Emile Durkheim was born at Epinal in the eastern French province of Lorraine on April 15, 1858. Son of a rabbi and descending from a long line of rabbis, he decided quite early that he would follow the family tradition and become a rabbi himself. He studied Hebrew, the Old Testament, and the Talmud, while at the same time following the regular course of instruction in secular schools.
Shortly after his traditional Jewish confirmation at the age of thirteen, Durkheim, under the influence of a Catholic woman teacher, had a shortlived mystical experience that led to an interest in Catholicism. But soon afterwards he turned away from all religious involvement, though emphatically not from interest in religious phenomena, and became an agnostic.
During the last few years of his stay in Bordeaux, Durkheim had already become interested in the study of religious phenomena. At least in part under the influence of Robertson Smith and the British school of anthropology, he now turned to the detailed study of primitive religion. He had published a number of preliminary papers in the area, and this course of studies finally led to the publication in 1912 of Durkheim's last major work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.
Durkheim stated that strong systems of common belief characterize mechanical solidarity in primitive types of society, and that organic solidarity, resulting from the progressive increase in the division of labor and hence increased mutual dependence, needed fewer common beliefs to tie members to this society. He later revised this view and stressed that even those systems with a highly developed organic solidarity still needed a common faith, a common conscience collective, if they were not to disintegrate into a heap of mutually antagonistic and self-seeking individuals.
The mature Durkheim realized that only if all members of a society were anchored to common sets of symbolic representations, to common assumptions about the world around them, could moral unity be assured. Without them, Durkheim argued, any society, whether primitive or modern, was bound to degenerate and decay.
To Durkheim, men were creatures whose desires were unlimited. Unlike other animals, they are not satiated when their biological needs are fulfilled. "The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs." It follows from this natural insatiability of the human animal that his desires can only be held in check by external controls, that is, by societal control. Society imposes limits on human desires and constitutes "a regulative force [which] must play the same role for moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs." In well-regulated societies, social controls set limits on individual propensities so that "each in his sphere vaguely realizes the extreme limits set to his ambitions and aspires to nothing beyond. . . . Thus, an end or a goal [is] set to the passions."
In a well-known critique, the Durkheimian scholar Harry Alpert conveniently classified Durkheim's four major functions of religion as disciplinary, cohesive, vitalizing, and euphoric social forces. Religious rituals prepare men for social life by imposing self-discipline and a certain measure of asceticism. Religious ceremonies bring people together and thus serve to reaffirm their common bonds and to reinforce social solidarity. Religious observance maintains and revitalizes the social heritage of the group and helps transmit its enduring values to future generations. Finally, religion has a euphoric function in that it serves to counteract feelings of frustration and loss of faith and certitude by reestablishing the believers' sense of well-being, their sense of the essential rightness of the moral world of which they are a part. By countering the sense of loss, which, as in the case of death, may be experienced on both the individual and the collective level, religion helps to reestablish the balance of private and public confidence. On the most general plane, religion as a social institution serves to give meaning to man's existential predicaments by tying the individual to that supra-individual sphere of transcendent values which is ultimately rooted in his society.
Durkheim investigated the religion of Australian Aboriginal cultures before they had been extensively exposed to Western European ideas and conversion to Christianity. He proposed that these aboriginal cultures were the first form of religion developed by humans- a supposition supported by the religions found among Hunter Gatherer peoples worldwide. Furthermore, although Durkheim could not at the time have known it, Australian Aboriginal cultures have a chain of cultural evolution virtually unbroken that extends back over 40,00 years to the time when their remote ancestors first settled the continent.
Durkheim was particularly concerned with the social solidarity aspect of religion in society.
In his seminal work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he defined the sacred and profane. He believed that totemism was one of the original (elementary or first forms) of religion. It was Australian Aboriginal religion which Durkheim took as the model for religion in its first, original form.
Ritual is formal ceremonial behavior usually used to approach or deal with the supernatural. Rituals act out or dramatize scenes from the religious and social origins of society- its cosmology (which is the study of or concern with the origins of something; a society’s cosmology depicts how its members believe they came to be as a distinct people.)
Durkheim emphasized that a society’s collective consciousness (ideas about itself) was reinforced in group experiences. These experiences acted out as rituals in a religious context create and sustain a sense of identity with that group as opposed to other groups who have different beliefs and rituals. Rituals are very experiential- the enactment of rituals evokes high levels of emotion. People worship their god or gods and in so doing in effect recreate the story of how they came to be as a group. Thus according to Durkheim, people in group context really worship the form of their society- their identity. Therefore, religion is in effect the disguised worship of society.
In a book titled Birth of the Gods, Guy Swanson gives empirical examples based on this premise.
The Australian Aborigines found 'the meaning of life' in the Dreamtime stories and songs of their particular tribe. Answers to such existential questions as: Who am I? Where do I belong? and What happens to me when I die? - were all answered in this way. Some stories and songs related accounts of ancestral beings taking the form of animals, birds and other wildlife during the creation period known as the Dreamtime. This gave the people an ontological view of life in which they believed that ancestral spirits were not only involved in creation, but also remained in the tribal land or the sky above where they played an active role in the life of each generation. For example Biami the main creator in the Dreamtime stories along the south-east coast of NSW was believed to watch over his people, punish those who offended against his laws and through the use of the didgeridoo during initiation ceremonies 'spoke' to initiates. During the Dreamtime the creators also made animals, birds, insects and all other forms of fauna - 'every-thing' and this provided the Aborigines with a teleological view of life. In other words, they saw that every-thing had been 'made' with a plan and a purpose and that all living things were in relationship to each other. These factors determined Aboriginal culture.