Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915)

“All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’. This division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, is the distinctive trait of religious thought; the beliefs, myths, dogmas and legends are either representations or systems of representations which express the nature of sacred things, the virtues and powers which are attributed to them, or their relations with each other and with profane things.

But by sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits; a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred. A rite can have this character; in fact, the rite does not exist which does not have it to a certain degree. There are words, expressions and formulae which can be pronounced only by the mouths of consecrated persons; there are gestures and movements which everybody cannot perform. The circle of sacred objects cannot be determined, then, once for all. Its extent varies infinitely, according to the different religions. That is how Buddhism is a religion: in default of gods, it admits the existence of sacred things, namely, the four noble truths and the practices derived from them.”


This Gobbet is an extract from an inquisitive book written by Durkheim who intended to question the source of social identity, intended for academics and researchers in the sociological, anthropological and philosophical field[1]. At the time of Durkheim’s writing, sociology and philosophy were seen as complimentary subjects as opposed to independent fields of study, therefore Durkheim with his method of ‘social fact’ can be considered a founder of modern sociology[2]. The question rising from Durkheim’s work is “how can religion be defined?”, with his main arguments being that religion must be separated from social factors, yet that this is difficult when so many of these factors and features of religious and non-religious traditions overlap.



Throughout the extract, Durkheim refers to the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’. The repetition of these contrasting words, ‘profane’ meaning secular and ‘sacred’ meaning holy, emphasises the divide between the non-religious society and those who are connected to God through religion. In a literary sense, this use of opposing concepts could be considered a reflection on Durkheim’s attempt to separate sociology and philosophy into two independent subject areas, assuming that he continues to deliberately make this distinction to illustrate his point that what is holy cannot be studied alongside that which is built purely on social and economic foundations rather than on religious grounds.

Despite this, the extract appears to contradict itself when analysed in the way of separation, as Durkheim suggests that there can be an overlap between what is considered holy and what is considered average within society, using his examples such as a holy rock or tree. Here it could be argued that the lines between what is sacred and what is profane are blurred, as non-religious rituals and traditions can possess traits of religious ceremonies, such as dance and song. This could be used as a source for historical debate in relation to the course, as Durkheim is questioning the definition of religion, illustrating that as there are varieties of religion, such as Christianity and Islam, and further into groups within these religions: Catholicism, Protestantism, Calvinism, the terminology and definitions we use to describe religion varies with each one. This is highlighted in Durkheim’s reference to Buddhism, stating that this religion is lacking a God to worship, therefore implying that a religion cannot even be defined as having a supernatural being that is above all. This poses the question then, how can religion be defined if not by worshipping a God?

However, the emphasis of the division between the sacred and the profane could alternatively suggest that during the 1910’s, people were diverging from the church with the advancement of education in science and technology. For example, if one was taken ill during the medieval period, it would be likely for them and their family, and members of the church would pray for their good health and this would be the extent of their treatment. Since then with the advancement of modern medicine, it is almost certain that one would visit a doctor and receive a form of medical treatment rather than pray for their good health without seeking treatment. This attitude is reminiscent of Karl Marx’s work, who considered religion to be an illusion in which people sought comfort and reasoning for things they could not explain[3], the argument from both Durkheim and Marx being that society had now advanced enough to produce its own scientific explanations as opposed to Bible teachings.

Marx’s view can be further supported by the gobbet as Durkheim groups religion with myths, legends and beliefs, which are considered a figment of the imagination which have been passed down through the generations. This potentially argues that religion is also a creation of the imagination that has become a tradition as opposed to fact, and is therefore an illusion of the people.


As a whole this extract can be considered a useful source for historians, as Durkheim is one of the first modern sociologists, this shows the advancement in thinking and education around this era. As historians, sociologists and theorists, the arguments Durkheim makes reinforces that the answer to the question “how can we define religion?” is practically impossible due to the overlapping factors of religious and non-religious beliefs, traditions and ceremonies. This is extremely important in historical enquiry as any attempt to research religion is automatically difficult as the religion one is intending to research must be defined before any work can take place.


[1] Émile Durkheim, Mark S. Cladis (Editor), Carol Cosman (Translator), The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/332155.The_Elementary_Forms_of_Religious_Life?ac=1&from_search=true [accessed: 16/10/16]

[2] Paul Carls, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Émile Durkheim (1858—1917)http://www.iep.utm.edu/durkheim/ [accessed: 16/10/16]

[3] Austin Cline, Why Does Religion Exist? Karl Marx’s Analysis of Religion http://atheism.about.com/od/philosophyofreligion/a/marx_4.htm [accessed: 16/10/16]

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