Throughout history there have been many scholars who in one way or another have contributed to the understanding of religion and its importance to society. [DP1]However there is one man who stands out from this extraordinary bunch [DP2]by the name of Emile Durkheim. This French sociologist is not only known for his principal of modern social science but is also associated with the finding of the basics of religion [DP3]and its relationship to modern society.
These findings have not only contributed to the understanding of religion but have also been a great factor in figuring out the relationship that religion holds with society[DP4]. However for us to further understand this relationship we have to start from the beginning, taking a look back at the history of Durkheim’s theory, the relationship that it has to society[DP5], and also the impact of his theory to [DP6]our understanding of religion. [DP7]
Firstly, in order for us to examine the theory of Durkheim, we have to start from scratch, looking at his methods of reaching this theory, which defines religion as a form of strengthening society not through its belief in god but rather its approach of using rituals and symbols to maintain the integrity of society[DP8]. In his text Elementary Forms of Religious Life Durkheim begins his introduction to the theory of religion by explaining what it is not.
He suggests that religion is there not to explain the strange and unusual ways of life, instead it is there to explain the occurrence of basic phenomena’s such as rainbows[DP9]. He goes on to state that religion is a system of beliefs and rituals that are present in society to maintain some level of social structure1[DP10]. Durkheim than goes on to explain what importance religion holds to the existence of society [DP11]and in order for us to understand this existence, we have to exclude it from two different possibilities; animism and naturism. [DP12]
According to Durkheim animism is closely related to an individual’s hallucinations or dreams2 [DP13]and if religion was to be based on such interpretation, it would be an insufficient explanation to the foundation of society[DP14]. These hallucination or dreams would make religion an imagination of the mind which would hold no importance to the functions of society[DP15]. On the contrary naturism is defined as a religion based on explanations of natural phenomena[DP16]3, and if you were to look deeper into the meaning of this definition you can easily prove some of these phenomena’s as being false. [DP17]These two elementary forms of religion [DP18]are the reason why Durkheim looked to totemism as a way to further explain his theory.
According to the encyclopaedia of religion a totem is a natural object of an animate being, as an animal or bird, assumed as the emblem of a clan4. These emblem [DP19]or symbols are used as labels to represent the members of a particular clan in society. These totems hold a great significance to the clans as it represents them in society not as individuals but as whole and for this reason Durkheim saw totemism as the most basic form of religion.[DP20] The reasons for this simplicity is that totemism bases its existence not on hallucinations or natural phenomena but rather its own members that represent the clan as a whole.[DP21] The totem represents the principle and power of the group, which is signified for all of the clans that have totem as their symbols. In spite of the different totems, they all see each other as serving the same religion and for this reason the clans [DP22]clearly understands the significance the totems have for each group[DP23].
Secondly, in order for us to understand the importance that totemism has to the theory of Durkheim, we have to first understand the relationship that it has with society. This relationship within totemism acts as a source of identification for the individuals, and because of this they are represented in society as being part of the group. This need to be part of the group gives the individual a sense of hope and purpose in life, and allows them to be affiliated in society as being part of a religious group.
Nevertheless, religion is seen by many societies as a force, that is able to pull people together, be it mentally or physically. [DP24]By doing so religion is able to provide them with a sense of collective morals and beliefs of belonging to a society. This is very important to the mental state of the individual, because a sense of belonging gives them reinforcement and strength to live their life. However without this sense of belonging to a religious group can have dire effects on an individual and one of the worst according to Durkheim is suicide.
Suicide and religion share a very strong connection according to Durkheim, as religion not only provides an alteration to this form of death [DP25]but also gives the individual a sense of belonging to a group that can provide both moral and mental support5. However this moral support is largely dependent on the social group that you belong to and according to Durkheim totemism is of the most basic[DP26], as it only relies on the clan as being whole.
For this reason totemism is seen as a religion that exists not because it has been brought down to humans through a supernatural force but rather it has been inscribed into the hearts of the members that follow it blindly. These inscriptions are considered so strong that the individuals feeling towards the clan are not determined by his own thoughts but rather by the group and even though these thoughts are of the group and not the individual, they nevertheless make the individual believe that he answers not to god but to society.[DP27]
Lastly, in order for us to have a better understanding of the theory of Durkheim, we have to look at the impact it has to our understanding of religion. [DP28]This theory by Durkheim on religion in relationship to totemism has caused some concern over the past few decades[DP29], as scholars have been debating over it and some even consider it as a source that is irrelevant to our study of religion. [DP30]
This dilemma against Durkheim is caused not because of the way he approaches religion in his text but rather his way of research, and according to many scholars his theory of totemism is based on the views that he himself had of the tribes. [DP31]For this reason many consider his theory to be incorrect as it lacks the resources needed to support his findings. Despite the allegations against Durkheim, he nevertheless brought forward to us a theory that challenges the many aspects of being involved with a religious group.