Practice Question: In what way did Durkheim perceive religion as functional to society? (10 Marks) (Paper 1 Socio 2018)

Approach: Introduction; Outline briefly Durkheim’s theory on religion, mention the functionalist perspective of his religious theory, elaborate on functions of religion; Conclusion



Durkheim adopted an evolutionary approach in that he considered society to have developed from a traditional to modern society through the development and expansion of the division of labour.  He compared society to an organism, with different parts that functioned to ensure the smooth and orderly operation and evolution of society.  He is sometimes considered a structural functionalist in that he regarded society as composed of structures that functioned together – in constructing such an approach, he distinguished structure and function. 

According to Durkheim, religion is the product of human activity, not divine intervention. He thus treats religion as a sui generis social fact and analyzes it sociologically. Durkheim elaborates his theory of religion at length in his most important work, Forms. It is important to look at the starting point of Durkheim’s analysis, his definition of religion: “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 in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them”.



In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Durkheim argued that all societies divide the world into two basic categories: the sacred and the profane:

  • The profane refers to mundane ordinary life: our daily routine/ grind of getting up in the morning, doing our ablutions, going to college, eating our daily Nachos, and doing the dishes.
  • The sacred refers to anything which transcends the humdrum of everyday life: which typically take the form of collective representations which are set apart from society (spiritual places such as churches or mosques are the most obvious examples of ‘sacred’ spaces.)



Durkheim saw Totemism as one of the earliest and simplest form of religious practice. It is most commonly found among aboriginal peoples, such as the Australian aborigines, and North West Native American Indians, who have clan based societies.Aboriginal society was divided into a number of clans, and members of the clan had certain obligations that had to be fulfilled – such as mourning the death of other clan members or helping seek vengeance if another member was wronged by someone external to the clan. Each clan was also exogenous – people had to marry someone outside of the clan. Each clan had a totem, typically an animal or a plant which was represented by drawings or carvings made on wood or stone, typically linked to a ‘creation myth’ that explained the origins of that clan and linked current members into that history. The totem served to distinguish the clan from all other clans.

To clan members, the totem was as sacred object, nothing less than ‘the outward and visible form of the totemic principle or god’ – their animal/ plant was sacred and the totemic representation just as sacred if not more so.



Durkheim also argued that religion never concerns only belief, but also encompasses regular rituals and ceremonies on the part of a group of believers, who then develop and strengthen a sense of group solidarity. Rituals are necessary to bind together the members of a religious group, and they allow individuals to escape from the mundane aspects of daily life into higher realms of experience. Sacred rituals and ceremonies are especially important for marking occasions such as births, marriages, times of crisis, and deaths. Durkheim’s theory of religion exemplifies how functionalists examine sociological phenomena. According to Durkheim, people see religion as contributing to the health and continuation of society in general. Thus, religion functions to bind society’s members by prompting them to affirm their common values and beliefs on a regular basis.



According to Durkheim, a religion comes into being and is legitimated through moments of what he calls “collective effervescence.” Collective effervescence refers to moments in societal life when the group of individuals that makes up a society comes together in order to perform a religious ritual. During these moments, the group comes together and communicates in the same thought and participates in the same action, which serves to unify a group of individuals. When individuals come into close contact with one another and when they are assembled in such a fashion, a certain “electricity” is created and released, leading participants to a high degree of collective emotional excitement or delirium. This impersonal, extra-individual force, which is a core element of religion, transports the individuals into a new, ideal realm, lifts them up outside of themselves, and makes them feel as if they are in contact with an extraordinary energy.



1. Durkheim’s Sociology of religion was purely speculative. According to Goldenweiser, Durkheim’s theory is one sided and psychologically untenable. He argued that a “society possessing the religious sentiment is capable of accomplishing unusual things, but it can hardly produce that sentiment out of itself.”

2. According to some philosophers, by making the social mind, or collective representations the sole source of religion, Durkheim resorted to something quite mysterious in itself and hence failed to give a satisfactory explanation.

3. In coming to the view of the universal distinction of the sacred and the profane, Durkheim believed he had validated his theory of moral authority. But, as the focal point of Durkheim’s definition of religion is concerned, the distinction of the sacred and the profane is applied to substantiate the view that religion has nothing to do with the existence of Gods and spirits.

4. Many anthropologists today no longer accept that totemism is a form of religion at all, but see it as a form of ritual and kinship organisation, which can co-exist with a series of religious institutions.



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