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, despite the diversity of forms that the one and the other may have taken on, have the same objective meaning everywhere and everywhere fulfill the same functions. It is these enduring elements that constitute what is eternal and human in religion. Durkheim gives insight into his method here. In order to understand what religion is, he seeks to compare many varieties of religious expression and look for what they all have in common. In understanding what they have in common, he attempts to understand the function of religion in society. What purpose does it serve? We can see here the roots of a functionalist approach to religion.
…religion is an eminently social thing. Religious representations are collective representations that express collective realities; rites are ways of acting that are born only in the midst of assembled groups and whose purpose is to evoke, maintain, or recreate certain mental states of those groups.In this passage we can see that Durkheim does not understand religion as a spiritual communing with the supernatural, but instead as part of the dynamic of a social group. It is “eminently social” and expresses “collective realities.” These collective realities—how societies go about meeting the needs of their members and the challenges that they face in the process— shape the variations in religious expression across societies.
Whether simple or complex, all known religious beliefs display a common feature: They presuppose a classification of the real or ideal things that men conceive into two classes—two opposite genera—that are widely designated by two distinct terms, which the words profane and sacred translate fairly well. This distinction between the sacred and the profane has been used widely in scholarship that followed Durkheim in both sociology and anthropology. Durkheim did not use the word profane in the way that we frequently hear it. Profanity is typically used to mean irreverent or blasphemous speech. Durkheim used the term instead to refer to the ordinary, everyday world in which we live. Objects, actions, behaviors that are part of our everyday life worlds are profane. The sacred, on the other hand, is special and often reserved for ritual use or display. It carries deeper meaning to the group than do the profane objects. Think of the flag of your country, for example. There have been debates over the past decades in the U.S. about whether burning the flag should be a punishable offense. There is nothing inherent in the material object that would make us treat it differently than any other piece of fabric, but it signifies something more special or important. And it has meaning not only to any individual, but also to the collective.
Sacred things are things protected and isolated by prohibitions; profane things are those things to which the prohibitions are applied and that must keep at a distance from what is sacred. Religious beliefs are those representations that express the nature of sacred things and the relations they have with other sacred things or with profane things. Finally, rites are rules of conduct that prescribe how man must conduct himself with sacred things. Here we begin to get to Durkheim’s definition of religion. If we treat some things as sacred to a group, then the relationships between those things (both objects and practices) and the rituals that we create around them form religious beliefs. Some major religions, for example, entail sacred rites of passage where a child transitions to an adult in his or her relation to the community. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs mark this passage for Jewish boys and girls and Roman Catholics have confirmation rituals. Marriage rites are similarly fairly common in most organized religions. And in each of these ceremonies, special objects or ritualized actions serve to make these events sacred—separate from the day-to-day world of interaction.
Far from ignoring and disregarding the real society, religion is its image, reflecting all its features, even the most vulgar and repellent. Everything is to be found in it, and if we most often see good triumphing over evil, life over death, and the forces of light over the forces of darkness, this is because it is no different in reality.Religion, according to Durkheim, is the representation, the image, of society. Even though the sacred appears to be of a different order than the profane, religion is in fact representing our society back to itself. The values espoused in religion, the communion that people feel with one another in ritual, these are all representations of the society itself.
A society is not constituted simply by the mass of individuals who comprise it, the ground they occupy, the things they use, or the movements they make, but above all by the idea it has of itself.Durkheim argues here that it is important not only that we are connected with one another, but that in fact we think of ourselves as a collective, as a society, and that we have an image of that society. In the absence of that image, how would social norms, customs, obligations be maintained? To return to the analogy of patriotism and the flag, beyond sharing a nationality, many argue that it is important that we think of ourselves as members of a nation, as belonging to a collective where our interests overlap with the interests of others. This can help to create social order and a sense of solidarity and shared purpose.
There can be no society that does not experience the need at regular intervals to maintain and strengthen the collective feelings and ideas that provide its coherence and its distinct individuality. The moral remaking can be achieved only through meetings, assemblies, and congregations in which the individuals, pressing close to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments. Such is the origin of ceremonies that, by their object, by their results, and by the techniques used, are not different in kind from ceremonies that are specifically religious.Here Durkheim explains the functions of religion: it brings people together in spaces where they can reaffirm their shared beliefs and values.