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What is religion?

Emile Durkheim definition:Durkheims last major published work was The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. He
chose the Australian aborigines and their practice of totemism for an in depth case study because
he felt they represented the most basic, elementary form of religion within a culture. To the
dismay of most religious believers, through this study Durkheim concluded that society is the
source of the action which dominates the religious lifenot God.
Durkheim stated:
The general conclusion of the book ... is that religion is something eminently social.
Religious representations are collective representations which express collective
realities; the rights are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of the assembled
groups and which are destined to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states in
these groups (Durkheim 1912, 10).
He argued that a God or gods do not represent the essence of religion. Instead, the essence can be
found in the division of the world into two categories: the sacred (that which pertains to the
numinous, transcendental, or extraordinary) and the profane (the realm of everyday utilitarian
activities). He noted that objects themselves are neither sacred nor profane; people bestow sacred
meaning on an object or activity, and thus religion is "collective" by nature. Durkheim offered
the following definition of religion itself:
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 into one single
moral community called a church all those who adhere to them (Durkheim 1912, 47).
However, this definition can only be fully appreciated by taking into account that it is the social
life that determines what is sacred. He wrote:
The sacred principle is nothing more nor less than society transfigured and personified...
If we should withdraw from men their language, sciences, arts and moral beliefs, they
would drop to the ranks of animals. So the characteristic attributes of human nature
come from society (Durkheim 1912, 347).
Durkheim believed that religion played a valuable role in providing cohesion and norms in a
society. He worried about the potential consequences to the social order when a society loses its
religiosity. In his work Moral Education, he emphasized that modern man must simply realize
that his very dependence on society was always the foundation for any religious belief in the first
place. Therefore, e must discover the rational substitutes for these religious notions that for a
long time have served as the vehicle for the most essential moral ideas. (Durkheim 1961, 9).

The Functions of Religion


Much of the work of mile Durkheim stressed the functions that religion serves for society
regardless of how it is practiced or of what specific religious beliefs a society favors. Durkheims
insights continue to influence sociological thinking today on the functions of religion.
First, religion gives meaning and purpose to life. Many things in life are difficult to understand.
That was certainly true, as we have seen, in prehistoric times, but even in todays highly
scientific age, much of life and death remains a mystery, and religious faith and belief help many
people make sense of the things science cannot tell us.
Second, religion reinforces social unity and stability. This was one of Durkheims most
important insights. Religion strengthens social stability in at least two ways. First, it gives people
a common set of beliefs and thus is an important agent of socialization). Second, the communal
practice of religion, as in houses of worship, brings people together physically, facilitates their
communication and other social interaction, and thus strengthens their social bonds.
A third function of religion is related to the one just discussed. Religion is an agent of social
control and thus strengthens social order. Religion teaches people moral behavior and thus helps
them learn how to be good members of society. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Ten
Commandments are perhaps the most famous set of rules for moral behavior.
A fourth function of religion is greater psychological and physical well-being. Religious faith
and practice can enhance psychological well-being by being a source of comfort to people in
times of distress and by enhancing their social interaction with others in places of worship. Many
studies find that people of all ages, not just the elderly, are happier and more satisfied with their
lives if they are religious. Religiosity also apparently promotes better physical health, and some
studies even find that religious people tend to live longer than those who are not religious (Mob
erg, 2008). We return to this function later.
A final function of religion is that it may motivate people to work for positive social change.
Religion played a central role in the development of the Southern civil rights movement a few
decades ago. Religious beliefs motivated Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to
risk their lives to desegregate the South. Black churches in the South also served as settings in
which the civil rights movement held meetings, recruited new members, and raised money
(Morris, 1984)