The origins of religion have been disputed thoroughly over time. Whether an individual is a believer or not, it is hard to miss the influence of religion in society. Great architectural works, poems, art and literature have stemmed from religion globally. Since the early 20th century, secular scholarly traditions have accepted that religious traditions are merely tools, created in order to organise societies, and not necessarily accounts of divine intervention. They argue that the distinctions we have for religious fact, are often similar to that which we find in the region of fandom, and often with populist political figureheads. It is important however that this isn’t taken to be true by all, as religious affiliates would disagree, claiming that the origins of religion came from revelation.
“If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.'(Durkheim, 1915) This quote by Durkheim encapsulates his later views on religion and its role within society perfectly. David Emile Durkheim was a French sociologist, who is commonly cited as one of the fathers of modern sociological thought. Throughout his life, his thoughts on the origins of religion altered dramatically.
In his earlier works, such as The Division of Labour in Society, he was a firm advocate of the idea that societies could have evolved and progressed throughout history without the medium of religion. However. later in life his views shifted to the idea that religious thoughts and their respective institutions are fundamental actors in the progression of global and historical societies.
By the time that Durkheim produced one of his later works, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (which will be referred to as Forms), he was of the mind that religion was in fact the most important institution within human societies, it was in its nature a fundamental part of the human condition. Essentially, in this piece Durkheim discusses that religion is a social phenomenon that deviates over the globe, yet is still at its core the same functional system.
He views religion as the product of humans, it is not something which originates from divine intervention, as most religious structures themselves would claim. He treats religion as a sui generis social system, and analyses it purely from a functionalist standpoint. In his works, namely Forms, he comes from the viewing platform of the famous ‘armchair anthropologist’. In short; he didn’t partake in his own fieldwork, he studied the fieldwork of others and based his work on that.
He uses ethnographic data curated from what was viewed to be the most ‘primitive’ religion of that time; the religion of Australian aborigines, which was fundamentally totemic. He used this religion, as he wanted to study the most simple form of religion possible, he wanted to discover the most essential elements of what is religious social existence.
The fact that Durkheim uses this method of ‘armchair anthropology’ is a strong criticism of his work. His methodologies, which cause misinterpretations of ethnographic data, and undermining of traditional religions are often seen as problematic. Even though his disconnect with these cultures hinders his understanding of the minutiae of their religious lives, the backbone of his ideas have been reaffirmed and adopted by many thinkers over the years.
In Durkheim’s discourse, he was not set out to search for the absolute origin of religion. He was investigating the social forces which are already at play that result in the emergence of religious life. These factors are outside our framework of time and the different cultural and geographical factors that are also at play.
He defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices, relative to sacred things,…, things set apart and forbidden– beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim 1895 pp.44) He states that religion can be divided into three fundamental elements, objects which are sacred, a decree of beliefs and ritual, and an active moral community.
This idea of the sacred is the most important, it is the pivotal point around which all religious systems revolve. An example of this may be the role of Jesus Christ in Christianity. He is very much sacred in thought, in text and in ritual. Statues of Jesus are sacred, much as other representations of him, may that be through the bread and wine shared in communion which is metaphorical. Another analogy is that of the sacred fire in Zoroastrianism. This symbolises the presence of ‘Ahura Mazda’, the Wise Lord in the world.
He contrasts the idea of sacred with what he terms the profane. This is that from which the sacred must be protected. This dichotomy is central to his theory. Zoroastrians would ensure that no pollutants from a human corpse, or other sources of perceived evil, would never come into close proximity with the sacred fire.
The social aspects of religion are also highly prized in Forms, as he spends a large portion of the piece stating his arguments against of Herbert Spencer, Tylor and Frazer, who locate the origins of religion in psychological phenomena. He argues that these interpretations of religion, as psychological phenomena must be socially learned.
Durkheim states, that religions come into being and are initiated into the societies reality through moments of what he refers to as ‘collective effervescence’. These are moments when the group of individuals perform a ritual, which unifies the group as they are brought together by shared thought and shared action. In these moments, members of the community generate a certain ‘emotional electricity’. This gives the participants are experiencing some kind of delirium and excitement. This creates the aura that individuals are somewhat lifted out of their own bodies and in contact with other worldly identities. This may be attributed to the communion service, where believers are partaking in the sharing of the flesh and blood of Christ.
Religious groups also project this energy onto an external symbol, this how small religious ideas transfer to the greater societal community. In this way, Durkheim follows that religious power must be either personified or instilled in a symbol. Sacred objects receive their power in this way, they receive the collective religious and spiritual energies from the society and retain this power of the community.
Durkheim came up with the term ‘Sacred Object’ and we might apply this to what we might call ‘God’ in Christianity. Alternatively, the sacred object might instead of relating to a supernatural figure or deity be describing the ‘spiritual energy’ of a community, which is something that all the members of a society will have a mental association with. This would encompass a range of concepts, the Judeo-Christian God, the Buddhist ‘Four Noble Truths’. Modern scholars even have used Durkheim’s sacred object to describe how the self is viewed in modern Western society, with all its vanity, competition and general self obsessiveness.
This idea of sacred object allows for Durkheim to explain that any one societies sacred object is the collective forces of the group put into any one ‘object’. Through the religion, individuals represent society and themselves. This means that the importance is from the power placed upon the object by the society, rather than the object in and of itself. This idea goes beyond the religious realm, since all socially derived meaning comes from this same structure. For example, any object which has social meaning i.e. money, passports are not important in and of themselves, but are important through the roles they fill in society. These religious rituals however must be repeated in order to reaffirm their role and purpose in the religious society.
Durkheim’s Sacred object as a concept allows him to offer an explanation of how any one society has a sacred object which symbolises the collective forces of the entire group. The religion is
If these forces aren’t repeated and reinforced, they will be forgotten. Religion cannot exist through mere belief, the reinforcement of repeated action through ritual for this force which generates the sacred object to be reinforced. These social forces that animate religious life are very real, and are felt by the participants.
Freud’s analysis of religion, is known to have laid the groundwork for scientific and psychological theories of religion. His works have been, for the most part, discredited by modern scientific thought, however his novel methods, which were more in the scientific tradition, to analyse religion have been highly influential for scholars in this field. Not in the sense of their content, but applying scientific methods to religious thought and cultural practice. Needless to say, it differs in many areas from that of Durkheim, which we will compare later.
Firstly, religion is viewed as somewhat of a defense-mechanism. In Freud’s earliest work on religion; ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices”, through drawing parallels between obsessive-compulsive actions and religious actions, e.g. ritual cleansing.
He sees that these neuroses which surface as obsessive thought or anxiety have a counterpart compulsive behaviour in the religious sphere which supplies the same temporary relief by acting in such a way as the “pathological counterpart” of the formation of religion (Kung, 1982). He makes this claim, as there are many physical similarities we can draw between both of these circumstances. Both are concerned with purity; in cases of OCD many individuals have what appears to be an irrational fear of germs contaminating things. In religious circumstances, purity is a global factor that is often deemed as necessary for rituals to go ahead, this may take the form of celibacy, or establishing a sense of bodily purity before taking part in a ritual, such as the Islamic act of wudu; washing ones body before partaking in prayer.
Guilt, purity and repetition are aspects which are taken to be common factors of both of these ‘neuroses’. Another important aspect is the idea that these things don’t tend to change, individuals often don’t deviate off of the path from the ritually prescribed action, as they are trapped in a routine. This links to the guilt, with the neurosis in a non religious sense, this would be the bad feeling that someone who suffers OCD might have when they can’t clean. These are defense mechanisms to deal with the stresses of human experience, the neurosis that we get from daily life in society.
These factors stem from the inner feelings of disorder and anxiety, which are merely qualms of the human condition, and stems originally from the Oedipus complex, which has given Freud his notoriety over the years. As far as we know, humans are the only creatures that are aware of their own impending death, another source of stress and anxiety. The Oedipus complex stems from the Greek myth, where it was foretold that Oedipus would kill his father, and marry his mother. Clearly, unacceptable practices, and as such he was sent away. After many trials and tribulations, this was in fact what ended up happening, unknown to him, who had been brought up away from his parents. Freud takes the central themes of this story, and applies it to basic religious principles, thus establishing our relationship with God as the ideal father-son relationship.
All in all, in this text, Freud makes the grand statement that religion is merely an illusion, that humans have written into existence to fulfil their every wish. It’s not something which has direct truth, it is merely a tool in which humans use to establish ground in one’s life, and the illusion of control over anxiety inducing matters.
In ‘the Future of an Illusion’ Freud gives deeper insights into his theory of religious phenomena and how it has been such a phenomenal force in societies across time and space. He explains that humans have an instinctive need to create defence mechanisms, in the form of these routines that give us the illusion of control, i.e. the cleaning, and purifying rituals. These structures in society aid us with life, and the facts of our ultimate demise.
Much of Freud’s work has been deemed unscientific by the global scientific community. His infamous ideas of the id, ego and superego, and his most famous links with the Oedipus complex of classical scripture have been debunked in recent times. Regardless of this fact Freud is extremely influential in a more general sense as a scholar looking at religion, as he was one of the first of his kind.
Of both Freud and Durkheim, the core elements of their theories are at face value consistent. They both share the view that religion serves as a societal structure which is outside of theological concern, as we have seen in the analysis of these arguments. They are both of the opinion that Religious believers are mistaken, insofar as their beliefs are correlating with some cosmic religious phenomena beyond our ken.
They also clearly agree with the concept that religion is a projection of a collective ‘something’ onto another thing. In the eyes of Durkheim, there is the projection of this collective effervescence onto the profane, for example statues of Christ that instill awe and contemplation into followers. In the case of Freud, however, this is the collective neurosis of society, with followers of religion projecting their collective anxieties onto an object, ritual act, or a totem. For example, the act of washing for religious purity mirrors the act of washing for OCD.
Clearly, the most outstanding point from certainly Durkheim’s work on religious belief is that it is an integral element of human culture. He is a firm advocate that religious structures are aiding society in its functions and its evolution over time. Freud, gets to the same conclusion to some degree, however has the ideal of an ‘atheistic utopia’. Durkheim and Freud are both somewhat of the mind that modern society is one with a ‘terminal decline’ in what is referred to as ‘traditional religion’ (Lynch, 2012). Many scholars are of the mind that the influence of old religions are being replaced by the secular, ‘new gods’ which take the form of more modern, scientific ways of thinking and figures. Crome, has identified the old religious traditions as being replaced by ‘fandoms’ and hero worship, for football clubs, boy bands and science fiction (Crome, 2016). There are also allegiance to commercial labels, such as Apple and Nike, which are ‘worshipped’, in today’s ‘temples’ i.e. shopping malls. Furthermore, the the modern world doesn’t always allow for complex and grandiose religious ceremonies, for example the use of daxma (Towers of Silence) to dispose of the dead in the West is prohibited, which makes a struggle for Zoroastrians in the diaspora.
Durkheim himself was a known, vehement secularist. He was a firm advocate of the construction of the secularist French third republic, which was adopted after the fall of the Second French Empire. He was a firm believer in the idea that humans will ‘grow out’ of religion, as it was once a tool that we utilised to evolve, however in the modern age it has very little to offer. Through his sociological explorations of religion, which is a more subjective way of understanding the powerful realities of religion, he concluded that we no longer need these religious institutions to explain the likes of laws and morals that are necessary in society through myth and spirituality, even though it was vital when it was needed.
The predictions of these thinkers have proven to be somewhat contested in this sense. In the UK, far fewer people identify with traditional religious belief and religious institutions such as the church of England, which has been integral to the United Kingdom in politics and closely linked with royalty and power. However, Durkheim did fail to predict the role of religion in a world of globalisation that we now live in. This secular concept of ‘Western Europe’ is not what he predicted, because of the globalisation process. Individuals of different religions and cultures are living in these areas, they are ‘melting together’ (Lynch, 2012). Durkheim lived in an age of transition, the secularisation process was rife, and the Religion is often a cultural niche and is protected in such senses, as we now live in a world of interconnectedness, through global media and migration.
The methodology between the two scholars was very different and both from brand new disciplines. Durkheim, a sociologist and Freud was a psychologist. Different methods are used to come to terms with these central concepts of culture and society. Durkheim would be looking at groups of people as a whole, and how it affects the community, whereas Freud would be looking at how individuals behave within the group.
Durkheim can be accused of being too simplistic with his analysis of religion as he applies his theory to a large group of people, he is looking at the impact of religion on a society en masse. This allows for Freud as a psychologist to explain that which Durkheim’s theory cannot, such as that which is on the individual scale.
So we see there, are some similarities in their thinking, yet also there are ways in which that they are diametrically opposed. The origins of religion, is clearly according to these two thinkers, something which is organisational and fulfils an external purpose outside of the divine. If religious life is merely a tool to organise societies, then is seems that the origins do not add much knowledge. Freud and Durkheim were both groundbreakers, taking a novel approach when examining ancient structures in society. Both perspectives are new ways of thinking and psychology were new disciplines. However, despite the different methodologies they used, Durkheim looking at society at large, and Freud finding similarities between individual cases, they both ended up coming into similar perspectives in to how religion is dying out and secularism is key.