Durkheim on a Definition of “Religion”

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Updated: Mar 10, 2021
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Durkheim on a Definition of “Religion” essay

According to Emile Durkheim, “?A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Elementary Forms). To analyze this definition, Durkheim describes religion as a “unified system” emphasizing the institutional nature of it. The major three religions today; Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all feature some forms of institutionalization, the Catholic church’s hierarchical leadership structure from small parish priest to the pope may be the most obvious example of structured religious leadership. All three religions have a central doctrine based in sacred texts. Durkheim also includes the phrase “…unite into one single moral community called a church”. The importance of community and assemblage is an important aspect of religion. Bringing together members of a society in a shared belief system, encourages a collective consciousness, a shared morality and a religion is more commonly accepted when it is followed by others in the community.

Religion resembles other social phenomena such as patriotism and music because they are often intertwined, for example United States currency bearing the motto “In God we Trust” or Negro spirituals which captured the Christian values of the enslaved and the hardships of slavery through music. One key distinction between religion and these other phenomena is that most religions attempt to answer some of life’s most difficult questions such as the nature or evil or the concept of a soul, compared to patriotism which limits its philosophizing to an individual and their nature in relation to their nation-state. Religion is separated from music in many ways such as its institutionalization. Not all religions are institutional in nature but it is a trait many share.

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Institutional religions require of adherents certain rules and practices to be followed and observed. Music may be institutionalized, for example the study of musical theory is based in formally established rules or doctrine such as reading sheet music and many musical associations like orchestras have hierarchical leadership structures. However while music may exist in organized form it is not an essential characteristic of music as it is for religion.

The Aten revolution was unsuccessful for a number of reasons. One being that the revolution was a movement led exclusively by the Pharaoh Akhenaten. It was not uncommon for Pharaohs of the past to pick one God from the Egyptian pantheon to be supreme or representative of their royal family. Akhenaten was unique in that he banned the worship of the other Gods and limited it solely to the sun-god Aten. Not content with simply outlawing the worship of other Gods, Akhenaten outright persecuted those who worshipped traditional Gods and moved the Egyptian capital to the unsettled city of Akhenaten. He died 17 years into his reign much too soon to cement his changes to Egyptian society and his reforms and reign were discarded by the Pharaohs who followed him. Compare Akhenaten’s revolution with the Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China, both were religious movements meant to transform their society, but the

Taiping Rebellion began with the people at the bottom and led to a war with the Chinese State. Hong Xiuquan first became a revolutionary in the 1830s. The Society of God worshippers was founded in 1844 to spread his message and the Taiping Rebellion began in earnest in 1850. In addition to being a bottom up religious revolution, it also was a much slower timeline. Hong spread his ideology for years before rebelling against the government and fought from 1850 to 1864. Ultimately both revolutions were failures, but the rise and fall of each could not be more different. The effects of the Taiping Rebellion are still felt in China today for example in the government’s lasting hostility towards Christianity. The effects of the Aten revolution however were short lasting and were gone almost as quickly as they began perhaps a reflection of just how profoundly Akhenaten had failed and an indication into the reasons why.

The Babylonian exile of the Jewish people in the 6th century BCE had a profound impact on the practice of Judaism. Many of the changes ushered in by the exile were simply based on necessity given the nature of the exile. Solomon’s temple in ancient Jerusalem was the physical and spiritual center of the Jewish faith, while in exile the Jews did not have access to their temple and had to adapt accordingly. One important ritual was the practice of animal sacrifice, which could only be performed in the temple.

Not only exiled, the temple was destroyed meaning Judaism had to find a new basis of their religion. Synagogues developed as a means to enable assembly. The synagogues themselves are not regarded as sacred and function as a place of religious and social congregation. The Hebrew word for synagogue, Bet Knesset, translates literally to “house of assembly”.

Another effect of exile was the increased importance of written texts in the religion. With the temple gone, the Torah became the centerpiece of Judaism. With the emphasis now on holy text, rabbis emerged to study and teach the Torah to followers and became spiritual leaders on their own similar to priests in Catholicism. This intense study of the Torah also led to the writing of the Talmud by rabbis. These changes lasted even with the rebuilding of the temple. Judaism was no longer a religion tied to its homeland of Jerusalem, anywhere a Jewish community was located now had the ability to fully practice.

All of these changes led to the development of aspects of Judaism that are now central to the faith but were all established out of necessity as a result of the Babylonian exile.

Christianity was able to attract women as adherents relatively easily compared to other religions. There are many things that could possibly explain this, one is the elimination of the bride price in Christianity. A bride price is a gift of wealth usually in the form of money or property given to the family of an expected bride by the family of the expected husband. Many women object to bride prices for a variety of reason, firstly they signal to many that women are simply objects being purchased for their grooms.

Another relates the the woman’s relationship with her family, her role as a daughter is quite different than that of a son if the family stands to make a financial gain from marrying their daughters off. Christianity lacks the tradition of a bride price unlike in Jewish and Islamic traditions so this is one aspect of christianity that may draw women to the faith.

Another possible explanation is the importance of the family unit in Christian tradition. Of the ten commandments which are fundamental laws of Judaism and Christianity, one of them is “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. Adultery was and still is primarily committed by men, it being made a clear wrong could have attracted women for many reasons. If there husbands were faithful they were at lower risk of STIs and less worried for things that may affect their marriage such as illegitimate children. The institution of marriage is generally considered a sacred thing in Christianity and divorce tends to be frowned upon especially in the past. This provided security for women who were less worried about being left desolate as the result of their husbands leaving for reasons such as infertility or anything for that matter. These aspects of Christianity provided a strong incentive for women to join the faith.

The catholic church had immense power in the 15th and 16th century. The popes of the day had spiritual as well as political power to wield across Western Europe. The Protestant Reformation is considered to have begun in 1517 when Martin Luther, a German monk, posted his “95 Theses” on a church door in Germany. Luther’s primary concern was the Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences which supposedly decreased the amount of time a person would spend in purgatory before ascending to heaven in exchange for donations or good works. Luther questioned the morality of a soul’s state being a matter of financial consideration. Another point that Luther raised and marks a key distinction between Protestant and Catholic Christians is the idea of good works. Luther believed that faith alone should be enough to ensure a person’s salvation whereas Catholic tradition holds that it is a mix of faith and good works which enables a person to earn a place in Heaven. Another distinction between Protestants and Catholics that led to the schism was the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

Catholics believe that when bread and wine are administered they become the literal flesh of Jesus Christ, protestants do not believe this and find communion to be a symbolic act.

Another factor in the development of Protestantism was the invention of the printing press. Previously bibles were only in Latin and followers were dependent on their priests to share the teachings of the bible. With the printing press the bible was translated into common languages such as German and French which made the bible more accessible but also open to criticism. Many, Martin Luther among them, felt that the way the Catholic church interpreted and taught the bible was not in line with their interpretations.

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Durkheim on a Definition of "Religion". (2021, Mar 10). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/durkheim-on-a-definition-of-religion/