In 1912, Durkheim explored his studies of religion and societies by publishing his book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Durkheim describes a religion as “a single integrated system of a certain set of beliefs and various practices which are considered relative to sacred things, beliefs and practices. (Durkheim, 1915) These practices are used as a set of rituals within the religion.
These rituals thus create a form of social cohesion which help relate individuals to society. Social cohesion was also studied by Durkheim. Also coined by Durkheim were the terms mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity in his book “The Division of Labour in Society” (1893). Mechanical solidarity relates to the bonding of people in society which is related to values, shared activities or rituals and beliefs whereas organic solidarity is an associated created by roles and in which individuals become deeply dependent. Organic solidarity can be incapacitated by anomie, this occurs when individuals fail to see their purpose in society. Nevertheless, the definition of religion by Durkheim comprises of three different elements according to Giddens. The first element is that religion is a form of culture as there are shared values and norms which are used in creating the common identity among the group of people who share that religion.
This is a form of social cohesion as the members of the religion all identify with the shared values and all share the same bond to society through the religion. The concept of a religion shares all these characteristics. Secondly, religion involves various beliefs which happen to be rituals or practises that are specific to the religion such as praying, sacrifice and meditation. All religions according to Durkheim have an aspect of behaviour connected to them. These certain actions that people who are of the religion engage in are crucial in the way that these people can identify themselves as part of their own community. This is how religion provides and maintains a social bond between people. The final element relates to life in general. Those who engage in religious practices feel a sense of purpose, they feel that life is meaningful and do not experience any form of anomie.
This essay shall outline Durkheim’s theory that religion is a fundamental and permanent aspect of all humanity and reasonings why some do not agree with this theory. The beginning of Durkheim’s studies into religion began with his interest in Aboriginal tribes and how they assigned plants and animals as a symbol for their own values in society. These were referred to as totems. Symbolic totems in this instance are what Durkheim refers to as the elementary form of religion. (Giddens, 2009) These totems were used to represent their society as a whole and a cluster of their spiritual gods. Many totems in the tribes Durkheim studied were sacred objects to those within the tribe, as they were considered divine and holy. They had a ritualistic obligation in the society and were not to be used on a daily basis. These totems were utilised during sacrifices or spiritual ceremonies which made them even more sacred.
Orrú and Wang state that Durkheim considered religion to be made up of four elements: beliefs, practices, the sacred, and a Church. (Orrú and Wang, 1992) Durkheim also said that religious mementos are divided into two kinds of phenomena. These are known as the sacred and the profane.
The sacred refers to items such as the totemic symbols in the Aboriginal tribes, these special objects require certain and specific religious treatment and grace. The second division is known as profane which is basically the total opposite of a sacred item. According to Durkheim, these totems became crucial to these tribes as they are the symbols for their religion and for their tribe itself. They became the central values of their community. Durkheim said that the sacred gatherings of the tribe with the totem items created a sense of inclusion within the tribe; especially during life events such as births, marriages and deaths. These celebrations distracted the tribe from the profane reality of their community. The sacred celebrations enabled the tribe to come into contact with forces beyond their control and therefore of a spiritual nature.
The social aspect disregarded the possibility of illusions as the entire tribe would be engrossed in the celebrations; it binded the tribe together as Durkheim said. However, Bellah says that the “sacred things are simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves onto material objects.” (Bellah, 1973)Contrasting Durkheim’s studies is the ever changing religions within society. There are many religions throughout the world with various sacred items and celebrations tied to them. One of Durkheim’s elements, the church has seen a development overtime. Many smaller churches with radical ideologies are spreading throughout the world and some of these do not care for ritualistic ceremonies or sacred items. They are capitalist havens preying on the weak and vulnerable. Durkheim said that the influence of religion on the world would decrease radically as scientific thinking and philosophy eventually helps to overhaul society as a whole.
Of course, traditional religions continue throughout the world with large followings but is religion fundamental in a modern society? According to latest figures from the Central Statistics Office in Ireland, it is not. Ireland noted for being a predominantly Roman Catholic country has seen its numbers dwindle since the last Census in 2016. The percentage of Catholics in Ireland fell from a high 84.
2 percent in 2011 to 78.3 per cent in 2016. Along with this figure, a corresponding rise in Irish individuals identifying with no religion grew to 468,400, an increase of 198,600 from 2011. 10 percent of the population also recorded having no religion whatsoever. (Central Statistics Office, 2017) Durkheim said that religion will only prevail in modern society to have order and social cohesion.
Religion will always be permanent within society as it is an escape from reality and a source of comfort for many people, however it is not fundamental to how society works or maintains itself. Humanity will always need a form of social cohesion and strong social bonds to prevent a breakdown of society. Religion has been an element of community for centuries but with the recent schisms within the religion of Islam, it is unknown if further schisms will occur which will weaken the social bonds which were part of the formation of these religions. Weakened bonds will create a weakened social structure and therefore societal breakdown. Indeed, while religion can help people to bond within a society and feel less anomie, religion in my opinion has no major role in modern society due to the increase in the belief in science and facts. The exploration of religions by Durkheim showed us that there was a fundamental aspect of society that viewed religion as its one and only source of belonging. The social cohesion present while practising a religion and the symbolic nature of religions show that individuals need a meaning or a source of security to feel like they belong in a society.
Many new religions nowadays are focusing on that specific detail about belonging in society to increase their membership. As said above, the Irish national census proves that religion is not as popular as it used to be with a significant decline in those who are practising noted in the latest 2016 census. Religion will always be present in society but as a way of dismissing anomie amongst individuals in society and to help create a stronger social bond between communities. All religions according to Durkheim have an aspect of behaviour connected to them. Furthermore, these certain actions that people who are of the religion engage in are crucial in the way that these people can identify themselves as part of their own community. This is how religion provides and maintains a social bond between people.