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Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)
Elementary Forms of Religious Life
Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse
Truly religious beliefs are always common to a specific group which professes to adhere to them and to
practise the rites connected with them. They are not merely received individually by all the members of
the group; they are what gives the group its unity. The individuals who compose the group feel
themselves bound to each other by the very fact that they have a common faith. A society whose
members are united by the fact that they represent the sacred world and its relations with the profane
world in the same way, and by the fact that they translate these common ideas into common practices, is
what we call a ‘church’. In all history, we do not find a single religion without a church. Sometimes
the church is strictly national, sometimes it cuts across frontiers; sometimes it covers an entire people
(Rome, Athens, the Hebrews), sometimes only a part of them (the Christian societies since the advent of
Protestantism); sometimes it is directed by a priesthood, sometimes it is almost completely devoid of
any official directing body. But wherever we observe religious life, we find that it has a definite group
as its foundation. Even the so-called ‘private cults’, such as the domestic cult or the corporative cult,
satisfy this condition; for they are always celebrated by a group: the family or the corporation.
Moreover, even these individual religions are ordinarily only special forms of a more general religion
which embraces them all. These restricted churches are in reality only chapels of a vaster church which,
by reason of this very extensiveness, merits this name still more.
It is quite another matter with magic. To be sure, magical beliefs always involve some degree
of generality; they are very frequently diffused throughout large sectors of the population, and there are
even societies where magic has as many adherents as religion as such. But it does not result in binding
together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a similar life. There is no
church of magic. Between the magician and the individuals who consult him, as between these
individuals themselves, there are no lasting bonds which make them members of the same moral
community, comparable to that formed by the believers in the same god or the followers of the same
cult. The magician has a clientele, not a church, and it is very possible that his clients have no
relationships with one-another, or even do not know each other. Even the relationships which they do
have with him are generally casual and transient; they are just like those of a sick man with his doctor.
The official and public character with which the magician is sometimes invested changes nothing in this
situation: the fact that he works openly does not unite him more regularly or more permanently to those
who have recourse to his services.
It is true that in certain cases magicians form societies among themselves.. . . Religion, on the
other hand, is inseparable from the idea of a church. From this aspect alone there is already an essential
difference between magic and religion… Now the magician is for magic what the priest is for religion,
but a college of priests is not a church, any more than a religious congregation which devotes itself to
some particular saint in the shadow of a cloister, is a proper cult. A church is not simply a fraternity of
priests, it is a moral community formed by all the believers in a single faith, laymen as well as priests.
But magic normally lacks any such community. . .
Thus we arrive at the following definition: 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.
We have seen that totemism places the image or representation of the totem highest among those things
it considers sacred; next come the animals or vegetables whose name the clan bears, and
finally the members of the clan. Since all these things are sacred in the same way, although in differing
degrees, their religious character cannot be due to any specific attributes distinguishing them from each
other. If a certain type of animal or vegetable is the object of a reverential fear, this is not because of its
special properties, for the human members of the clan enjoy this same privilege, though to a slightly
lesser degree; and the mere image of this same plant or animal inspires an even more defined respect…
In other words, totemism is the religion, not of such and such animals or men or images, but of an
anonymous and impersonal force, found in each of these beings but not to be confused with any of
them. No-one possesses it entirely and all share in it. It is so wholly independent of the particular
subjects in whom it incarnates itself that it precedes them and survives them. Individuals die,
generations pass away and are replaced by others; but this force always remains the same, real and vital.
It inspires the generations of today as it did those of yesterday and as it will those of tomorrow. Using
the word in a very broad sense, we may say that it is the god worshipped by each totemic cult. But it is
an impersonal god, without name or history, immanent in the world and diffused in an endless diversity
of things. …This is what the totem really consists in: it is simply the material form in which the
imagination represents this immaterial substance, this energy diffused through a variety of different
things, which alone is the real object of the cult. We are now in a better situation to understand what a
man means when he says that the men of the Crow phratry, for example, are crows. He does not exactly
mean to say that they are crows in the everyday, empirical sense of the term, but that the same principle
is found in all of them, which is their most essential characteristic, which they have in common with the
animals of the same name and which is thought of under the external form of a crow. Thus the universe,
as totemism conceives it, is pervaded and animated by a certain number of forces which the imagination
represents in forms taken, with only a few exceptions, from the animal or vegetable kingdoms. There are
as many of them as there are clans in the tribe, and each of them is also found in certain categories of
things, of which it is the essence and vital principle.
When someone asks a native why he observes his rites, he replies that his ancestors always have
observed them, and that he must follow their example. So if he acts in a certain way towards the totemic
beings, it is not only because the forces resident in them are physically formidable, but because he feels
himself morally obliged to act in this way; he feels that he is obeying an imperative, that he is fulfilling a
duty. He does not just fear these sacred beings, he also respects them. Moreover, the totem is the source
of the moral life of the clan. All the beings sharing the same totemic principle consider that owing to
this very fact, they are morally bound to one-another; they have definite duties of assistance, vendetta,
etc., towards each other; and it is these duties which constitute kinship. So while the totemic principle is
a totemic force, it is also a moral power; and we shall see how it easily transforms itself into a divinity
properly so-called.
Moreover, there is nothing here which is specific to totemism. Even in the most advanced
religions, there is scarcely a god who has not kept something of this ambiguity and whose
functions are not at once cosmic and moral. At the same time that it is a spiritual discipline, every
religion is also a means enabling men to face the world with greater confidence. Even for the Christian,
is not God the Father the guardian of the physical order as well as the legislator and the judge of human
conduct? . .. We are now better able to see why it has been impossible to define religion in terms of the
idea of mythical personalities, gods or spirits; it is because this way of representing religious things is in
no way inherent in their nature. What we find at the origin and basis of religious drought are not definite
and distinct objects and beings possessing a sacred character of themselves; but abstract powers,
anonymous forces, more or less numerous in different societies, and sometimes even reduced to a unity,
whose impersonality is strictly comparable to that of the physical forces whose manifestations are
studied by the natural sciences. As for particular sacred things, they are only individualised forms of this
underlying principle. … That is why there is scarcely a divine personality who does not retain a quality
of impersonality. Those who conceive it most clearly in a concrete and visible form, think of it both as
an abstract power which cannot be defined except by its own efficacy and as a force spread out in space,
which is contained, at least in part, in each of its effects. It is the power of producing rain or wind, crops
or the light of day; Zeus is in each of the raindrops which falls, just as Ceres is in each of the sheaves of
the harvest. As a general rule, in fact, this efficacy is so unclearly specified that the believer is able to
form only a very vague notion of it. Moreover, it is this lack of clarity which has made possible the
mergings and duplications in the course of which gods are broken up, dismembered and confused in
every way. Perhaps there is not a single religion in which the original mana, whether unique or
multiform, has resolved entirely into a clearly defined number of beings who are distinct and separate
from each other; each of them always retains an element of impersonality, as it were, which enables it to
enter into new combinations, not as the result of a simple survival, but because it is the nature of
religious forces to be unable to individualise themselves completely.
[From a review of Labriola’s exposition of historical materialism.]
We believe it to be a fruitful idea that social life should be explained, not in terms of the conception
which its participants hold of it, but by reference to underlying causes which escape consciousness; and
we also think that these causes have to be sought principally in the way in which associated individuals
are grouped. It seems to us that it is indeed on this condition, and on this condition alone, that history
can become a science and, in consequence, that sociology can exist. For in order for collective
representations to be intelligible, it is certainly necessary that they should originate from something, and
since they cannot form a circle closed upon itself, the source which they derive from must he outside
them. Either the conscience collective floats a void, a kind of indescribable absolute, or else it is
connected to the rest of the world by a substratum upon which, consequently, it is dependent. Moreover,
what can this substratum be made up of, if it is not the members of society, as they are combined
socially? This proposition seems to us to be obvious. But we see no reason to link this, as the author
does, to the socialist movement; it is totally independent of it. We ourselves arrived at it before knowing
Marx, who has not influenced us in any way. The fact is that this conception is the logical end-result of
all of the developments in history and psychology over these last fifty years. Historians have for a long
time perceived that social evolution has causes which the authors of the historical events in question
were not aware of. It is under the influence of these ideas that the role of great men tends either to be
denied or to be limited, and that, in developments in literature, law, etc., there is a search to
express collective thought which no definite individual embodies completely. At the same time, and
above all, individual psychology has recently taught us that the consciousness of the individual is often
no more than a reflection of the underlying state of the organism: that the course of our ideas is
determined by causes which are not known to the subject. It was natural that, from there, this conception
became extended to collective psychology. But it is impossible for us to see what part the unhappy
conflict of classes which we witness today can have had in the elaboration or the development of this
Just as much as it seems to us to be that the causes of social phenomena must be sought outside
of individual ideas, so it seems to us to be false that they derive ultimately from the state of industrial
technology, and that the economic factor is the source of progress. …
Not only is the Marxist hypothesis unproven, but it is contrary to facts which seem to be
established. Sociologists and historians are tending increasingly to reach common agreement that
religion is the most primitive of all social phenomena. All other manifestations of collective activity law, morality, art, science, political formations, etc. – have emerged from it, by a series of
transformations. In the beginning everything is religious. Now we know of 110 ways of reducing
religion to the economy, nor of any real attempt which has been made to effect this reduction. No-one
has yet shown under what economic influences naturalism developed out of totemism, by what series of
changes in technology it became in one place the abstract monotheism of Jahwe, and in another GraecoLatin polytheism, and we strongly doubt that anyone could ever succeed in such an enterprise. More
generally, it is indisputable that at the outset, the economic factor is rudimentary, while religious life is
by contrast, luxuriant and all-pervading. Why could it not follow from this, and is it not probable, on the
contrary, that the economy depends much more upon religion that the former does on the latter?
There would be no need, moreover, to push the preceding ideas to such an extreme that they lose
all validity. Psycho-physiology, after having drawn attention to the foundation of psychic life in the
organic substratum, often made the mistake of denying any reality to the latter. This was the source of
the theory which reduces consciousness to nothing more than an epiphenomenon. The fact was lost sight
of, that if ideas depend originally upon organic states, once they are formed they are, by that token,
realities sui generis; they are autonomous, capable of being causes in their turn, and of producing new
phenomena. Sociology must take care to avoid the same error. If the different forms of collective
activity also have a substratum from which, in the last instance, they derive, they become in turn original
sources of action, with their own specific effects, and they react upon the very causes which they stem
from. We are thus far from holding that the economic factor is simply an epiphenomenon; once it
exists, it has its own particular influence, and can partially modify the very substratum from
which it results. But this is not reason to confuse it in any way with this substratum, in order to make of
it something especially fundamental. Everything leads us to believe, on the contrary, that it is secondary
and derived. From which it follows that the economic changes which have taken place during the course
of this century, the substitution of large-scale for small-scale industry, in no way necessitate a disruption
and radical reorganisation of the social order; and indeed that the malaise from which European societies
may be suffering does not originate in these changes.
Classical Sociological Theory
Name: _______________________________________
SOC 201 Summer 2022
Student Number: __________________
*** You are required to produce 4 Reading Reflections (~200 words each) on the Assigned Weekly Texts, based on
Your Selection! (5% each = 20%). Please use this document as your writing template (i.e., download and put your
thoughts under each of the two sections: Take-aways/Keepers & Questions). Re-save the document, with your
additions, as a Word file. Number each submission (Reading Reflection #1, etc.), and upload your Reflection onto
Quercus into the designated Assignment space. Each Reflection must be submitted the day prior to the Lecture topic
you have chosen (submissions should thus occur on Mondays/Wednesdays, and no later than 7 pm).
Our course will be anchored on a selected set of original or “Primary” texts, as opposed to a textbook (i.e., a
“secondary” text, a filtered summary of “primary” texts). We recognize that reading primary texts entails a greater
challenge than reading textbooks, and that original writings from earlier eras are more challenging still. Your short
Reading Reflections, accordingly, are not required or expected to demonstrate full comprehension of the texts – most
will be difficult! – but rather to function as exploratory preparations for the Lectures that follow. Your initial
readings & reflections & questions will thus greatly contribute to the discussions and dialogues we will engage in
during the online “classroom” sessions.
Martin and I wish you all success with this assignment, and hope you will find them enjoyable as well.
Reading Reflection # ____
1) Highlight what you take to be the most interesting or important themes, concepts, or perspectives in the
weekly readings. Briefly explain why the particular issues and claims you chose to focus on are significant
or insightful, and how they enriched or broadened your “sociological imagination.” You might also make
note of whether the reading changed or challenged your understanding in any way.
2) Provide two or three questions you would like to have addressed during the Lecture period. For example:
what aspects or claims in the selected Reading need further clarification? What critical challenges or
counter-arguments would you pose to the authors of the readings? Do you have any other relevant thoughts
or experiences you would like us to consider during the lecture?

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