The Canon: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. By Emile Durkheim

July 16, 2009

It should be against the law for anyone to write about religion without passing an exam on Emile Durkheim's 1912 text The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. This book stands unchallenged as the most influential in its field. With it, Durkheim swept away Victorian gentlemen's notions of early religion as "product of a delirious interpretation" - savages making mistakes with their less-evolved brains - and established the sociology of religion.

His work was cast as a study of supposedly "primitive" religions, but in principle he did not differentiate the sacred experience of Aboriginal corroborees, whirling with bullroarers, from the political fervour of citizens marching under the revolutionary flag of the republic. The thought processes underlying religion and science - logical relations of metaphor and analogy - Durkheim recognised as identical: "To assert that man is a kangaroo ... is this not identifying one thing with another? ... We do not think any differently when we say that heat is movement, that light is a vibration."

For Durkheim, there were no false religions: all were rooted in reality and expressed that reality as, above all, "a system of notions by which individuals imagine the society to which they belong". Such a system could not arise from the thought or experience of any individual. Only through collective effervescence, the intense exaltation of experience in ritual, could individuals in a group become aware of their moral unity, allowing fusion of all individual feelings into a common feeling.

Durkheim describes this process in materialist terms: collective representation requires consciousnesses to act on each other through tangible intermediaries. Individual minds can meet and commune only by coming out of themselves through movement. The homogeneity of these movements "makes the group aware of itself". That homogeneity, once established, serves to symbolise the representations. Without these symbols, such feelings and representations cannot endure. The movements must be inscribed on "lasting things" - material objects or designs on the body that can embody the representations. Ritual alone provides the generative ground for experience of the moral community; the sacred objects that embody collective representations stand for nothing other than the community's sense of itself.

For Durkheim and those anthropologists he most influenced - Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, Roy Rappaport - ritual was the matrix of social and symbolic life. Where Durkheim had never allowed for conflict at the heart of his moral community, these anthropologists grappled with questions of deception and contest underlying society's most basic truths.

Today, social anthropology has largely abandoned the task of explaining religion. Ironically, the ones who have discovered Durkheim's great scientific study of religion in the past decade are selfish-gene Darwinists. Precisely because they are supreme methodological individualists, they find group cultural phenomena of religious symbolism fascinating and perplexing. Hardcore Darwinists such as the late John Maynard Smith viewed religion as adaptive strategy, placing ritual central to the question - as Durkheim did - to argue that ritual functions as costly signal of commitment, in effect the force that binds groups of individuals in a Darwinian world.

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