At the end of my last blog I wrote that Durkheim believed that most epistemological problems resulted from individualism, a point I would like to develop further in relation to religion by referring, once again, to Anne Warfield Rawls’ book Epistemology and Practice: Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Cambridge, 2004). Moreover, in doing so, it will be shown that Durkheim had great respect for archaic religions – a position many of his contemporaries did not hold.
Durkheim believed there was an inherent individualism in the philosophical and anthropological approaches to religion which obscured the essentially social nature of religious phenomena. Remember, one of Durkheim’s central arguments is that religion caused reason or the categories of understanding through religion’s social ritual practices (religious ideas are retrospective accounts of the ritual practices). Religion was not an aggregate of individual ideas because how could individual ideas cause the categories of understanding (reason) which are social. Religion understood as individual belief, therefore, would not support his empirical argument for the development of the categories of understanding in collective enacted practice. Religion addresses an underlying social need for human intelligibility, that is, religions’ ritual practices create common bonds and collective effervescence which then enable humans to reflect on and communicate to one another intelligibly because they arise out of a common experience. How could individual revelation, particular to any given individual, be intelligible to others or be communicated intelligibly to others. Only if the group had common experiences or shared practices would they be able to communicate because these were shared in common and consequently all participants could have common ideas about what occurred – hence, the categories of understanding. Once again, ideas are retrospective accounts of what occurred in social ritual practices.
This is partly why Durkheim studied archaic religions, because archaic religions had NOT developed mountains of theological ideas, systematic theologies, doctrines that obscured religion’s basic function of creating the categories of the understanding through its social ritual practices. Moreover, archaic religions, consequently, were not illogical or full of superstition and irrational. Indeed, just the opposite. As Rawls states it:
“Durkheim argues that the tendency to take an individualist approach, because it obscures the underlying social needs that religion addresses, makes archaic religions, which address those social needs in the simplest and most direct manner, appear to be illogical. In other words, if one treats archaic religions in terms of their belief systems, instead of in terms of the underlying needs which their practices address, they seem absurd. Archaic religions are so pure in fulfilling only social functions, that beliefs are essentially irrelevant to understanding them. Durkheim argues that only an approach to explaining the origin of human reason that is based in social experience can reveal the meaning and coherence of archaic religions. In the body of The Elementary Forms, he demonstrates at length, that popular arguments concerning the lack of validity, and the superstitious origins, of primitive religious ideas; arguments that tend to treat these religious belief systems as naïve and even silly, are the result of the individualist assumptions made by empiricist and apriorist philosophers and anthropologists” (p. 41-42).
“Durkheim consistently defends archaic religious practice from various detractors throughout the text. His argument that all social practices that survive the test of time are equally true, because they fulfill the same purpose, is brought into play in this regard. This is interesting, because Durkheim’s so-called ‘functional’ approach is generally referred to as ‘conservative.’ Yet, here we find it as the basis for both his defense of the legitimacy of ‘primitive’ religious systems, and his insistence that an individualist approach, while it may be the accepted form of thought in western society, completely obscures the philosophical issues and social phenomena that the approach claims to clarify. . . . Both Durkheim’s assertion of the legitimacy and cogency of primitive religions, and his assertion that philosophical individualism results in obscuring the essential nature of society and human knowledge, poses serious challenges to accepted religious, political, and philosophical views. This is not a conservative position” (p. 42).
Rawls argues that Durkheim argued that religion, because of its ritual practices, caused reason (the categories of understanding are social in nature). Religion, essentially, is not about ideas. Again, Anne Rawls: “Religious beliefs or accounts arise as retrospective accounts for the practices, which, in turn, develop in response to underlying social needs. These accounts do not provide access to the underlying reasons for the practices. Durkheim argues that ‘to know what the conceptions that we ourselves have not made are made of, it cannot be enough to consult our own consciousness.’ Analyzing either religion, or the conditions of knowledge in general, from an individual perspective, makes a nonsense of both religion and epistemology” (p. 42-43).