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Elementary Forms of Religious Life

When reading The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, it is easy to think Durkheim is cynical about religion. After all, according to Durkheim, religion is nothing more than a social invention. However, religion, like the division of labor, serves an important function—it is a collective representation of society’s ideals. Religion, for Durkheim, is comprised of a “whole world of feelings, ideas, and images that follow their own laws once they are born.” Keep this in mind as you answer the following questions.


1. The first part of the reading is about Durkheim’s methodological choices. According to Durkheim, what is it about so-called “primitive societies” that makes something as complicated as religion easier to understand?

2. According to Durkheim, why do we have to be social beings in order to have and follow ideals, and what does this tell us about the important function religion serves in modern society?

3. According to Durkheim, all religions have something in common—a sense of the sacred and the profane. We can take those ideas and apply them to many parts of social life. Think of a concrete example of when you’ve experienced a feeling of collective effervescence that was tied to something sacred. What did the sacred represent, and what types of rituals did you practice to keep it separate from the profane?

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