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Emile Durkheim [1858-1917]


Durkheim on Religion

By Frank W. Elwell


In the last presentation we looked at Durkheim’s ideas on the weakening of the collective conscience through modernity—the division of labor, weakening of primary groups and general social change. As we saw, this left the individual without much moral guidance. As Durkheim was concerned with moral behavior and social justice he naturally turned to the study of religion.

All religions divide social life into two spheres, the “sacred” and the “profane.” There is nothing intrinsic about a particular object which makes it sacred. An object becomes sacred only when the community invests it with that meaning.

Elementary Forms of Religious Life

[Religion is] "an eminently collective thing" (1954, p.47). It serves to bind a community together.

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite in one single community called a Church, all those who adhere to them"  (1954, p. 47).

"The believer who has communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a man who is stronger. He feels within him more force, wither to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them" (1954, p. 416).

"Thus there is something eternal in religion which is destined to survive all the particular symbols in which religious thought has successively enveloped itself. There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality. ..

“Now this moral remaking cannot be achieved except by the means of reunions, assemblies, and meetings where the individuals, being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments; hence come ceremonies which do not differ from regular religious ceremonies, either in their object, the results which they produce, or the processes employed to attain these results. ..

Durkheim's Definitiion of Religion

Durkheim then goes a step further. Religion is not only a social creation; it is the power of the community itself that is being worshiped. The power of the community over the individual so transcends individual existence that people collectively give it sacred significance.

“What essential difference is there between an assembly of Christians celebrating the principal dates in the life of Christ, or of Jews remembering the exodus from Egypt or the promulgation of the Decalogue, and a reunion of citizens commemorating the promulgation of a new moral or legal system or some great event in the national life?" (1954, p. 427).

By worshiping God people are unwittingly worshiping the power of the collective over them—a power that both created and guides them. They are worshiping society itself. Religion is one of the main forces that make up the collective conscience; religion which allows the individual to transcend self and act for the social good. But traditional religion was weakening under the onslaught of the division of labor; what could replace religion as the common bond?

“The great things of the past which filled our fathers with enthusiasm do not excite the same ardor in us...In a word, the old gods are growing old or already dead, and others are not yet born...But this state of incertitude and confused agitation cannot last forever. ..

“A day will come when our societies will know again those hours of creative effervescence, in the course of which new formulae are found which serve for a while as a guide to humanity; and when these hours shall have been passed through once, men will spontaneously feel the need of reliving them from time to time in thought, that is to say, of keeping alive their memory by means of celebrations which regularly reproduce their fruits. ..

“We have already seen how the French Revolution established a whole cycle of holidays to keep the principles with which it was inspired in a state of perpetual youth... Solidarity

“There are no gospels which are immortal, but neither is there any reason for believing that humanity is incapable of inventing new ones” (1954, pp. 475-476).

While men are losing faith in the old religions, new religions will be born. For all societies feel the need to express their collective sentiments, ideas, and ideologies in regular ceremony. All societies need a set of common values and moral guidelines to inspire their members to transcend their selfishness. While the forms and particular symbols may change, religion is eternal.


For a more extensive discussion of Durkheim’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.

End Flap


Durkheim, E. (1956). Education and Sociology. (S. Fox, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, E. (1925/1961). Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. (E. Wilson, & H. Schnurer, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim,  E.  (1953).  Sociology  and  Philosophy.  New  York: The  Free Press.

Durkheim, E. (1897/1951). Suicide: A Study in Sociology. (J. Spaulding, & G. Simpson, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, E. (1893/1960). The Division of Labor in Society. (G. Simpson, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, E. (1912/1954). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. (J. Swain, Trans.) New York: The Free Press.

Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Mestrovic, S. G. (1988/1993). Emile Durkheim and the Reformation of Sociology. Boston: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Mestrovic, S. G. (1997). Postemotional Society. London: Sage Publications.

Mestrovic, S. G. (1994). The Balkanization of the West: The Confluence of Postmodernism and Postcommunism. New York: Routledge.

Mestrovic, S. G. (1993). The Barbarian Temperment: Toward a Postmodern Critical Theory. New York: Routledge.


To reference "Emile Durkheim on Religion" you should use the following format: 

Elwell, Frank W., 2003, "Emile Durkheim on Religion," Retrieved August 31, 2013, [use actual date] 

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