The Religo-Sacred

Durkheim's idea of the "sacred" is one of the most important parts of his thoughts on religion and, according to Robert Nesbit, the most radical for his day, as it gives it the power not only to explain the nature of social bonds and human culture but also the very constitution of the human mind. [1]

For Durkheim, religion was an important component of what fascinated him most -- society. While it does not have the absolute force that he attributed to the society, religion, nonetheless, was very important in Durkheim's theories of how society function. In brief, Durkheim believed that religious representations were collectives ones, and that it was not religion as an idea that was important but religion as a membership. It wasn't gods or other powerful deities that religions worship, he argued, but society itself in abstract form. It was the communal aspect of religion that he stressed; his ideas on the sacred also focused thus. [2]

The sacred was another powerful force for Durkheim, as was the sharp distinction between it and the profane that he observed in the societies he studied. The contamination of power that was attached to sacred things -- and the rituals that grew up to protect people and society from it -- was an important order-keeping and normalizing mechanism for society.

Theory of Ritual

Out of his theory about the nature of the sacred and religion was communal participation comes Durkheim's functional theory of ritual. Harry Alpert breaks down Durkheim's theory, outlining the four social functions that Durkheim attributed to religion: [3]
  • A disciplinary and preparatory function.
  • A cohesive function
  • A revitalizing function
  • A euphoric function

While all of these are important and play a part in religious experience, it is the last two which are of particular interest. In revitalizing society through ritual, a society reminds itself of its heritage, sometimes doing so in such a dramatic fashion that the past is made alive again through the ritual performance -- something that is repeated again and again in narratives of religious experience.

The fourth function, the euphoric one, is that ritual calls upon members to express certain feelings and sentiments in order to counterbalance any negative forces acting against the society. Durkheim, for example, points to the need for mourning ceremonies or other rituals that are enacted during a time of crisis. [4]

[1] Robert A. Nesbit, Emile Durkheim. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1965, 73.
[2] Ibid., 78.
[3] Ibid., 137-138.
[4] Ibid., 140.