Friday, November 25, 2011

Reading :: The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
By Emile Durkheim

(The above link goes to a different version of the book: mine is the 1915 version, reprinted by Free Press in 1965.)

Partly through this book, I tweeted that I wish I had read this book first, before Levi-Strauss' The Savage Mind. There, Levi-Strauss criticizes the notion of totem, which is Durkheim's starting point in his study of religion. In fact, I should have probably read Frazer's The Golden Bough before Durkheim, since Durkheim's book is in great part a critique of Frazer's position that totemism is magic, not religion.

In any case, Durkheim provides a meticulous and detailed discussion of elementary religion - that is to say, totemism as practiced in Australian and North American tribes - and argues that religion started with these elementary forms before developing into the more structured, personified forms we know today. He asserts that
before all, rites are means by which the social group reaffirms itself periodically. From this, we may be able to reconstruct hypothetically the way in which the totemic cult should have arisen originally. Men who find themselves united, partially by bonds of blood, but still more by a community of interest and tradition, assemble and become conscious of their moral unity. For the reasons we have set forth, they are led to represent this unity in the form of a very special kind of consubstantiality: they think of themselves as participating in the nature of some determined animal. Under these circumstances, there is only one way for them to affirm their collective existence: this is to affirm that they are like the animals of this species, and to do so not only in the silence of their own thoughts, but by material acts. ... the imitative rites appear as the first form of the cult. (p.432)
Durkheim makes this argument while maintaining respect for all forms of religious life. But I wonder about his argument, which rests on the assumption that tribal peoples represent a universal stage of development and thus their beliefs are a snapshot of the beliefs at that stage of development. Did the peoples living in, say, Crete or Okinawa or Ireland also go through these selfsame levels of development and evolve their own religions in the same way? Unfortunately, Durkheim provides only a few examples of how Western religions may have developed from cults.

Nevertheless, the book is a tour de force in examining totemism in Australian tribes specifically. Durkheim carefully and sedulously examines each aspect of totemism, relating all of them to his central thesis. If religion or tribal dynamics are interesting to you, certainly take a look at this classic.

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