Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1858-1917) French sociologist, and guiding figure in the influential French or "Durkheim school" of sociology. Born to Jewish parents in Epinal, in the Eastern part of France, his father was a prominent rabbi in the region, while his grandfather and great-grandfather had been rabbis before him. As a youth, Durkheim himself was apparently destined for the rabbinate but instead entered on a course of secular education. At the École Normale Superieure in Paris, he concentrated on philosophy but also explored a wider range of political and social issues. Among his eminent classmates were Henri Bergson, Jean Jaurès, and Pierre Janet. After a year of study in Germany (1885-1886), Durkheim secured a position at Bordeaux in 1887. There he taught pedagogy and social sciences until 1902, when he was called to a professorship of education (later changed to include sociology) at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he remained until his death in 1917. Although he had already emerged to prominence at Bordeaux, Durkheim became a leading figure in French intellectual life during his years in Paris, and his work exercised a strong influence in official educational circles as well as the social sciences.

Although Durkheim was not actively involved in politics, he and most of the members of his school were socialists of an idealistic, state-oriented, non-Marxian type, like Jaurès. He remained a partisan of liberal Republicanism during the political crises faced by France during his lifetime and spoke out publicly on several important occasions in defense of such ideals. During the Dreyfus affair, at a pivotal time for the development of his sociology (i.e., the latter half of the 1890s), Durkheim stood with the defenders of Dreyfus, not primarily to combat anti-Semitism but to support the ideal of a secular republic, rooted in morality and justice. Indeed, his sustained interest in the sociology of religion and morality was motivated, in part, by the hope of providing the scientific basis for a new moral order.

Durkheim's sociology of religion reflects his engagement with the ideas of many thinkers. His teacher, Fustel de Coulanges, helped to mold his view of religion as a social force. The efforts of Saint-Simon and Comte at moral and social regeneration inspired him, and he found Rousseau's notion of the general will congenial. His sociology was partially shaped by contemporary neo-Kantianism, including the philosophies of Renouvier, Boutroux, and Hamelin. However, his work reverberates strongly with the thought of other major figures in the philosophical tradition, including Plato, Descartes, Pascal, and Spinoza. He returned from Germany with an admiration for Wundt's teachings about morality and society and, in his own day, was already thought (erroneously) to be entirely under the sway of German ideas. He criticized Guyau's work on the "irreligion of the future" and also engaged Spencer's theories, including his study of ecclesiastical institutions. He later became increasingly open to English-language speculations about religion. Indeed, in light of Durkheim's broad cultivation and capacity for intellectual synthesis, it would be unwise to insist upon any exclusive influence on his thought.

Durkheim's Early Sociology of Religion

Durkheim's efforts in the sociology of religion are best divided into two phases. Although religion is frequently mentioned and some of his major ideas on the subject are already evident in his early writings, Durkheim's central focus on religion emerged after about 1895. In his own view, it was only then, due to the influence of English writers, such as Tylor, Frazer, and, especially, William Robertson Smith, that he came to appreciate the centrality of religion and recast his earlier work in light of this new discovery. Although this somewhat exaggerates the discontinuity in his thinking, it is true that Durkheim did emphasize religion and its importance, and wrote about it more directly, after 1895 than he had during his formative period. Indeed, the sociology of religion, or sociologie religieuse , as it was more frequently named by Durkheim, along with the so-called sociology of knowledge, became his and his school's main preoccupation.

Durkheim published three books while at Bordeaux and another during his time at Paris. His first book, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), and his third one, Suicide (1897), contain significant and mutually congruent analyses of religion in the context of a focus on other sociological problems. His final book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), develops his full and widely influential theory of religion. Although his second book, The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), does not treat religion directly, it presents Durkheim's distinctive sociological approach, with its emphasis on the reality of society (versus the individual level), the need to study social facts as things (choses) , and the comparative, analytical method.

In his book on the division of labor, Durkheim argued that religion plays an important role in uniting members of segmentary (i.e., clan-based) societies through the creation of a common conscience or consciousness (conscience collective) . The contents of each individual's consciousness largely coincide with those of others, and such a society is therefore integrated by mechanical solidarity, or the mutual likeness of its members. As societies become more differentiated and individuated, the division of labor increasingly requires a new morality of specialized service. Organic solidarity, based on a "categorical imperative" of specialized, yet mutually supportive social performances, displaces the need for a collective consciousness.

In his later work, Durkheim noted that modern rates of suicide varied decisively with religious conditions. Protestants regularly had higher suicide rates than Catholics because the latter religion integrated the individual into a set of social practices (confession, penances, obligatory doctrine, church hierarchy, and so on) that blunted the tendencies toward egoistic suicide. Protestant emphasis on salvation by faith alone, as well as its diminished forms of religious support, enhanced egoistic withdrawal. Finally, Durkheim noted that some traditional religions (e.g., Hinduism) encouraged distinctive obligatory forms of altruistic suicide (e.g., suttee ) through their insistence on the intense integration of the individual into the group. Although Durkheim's study contains varied observations on the relationship of religion to the different types of suicide, the central emphasis is now placed on the freer reign provided for social pathologies because of religion's diminished influence. Indeed, both of his early books envision a decreased role for religion in modern society and aim at creating new, sociological remedies for this situation (e.g., social integration through occupational groups and morality).

One of Durkheim's first direct explorations of religion was the essay "Concerning the Definition of Religious Phenomena" (1897-1898). There he defined religious facts in terms of obligatory beliefs and the practices related to those beliefs. This definition hardly represented a new point of departure and is quite congruent with the emphases already found in his earlier books, where constraint is said to characterize social facts in general. Moreover, little is said about the sacred-profane distinction or about the socially integrative functions of religion, both of which became central to his later analysis of religion. Finally, the notion that our key categories of experience grow out of religion and society appears only briefly in this essay. These emphases began to emerge more fully when he had begun to incorporate new research findings into his thinking during the first decade of the century.

Durkheim founded the journal L'Année Sociologique in 1896, and its first volume appeared in 1898. The large yearbook volumes contained monographic essays as well as reviews by the Durkheimians of prominent literature in sociology. A major section was devoted to the sociology of religion. Its first series ran until 1913, when publication was suspended due to World War I. (A second series, edited after Durkheim's death by Marcel Mauss, was begun in 1923-1924 but was soon discontinued.) More than a mere publication outlet, L'Année Sociologique was an important "laboratory" for the critique and further development of sociological ideas. The common intellectual spirit of its contributors marked it as a distinctively Durkheimian enterprise.

Durkheim assembled a group of investigators around the journal. Marcel Mauss, Henri Hubert, Celestin Bouglé, Georges Davy, and Paul Fauconnet were some major early figures in the school who wrote about religion and morality. The group came to include a large number of others including Maurice Halbwachs and Robert Hertz. Several of the younger ones, including Hertz and Durkheim's own son David, a budding linguistic scholar, perished in fighting during World War I. Hertz was perhaps the most promising student of religion among this ill-fated cohort. He published several important monographs, one on the collective representation of death and another on right and left, or religious polarity. The latter has exercised a widespread influence on the study of systems of dual classification. Hertz had also projected a study of sin and expiation in religion, the introduction to which was published post-humously by Mauss in the Revue d'Histoire des Religions in 1922.

Durkheim's Later Sociology of Religion and the Durkheim School

Despite the continuity between his early writings and his final work, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), it is clear that this book emerged gradually from research done by him (and members of his school) after 1895. Durkheim reviewed large numbers of publications about the theory and history of religion, primitive social organization (especially family and kinship), and totemism in L'Année Sociologique —and thus laid the foundation for his later book. In particular, Durkheim read the new Australian ethnography, especially the works of Spencer and Gillen. Durkheim also began to theorize more explicitly about the nature and origin of religion, critically engaging the varied ideas about religion of Spencer, Tylor, Max Müller, J. G. Frazer, the Protestant theologian Auguste Sabatier, William James, and others. He opposed the individualistic presuppositions that he found in their work as well as their tendency to explain away religion as an illusion based on the misinterpretation of primitive experiences (e.g., dreams, natural phenomena).

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life , Durkheim rejected any definition of religion in terms of the supernatural and opposed both "naturism" and "animism" as inadequate accounts of religion. Instead, he defined religion as a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred, ones that united their followers into a moral community. Although he was very interested in religion as a system of "representations," he generally placed rites at the heart of primitive religion, in this respect following the precedent of Robertson Smith. Religious beliefs, and states of common consciousness generally, are themselves revivified periodically by a variety of rites, which are focused around the central objects of religion, those things held "sacred" by the community. These rituals communicate between mankind and the gods, commemorate mythical beings and events, expiate sins, transport the individual through the life course, and function in a variety of other ways to enhance the sense of participation in a symbolically rich social environment. These rites are highly emotional collective experiences, states of "collective effervescence," which overcome the divisions among individuals and subgroups. They forge a collective identity that sustains members of society during periods of dispersion into routine ("profane") activities. Durkheim thought that these periods of collective fervor more generally corresponded to the periods of great historical rebirth and transformation of cultures (e.g., during the Renaissance of the twelfth-century era and the French Revolution). While he studied these phenomena primarily in the setting of clan and tribal societies (i.e., Australia and Native America), he illustrated his arguments by repeated references to other religious settings, ancient and modern.

Durkheim insisted on the idea that the universal sentiment of religious belief could not be a mere illusion but must have its roots in some real force in reality. Religious rituals gestate experiences of a reality beyond individuals and enhance their sense of dependence on a higher power and authority existing above them. In Durkheim's view, this power is none other than society itself. Society provides the object to which our experiences of "divinity" correspond.

Religion also molds our central categories of understanding (time, space, cause, substance, the soul, and so on) through its representations about reality as well as its ritual organization of existence. Because religion is primarily a social affair, the categories themselves are social in both form and content. Taken together, they define the "totality" of our experience. Indeed, the notions of Divinity, Totality, and Society are three modes of a single reality.

Durkheim argued for the "dualism of human nature." He thought that only a sociological theory could account for the dualism frequently noted but left unexplained by philosophers from Plato to Kant. The limitations imposed on individual representations could be transcended only by higher ideals rooted in collective processes. He was by no means uninterested in the religion of the individual. However, the idea of the soul itself was born in collective rites, which were of primary significance. The individual cult was only slowly disengaged from collective practices. The important, even "sacred," role played by the individual in modern religion and society was itself the result of a long history and could not be the starting point for an adequate study of religion.

The turn toward "primitive" society as the appropriate research site for Durkheim's study of religion suggests both the continuity and the discontinuity in his thinking. The idea that aboriginal Australian clan organization is the simplest form of society and its totemic religion the most elementary one echoes the emphasis on the segmentary organization, mechanical solidarity, and collective consciousness of archaic society analyzed in his first book. However, the new emphasis on a crucial test case based on recent ethnography contrasts with the diffuse evidence from primitive and archaic societies used to illustrate mechanical solidarity in his earlier work. This reflects the research done after 1895, which led him to recast his sociologies of religion and knowledge into one unified theory. Moreover, the idea of a transformation in religion and culture toward more international or universal forms recapitulates, yet revises, the evolutionary argument of his first book as well as parts of his 1895 lectures on socialism. However, Durkheim now emphasizes the parallel transformation of societal and religious structures, suggesting a modified version of Fustel de Coulanges's theory of ancient history and also a move toward what later became "structuralist" theory. Perhaps the greatest departures from his early work (if not that of his school) are his dualism of the sacred and the profane, his insistence on the mutually immanent character of religion and society, and his radical willingness to trace much of human culture ultimately to religious and social sources.

In discussing the development of Durkheim's ideas, it is important to recall that the members of the Durkheim school worked together closely on the topic of religion after 1895. During this period, Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss wrote important monographs on sacrifice (1898) and magic (1902-1903); Durkheim and Mauss wrote on primitive classification (1903); and Robert Hertz analyzed the problem of religious polarity (1909). Many of the central ideas discussed in Durkheim's Elementary Forms already were being collaboratively developed. The early analysis of sacrifice introduces an institution central to the later discussion. The essay on magic distinguishes magic (individual rites) and religion (collective ones), treats the problem of mana, or religious force, and analyzes the category of causality. The essay on classification discusses the social origins and structuring of reason. The pathbreaking work on religious polarity treats key aspects of the opposition between the sacred and profane, especially in relation to the social and religious definition of space, and may be the first place where this set of ideas is given a precise, thorough treatment by any Durkheimian. While differences in perspective and emphasis can be found among these writings, their mutual congruence is striking. Any account of Durkheim's evolving view of religion that neglected them would be incomplete.

Critiques and Influence

Durkheim's sociology of religion was attacked when it first appeared and has been criticized frequently since. He has been accused of "reductionism" for his identification of religion as a symbolic expression of social experience, while his general emphasis on society as a reality sui generis, one that transcends the individual, has led to the accusation of "social realism," a "group mind" theory, and even "scholasticism." Other critics question the validity of his evidence or the logic of his argument. The ethnography of his day (e.g., the work of Spencer and Gillen on Australia) is now viewed as inadequate. Durkheim's own (admittedly brilliant) use of the evidence also has been questioned, in particular his heavy reliance on the (probably untypical) Australian test case and his tendency to explain empirical deviations from his theory of primitive totemism by reference to allegedly later evolutionary developments in the societies under examination. Durkheim's logical method is criticized for often assuming the antecedent validity of the theory he is attempting to demonstrate and proving his own theory's validity by critically eliminating its competitors. It is also not clear that he resolved the tensions between the established dualistic and the newly emerging monistic elements in his theory of religion and society.

Despite such criticisms, Durkheim's ideas about religion have had a positive influence on scholars from various specialized fields, for example, Marcel Granet on Chinese religion and mentality, Jacques Soustelle on the representation of time and space among the ancient Aztecs, Stefan Czarnowski on the hero cult of St. Patrick, Claude Lévi-Strauss on the "savage mind," and Louis Dumont on the Indian caste system. In England, classics scholars Jane Ellen Harrison and Francis M. Cornford wrote studies of Greek religion and philosophy under Durkheim's influence, while social anthropology also absorbed Durkheim's perspectives and subsequently extended the Durkheimian orbit of influence to such American figures as W. Lloyd Warner and Erving Goffman.

Many of Durkheim's central ideas remain fruitful: his emphasis on the sociologically explicable dualism of human nature and the social nature of religion (and morality); the idea that the roots of human reason, cognition, and culture, generally, are to be found in religion (and therefore in society); his notion that religious symbolism expresses, yet transfigures social experience; his emphasis on the function of religious ritual in the creation of social solidarity; his emphasis on the sacred (versus the profane) as a defining feature of religion; his and his school's focus on sacrifice as a central religious rite and their distinction between magic and religion. Durkheim's uncompromising insistence on the social dimension of religion has helped create and sustain a field otherwise too easily divided between history and psychology. These and other aspects of his work provoked valuable debate when they appeared and continue to inspire sociological reflection about religion.

Donald A. Nielsen


É. Durkheim, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (Paris: Alcan, 1912)

É. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (London: Allen & Unwin, 1915)

É. Durkheim and M. Mauss, Primitive Classification (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963 [1903])

R. Hertz, Death and the Right Hand (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960 [1907-1909])

H. Hubert and M. Mauss, Sacrifice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964 [1898])

H. Hubert and M. Mauss, A General Theory of Magic (London: Routledge, 1972 [1902-1903])

S. Lukes, Emile Durkheim (London: Penguin, 1973)

D. A. Nielsen, "Robert Hertz and the Sociological Study of Sin, Expiation and Religion," in Structures of Knowing , ed. R. Monk (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986): 7-50

W. S. F. Pickering (ed.), Durkheim on Religion (London: Routledge, 1975)

W. S. F. Pickering, Durkheim's Sociology of Religion (London: Routledge, 1984).

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