Raw thoughts on Durkheim’s “Definition of Religious Phenomenon and Religion”

In Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, he concludes the first chapter “Definition of Religious Phenomenon and of Religion”, saying that “religion should be an eminently collective thing”. He comes to this conclusion arguing about the concept of ritual and belief,  sacred and profane, and magic and religion.

For him the defining  mark of religious thought is always distinguished between the sacred and profane, which people project onto the world through religious beliefs. He says, “Rituals are states of opinion, and consist in representations” and “beliefs are determined modes of action”. He also explains the great similarities and differences between magic and religion to draw conclusion that while religion is inseparable from the idea of a Church, which is a moral community formed by all believers in a single faith, laymen as well as priest, magic lacks any such ideas. However, he also questions if it will not exclude the private religions, if the idea of church is accepted for the definition of religion.

Image courtesy @ James E. Addicott

As somebody who studies Buddhism and who grew up in in a Buddhist culture, I would agree to Durkheim’s arguments to some extent. For example, while looking at the annual and periodical ritual practices in Buddhism, his concept of how people project sacred and profane and religion function to provide a sense of social belonging and bonding fits quite well. However, it feels like social dimension is only one dimension of religion. There are also other dimensions that needs to be looked closely.  Are life, death, life after that, are not important in religion? Are beliefs, feelings, institutions of a religious practice only meant to be understood as contributors to social cohesion? To fulfill functions of society? To just create collective effervescence? Aren’t they more than that?

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