Mormonism and Theories of Religion III: Durkheim

This follows up on the previous entries in this series here and here. Emile Durkheim is one of the most important founders of modern sociology. He is also one of the most important figures in the study of religion. Like Tylor, Frazer, and Freud, his theory of religion is also reductionist. It seeks to explain religion by pointing to something other than religion itself.

For Durkheim, the divine, or the sacred, is in the image of the society or community. For example, the salute to the flag shows reverence to the “sacred” object, but really demonstrates commitment to the United States. In religion, god is the personified view of the clan, and the rituals and worship of the god are aimed at expressing devotion and reinforcing the community itself. Even the notion of the soul and individual immortality are a way of saying that that the clan lives on. The soul is a representation of the society within the individual. The individual is responsible to not put the desires of the flesh above those of the society. This functionalist explanation of religion sees it as performing the task of creating solidarity in the community. Different from the previous thinkers, Durkheim’s view is not anti-religious, for he sees it as both healthy and inevitable in any society.

Do Durkheim’s ideas find evidence in the LDS temple rituals? These rituals divinize the participants, as well as providing services to members of the clan who have passed on. Further, do the strong sense of LDS identity and the desire to construct a Zion society reflect an ultimate interest in the society itself? We seem very concerned with group salvation. Our families are sealed together in order to be saved together. In eschatological times were are supposed to gather together again for protection from the outside. Is LDS belief and practice really about building and preserving a clan, albeit an ultimately universal one which will encompass all of humanity?

4 comments for “Mormonism and Theories of Religion III: Durkheim

  1. July 30, 2004 at 7:36 pm

    It’s interesting that you bring up Durkheim because he was one of the first proponents of the secularization hypothesis. He expected that as society became more complex and differentiated (representing a more organic solidarity compared to the mechanic solidarity that typified rural communities of the past) individuals would become less dependent on religion as a means of achieving solidarity. There is a big debate raging about this issue (are people more secular today than in the past?), but clearly Mormons defy Durkheim’s prediction. Not only are we extremely religious but we are also very embeddeded in the secular arenas of politics, business, and academia. We seem to sit on the fence of Durkheim’s two forms of solidarity – clinging to ceremony and ritual while also wanting a more differentiated community where individuality is valued over sameness.

  2. July 31, 2004 at 9:56 am

    The Chronicle’s on-line version had a wonderful article about the lack of belief in most modern studies of religion.

    That would make an interesting addition to this collection of essays.

  3. July 31, 2004 at 10:26 am

    Let me provide the link while I am at it:

    I’d have to agree with much of that article.

    And, of course, note that the issue of whether or not God is a God of miracles (and what exactly does that mean?) is really a core issue, often ignored or subsumed with the answer “no” implied.

  4. Kristine
    August 2, 2004 at 10:30 am

    Taylor, I’ve nothing of substance to add to this discussion–too much remedial reading to do first–but I wanted to say I like this series, and I hope you’ll do a couple more.

    One of the weird effects of the structure of university departments is the compartmentalization of big thinkers’ work. I’ve read the lit. crit. allotment of Freud, but very little about his treatment of religion. I dimly recall a little bit of what intro. to Sociology classes get of Durkheim, but I have no real sense of the scope of his thinking and its application to other fields. So this is a really useful bit of translation and a pointer for further reading (y’know, because I really *love* adding to my sense of my own colossal ignorance–which, btw, is even *more* colossal than Nate’s, nyah, nyah–and the already vast list of books I should have read 10 years ago!)

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