Emile Durkheim attempts to investigate the social functions of religion in several of his works, including Suicide and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. However, despite his interest, there are several inconsistencies within his papers where his views regarding the role of religion are highly dissimilar. In his earlier work, Suicide, Durkheim discusses religion as incapable of forming sufficient solidarity, and would later revise his opinion by stating that religion creates immense solidarity, which would create feelings and emotions we would not otherwise experience in solitude. Furthermore, Durkheim’s perception of religion transformed from a variable to a constant. Lastly, Durkheim seems to have trouble grasping the creation of religion, as he consistently contradicts himself on locating its origin and source of power.
In his earlier work, Durkheim states that religion was unable to provide solidarity for society, as religion, on its own, is not necessarily powerful enough to prevent individuals from committing suicide. The degree, to which a religion can govern its people, largely depends on the extent of control to which religion exerts on the lives of its followers. In essence, Durkheim does not believe religion as a highly effective social mechanism in Suicide. However, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim’s original view is juxtaposed with a new view which considers religion as a powerful social force. Durkheim, unlike in Suicide, now regards religion as a bonding mechanism for people of both large social units, including societies, and smaller units, such as clans. Durkheim himself stated, “Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities” (Durkheim, 2004, p. 73). In other words, religious followers would experience much stronger ties, as they all draw their identities and values from the same pool of ideologies. In this sense, Durkheim seem to insinuate that, similar to Marx and class, those of the same religion would experience powerful solidarity and conformity, which is a stark contrast to his previous work where he see religion as both lacking and weakening in creating solidarity.
This lead to the second inconsistency discovered in Durkheim’s two literatures on religion. Durkheim in suicide speaks out against religion as a body of governing which is eroding in power and gradually decreasing in influence. However, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim preaches a completely different set of ideology. In this case, Durkheim believes religion to be a fundamental ingredient within society. Similar to other thinkers, including Marx and Weber, Durkheim sees religion as a constant which exists in every society. Furthermore, as a constant, it would mean that religion would be static in every society and would not fade away. Which in essence seems to say that people cannot exist without a belief system as it is so prevalent and powerful, whereas in Suicide, Durkheim predicts that the fall of religion may be inevitable. Durkheim’s new idea is also contrasted by Berger who argues that religion is a variable which is weakening in modern society and can fluctuate in importance from society to society. Ironically Berger’s idea is almost a direct parallel to Durkheim’s original idea. Durkheim’s quote, “If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion” (Durkheim 1973, p.191), not only confirms his idea that religion coexists alongside society, it also brings up a new question, did religion create a conforming society or did a conforming society create religion?
Durkheim seems to have trouble deciding upon the fundamental nature of religion. In Suicide, Durkheim argues for religion as an infrastructure based on the blind following of believers, and that religion works to prevent people from formulating their own free thought and ideas, “… religions can socialize us only in so far as they refuse us the right of free examination. They no longer have, and probably will never again have, enough authority to wring such a sacrifice from us” (Durkheim 1951, p. 376). Later on, Durkheim seemed to have revised that idea by stating that, “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices … which unite into one single moral community called a Church” (Durkheim, 2004, p. 75). From this quote, is it understood that religion reinforces collective norms and morals of the society, and can provide additional opportunities for social events and rituals, thus furthering solidarity. In essence, it is not religion that creates conformity, but rather conforming ideas which creates religion. Thus, the origin and source of religion’s power is derived from communal conformity. This is reinforced by Durkheim’s view on sacred objects, where he explicitly states that the objects themselves are not inherently divine or sacred, but rather made sacred depending on the context of the religious society which views the objects.
Emile Durkheim acknowledges religion as being a visible element in human society. However, his arguments and views on religion are fairly inconsistent, particularly when comparing two of his work, Suicide and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. In the former, Durkheim explains how religion is insufficient in providing solidarity, eroding in influence and authority, as well as declaring that religion makes people blind of judgment and decision making. While in the latter, Durkheim suggests that religion coalesces and links people with similar ideologies, is a constant within any community, thus cannot disappear as long as society exists, and is a product of society.
Durkheim, E. (1951). “Practical Consequences” in Suicide. New York: Free Press. pp.
Durkheim, E. (2004). “The elementary Forms of Religious Life” in Readings in Social
Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post Modernism. New York: McGraw Hill. pp.
Bellah, R., N. (1973). Emile Durkheim: On morality and Society, Selected Writings.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. pp.191