Durkheim: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life - Comments

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1 The Title:

The original Swail translation had a second the in the title. This translation has been superceded by the 1995 Karen E Fields version, which is used here and which drops the second the. [Back to Article]

2 Church:

The secondary characteristic of a religion for Durkheim is what he calls Church. A Church is a group of people who share beliefs and practices regarding the sacred. [Back to Article]

3 The Profane:

There is no real gain in building the profane up into some kind of antithesis to the sacred. The resultant dichotomy contributes nothing to our understanding of totemism in particular and, beyond that, of religion in general.

Indeed, once Durkheim has launched the idea of the profane, he more or less forgets about it, except for a burst three quarters of the way through the book. Most of the time, he focusses on the sacred alone.

Durkheim starts Elementary Forms with generalities which allow him to propose a theory of religion based on a sacred ~ profane dichotomy. However, once he gets into the details of an actual religion, Australian totemism, the evidence forces him into a second, albeit unacknowledged, theoretical perspective, one that involves the sacred alone. The discussion of religious prohibitions offers him a brief opportunity to try dragging in the original dualistic theory. But he is soon forced back again by the evidence to a sacred alone perspective.


Durkheim's failure to sustain his dualistic perspective is not surprising. There is nothing that can be said about the profane other than that it is the absence of the sacred. With sacred and profane, we are not looking at genuinely meaningful polarity, as with positive and negative electrical charges and with binary one and binary zero, but at pseudo-polarity, where only one of the two terms has a value.

Towards the end of my summary of Elementary Forms, I quote Durkheim as follows:

religious and profane life cannot coexist in the same space [p 312]


religious and profane life cannot coexist in the same time [p 313].

These formulations are drawn from the section on religious prohibition. With them Durkheim seems to be suggesting some kind of law of religion comparable to that of magnetism, whereby like poles repel and unlike poles attract. The difference is merely that it's a matter of unlike poles repelling rather than attracting: sacred and profane repelling each other.

However, these formulations of Durkheim do not bear scrutiny. There is no mutual repulsion between sacred and profane, because, unlike the sacred, the profane does not have its own force. In fact, with the profane being no more than the absence of the sacred, when you say that the sacred and the profane cannot coexist, all you are saying is that where there is something there cannot be nothing.

The Sacred as Mobile and Energetic:

Durkheim does not need the dualistic theory to account for prohibitions, because here as elsewhere the evidence can be handled neatly and meaningfully in terms of the sacred alone. With his notion of contagiousness, Durkheim presents the sacred as mobile and energetic. Characteristics of the sacred such as these are quite sufficient in themselves to account for the prohibitions that surround it. Thus, rules may be needed on the one hand to protect the sacred from contamination and from dissipation by leakage and on the other hand to protect people from exposure to the awesome power of the sacred.

It looks as though the discussion of prohibitions is the only opportunity Durkheim finds for applying his preconceived dualistic theory to the detailed evidence of the particular religion he is studying. He insists on taking that opportunity regardless.

Steven Lukes in his Emile Durkheim, His Life and Work (1973) [p 28], quoting another authority in support, suggests that Durkheim was hooked on dualisms. Lukes has previously pointed out that Durkheim's profane is not one idea but a repository of miscellaneous ideas, what this site calls a ragbag category.

Academic bad currency:

December 2006: It is of course usual in references to Durkheim in discussions of religion to find his sacred ~ profane opposition presented as fundamental to his thought on the subject. We may be sure that the majority of those who refer to Durkheim in this way have never actually read Elementary Forms from cover to cover, let alone studied it. At best they will have skimmed it, looking for what they have been led to expect to find. But more likely, they will have looked up sacred and profane in the index or found the passages they want to find from references by previous authors.

In other words, I am suggesting that those who refer to the sacred ~ profane opposition as fundamental to Durkheim will mostly be comparable to those who glibly pass on the apocryphal tag mysterium tremendum et fascinans like bad currency: as if it actually occurs in Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy: for which, see on this site The Rudolf Otto Virus.


The question now arises as to who launched this conventional wisdom concerning Durkheim. It was certainly not Evans-Pritchard for one. In his Theories of Primitive Religion [1963], looking at the matter ethnographically, he rapidly dismisses

the rigid dichotomy [Durkheim] makes between the sacred and the profane [pp 64-65]

declaring the two to be

so closely intermingled as to be inseparable [p 65].

The distinction is neither observable in the field nor does it assist in classifying what is observed in the field.

Evans-Pritchard confirms that this is his view in the posthumously published A History of Anthropological Thought [1981] and amplifies a little. Here are about half of the points he makes. He suggests that Malinowski was dubious. He supposes

that Durkheim was here generalizing from his own Semitic background. [p 160]

He points out that Stanner claimed that the Frenchman

seriously misunderstood Australian social organization [p 160]

and quotes Stanner re the Northern Australians:

I have found it impossible to make sense of aboriginal life in terms of Durkheim's well-known dichotomy the sacred and the profane. (in a 1967 essay, Reflections on Durkheim and Aboriginal Religion [p 127]).

Also from Stanner:

The more closely the category of the profane is studied the less suitable it appears. [p 109].

Evans-Pritchard continues:

Also, as according to Durkheim, almost everything among the aboriginals is sacred in some degree, it is difficult to see what strictly can be called profane. [p 160] [Back to Article]

3A Durkheim on Tylor on Ritual:

November 2006: I find unsubstantiated Durkheim's claim  [Fields English translation p 49, original French p 56] that Tylor had thought that ritual began with mortuary rites. Durkheim's original page references on this point are doubtless to the French translation of Primitive Culture, to which I do not have access. Fields maps the page references back to Tylor's original, but while these yield texts on funeral object sacrifice and manes-worship, no claim of chronological priority for mortuary rites emerges from them.

Tylor's 16 page armchair anthropology survey of Funeral Object Sacrifice in one of his animism chapters begins:

As so many races perform funeral sacrifices of men and animals, in order to dispatch their souls for the service of the soul of the deceased, so tribes who hold this doctrine of object-souls very rationally sacrifice objects, in order to transmit these souls. [vol I, p 481]

The survey ends with a very brief mention of survivals in modern Europe, including the remark:

Whatever may have been the thoughts which first prompted these kindly ceremonies, they were thoughts belonging to far prae-Christian ages. [vol I, p 495]

Tylor's 10 page survey of Manes-Worship in another of his animism chapters concludes:

To sum up the whole history of manes-worship, it is plain that in our time the dead still receive worship from far the larger half of mankind, and it may have been much the same ever since the remote periods of primitive culture in which the religion of the manes probably took its rise. [vol II, pp 122 - 123]

That's as much significant chronology as you get in these surveys. I fail to see how Durkheim could possibly have managed to construe in them any claim by Tylor that

les premiers rites auraient été des rites mortuaires [op. cit., p 56].

But if I've missed something here or if I've been looking in the wrong places, please let me know.

One might suppose that if Tylor had been going to offer some kind of sequencing of the first appearance of different types of ritual he would have done so in his chapter specifically on different types of Rites and Ceremonies, which comes second last in the book. But he remains vague to the end. Thus he opens his section on Sacrifice in this chapter:

Sacrifice has its apparent origin in the same early period of culture and its place in the same animistic scheme as prayer, with which through so long a range of history it has been carried on in the closest connexion. [vol II, p 375]

It seems as though Tylor traced the beginnings of rituals of whatever kind back to an original animism, but was no more precise than that. [Back to Article]

4 Non-inherence:

Durkheim's assertion of non-inherence, that

neither man nor nature is inherently sacred

a claim unsupported other than by references back to Tylor, Müller etc, places him squarely in the camp of supernatural religion.

Whether nature is inherently sacred or not is an absolutely crucial consideration in relation to religion. For if nature, including humans, is inherently sacred, then supernatural religion is not about bringing the sacred into the world, but about controlling it.

But more importantly, by not regarding the world and ourselves as essentially sacred, we are destroying both: the world ecologically and ourselves socially and in mind and body.

Of course, it must have been impossible for Durkheim to consider that maybe peoples like his totemists might have experienced the world as inherently sacred. It was integral to his whole theory of Society that they did not. Let me explain.

Durkheim's Judeo-Christian Model:

If we try to reconstruct the process by which Durkheim must have arrived at his religious model of Society, we get something like this.

One, Durkheim took the basic structural model of the Judeo-Christian tradition and explained it by substituting alternative parts in the same positions, though with alternative connections. In other words, Durkheim didn't challenge the model as a whole, only the bits and how they slotted together.

As higher entity, Durkheim replaced God with Society and as higher reality the supernatural with the collective. Humans remained as lower entities in a lower reality, but they related differently to the higher entity. Whereas in the Judeo-Christian model God created humans, in the Durkheim version humans created Society. For more on this, see on this site Durkheim's Metaphysics.

Two, having created a structural model of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, showing how God was really Society and reinterpreting the rest accordingly, Durkheim proceeded to generalise on that, claiming that all religions had the same underlying model.

Three, Durkheim generalised some more, claiming that more or less the whole of social life could be understood in terms of this model.

Clearly, insisting on understanding all cultures in terms of the Judeo-Christian model, you are not going to see that there might be cultures that do not find the world and the people in it as as intrinsically profane. You are not, for example, going to take into account the possibility that totemists might find the world essentially sacred and that there might be other explanations for prohibitions than the sacred ~ profane distinction.

Of course, Durkheim will not have been helped by his ethnographic sources. Effectively, his theory corresponded to what will have been their observational bias. No doubt his sources were essentially Christians of one sort or another, mainly missionaries and administrators, who will have based their understanding of the Australian practices they saw on the Christian religion they knew.

Ultimately, Durkheim has to be seen as perpetuating with his own twist the religious tradition of demeaning us individual human beings as inferior to some higher power, viewing us as sacred only to the extent that we can somehow snatch a spark of sacredness from somewhere above. [Back to Article]

5 The Choice of Totemism:

It is a matter of great significance that when Durkheim took up the study of religion he effectively switched from sociology to anthropology by choosing to turn away from his own society and towards one as far removed as could possibly be: Australian totemism. Here we consider the background to Durkheim's choice, then remark on the unfortunate long term consequence of that choice.

Historical Factors:

One consideration is that, in the period during which Durkheim was producing his book, there was a European fascination with what was regarded as the primitive, based on the colonial contacts with tribal peoples. Durkheim may well have shared in that fascination.

In particular, art historians have connected some of the avant-garde art of the period with exhibitions displaying tribal artefacts. It seems that artists believed there was some kind of primal authenticity or truth in such objects. Durkheim may have felt similarly, expecting to find primal truths about religion generally in tribal examples.

Another consideration is that a hundred years ago the idea of evolutionary progress was being applied to cultural history generally and to the history of religion in particular. Thus on the one hand the non-believer, James Frazer in The Golden Bough (1890-1915), suggested a progression in human thought from magic to religion to science, while on the other hand, the believer, Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy (1917), traced the path of religion from prehistoric superstition to its culmination in his own Lutheran Christianity.

In such a perspective, the religion of the Australian tribes might be seen as a survival from the early stages of religious evolution. As such it could make an interesting study.

However, these historical factors as such do not account for Durkheim's fundamental change of direction.

The Avoidance of Controversy:

Of course, a different sort of historical explanation has been offered. Although an atheist, Durkheim was the son of a rabbi and pro-Catholic anti-semitism was rife in France in the early years of the C20th. Consequently, it has been suggested that it was unthinkable at the time for him to base his study on Judaism or on Catholicism. In contrast, Australian totemism was probably the least known and therefore the least controversial religion he could have chosen to dissect.

This line of argument is dismissed out of hand by Karen E. Fields in the Introduction [p lxviii n 84] to her 1995 translation of Elementary Forms. She no doubt prefers Durkheim's own methodological rationale for his choice.

The Methodological Rationale:

On the opening page of Elementary Forms Durkheim states that his aim in selecting

the simplest and most primitive religion that is known at present

is not simply to study such a religion for its own sake, but to gain an understanding of the religious nature of man in general and of present-day humanity in particular.

In a nutshell, Durkheim argues in the following pages that, given that the human impulse to religion and its expression have never changed essentially over time, examination of the simplest and earliest example of religion will yield results applicable to the most complex and most recent instances, themselves not amenable to immediate analysis.

[We may at some point get round to considering Durkheim's simplifying methodology in relation to others, such as the roughly contemporary approaches of William James and Rudolf Otto. Where Durkheim looked to understand religion generally in terms of an apparently archaic example viewed in its entirety, complete with beliefs and practices, James and Otto simplified by basically ignoring all religious phenomena apart from exceptional personal experiences of the divine. This reductionist methodology is still found today in neurotheology.]

The problem with Durkheim's methodology is this. Despite the grandiose claim made for its potential at the start of Elementary Forms, neither Durkheim himself nor any of his followers ever did, as far as I am aware, get round to actually applying the insights gained from the simple, archaic case to the detailed study of a complex, modern example, like the French Catholicism of the day.

Two possible explanations present themselves here. One, fear of controversy was after all an inhibiting factor. Two, the methodology proved unequal to the task: in the event, the insights gained in the study of Australian totemism were not the open sesame to religion generally that Durkheim had promised.

I suspect the truth involves both explanations, with the main emphasis on the latter. The anthropological scrutiny of any particular set of contemporary mainstream Western religious beliefs and practices would have been a very hot potato, but crucially, Elementary Forms had failed to provide a sufficient theoretical basis anyway.

The Absence of Anthropological Self-Knowledge:

Whatever the case, the long term impact of the failure of Elementary Forms to fulfill its promise was highly regrettable from the point of view of the historical development of anthropology as an academic discipline. It helped confirm anthropology in its focus on tribal culture, to the exclusion of contemporary Western culture.

At one level, this focus meant anthropology never achieving scientific status. In practice, it has never been anything more than a matter of sophisticated travellers' tales of the exotic. Down to this day, anthropology has proved itself incapable of generating significant insights into the anthropologists' own culture, of providing them and their audience with self-knowledge.

At another level, such a focus made this the fundamental message of anthropology: there are two sorts of people in the world: ourselves, whose culture is beyond scrutiny, and others, who are somehow different and whose quaint cultures we may pronounce upon. [Back to Article]

6 Effervescence:

It is not difficult to believe that Durkheim was inspired by William James. Durkheim's sociological theory of spiritual energy parallels James's psychological version, which had appeared some years earlier, in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). According to the American psychological theorist, in intense prayer, a highly charged psychological situation, spiritual energy passes from God to the person praying. According to the French sociologist, in highly charged social situations, spiritual energy passes from the social group as a whole into particular realities that represent the group. See James: VRE Lecture 19 on this site.

Steven Lukes op. cit. [p 31] points out that Durkheim's claim that effervescence generates religious belief and practice is a petitio principii. This seems right. After all, Durkheim's effervescence occurs in group situations which are religious gatherings in the first place: so religion must generate effervescence, not the reverse. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2001 - 2005