Durkheim: Society as Sacred



1.    Scientific revolution and the Enlightenment (17th century): priority of reason and scientific method as means to knowledge and betterment of life.

Š      Undermining authority of the chursh and the monarchy

Š      Postulation of natural laws to be discerned through observation

2.    Emergence of study of religion: Efforts to explain the origins of religion

3.    Tylor and the origin of religion

a.    Tylor defines religion as “beliefs in spiritual beings”.  The essence of religion = “animism.”  The belief in living powers behind all things.  Latin anima = spirit.

b.    Tylor’s question: How and why did the human race first come to believe in spiritual beings?

c.    Two impressive observations: death and dreams

                                     i.     Death: the difference between a living body and a dead one

                                   ii.     Dreams: the human shapes in dreams, phantoms

d.    Answers: every human being is animated by a soul.  The soul animates the body (combination of life and phantom).  This applied to the rest of the natural world.  As soul is separable form the objects they animates, there are beings behind the visible scene of nature (spirits).  Souls animate persons, so spirits animate the world.




1.    Most simple and primitive form of society and of religion are inseparable.

a.    Social structure of the clan / the structure of religion (the totem and commemorative rites) are fundamentally similar.

2.    Individual consciousness almost entirely overwhelmed by collective consciousness

3.    Durkheim claims that religion comes about through the experience of collective effervescence, the overwhelming experience of the group which lifts one out of one's individual and morally impoverished biological condition and raises one up to an awesome experience of something far greater than oneself -- something which is experienced as calling forth the very best in us and as representing the human condition in its entirety. 

a.    The object, or thing, which unites people (in this case the divinized clan, Robertson Smith) is experienced as offering protection while at the same time demanding self-sacrifice.

4.    = A social understanding of human nature – society dominates and structures consciousness and individual experience

5.    Primitive society dependent upon the totem – the totem represents human kind back to itself.

a.    The totem and its associated rites serve to create and recreate solidarity and, even in the primitive context, to foster creativity and exuberance in individuals, owing to a kind of overflow of effervescence.  The rites reestablish the collectivity and bring new life and spirit to its members, who dance, whirl, sing, etc.

b.    The sacred power or force of the totem comes, basically, from the experience group.  Society and religion effectively transcend nature and make the human (at best) a moral and cooperative creature.