Reading "The Origin of Beliefs" (from Elementary Forms, 1912)


Durkheim's Project

Following on his previous work (e.g., Rules, Suicide, Division of Labor in Society in which he established

  1. "the social" as sui generis order
  2. solidarity, connection to society

Observation: Science and rationality come to be dominant but religion does not disappear? Are people just silly?
Project: Find out what religion is.
Strategy: Compare and contrast known religions to uncover fundamentals.

Results: What shows up over and over?
  1. Beliefs
    • Most religions divide the world in to sacred and profane. Sacred = special, profane = all the rest.
    • Some notion of soul, spirits, mythical personalities, divinity
  2. Actions
    • negative cult
    • rites of oblation (sacrifice/offering) and communion (joining, oneness)
    • imitative rites (ritual in usual sense)
    • commemorative rites (re-enacting past)
    • expiatory rites (expressing atonement)

Conventional (scientific) Wisdom: religion is an unreal system of beliefs and practices. But, real people seem to get something real from it. Can they all be bamboozled? Can you dismiss religion just because you do not believe in it?

So, how might it work?

Hard to see how just thinking/believing could generate results.
And, in fact, in most religions, you have to do stuff. Cult and ritual. Often a "negative" cult - not doing things.
Durkheim's Basic insight: “The Cult” = the actions are what give rise to the feelings of peace, serenity, strength. All the stuff that is evidence of the reality of the beliefs is generated by the activity.

Logical Challenge

Religious practices vary wildly in different places, ages, etc. No one of them is “just it.” Thus, the “it” has to be sought beyond any particular religion or practice. RELIGION is not an imaginary, but no particular religion is the source of its real effects.
The answer is that "the universal and eternal objective cause of these sensations sui generis out of which religious experience is made, is society."

Know OF the main works

  1. Division of Labor in Society (1893): mechanical and organic solidarity, pre-contractual nature of contract
  2. Suicide (1897): suicide as social not personal, types of suicide, anomie
  3. Rules of the Sociological Method (1895): (treat) social facts (as things), crime is normal
  4. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912): ritual, society is god, sacred/profane
  5. Primitive Classification (with Mauss) (1903): collective representations

Take-away Concepts

  1. sociological wholism (vs. methodological reductionism)
  2. sociological realism (vs. nominalism)
  3. social fact
  4. mechanical & organic solidarity
  5. "crime is normal"
  6. anomie
  7. suicide as social
  8. sacred/profane
  9. ritual
  10. society is god
  11. collective consciousness/conscience
  12. collective representation