Navigation – Plan du site

Durkheim’s View of Religion »

Journal of Religious Psychology, including its Anthropological and Sociological Aspects (Worcester, Mass., novembre 1914)
Wilson Dallam Wallis

Note de la rédaction

Source primaire :
Wallis (Wilson Dallam), « Durkheim’s View of Religion », Journal of Religious Psychology, including its Anthropological and Sociological Aspects, edited by G. Stanley Hall (Worcester, Mass.), 7 (2), November 1914, p. 252-267

Source(s) numérique(s) identifiée(s) :

Texte intégral

The contributions of the leader and founder of L’Année Sociologique school, certainly the most important sociological contributions yet made by any ‘school,’ may be said to have their climax in the author’s last book, Les Formes Élémentaires de la Vie Religieuse. Le Systeme Totemique en Australie. (Paris, 1912.) The book may be said to aim at two things as of predominant importance : First, a definition of and insight into religion in general, irrespective of culture and clime ; second, an analysis of religion as found in aboriginal Australia. Our concern will be primarily with method and interpretation, inasmuch as these seem the fundamental aspects of the author’s treatment, and in this sense basic.

The author begins his treatment with a brief reference to the revolt usually shown by religious people as soon as an attempt is made to study their religion as a social phenomenon. So far as the author dwells on this point it is merely to bring this truth home. The attitude itself is presented merely as a social phenomenon, as an existing attitude. To ns the fact raises the problem : Why this attitude of revolt when accompanying it there may be recognition of the truth of the undesired description ?

If after stating with great care and concern the points one by one in an argument of great moment to myself, my opponent meets it by remarking that I have used two hundred and fifty words, sixty sentences, three questions and two exclamations, I am more or less mildly disgusted, not because he has failed to state the truth about my argument, but because he has disregarded its purpose and purport expressing a truth about what is for me a non-essential, a merely accidental attribute not inherently a part of my meaning. When the religious man makes the revolt at sociological interpretations it is not because of any absence of truth in the interpretation–at least it may be present where there is no question of the truth the correctness of the characterization merely deepening the irritation–it is because he feels a disregard of the purpose subserved by [253] the religious life and of the meaning which its form and perpetuation have for its devotees. He is only human in asking that the meaning of his purposes and the estimate of his life-values as incorporated in his own ideals and activity be not disregarded. The sociologist himself might, if you take him unawares and forego the familiar discourse of sociology, resent a characterization of him as merely a product of social influences, a social precipitate rather than a personal dynamic.

The author’s real task begins with the interpretation of religion. Briefly his argument is as follows :

Advanced religions are so diverse in content that it is very difficult by studying them to arrive at the essential nature of religion. Its essence is much more easily determined in a simple elementary religion like that of Australia ; primitive society as compared to advanced society is uniform, simple, undifferentiated. Thus, an understanding of the religion of the simplest society gives a key to the most advanced religions.

Religion is, first of all, a social phenomenon. We are just beginning to appreciate the extent to which individual psychology, so-called, is but an exhibition in the small of a more inclusive and determining social psychology. The individual is but a social microcosm. Society or the social is a reality sui generis, the individual deriving his reality from the social order to which he belongs. It would be folly to attempt to derive the social from the individual since this would be deriving the whole from a part, the complex from the simple. Social concepts are the outcome of an extensive and prolonged cooperation, massive both spatially and temporally. They make up the whole world of reality of which the individual is but a poor and partial reflection.

Coming now to the question of the specific nature of religion, we must rule out supernaturalism as a proper definition of the object of religion, since the supernatural itself becomes part of the natural order as society deals with this concept. Neither (an we define it as having to do with the divine, since we have, as for example, in Buddhism, religions without a god. There are many religious rites the function of which is not that of uniting the worshipper with the god. Animism, again, is insufficient since religion can exist without the concept of god or [254] of spirit and must not be defined as characterized solely by its spiritual nature.

So much for negative criticism by way of clearing away traditional misconceptions. We come now to the positive contribution, the finding of religion in essence as it is, religion pure and undefiled.

The world is divided into two parts having nothing in common, the sacred and the profane. This division is absolute, not relative, as are distinctions between good and bad, for example, the classification in the latter case being after all but a matter of degree. Religion is concerned with what pertains to the sacred, and is expressed in the form of rites and rituals. The sacred as indeed any important phase of the sacred is the center of an organisation about which are grouped the beliefs and rites of some particular cult. Nor can that be called religion, however unified it be, that does not recognize a plurality in the sacred. Even the most idealistic and monotheistic religions exhibit this trait–in Romanism the saints, regalia, churches, etc. Religion, then, may be defined as “a solid system of beliefs and practices having to do with the sacred, that is to say, the separated, the prohibited, the beliefs and practices which are bound up in a moral community called the Church, and all that appertains thereto.[1]

Durkheim recognizes that magic has, like religion, its rites, traditions and dogmas, the distinction between magic and religion being in practice often difficult to make. Magic may, however, be distinguished in this way : it is opposed to religion often making the sacred profane, frequently reversing the religious forms in its own rites. Similarly, religion is opposed to magic. The essential difference between them lies in the fact that magic may be but is not necessarily social in expression, that is does not call for the co-operation of individuals, such co-operation being essential to religion ; that it has no church and is not national. Magic differs from religion in being essentially a phenomenon of isolation performed by an individual as such without church or co-operating assistants.

If animism is ruled out on the ground of being merely systematised hallucination, and naturalism on the ground that religion, if it were but the expression of natural forces could not persist since it is an erroneous expression of them, and it cannot explain the distinction between the sacred and the profane, [255] totemism is whole-heartedly accepted. Rather is it thrust forward as the elementary religion. For the elucidation of elementary religion, then, Australian totemism must be reckoned valuable above all others, its primitiveness being an attribute derived from the primitiveness of Australian culture. After discussing the sacredness of the totemic name, emblems, the sacred character of the totem animal and the taboos associated with it, the mystic relationship involved between the totem and the totemite, the author concludes the account of totemic beliefs with an expose of the totemic orientation of native life as shown, for example, in the clans, phratries and classes of various tribes, sometimes including marriage relations. Everything belonging to the totem group partakes of the nature of the totem and of its sanctity. This includes the whole of nature even the stars, sun and moon. The individual totem is rather summarily disposed of by saying that it has the same relation to the clan totem as the surname has to the cognomen, although there is a prolonged attempt to prove that in origin it must be younger than clan totemism, having arisen only after the latter came as prototype. The basic principle in totemism, namely, the concept of a mysterious pervading force and power is found in practically every culture : in Australia, Arunkulta ; in Melanesia, Mana ; among the Sioux, Wakan ; with the Iroquois, Orenda, etc. This concept of impersonal pervading power or force is older than the different mythological personalities and basic in the concepts entertained of them by the group. More than this : the concept of a religious power is the prototype, the forerunner and generator of the concept of power in general.

Such, in brief, is the argument adduced by Durkheim. It makes certain claims and involves some presuppositions which cannot be lightly passed by with a mere challenge.

  • 2 [James George Frazer, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, 2nd edition, London, Macmill (...)
  • 3 [Andrew Lang, Magic and Religion, London / New York / Bombay, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1901, vii-31 (...)

The reasons which the author gives for selecting primitive society as the fruitful soil of uncontaminated religion are not so convincing as may seem at first glance. For, whereas the material and social aspects of the life may be primitive, the religious life may be far advanced ; or vice versa. His conception of society is, so his presuppositions show, of the order of that of Frazer as exhibited in his Golden Bough[2] and of Lang as shown in his Magic and Religion[3], viz., that primitive society is constructed after the manner of a large machine so that a part of it cannot move without everything in the interconnected [256] system moving ahead at the same time and in the same proportionate if not absolute advance. None of them conceive of it as, like a living organism, capable of advancing in one respect without a corresponding development in other respects–much less the development of some parts at the expense of others. While Durkheim does not state any such principle nor does Lang or Frazer, it is inherent in their treatment to this extent : their arguments are meaningless unless some such principle be supposed. Its expression is not found, but the result of its directive influence is apparent. For the present we do not wish to argue the opposite of their unexpressed thesis but merely to show the gloved hand and to insist that this principle remains to be proved not assumed.

With regard to the undifferentiated, monotonous aspect of native life as described by Durkheim we are even more insistent that he has profoundly misunderstood it. The culture turns out to be highly differentiated from their point of view if not from our own, and if not from our own, this is merely because we are interested in different features of the life and content to group in a few categories what is often for the native entirely different standpoints and values. Even granting the uniformity of the culture, it does not follow that the individual psychologies of the component members are of such uniformity. To dream that this is so is merely to shut our eyes to the importance of interest as a determining factor in regard to values and activities. A fly may seriously disturb our enjoyment of a landscape if it cross the focus of vision ; just so a trivial matter is heightened in proportion to the extent to which it comes within the focus of our more persistent and profound purposes. Illustrations of this applicable to any culture must be sufficiently obvious to waive amplification.

Exception might be taken to the whole view of evolutionary development in religion as represented by the author seeing that we have no guiding principle in inferring origins. Why not a dozen different lines of development rather than one uniform line of progress ? Moreover, what is the real justification for preferring one type of development to another unless the principle of evolution itself ? which principle is the thing to be proved not to be taken as proved in classifying the facts.

Possibly more important than any of the foregoing, however, is the spirit of the attempt, the motive principle of the method [257] of interpretation rather than its formal aspect. This method is throughout striving to be purely analytical and inductive. It is the best example we have of a theoretical treatment of native life of that kind. Such of its successes and failures as are peculiar to this attempt alone are of mill or importance , such as are inherent in the method used irrespective of its application to this or that problem by one writer or another are of predominant importance. If, then, the possibility of success in such an attempt as Durkheim makes to be purely analytic and inductive in his treatment turns out to be false and empty we may learn not to look here for future success but to launch enterprise in other channels. In ethnological achievement it is not so important to know where you arc as in what direction you are moving (not that the two are really separable). Durkheim’s attempt leads one to suppose that he looks upon deductive attempts askance, in the spirit of the man who compared ‘mere principles’ to sign-posts that stand at the cross-roads and always point the same direction without ever getting anywhere themselves. The sitter in the seat of the scornful who made this comparison might well have reflected that it would be as silly for sign-posts to act like travelers as for travelers to act like sign-posts. If the latter went wandering off in the direction whither they point–they wouldn’t be sign-posts, and fewer men would be the wiser. If sign-posts are of use only because directive and not themselves productive they are therein justified of their existence. If the analytic inductive principle is just and true and sufficient it ought to remain conspicuous ; if it is none of these but in the end only as misleading as seductive it ought to be replaced by a more fitting one. We suspect that in the end it merely brings one back to the starting point, though the circuit need not be a profitless journey.

  • 4 [Alexander Aleksandrovich Goldenweiser, « Totemism, an Analytical Study », The Journal of American (...)

It is difficult to comprehend how any so-called purely analytic and inductive method can be really such or such in any sense productive of results so far as we deal with cultural phenomena. In the first place material must be selected for such analytic and inductive study ; such material must, moreover, be selected in the light of certain criteria or of a criterion. It is foolish to’ suppose that we are not applying any test not creating by definition at the start the meaning which we later extract inductively. Either we take as x what everybody or somebody has called x, in which case we adopt their connotation if they have [258] one, or we discriminate in our material. Goldenweiser’s analytic study of totemism[4] exemplifies this in full detail. At the very beginning of that work he quotes Frazer’s definition of totemism as first published, adding, that in the light of discoveries in further ethnological investigation during the half century after that definition was formulated it could be regarded as little less than prophetic. Nothing less, indeed. There is nothing mystic in the way Frazer anticipated the findings of later field workers. But isn’t that looking at the thing from the wrong end ? What happened was this : Frazer gave the name totemism to certain kinds of phenomena ; when subsequent field-workers found similar phenomena they adopted the term in common ethnological parlance and called such phenomena totemism. Frazer’s applying the term totemism to certain kind of phenomena and thereby anticipating the findings of later field workers is neither more nor less prophetic than my parents hitting upon the name by which all my fellows would call me. If the latter seems prophetic it is only because we approach it from the wrong point of view. We suddenly stand an historical development on its head and wonder how such a substantial base could ever have been built and balanced on such a slender apex !

  • 5 [Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Humane, London, 1605]

“History,” wrote Francis Bacon, “is of actions in nature as they are ;” and again : “For it is the true office of history to represent the events themselves together with the counsels, and to leave the observations and conclusions thereupon to the liberty and faculty of every man’s judgment.” (The Advancement of Learning.)[5] But such history never has been and never can be written simply because it must have a psychological background in order to exist at all and this background or recording agency will always be selective, and selective from certain points of view whether or not the historian be conscious of the view-points he is applying. History as it is means always history as it is observed and, in a sense, made. It is the unconscious standard that plays us the most subtle tricks and sometimes the most treacherous just because we are unaware of its operation and so without a corrective. Of the most unbiased historian it may be said as of other mortals that

Deep in the breast of the Average Man

The passions of ages are swirled,

And the loves and the hates of the Average Man

  • 6 [Wallace Irwin, « To the Average Man », Random Rhymes and Odd Numbers, New York, The Macmillan Comp (...)

Are old as the heart of the world[6].

  • 7 [Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual and Religion, London, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1887, 2 vol. , xvi-340 p. (...)
  • 8 [Arnold Van Gennep, Mythes et légendes d’Australie. Études d’ethnographie et de sociologie, Paris, (...)

[259] When, therefore, Durkheim offers us purely analytic, inductive investigation of religion I find myself sceptical and inclined to challenge him with a pertinent question : Why do you bring forward for investigation these phenomena rather than some others for your analysis, and how do you know that these rather than some others are really religious phenomena ? In answering this the author might hedge, but in the end he would have to say that the only way he could know the facts on which this induction is based really pertain to religion is by having his definition of religion ready at hand when they are selected. They must be selected in the light of an already formed conception, otherwise dim religions fade off into dark deeds and cannot be distinguished in the twilight where concepts of religion and of dark deeds are not yet realised. It is, after all, not by induction that Durkheim finds totemism to be religion, but by first creating a definition of religion which turns out to apply to totemism. This is not a criticism of the outcome but merely an attempt to point out that he really gets out of his inductive analytic data only so much meaning as he has put into them in making the selection. It is the only thing an earthly mortal can do when dealing with sociological phenomena : we create the concept, select our material on this basis and see what it yields. Human nature is human, however, and prone to draw out at the last with great gusto conclusions which are there only because they have been quietly and somewhat surreptiously inserted in the beginning as part and parcel of the ‘raw facts’ themselves, From Durkheim’s point of view he has a perfect right to call totem ism religion if he can show that it possesses those attributes which he assigns religion. Giving to religion the meaning which he gives he may be said to have made a good case as regards some religious aspects of Central Australian totemism. Further, deponent saith not. The author might have profited from Lang’s reiterated assertions that primitive peoples arc after all the product of a long evolution with a history back of them as ancient as our own (see for example Lang’s Myth, Ritual and Religion)[7] and from Van Gennep’s insistence that primitive Australian society is not uniform, monotonous and undifferentiated. (See his answer to Durkheim’s earlier studies of Australian social life in the Introduction to Mythes et Légendes d’Australie.)[8] He might certainly have profited much more from Goldenweiser’s study of Totemism, where the various content of totemism as we go from [260] area to area–the difference underlying the similarity–is well brought out.

Note.–Durkheim’s view of the origin of totemism is about as follows : The attempt to derive clan totemism from individual totemism must fail because we get the latter only in the more advanced cultures—pre-eminently in North-West North America, while practically all of primitive Australia has only clan totemism. (Non sequitur.) All of these, however, are but applications by the individual of some concept fundamental to the group. This is proved by the fact that we find individual totems only in those regions where clan totems have developed. The individual totem presupposes the clan totem as the species presupposes its genus. (In the nature of the case a false parallel.) For the individual totem is but a partial aspect of the clan totem. (The argument throughout takes for granted the very point which it attempts to prove. It uses its only conclusion as its hypothesis.) For these reasons the conceptional idea as the source of totemism put forth by Frazer will not suffice. Moreover, a localized totemism is not, as Frazer believed, the primitive form even in Arunta society where the descent is really through the mother. The theory of Lang that totemism is but the outcome of a name-giving to the group of outsiders, which appellation is later accepted by themselves, leans the religious character of totemic practices unexplained and inexplicable. In short, all of the theories put forward, those of Tyler, Hill[-]Tout, Frazer and Lang presuppose religious concepts us existing prior to the totemic system. (Do they ?)

  • 9 [Orig.] « Ce court travail n’est qu’une dissertation de doctorat ». Cf. Émile Durkheim, « Analyses (...)

The argument of Goldenweiser’s totemism might have been considered. It must not be counted too severely against one if good thoughts are allowed to go into what is “ne pas qu’une dissertation de la doctorat." [9]

It remains, then, to ask how successful Durkheim has been in this definition of religion which is after all a concept invented by himself and used as a test in the selection of his data-however much he may insist that it is purely analytic and inductive.

In the first place we find the sacred and profane, the cooperation of individuals, the church and ritualistic phases, the plurality of the sacred, true characteristics of the traditional historical religions. In this field he has given incisive interpretations and brought prominently to the fore features which have not been commonly recognized by students of religion and has shown their importance in a true light. Herein is a valuable and positive achievement. ‘While these aspects are truly characteristic, however, we do not believe they are entitled to be called differentia of religion since Durkheim would scarcely include as religions those fraternal and masonic orders which answer all the requirements of the sacred and profane, the church, ritual and co-operation of individuals. In a [261] word the description while eminently applicable is not limited to religion but is equally fitting in other fields where similar distinctions hold. Durkheim could, to be sure, include these others as also genuine religions but he shows no tendency to make the denotation so elastic.

  • 10 [Émile Durkheim, « De la définition des phénomènes religieux », L’Année sociologique, 2 (1897-1898) (...)

Whether religion shall be called as he called it, both in his earlier study of it (L’An. Soc. II.)[10] and in his La Vie Religieuse, simply a social phenomenon of a certain character depends ultimately solely upon the point of view. As the author’s point of view seems to be always and ever that of a sociologist it is difficult to see how he could have defined religion as anything other than a social phenomenon. From his earlier writings one could have anticipated this with as much assurance as he can find it fundamental in all of his last treatment. A sociologist must find social phenomena as a physicist must find physical phenomena ; he must be carried beyond the realm of individual psychology or give up his task if he hopes to continue in the pose of a sociologist. It is as true as the fact that an argument is stated in a given number of words is true, but it is truth from a point of view not the point of view. It may be more profitable than some other point or points of views–this remains to be shown. The author attempts no such justification. In fact, he seems not to appreciate that however productive of results, it is after all but one way of viewing the facts.

If one happens to be interested in psychological considerations or for that matter in almost any other consideration, the social aspect of religion may appear in a new light, as accidental rather than inherent ; a mode of expression, just as thoughts are conveyed in words but after all are only a vehicle of expression, not the intent and purpose ; the manifestation but not the life.

Good examples of this principle will be found among the net v or so-called messianic religions of North America and other areas where the religions life has its inception in a given individual who transmits it to a group (his tribe). Here the concepts of the religious life as entertained by the individual arc the larger sphere from which the tribe borrows. His is the larger mind, the social is the smaller mind so far as religious concepts are concerned. Yet, for Durkheim this is not religion until it has passed from the individual to the group, to use his terminology, has been imposed by the individual upon the group.

[262] In this transition nothing may happen except that a larger number of individuals than hitherto share the concept. They will invent and entertain some that were not his, likewise they may fail to grasp and incorporate some that were his ; while different, the social concepts may be no ‘larger’ than the prior individual ones. What is the real justification for calling the social concept religion and denying it to the individual concept ? None, unless you premise that it is really only social phenomena with which you are concerned.

To this Durkheim might reply that the so-called individual concept turns out after all to be really social since the inspiration, even when corning from without his own tribe, was social in origin not evolved wholly from individual experience, the so-called individual initiative turning out to be really but a link in the chain of social influences the transmitter from one order of culture to another. It must be realized that such an objection is not valid for it means that the sociologist has really given up his problem. As regards the relations applying between the group and the individual there is no approach to the problem except by regarding the group as a closed system of concepts and influences. If in this case the individual creation is merely transmitting a social influence it is owing to the fact that he belongs to a different social order from that of his group. But did this social influence originate in the group from which he derived it ? By no means ; it had its origin in some other social influence which in turn came from a past social influence and so ad infinitum to the beginning of social and individual life. Having once started the infinite regress there is no justifiable motive for stopping this side of the beginning of history. If the individual is not a complete system of influences not more so is the group. It, too, has its history, its roots lie in other cultures, it carries us back ultimately into an unending history of developments. Whatever standards are applied to the group must be applied as liberally and as vigorously to the individual. If you apply them so liberally as to include all that has gone toward making them severally what they arc there is beginning and progress but no end to the problem : if you apply them with such rigor as to make of both individual and his group self-complete and closed systems (although, of course, no one would maintain they are really such, that is, have no historical background representing a genetic development [263] of their present selves) the problem has meaning and approach.

Viewed in this light, as we believe it must be viewed, the social is not always the sole and self-complete intellectual life, the larger sphere of concepts of which individual psychology is after all only one manifestation. It is such if you posit that point of view, but why not posit the other also ?

In the case of these messianic religions we find that the individual point of view plus the social point of view leads to a better comprehension of the phenomena in their entirety than either point of view taken in (unnecessary) exclusion of the other. We get a deeper insight into things, we can more consistently and prophetically account for them by considering the individual as a self-complete system of concepts and purposes acting upon another complete system, the social order, and being in turn influenced by the social, than by considering him as but an element of the social order.

It is in the success with which our points of view produce results, their value as interpretations and predictions that their ultimate justification consists. In the nature of the case neither Durkheim’s nor our own are open to demonstration ; for this reason : the evidence can never be had in sufficient abundance and surety to fill the gap. That is to say, you can never find in the actual social influence upon the individual all that is necessary to account for his being as he is. You may find most of them somewhere in the social order and adumbrations of more in his social neighborhood ; but you will never be able to show that each and all of what there existed in some form did actually enter whether consciously or not, directly or indirectly into the individual’s mentality. If you take the social point of view as the be-all and end-all of individual human life you can bring forward a great many relevant facts in support of your thesis, but you will never be able to supply all the data necessary for the demonstration of the argument. If, on the other hand, you insist that the individual is in small or in large part not the result of social influences you will again have a thesis in which you can make a case but even as to the most trivial things yon call scarcely hope to demonstrate that he has not responded therein to some social influence intruded all unknown to himself. It is again a matter of how you wish to marshal your evidence and the justification for one or the other will [264] be in the use you make of your assumptions. The greater profundity of the problem has usually been confused with its greater obscurity.

Because of the profitable point of view which, for descriptive purposes, regards the individual as a self-complete unit capable of influencing the group and imparting to it concepts and purposes which were hitherto shared only by the individual messiah, we are not disposed to admit with Durkheim that religion is and must and can be only social. On the contrary, it may gain nothing by being incorporated in a number rather than in but one individual, or lose as much and often loses more than it gains by such transmission. The transmission is after all accidental just as gravitation is accidental to one’s purposes. The social are not more persistent than physical forces—they merely condition individual capacity in another dimension. The social dimension does not include, it merely focuses on individual psychology.

There is another respect in which the definition of religion as social does not satisfy : it characterizes, from Durkheim’s point of view, everything. Education, politics, everything is likewise social, so that this is not the differentia of religion. Moreover, it leaves the universality of religion unaccounted for. Why should there be in every age and clime the religious consciousness at all ? A mere purposeless survival of an unmeaning organization and ceremonial is unthinkable when its distribution and long history is considered. If we cannot hope to get at remote prehistoric beginnings we may at least ask what keeps it going, to what element of our natures does it appeal ? Durkheim’s detailed treatment leaves out of the account the central problem where if anywhere investigation should be profitable.

We have held that the meaning given to religion must, after all, be a matter of choice, a creative definition presupposed by any selection of material on which analytic inductive results are to be based. This is in no sense of the word a matter of trivial terminology, for it does not much matter what name we use so long as we employ it consistently, it is a question of method and procedure in the use of cultural phenomena where we endeavor really to get ahead in our treatment. It does not mean, however, that our choice of definition call be arbitrary. It ought so far as possible conform to the hints of discussion [265] as assigned in the history of the theory of religion and to follow the lines of inquiry already laid down. It should, moreover, keep so far as possible the older denotation while reading into it a new connotation. The history of science and of the progress of liberal thought is largely an example of the creation of new connotation by the reading of new concepts into the old order of things whose denotation is seldom radically changed. History, then, should guide our choice of meaning, though in the end we find it only when we make it.

In choosing our concept of religion we should have in mind the extent to which religious feeling has been manifest in mankind practically everywhere and at all times as one of the features to be accounted for ; as it appears in the individual as well as in the group we must find to what demand of his nature it answers. Finally, the proofs which are adduced by the religious consciousness and, more important still, the kind of evidence which generates religious feeling and is the bulwark of cults must be taken into consideration.

  • 11 [Gilbert Murray, Four Stages of Greek Religion. Studies based on a Course of Lectures delivered in (...)

As this article makes no attempt to offer a constructive definition of religion we do not propose to treat that important question here. Suffice it to say, however, that these demands seem to be most sufficiently met by the concept of the supernatural or supernormal. It has been well expressed by Gilbert Murray in his Four Stages of Greek Religion[11]. The world may be divided into two parts, the world of experience and knowledge and the realm of the untraversed. It is in the latter that religion lies whatever corner of it may occupy. The phenomena of death where we are brought face to face with the world beyond experience is, when apprehended in this way, usually productive of the religious attitude. Nor is it accidental that practically every cult rises to an acme of activity and ritual when one of its members has been overtaken by death. If we look for evidences accepted by the cults themselves we find it usually consisting in evidences of the miraculous interposition of personalities and forces not of the world traversed by human experience. Whatever is interpreted as such phenomena is usually regarded with emotions similar to those engendered by the contemplation of the traditional miraculous evidences of the divine ; if we give a psychological interpretation of religion it matters not whether they operate in individual or in social psychology. If we wish to define religion as social, [266] then we need merely qualify this by saying that when a group is actuated by this emotional apprehension of the supernatural, there we have religion.

That the application of this concept will lead to the classifying of many things as religious which are not currently so regarded, and the leaving out of many currently so regarded is inevitable. It would mean that certain social, ritualized functions no longer characterized by the emotional apprehension that gave them birth and potency are not properly religious but mere social perfunctory rites. They might be religious as performed by this individual, non-religions as performed by another ; and so on. It follows, too, that this concept varies with the culture of the group and of the individual. Hence, the supernatural as above defined is relative to the experience and intellectual achievement of the group or individual in question. It will, indeed, be found that the extent to which a religious nature answers to the evidences of the supernatural, even though habit and social compulsion exercise a distracting influence, is largely dependent upon his intellectual grasp of the whole situation adduced in proof of such supernatural interposition. What appeals to a Blackfoot Indian fits into a different intellectual perspective when apprehended by the white man (what white man is a very important matter) and has ail appeal depending upon its orientation there, while the evidences of divinity adduced by a Christian mayor may not make a similar appeal to the Blackfoot. Presumably there are individuals who recognize no such clear-cut division of the world as above suggested. For such individuals there is no religious experience.

We believe that investigation along this line will be fruitful of results—such are the promises of tentative exploration. We are interested in what is fundamental in human nature. We obtain deepest insight into human experience by ascertaining the channels through which it finds expression, and the purposes thereby subserved. For this reason we prefer a point of view with regard to religion that cross-sections individual and social psychology, not ruling’ out either, but using them as mutually supplementary. We prefer to regard the individual as a self-complete entity conditioned, of course, by a thousand external influences of which the social is most intimate but is after all but another dimension comparable to gravitation and other [267] physical forces. We would at the same time regard the group as a self-complete entity made up of psychically interacting individuals functioning in mutual co-operation and held together by one dominant purpose that transcends purely individual purposes. The two points of view are better than either one in co-ordinating the facts of individual and social life. Any interpretation of their relative truth is, after all, merely an attempt to justify the chosen point of view on the ground that it does co-ordinate the facts and facilitates interpretations.

Haut de page


Bacon (Francis), Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Humane, London, 1605

Durkheim (Émile), « De la définition des phénomènes religieux », L’Année sociologique, 2 (1897-1898), Mémoires originaux, 1899, p. 1-28

Durkheim (Émile), « Analyses - Sociologie religieuse, II - Systèmes religieux des sociétés inférieures. A. - Le système totémique. Goldenweiser (A.A.) - Totemism, an analytical Study. Jounral of american Folk-Lore, vol. XXIII, n° LXXXVIII, 115 p. in-8° », L’Année sociologique, tome XII (1909-1912), 1913, p. 100-101

Frazer (James George), The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, 2nd edition, London, Macmillan, 1901, 3 vol. , xxviii-467, x-471 et x-400 p.

Goldenweiser (Alexander Aleksandrovich), « Totemism, an Analytical Study », The Journal of American Folklore, 23 (88), Apr.-Jun. 1910, p. 179-293 [Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Philosophy, Columbia University]

Irwin (Wallace), Random Rhymes and Odd Numbers, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1906, 302 p.

Lang (Andrew), Myth, Ritual and Religion, London, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1887, 2 vol. , xvi-340 p. et vii-373 p.

Lang (Andrew), Magic and Religion, London / New York / Bombay, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1901, vii-316 p.

Murray (Gilbert), Four Stages of Greek Religion. Studies based on a Course of Lectures delivered in April 1912 at Columbia University, New York, Columbia University Press, « Columbia University Lectures », 1912, 223 p

Van Gennep (Arnold), Mythes et légendes d’Australie. Études d’ethnographie et de sociologie, Paris, E. Guilmoto, 1906, cxvi-188 p. (carte)

Haut de page


1 [Orig.] « [...] un système solidaire de croyances et de pratiques relatives à des choses sacrées, c’est-à-dire séparées, interdites, croyances et pratiques qui unissent en une même communauté morale, appelée Église, tous ceux qui y adhèrent. » Cf. « Définition du phénomène religieux et de la religion », Durkheim 1912, livre 1, chap. 1, p. 65]

2 [James George Frazer, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, 2nd edition, London, Macmillan, 1901, 3 vol. , xxviii-467, x-471 et x-400 p.]

3 [Andrew Lang, Magic and Religion, London / New York / Bombay, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1901, vii-316 p.]

4 [Alexander Aleksandrovich Goldenweiser, « Totemism, an Analytical Study », The Journal of American Folklore, 23 (88), Apr.-Jun. 1910, p. 179-293 (Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Philosophy, Columbia University)]

5 [Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Humane, London, 1605]

6 [Wallace Irwin, « To the Average Man », Random Rhymes and Odd Numbers, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1906, p. 1-2

7 [Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual and Religion, London, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1887, 2 vol. , xvi-340 p. et vii-373 p.]

8 [Arnold Van Gennep, Mythes et légendes d’Australie. Études d’ethnographie et de sociologie, Paris, E. Guilmoto, 1906, cxvi-188p. (carte)]

9 [Orig.] « Ce court travail n’est qu’une dissertation de doctorat ». Cf. Émile Durkheim, « Analyses - Sociologie religieuse, II - Systèmes religieux des sociétés inférieures. A. - Le système totémique. Goldenweiser (A.A.) - Totemism, an analytical Study. Jounral of american Folk-Lore, vol. XXIII, n° LXXXVIII, 115p. in-8° », L’Année sociologique, tome XII (1909-1912), 1913, p. 100]

10 [Émile Durkheim, « De la définition des phénomènes religieux », L’Année sociologique, 2 (1897-1898), Mémoires originaux, 1899, p. 1-28]

11 [Gilbert Murray, Four Stages of Greek Religion. Studies based on a Course of Lectures delivered in April 1912 at Columbia University, New York, Columbia University Press, « Columbia University Lectures », 1912, 223 p.]

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Wallis Wilson Dallam, « Durkheim’s View of Religion », Journal of Religious Psychology, including its Anthropological and Sociological Aspects (Worcester, Mass.), 7 (2), November 1914, p. 252-267

Référence électronique

Wilson Dallam Wallis, « Durkheim’s View of Religion »  », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], La première réception des Formes (1912-1917) (S. Baciocchi, F. Théron, eds.), I, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2013, consulté le 13 octobre 2019. URL :

Haut de page


Wilson Dallam Wallis

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Archives de sciences sociales des religions

Haut de page
  • Logo Éditions de l’EHESS
  • OpenEdition Journals