Durkheim, Weber and Religion

My last blog on Durkheim delved into the epistemological problems resulting from individualism.  Anne Rawls (whom I have been quoting in these blogs), interpreting Durkheim, said that an individualistic perspective on religion highlights the importance of beliefs over practices.  Indeed, Rawls argued the Durkheim believed that “ideas” are merely retrospective accounts of what took place in communal ritual practices.  More specifically, the categories of understanding (ideas) are the result of ritual practices not the other way around.  Rawls is not suggesting that ideas do not ever affect our practices, indeed, practices and ideas are often mutually reinforcing, but epistemologically considered practices came first then the categories of understanding. 

After the categories of understanding were formed, then the mutual reinforcing or both/and relationship between practices and ideas became more clearly manifest.  Nevertheless, ideas have been overly emphasized according to Rawls since the time of the Enlightenment, and practices have been given, for the most part, a secondary or tertiary emphasis.  Moreover, emphasizing “ideas” has consequences as Rawls makes clear in comparing Durkheim and Weber on religion:

Durkheim argues that an exclusive focus on modern religions has led to the erroneous conclusion that certain ideas, like the idea of a deity, are an essential aspect of religion.  However, a broad social analysis of archaic religion shows that this is not the case.  Archaic religions do not have deities, properly speaking, but they are clearly forms of religious practice and, Durkheim argues, serve the same social needs.  Here the difference between Durkheim’s idea that religions serve social functions, and Weber’s treatment of religion as a set of ideas and beliefs, is important.  For Weber (1921), archaic religions are magic, and not religion, precisely because their practices attempt to cause effects in things.  Treating the ideas and beliefs themselves as the purpose of the rites, led Weber to this conclusion.  For Durkheim, however, the beliefs are essentially irrelevant.  The practices are religion precisely because they do indeed attempt to cause effects through their rites, and in the process fulfill the need to produce moral force and human reason.  Furthermore, archaic peoples are correct, according to Durkheim, in thinking that through their practices they are creating effects that have moral significance.  They are creating moral forces.  This need for the creation of moral force is, he argues, the same need that motivates modern religions (p. 43).

Rawls continues by arguing that Durkheim is really interested in locating the underlying social causes of religious thought and in doing so quotes Durkheim directly: “I would like to find a means of discerning the ever-present causes on which the most basic forms of religious thought and practice depend.”  Rawls continues by writing, “according to Durkheim (1912:6) the external resemblances between religions presuppose deeper ones.”  As Durkheim wrote: “At the foundation of all systems of belief and all cults, there must necessarily be a certain number of fundamental representations and modes of ritual conduct that . . .  have the same objective meaning everywhere and everywhere fulfill the same functions.”  Rawls interprets this by saying that “Durkheim does not mean by this that the religious beliefs must be the same.  Although he will argue that there must always be a distinction between the sacred and the profane.  What he argues is that all religious practice has as its purpose to produce certain “representations” that are fundamental to the human understanding.  Fulfilling this need is a social function because society cannot exist, reason cannot develop, and, coordinated action cannot occur, unless this need is fulfilled” (p. 44).

Religion then has one underlying purpose for Durkheim which is the creation of the categories of the understanding along with the moral force religious practices create.  Rawls makes it clear that this is why there is religion in all societies.  As Durkheim himself wrote: “It is these enduring elements that constitute what is eternal and human in religion.  They are the whole objective content of the idea that is expressed when religion in general is spoken of” (1912:6).  Consequently, Rawls writes: “This claim that a certain number of fundamental representations and modes of ritual conduct are the whole objective content of the idea of religion, runs contrary to received Durkheimian scholarship” (p. 44).

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