Soc 461
Lecture 2:  Religion as Social Drama—Durkheim
March 31, 1999



Definitions of “religion” & “society” highly contested

“religio” “relegare” “relegere”
relegare connotes obligation and literally means “to bind”
relegere suggests subjective apprehension


Collection of individuals who come together for a common purpose such as the collection of property
A distinct object that cannot be reduced to the elements that compose it

Functional approach: what religion is, at least in part, is what religion does

Durkheim: What is religion? And what are its functions for society?

Durkheim’s social context

Durkheim’s definition: a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which united into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them (1995: 44).

Religion as “an eminently social thing”—religion exists, for Durkheim,  because human beings exist only as social beings and in a
humanly shaped world

Society as “Church”

Magic in contrast to Religion

Religion as grounded in the “real”

Common characteristic of religious beliefs: everything is classified as either sacred or profane

All religions are about the sacred

Animist and Naturist theories of religion
Durkheim rejects their individualistic frame of reference

Religion is not mainly or fundamentally about the individual; it’s about the collective

Totemism: a system of collective representations
The name of the totem symbolizes the group, like the flag of a nation
A specifically social object
The totem symbolizes both god & group

Source of the sacred character of the clan: society

God equals society? Structurally but not in terms of identity

Collective Representations: shared meanings, values, ideas, ideals through which human beings collectively view themselves, each other and the natural environment

Collective Effervescence: a powerful social energy generated during religious rituals and civic ceremonies that breaks or erases the boundaries between individuals and creates a social world. It creates the symbols (e.g., totems) of social life, holds members of society together and is that out of which religious ideas and cultural ideals are born.

Sacred symbols participate in the reality for which they stand

The scientific or the political, Durkheim asserts, won’t eventually outgrow the sacred. Religion may take on different forms but it won’t go away.

Implications for secularization theory?