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Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religion theory Essay Sample

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Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religion theory Essay Sample

In 1886 Durkheim made a number of observations regarding religion, “he had written of religion as having, together with law and morality, the role of assuming equilibrium of society… ” (Lukes, 1973, pp288) However in the mid 1890s Durkheim was influenced by Robertson Smith’s theory of religion which “presented religion as a social phenomenon, maintaining the values of the group and conscious in the idealization, indeed divinization of the clan, which was composed of men animals and gods bound together by ties of blood and was symbolised by the totem. (Lukes, 1973, pp238)

On reading Smith’s material Durkheim realigned his position on religion with that of Smith. Smith’s work acted as a catalyst for Durkheim as it lead him to write his Elementary Forms of Religion thesis, his last major work. Smith’s definition of religion was the foundation of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religion theory. In Durkheim’s original thesis he considered religion with law and morality. However Smith’s theory stated that law and morality were marked off from religion “obligatory practices without obligatory beliefs. (Lukes 1973, p241)

Smith’s theory originated from the “religion of the Semitic societies of ancient Arabia – especially its emphasis on the social function of totemic rituals and its cultural idea of the divination of community. ” (Lukes 1973, p239) Durkheim decided to undertake a case study of his own. He had reason for doing so, in particular, he felt that to understand religion fully it was necessary to trace its historical development. Durkheim decided to examine the religious activities of the Arunta, an aboriginal clan based on a totemic religion.

However this decision has been criticised, mainly by ethnographers and anthropologists. Pritchard is particularly critical. Durkheim states that “Australian totemism is the variety for which our documents are the most complete. ” (Lukes 1973, p453) Pritchard disagrees and argues that the literature on the Australian aboriginals was “by modern standards poor and confused. ” (Lukes 1973, p453) Durkheim started his case study by collating empirical data, largely based on Australian ethnographic work, although this was supplemented at times with examples taken from Native American (referred to in the past as Indian) totemism.

Durkheim states he used the American evidence in a supplementary way “to illustrate and lend precision to the Australian facts: for though the American Indians’ Civilisation was more advanced, the essential lines of the social structure remain the same as those in Australia. ” (Lukes 1973, p453) Ethnographers argue however that the real reason was not supplementing Australian data but providing data in the absence of Australian data. As already stated the Arunta were a clan based society who practised a religion based on totemism.

Clans were composed of members who considered themselves united by a bond of Kinship; but it was not blood based. The relationship rested on a shared name, and the name was that of a species or material thing (the totem) with which the clan believed it had relations of kinship. ” (Thompson 1995, p130) The totem was usually an animal, plant, polished stone or even a vegetable. It was not worshipped but treated more like a brother or sister. The totem was not just a symbol to identify the Arunta by but also contained characteristics of the clan, and would be inscribed on certain material belongings and sometimes on their bodies.

Durkheim believed the function of totemism was to allow members of the clan to have a sense of belonging to a larger entity, particularly when the clan is split into smaller bands. Durkheim comments that this is particularly useful when clans meet other clans. Durkheim argues that without this membership of the clan there would be no allegiance between individual bands, thus resulting in many bands with limited resources as they would not be working as a collective.

Members rely on the group to survive and the group relies on its members. The overall theory of totemism raises issues for many academics. Lukes comments that “many of the features found in Central Australia, and which Durkheim presented as characteristic of totemism, are lacking in other totemic systems – such as concentrations, ceremonies, sacred objects, designs etc. ” (Lukes 1973, p477) This is a central issue as Durkheim states that totemism has a set number of variables, however Lukes suggests otherwise.

This related back to the earlier argument that Durkheim is simply trying to provide evidence for this theory although in doing so he is generalising and showing a lack of research. Lukes also highlights the point that “there is no evidence at all that Australian totemism is the earliest form of totemism (let alone of religion). (Lukes, 1973, p478) This is yet another point that focuses on Durkheim’s lack of research, as he simply took onboard Robertson Smith’s theory of totemism in clans being the earliest form of religion without first clarifying this theory.

Although even today there is no evidence to pin-point the first religious movement. Totemism not only raises many issues but also has many sub categories within it. The main areas for consideration are religion as society, the importance of symbols within totemism, the understanding of the sacred and profane and also the place of beliefs and rites. Durkheim chose the Arunta because he wanted to portray the similarities between religion and society. For the Arunta totemic religion was the basis of life. Religion was dominant.

However in comparison with the way of life today this is not the case. Society is dominant where all humans are encouraged or ostracised by their fellow humans depending on their actions. Society today is structured similarly to that of totemic religion. Families take the place of bands; however society is kept together by other forms of symbols and forms of socialisation. In many countries, its flag and national anthem takes the place of the totems as it allows the individual to visualise themselves as part of a greater community.

Science (or the popular perception of science) also plays an important part in society today. This was predicted by Durkheim as he stated that “the cognitive side of (of religion) would be increasingly overtaken by science. ” (Thompson 1995, p127). Religion however still plays a part in many people’s lives particularly in Islamic countries where the religion is the basis of society as opposed to western countries such as Britain where religion is a small community within society as a whole.

Durkheim emphasises the importance of symbolism not only for the survival of totemism but also for society’s survival. The “clan is essentially a group of individuals who bear the same name and rally round the same sign. Take away the name and the sign which materialises it, and the clan is no longer representable” (Lukes, 1973 p 477) If the clan was to lose its sign as Durkheim suggests it would effectively lose it’s identity which would result in difficulty with regard to relations with other clans. Durkheim enforces this idea with the example of a solider dieing for his country’s flag.

The solider is not dieing for the material value of the flag, but for what it represents. The solider has been socialised with it throughout his life. It is a shared belief. Durkheim accounts for the soldier’s sacrifice as follows “This is all because of social thoughts, owing to the imperative authority that is in it, has an efficiency that individual thought could never have; it can make us see things in whatever light it pleases; it adds to reality or deducts from it according to the circumstances” (Thompson 1995, p133)

Morrison comments that “all religions can be defined by their tendency to divide the world into the sacred and profane. ” (Morrison 2000, p191) Durkheim categorised sacred and profane as follows: sacred embodies not only gods and spirits but also takes on beliefs as well, he also believed that words could be sacred, these sacred words would be uttered by consecrated persons. However the role of consecrated people such as shaman is omitted from Durkheim’s theory which leaves some to argue that the elementary forms of religion focus too much on the group and not enough on the individual.

In opposition to sacred things is profane things “profane is the principle which has the capacity to contaminate the sacred” (Morrison 2000, p191) Thompson however disagrees with Durkheim’s categorisation that all religions contain sacred and profane things. He states “Durkheim’s argument regarding sacred and profane in all religion may be more in Judaeo Christian but not so in Azande. ” (Thompson 1995, p136) Lukes also agrees with Thompson regarding Durkheim’s comments on sacred and profane, he argues “There is no dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. ” (Lukes, 1973, 478). Beliefs and rites are related to sacred and profane.

Durkheim classifies beliefs as “attitudes which are held in regard to religious objects” (Morrison 2000, p205) and rites as “determined modes of action. (Thompson 1995, p127) Lukes comments that the more religious the beliefs are the greater they must be followed. This signifies that for the Arunta religion was held with the highest regard. The sole purpose of beliefs and rites was to guide the Arunta in their everyday lives with relation to the sacred and profane. In retrospect looking at totemism now it could be said that it was wrongly labelled as a religion. It would have been better to have labelled it as an early form of society.

Basically religion is the collective thought of society personified by the totem. Thompson advocates this belief, “the elementary forms can be read as an account of the origins of social hierarchy, particularly through the reproduction of an ideological consciousness of itself for society. ” (Thompson 1995, p138) Although Durkheim’s theory of totemism in Australia has links with society today, the fact remains that it has many critics. Evans Pritchard was one of Durkheim’s greatest opponents. Pritchard states that Durkheim’s belief that totemism was the most primitive form of religion was wrong.

Pritchard identified clans that did not have totems but had religion. Pritchard concluded that Durkheim’s claim for his theory of religion “was seen to be to general and over ambitious” (Thompson 1995, p137) Lukes adds to Pritchard’s criticism by arguing that Durkheim inaccurately “rested his entire theory on a single argument” and also “used data from outside his experiment whenever it failed to furnish him with the evidence he needed” (Lukes 1973, p450) The criticisms are fair, although even if some of the data is inaccurate Durkheim does put across some valuable points in his theory.

Such as how symbolism affects those within a certain group and also the similarities that can be drawn from totemism in relation to society today.

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