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For Durkheim (1915) the key feature of religion is a distinction between the sacred and the profane. The sacred are things set apart and forbidden that inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder, they are surrounded by taboos and prohibitions. The profane are things that have no special significance. He states religion is never simply a set of beliefs, it involves some definite rituals and practices in relation to the sacred and these rituals are collective. The fact that sacred items evoke such powerful feelings this indicate to Durkheim that the sacred are symbols of a greater power. In his view, this can only be society itself, since society is the only thing that can provide such feelings. Therefore, when people worship the sacred, they are worshipping society itself. Although, sacred items vary from religion to religion, they all perform the act of crating one moral community.

Durkheim also believed that the essence of all religion could be found by studying its simplest form. He studies Aboriginal tribes with a clan system. Arunta clans consist of bands of kin who come together periodically to perform rituals involving worship of a sacred totem. The totem is the clan’s emblem, such as an animal or plant that symbolises the clan’s origins and identity. The totemic rituals reinforce the solidarity and sense of belonging. For Durkheim, when clan members worship their totemic animal, they are actually worshipping society, even though they are not aware of this fact.

These sacred symbols represent society’s collective conscience. This is the shared norms, values and beliefs that make social life possible, without these anomie would occur. Regular shared rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration, participating in shared rituals binds individuals together reminding them they are part of one moral community to which they owe their loyalty. Such rituals also remind the individuals of power of society without which, they are nothing. In this sense religion also performs an important function for the individual. By making individuals feel part of something greater than ourselves, religion reinvigorates us to face life’s trials and motivates us to overcome obstacles that would otherwise defeat us.

Durkheim sees religion not only a source of social solidarity, but also part of our intellectual or cognitive capacities. In Durkheim’s view, religion is the origin of the concepts and categories we need for reasoning. Durkheim and Mauss (1903) argue that religion provides basic categories such as time, space and causation, for example, with ideas about a creator bringing the world into being at the beginning of time. Thus for Durkheim, religion is the origin of human thought, reason and science.

Psychological Functions:

Malinowski (1954) agrees with Durkheim that religion promotes solidarity.


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