a social group in a unified bond. Durkheim used collective representation in his later work, as collective consciousness was abstract and needed material social facts to study it. Collective representations, on the other hand, are collective beliefs, norms and values, which are objective and can be studied empirically.

The research data- practices of Australian tribe, the Arunta

Primitive religion

For his work on religion, Durkheim relied on the studies of a tribe in Australia. He chose to study a primitive culture because of its simple social structures, and the greater adherence among the people to the elements of religion we discussed above. As society differentiates and expands, the religious elements too undergo complication, and thus, obfuscate the bare elements which Durkheim seeks to study.


He coined a term Totem to represent the tribe’s symbols or the things like animals or plants, which the tribe holds as sacred. This totem also represents the tribe, it is their identity which differentiates them from the other i.e. totem is the symbol of their clan.

Collective effervescence

Durkheim found the routine life of the tribe was different from the one when they gathered together in groups. The rituals they performed towards the sacred things filled them with energy, an experience which is unique to the gathering. This experience makes people act differently, in a way they will not act under normal circumstances. And such action is revered. They experience a state of collective effervescence, a state of high emotion while performing such action.

The sacred society

As we saw above, when people gather in groups and perform rituals, high emotional states are prevalent in such gatherings, i.e. collective effervescence.

Here, a totem is created which captures this state of high emotion, and is used to reenact such behaviour in the future. Here is where the sacred takes birth. The sacred is the symbolic representation of such an emotion. Remember the example of national flag? A flag is a totem for patriotism or national solidarity.

However, as we have already seen, the totem was also a symbol of the clan. A clan, which is a society for the tribe.

Thus, Durkheim connected both of them. If totem represents the clan, and totem is also the sacred, then putting A+B=C, Durkheim concludes that the sacred is ultimately nothing but the worship of society!!

This is the true essence of religion for Durkheim.