Ryan : History of Sociological Thought

Durkheim on Religion

Rhetorical Structure

  1. Definition of religion
  2. Refutation of other theories
  3. Demonstration of the social nature of religion

Problem -- Why does he care about religion?

Society has become progressively more rational:
  • no more witch burnings
  • Galileo vindicated
  • marginalization of the occult
  • churches have become less dogmatic
  • secularization everywhere
and yet...religion has not disappeared.  There is a general concern among people writing at the time about what to do about the non-rational stuff that is left over after an analysis of social world in terms of rational, utilitarian, and instrumental behavior.  Can everything be reductionistically explained?  Or is there a residue?

It is useful to see this work as a part of Durkheim's overall attempt to show that "the social" was real and worth studying, that society is not reducible to individual psychology.  You may recall that we've called this the "realist" as opposed to the "nominalist" position.


  • What is Religion?
    • not necessarily belief in transcendent being
    • not necessarily mysticism and the supernatural
    Rather, two components
    • beliefs = division of world into sacred and profane
    • rituals = strictly determined behavior associated with the sacred

  • And so we have body of things, beliefs, rituals that are sacred, and ...
  • ... if these are coordinated into a system of sorts ==> RELIGION
  • THUS: idea of the sacred => organization of beliefs about the sacred => rites and practices proceeding from these

  • "A religion is an interdependent system of beliefs and practices regarding things which are sacred, that is to say, apart, forbidden, beliefs, and practices which unite all those who follow them in a single moral community called a church."


  • Religion as animism
  • Religion as naturism
  • ED: both involve a sort of collective hallucination.  We must figure out how to accept the reality of religion without accepting those things that scientific rationalism makes archaic.  It doesn't make sense to find the essence of something in an illusion.  Not useful science if its main discovery makes its object disappear.

Sociological Approach

Participants in collectivity have vague feeling of something superior to their individuality
"mana" as this anonymous and diffuse force
Humans worship their own society without knowing it
Societies create gods/religions when in a state of exaltation of intensified social life.

Further Issues

Ritual energy
Interaction ritual chains
Symbolic representation
Classification systems

Supplementary Readings

Durkheim Notes from UChicago Prelims Library
Excerpts from Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, (Translated by George Simpson). by New York: The Free Press, 1947.
The Emile Durkheim Archive (caution -- free website that sends popup window ads with page)