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Elementary Forms Of The Religious Life

Newly Translated By Karen E. Fields

About The Book

"Karen Fields has given us a splendid new translation of the greatest work of sociology ever written, one we will not be embarrassed to assign to our students. In addition she has written a brilliant and profound introduction. The publication of this translation is an occasion for general celebration, for a veritable 'collective effervescence.'
-- Robert N. Bellah Co-author of Habits of the Heart, and editor of Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society
"This superb new translation finally allows non-French speaking American readers fully to appreciate Durkheim's genius. It is a labor of love for which all scholars must be grateful."
--Lewis A. Coser




In order to identify the simplest and most primitive religion that observation can make known to us, we must first define what is properly understood as a religion. If we do not, we run the risk of either calling a system of ideas and practices religion that are in no way religious, or of passing by religious phenomena without detecting their true nature. A good indication that this danger is not imaginary, and the point by no means a concession to empty methodological formalism, is this: Having failed to take that precaution, M. Frazer, a scholar to whom the comparative science of religions is nevertheless greatly indebted, failed to recognize the profoundly religious character of the beliefs and rites that will be studied below -- beliefs and rites in which, I submit, the original seed of religious life in humanity is visible. In the matter of definition, then, there is a prejudicial question that must be treated before any other. It is not that I hope to arrive straightaway at the deep and truly explanatory features of religion, for these can be determined only at the end of the research. But what is both necessary and possible is to point out a certain number of readily visible outward features that allow Us to recognize religious phenomena wherever they are encountered, and that prevent their being confused with others. I turn to this preliminary step.

If taking this step is to yield the results it should, we must begin by freeing our minds of all preconceived ideas. Well before the science of religions instituted its methodical comparisons, men had to create their own idea of what religion is. The necessities of existence require all of us, believers and unbelievers, to conceive in some fashion those things in the midst of which we live, about which we continually make judgments, and of which our conduct must take account. But since these notions are formed unmethodically, in the comings and goings of life, they cannot be relied on and must be rigorously kept to one side in the examination that follows. It is not our preconceptions, passions, or habits that must be consulted for the elements of the definition we need; definition is to be sought from reality itself.

Let us set ourselves before this reality. Putting aside all ideas about religion in general, let us consider religions in their concrete reality and try to see what features they may have in common: Religion can be defined only in terms of features that are found wherever religion is found. In this comparison, then, we will incorporate all the religious systems we can know, past as well as present, the most primitive and simple as well as the most modern and refined, for we have no right to exclude some so as to keep only certain others, and no logical method of doing so. To anyone who sees religion as nothing other than a natural manifestation of human activity, all religions are instructive, without exception of any kind: Each in its own way expresses man, and thus each can help us understand better that aspect of our nature. Besides, we have seen that the preference for studying religion among the most civilized peoples is far from being the best method.

Before taking up the question and in order to help the mind free itself of commonsense notions whose influence can prevent us from seeing things as they are, it is advisable to examine how those prejudices have entered into some of the commonest definitions.


One notion that is generally taken to be characteristic of all that is religious is the notion of the supernatural. By that is meant any order of things that goes beyond our understanding; the supernatural is the world of mystery, the unknowable, or the incomprehensible. Religion would then be a kind of speculation upon all that escapes science, and clear thinking generally. According to Spencer, "Religions that are diametrically opposite in their dogmas agree in tacitly recognizing that the world, with all it contains and all that surrounds it, is a mystery seeking an explanation"; he makes them out basically to consist of "the belief in the omnipresence of something that goes beyond the intellect." Similiarly, Max MÜller saw all religion as "an effort to conceive the inconceivable and to express the inexpressible, an aspiration toward the infinite."

Certainly the role played by the feeling of mystery has not been unimportant in certain religions, including Christianity. Even so, the importance of this role has shown marked variation at different moments of Christian history. There have been periods when the notion of mystery has become secondary and even faded altogether. To men of the seventeenth century, for example, dogma contained nothing that unsettled reason. Faith effortlessly reconciled itself with science and philosophy; and thinkers like Pascal, who felt strongly that there is something profoundly obscure in things, were so little in harmony with their epochs that it was their fate to be misunderstood by their contemporaries. Therefore, it would seem rash to make an idea that has been subject to periodic eclipse the essential element even of Christianity.

What is certain, in any case, is that this idea appears very late in the history of religions. It is totally alien not only to the peoples called primitive but also to those who have not attained a certain level of intellectual culture. Of course, when we see men imputing extraordinary virtues to insignificant objects, or populating the universe with extraordinary principles made up of the most disparate elements and possessing a sort of ubiquity that is hard to conceptualize, it is easy for us to find an air of mystery in these ideas. It seems to us that these men have resigned themselves to ideas so problematic for our modern reason only because they have been unable to find more rational ones. In reality, however, the explanations that amaze us seem to the primitive the simplest in the world. He sees them not as a kind of ultima ratio to which the intellect resigns itself in despair but as the most direct way of conceiving and understanding what he observes around him. For him, there is nothing strange in being able, by voice or gesture, to command the elements, hold up or accelerate the course of the stars, make the rain fall or stop it, and so on. The rites he uses to ensure the fertility of the soil or of the animal species that nourish him are no more irrational in his eyes than are, in our own eyes, the technical processes that our agronomists use for the same purpose. The forces he brings into play by these various means do not seem to him particularly mysterious. Certainly, these forces differ from those the modern scientist conceives of and teaches us to use; they behave differently and cannot be controlled in the same way; but to the one who believes in them, they are no more unintelligible than gravitation or electricity is to physicists today.

Furthermore, as we will see in the course of this work, the idea of natural forces is very likely derived from that of religious forces, so between the one and the other there cannot be the chasm that separates the rational from the irrational. Not even the fact that religious forces are often conceived of as spiritual entities and conscious wills is any proof of their irrationality. Reason does not resist a priori the idea that inanimate bodies might be moved by intelligences, as human bodies are, even though present-day science does not easily accommodate this hypothesis. When Leibniz proposed to conceive the external world as an immense society of intelligences, between which there were not and could not be any but spiritual relations, he meant to be working as a rationalist. He did not see this universal animism as anything that might offend the intellect.

Besides, the idea of the supernatural, as we understand it, is recent. It presupposes an idea that is its negation, and that is in no way primitive. To be able to call certain facts supernatural, one must already have an awareness that there is a natural order of things, in other words, that the phenomena of the universe are internally linked according to necessary relationships called laws. Once this principle is established, anything that departs from those laws necessarily appears as beyond nature and, thus, beyond reason: For what is in this sense natural is also rational, those relations expressing only the manner in which things are logically connected. Now, the idea of universal determinism is of recent origin; even the greatest thinkers of classical antiquity did not achieve full awareness of it. That idea is territory won by the empirical sciences; it is the postulate on which they rest and which their advancement has proved. So long as this postulate was lacking or not well established, there was nothing about the most extraordinary events that did not appear perfectly conceivable. So long as what is immovable and inflexible about the order of things was unknown, and so long as it was seen as the work of contingent wills, it was of course thought natural that these wills or others could modify the order of things arbitrarily. For this reason, the miraculous interventions that the ancients ascribed to their gods were not in their eyes miracles, in the modern sense of the word. To them, these interventions were beautiful, rare, or terrible spectacles, and objects of surprise and wonder (Øavµata, mirabilia, miracula); but they were not regarded as glimpses into a mysterious world where reason could not penetrate.

That mind-set is all the more readily understandable to us because it has not completely disappeared. Although the principle of determinism is firmly established in the physical and natural sciences, its introduction into the social sciences began only a century ago, and its authority there is still contested. The idea that societies are subject to necessary laws and constitute a realm of nature has deeply penetrated only a few minds. It follows that true miracles are thought possible in society. There is, for example, the accepted notion that a legislator can create an institution out of nothing and transform one social system into another, by fiat -- just as the believers of so many religions accept that the divine will made the world out of nothing or can arbitrarily mutate some beings into others. As regards social things, we still have the mind-set of primitives. But if, in matters sociological, so many people today linger over this old-fashioned idea, it is not because social life seems obscure and mysterious to them. Quite the opposite: If they are so easily contented with such explanations, if they cling to these illusions that are repeatedly contradicted by experience, it is because social facts seem to them the most transparent things in the world. This is so because they have not yet appreciated the real obscurity, and because they have not yet grasped the need to turn to the painstaking methods of the natural sciences in order progressively to sweep away the darkness. The same cast of mind is to be found at the root of many religious beliefs that startle us in their oversimplification. Science, not religion, has taught men that things are complex and difficult to understand. But, Jevons replies, the human mind has no need of properly scientific education to notice that there are definite sequences and a constant order of succession between phenomena or to notice that this order is often disturbed. At times the sun is suddenly eclipsed; the rain does not come in the season when it is expected; the moon is slow to reappear after its periodic disappearance, and the like. Because these occurrences are outside the ordinary course of events, people have imputed to them extraordinary, exceptional -- in a word, extranatural -- causes. It is in this form, Jevons claims, that the idea of the supernatural was born at the beginning of history; and it is in this way and at this moment that religion acquired its characteristic object.

The supernatural, however, is not reducible to the unforeseen. The new is just as much part of nature as the opposite. If we notice that, in general, phenomena occur one after the other in a definite order, we also notice that the order is never more than approximate, that it is not exactly the same at different times, and that it has all kinds of exceptions. With even very little experience, we become accustomed to having our expectations unmet; and these setbacks occur too often to seem extraordinary to us. Given a certain element of chance, as well as a certain uniformity in experience, we have no reason to attribute the one to causes and forces different from those to which the other is subject. To have the idea of the supernatural, then, it is not enough for us to witness unexpected events; these events must be conceived of as impossible besides -- that is, impossible to reconcile with an order that rightly or wrongly seems to be a necessary part of the order of things. It is the positive sciences that have gradually constructed this notion of a necessary order. It follows that the contrary notion cannot have predated those sciences.

Furthermore, no matter how men have conceived their experience of novelties and chance occurrences, these conceptions can in no way be used to characterize religion. Religious conceptions aim above all to express and explain not what is exceptional and abnormal but what is constant and regular. As a general rule, the gods are used far less to account for monstrosity, oddity, and anomaly than for the normal march of the universe, the movement of the stars, the rhythm of the seasons, the annual growth of vegetation, the perpetuation of species, and so forth. Hence, any notion that equates religion with the unexpected is wide of the mark. Jevons's reply is that this way of conceiving religious forces is not primitive. According to him, people conceived of them first in order to account for disorder and accident, and only later used them to explain the uniformities of nature. But it is unclear what could have made men impute such obviously contradictory functions to them, one after the other. Moreover, the supposition that sacred beings were at first confined to the negative role of disturbers is completely arbitrary. As indeed we will see, starting with the simplest religions we know, the fundamental task of sacred beings has been to maintain the normal course of life by positive action.

Thus the idea of mystery is not at all original. It does not come to man as a given; man himself has forged this idea as well as its contrary. For this reason, it is only in a small number of advanced religions that the idea of mystery has any place at all. Therefore it cannot be made the defining characteristic of religious phenomena without excluding from the definition most of the facts to be defined.


Another idea by which many have tried to define religion is that of divinity. According to M. Réville, "Religion is the determination of human life by the sense of a bond joining the human mind with the mysterious mind whose domination of the world and of itself it recognizes, and with which it takes pleasure in feeling joined." It is a fact that if the word "divinity" is taken in a precise and narrow sense, this definition leaves aside a multitude of obviously religious facts. The souls of the dead and spirits of all kinds and ranks, with which the religious imaginations of so many diverse peoples have populated the world, are always the objects of rites and sometimes even of regular cults. Strictly speaking, however, they are not gods. Still, all that is necessary to make the definition include them is to replace the word "god" with the more inclusive term "spiritual being."

This is what Tylor has done. "In studying the religions of lower races," he says, "the first point is to define and specify what one means by religion. If one insists that the term means belief in a supreme being..., a certain number of tribes will be excluded from the world of religion. But that too-narrow definition has the flaw of identifying religion with certain of its particular developments.... It seems better to set 'spiritual beings' as a minimum definition." "Spiritual beings" must be understood to mean conscious subjects that have capacities superior to those of ordinary men, which therefore rightly includes the souls of the dead, genies, and demons as well as deities, properly so-called. It is important to notice immediately the particular idea of religion that this definition entails. The only relations we can have with beings of this sort are determined by the nature ascribed to them. They are conscious beings, and we can only influence them as we influence consciousnesses generally, that is, by psychological means, by trying to convince or rouse them either with words (invocations and prayers) or with offerings and sacrifices. And since the object of religion would then be to order our relations with these special beings, there could be religion only where there are prayers, sacrifices, propitiatory rites, and the like. In this way, we would have a very simple criterion for distinguishing what is religious from what is not. Frazer systematically applies this criterion, as do several ethnographers.

But however obvious this definition may seem, given habits of mind that we owe to our own religious upbringing, there are many facts to which it is not applicable but that nevertheless belong to the domain of religion.

In the first place, there are great religions from which the idea of gods and spirits is absent, or plays only a secondary and inconspicuous role. This is the case in Buddhism. Buddhism, says Burnouf, "takes its place in opposition to Brahmanism as a morality without god and an atheism without Nature." "It recognizes no god on whom man depends," says M. Barth; "its doctrine is absolutely atheist." And M. Oldenberg, for his part, calls it "a religion without god." The entire essence of Buddhism is contained in four propositions that the faithful call the Four Noble Truths. The first states that the existence of suffering is tied to the perpetual change of things; the second finds the cause of suffering in desire; the third makes the suppression of desire the only way to end suffering; the fourth lists the three stages that must be passed through to end suffering -- uprightness, meditation, and finally wisdom, full knowledge of the doctrine. The end of the road -- deliverance, salvation by Nirvana -- is reached after these stages have been passed through.

In none of these principles is there any question of divinity. The Buddhist is not preoccupied with knowing where this world of becoming in which he lives and suffers came from; he accepts it as a fact, and all his striving is to escape it. On the other hand, for this work of salvation he counts only on himself; he "has no god to thank, just as in his struggle he calls upon none to help." Instead of praying -- in the usual sense of the word, turning to a superior being to beg for help -- he withdraws into himself and meditates. This is not to say "that he denies outright the existence of beings named Indra, Agni, or Varuna; but he feels that he owes them nothing and has nothing to do with them," because their power is effective only over the things of this world -- and those things, for him, are without value. He is thus atheist in the sense that he is uninterested in whether gods exist. Moreover, even if they exist and no matter what power they may have, the saint, or he who is unfettered by the world, regards himself as superior to them. The stature of beings lies not in the extent of their power over things but in the extent of their progress along the way to salvation.

It is true that, in at least some divisions of the Buddhist church, the Buddha has come to be regarded as a kind of god. He has his temples and has become the object of a cult. But the cult is very simple, essentially limited to offerings of a few flowers and the veneration of relics or sacred images. It is little more than a commemorative cult. But further, assuming the term to be apposite, this divinization of the Buddha is peculiar to what has been called Northern Buddhism. "The Buddhists of the South," says Kern, "and the least advanced among the Buddhists of the North can be said, according to presently available evidence, to speak of the founder of their doctrine as if he were a man." They probably do ascribe to the Buddha extraordinary powers, superior to those ordinary mortals possess; but it is a very old belief in India (and a belief widespread in many different religions) that a great saint is gifted with exceptional virtues. Still, a saint is not a god, any more than a priest or a magician is, despite the superhuman faculties that are often ascribed to them. Besides, according to the best scholarly authority, this sort of theism and the complex mythology that ordinarily goes with it are no more than a derivative and deviant form of Buddhism. At first, the Buddha was not regarded as anything other than "the wisest of men." "The conception of a Buddha who is other than a man who has reached the highest degree of holiness is," says Burnouf, "outside the circle of ideas that are the very foundation of even the simple Sutras"; and as the same author adds elsewhere, "his humanity has remained a fact so uncontestably acknowledged by all that it did not occur to the myth makers, to whom miracles come very easily, to make a god out of him after his death." Hence, one may ask whether he has ever reached the point of being completely stripped of human character and thus whether it would be proper to liken him to a god; whatever the case is, it would be to a god of a very special nature, and whose role in no way resembles that of other divine personalities. A god is first of all a living being on whom man must count and on whom he can count; now, the Buddha has died, he has entered Nirvana, and he can do nothing more in the course of human events.

Finally, and whatever else one may conclude about the divinity of the Buddha, the fact remains that this conception is wholly extraneous to what is truly fundamental in Buddhism. Buddhism consists first and foremost in the idea of salvation, and salvation only requires one to know and practice the right doctrine. Of course, that doctrine would not have been knowable if the Buddha had not come to reveal it; but once that revelation was made, the Buddha's work was done. From then on, he ceased to be a necessary factor in religious life. The practice of the Four Holy Truths would be possible even if the memory of the one who made them known was erased from memory. Very different from this is Christianity, which is inconceivable without the idea of Christ ever present and his cult ever practiced; for it is through the ever-living Christ, daily sacrificed, that the community of the faithful goes on communicating with the supreme source of its spiritual life.

All the preceding applies equally to another great religion of India, Jainism. Additionally, the two doctrines hold practically the same conception of the world and of life. "Like the Buddhists," says M. Barth, "the Jainists are atheists. They reject the idea of a creator; for them, the world is eternal and they explicitly deny that there could exist a being perfect from all eternity." Like the Northern Buddhists, the Jainists, or at least certain of them, have nevertheless reverted to a sort of deism; in the inscriptions of the Deccan, one Jinapati is spoken of, a kind of supreme Jina who is called the first creator; but such language, says the same author, "conflicts with the most explicit statements of their most authoritative authors."

Furthermore, this indifference to the divine is so developed in Buddhism and Jainism because the seed existed in the Brahmanism from which both religions derive. In at least certain of its forms, Brahmanic speculation led to "a frankly materialist and atheist explanation of the universe." With the passage of time, the multiple deities that the peoples of India had learned to worship were more or less amalgamated into a kind of abstract and impersonal principal deity, the essence of all that exists. Man contains within himself this supreme reality, in which nothing of divine personhood remains; or rather, he is one with it, since nothing exists apart from it. Thus to find and unite with this reality, he does not have to search for support outside himself; all it takes is for him to focus on himself and meditate. Oldenburg says, "When Buddhism takes up the grand endeavor of imagining a world of salvation in which man saves himself, and of creating a religion without a god, Brahmanic speculation has already prepared the ground. The notion of divinity has gradually receded; the figures of the ancient gods dim, and slowly disappear. Far above the terrestrial world, Brahma sits enthroned in his eternal quiet, and only one person remains to take an active part in the great work of salvation: Man." Note, then, that a considerable part of religious evolution has consisted of a gradual movement away from the ideas of spiritual being and divinity. Here are great religions in which invocations, propitiations, sacrifices, and prayers properly so-called are far from dominant, and therefore do not exhibit the distinguishing mark by which, it is claimed, specifically religious phenomena are to be recognized.

But many rites that are wholly independent of any idea of gods or spiritual beings are found even in deistic religions. First of all, there are a multitude of prohibitions. For example, the Bible commands the woman to live in isolation for a definite period each month, imposes similar isolation at the time of childbirth, and forbids hitching a donkey and a horse together or wearing a garment in which hemp is mixed with linen. It is impossible to see what role belief in Yahweh could have played in these prohibitions, for he is absent from all the relations thus prohibited and could hardly be interested in them. The same can be said for most of the dietary restrictions. Such restrictions are not peculiar to the Hebrews; in various forms, they are found in innumerable religions.

It is true that these rites are purely negative, but they are nonetheless religious. Furthermore, there are other rites that impose active and positive obligations upon the faithful and yet are of the same nature. They act on their own, and their efficacy does not depend upon any divine power; they mechanically bring about the effects that are their reason for being. They consist neither of prayers nor of offerings to a being on whose goodwill the anticipated result depends; instead, the result is achieved through the automatic operation of the ritual. Such is the case, for example, of sacrifice in Vedic religion. "Sacrifice," says M. Bergaigne, "exerts direct influence upon celestial phenomena"; it is all powerful by itself and without any divine influence. For instance, it is sacrifice that broke the doors of the cave where the auroras were imprisoned, and thus did daylight erupt into the world. Likewise, it was appropriate hymns that acted directly to make the waters of the sky flow on earth -- and this despite the gods. Certain ascetic practices are equally efficacious. Consider this: "Sacrifice is so much the principle, par excellence, that not only the origin of men but even that of the gods has been ascribed to it. Such an idea may very well seem strange. It is explicable, however, as one ultimate consequence, among others, of the idea that sacrifice is all powerful." Thus, the whole first part of M. Bergaigne's work deals only with those sacrifices in which the deities play no role.

This fact is not peculiar to Vedic religion; to the contrary, it is quite widespread. In any cult, there are practices that act by themselves, by a virtue that is their own, and without any god's stepping in between the individual who performs the rite and the object sought. When the Jew stirred the air at the Feast of the Tabernacles by shaking willow branches in a certain rhythm, it was to make the wind blow and the rain fall; the belief was that the rite produced the desired result automatically, provided it was correctly performed. It is this, by the way, that explains the primary importance that nearly all cults give to the physical aspect of ceremonies. This religious formalism (probably the earliest form of legal formalism) arises from the fact that, having in and of themselves the source of their efficacy, the formulas to be pronounced and the movements to be executed would lose efficacy if they were not exactly the same as those that had already proved successful.

Thus there are rites without gods, and indeed rites from which gods derive. Not all religious virtues emanate from divine personalities, and there are cult ties other than those that unite man with a deity. Thus, religion is broader than the idea of gods or spirits and so cannot be defined exclusively in those terms.


With these definitions set aside, let us now see how we can approach the problem.

First, let us note that, in all these formulas, scholars have been trying to express the nature of religion as a whole. Although religion is a whole composed of parts -- a more or less complex system of myths, dogmas, rites, and ceremonies -- they operate as if it formed a kind of indivisible entity. Since a whole can be defined only in relationship to the parts that comprise it, a better method is to try to characterize the elementary phenomena from which any religion results, and then characterize the system produced by their union. This method is all the more indispensable in view of the fact that there are religious phenomena that do not fall under the jurisdiction of any particular religion. Those that form the subject matter of folklore do not. In general, these phenomena are jumbled survivals, the remnants of extinct religions; but there are some as well that are formed spontaneously under the influence of local causes. In Europe, Christianity undertook to absorb and assimilate them; it imprinted them with Christian coloration. Nonetheless, there are many that have persisted until recently or that still persist more or less autonomously -- festivals of the maypole, the summer solstice, carnival, assorted beliefs about genies and local demons, and so on. Although the religious character of these phenomena is receding more and more, their religious importance is still such that they have permitted Mannhardt and his school to rejuvenate the science of religions. A definition of religion that did not take them into account would not encompass all that is religious.

Religious phenomena fall into two basic categories: beliefs and rites. The first are states of opinion and consist of representations; the second are particular modes of action. Between these two categories of phenomena lies all that separates thinking from doing.

The rites can be distinguished from other human practices -- for example, moral practices -- only by the special nature of their object. Like a rite, a moral rule prescribes ways of behaving to us, but those ways of behaving address objects of a different kind. It is the object of the rite that must be characterized, in order to characterize the rite itself. The special nature of that object is expressed in the belief. Therefore, only after having defined the belief can we define the rite.

Whether simple or complex, all known religious beliefs display a common feature: They presuppose a classification of the real or ideal things that men conceive of into two classes -- two opposite genera -- that are widely designated by two distinct terms, which the words profane and sacred translate fairly well. The division of the world into two domains, one containing all that is sacred and the other all that is profane -- such is the distinctive trait of religious thought. Beliefs, myths, dogmas, and legends are either representations or systems of representations that express the nature of sacred things, the virtues and powers attributed to them, their history, and their relationships with one another as well as with profane things. Sacred things are not simply those personal beings that 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 sacredness; indeed there is no rite that does not have it to some degree. There are words, phrases, and formulas that can be said only by consecrated personages; there are gestures and movements that cannot be executed by just anyone. If Vedic sacrifice has had such great efficacy -- if, indeed, sacrifice was far from being a method of gaining the gods' favor but, according to mythology, actually generated the gods -- that is because the virtue it possessed was comparable to that of the most sacred beings. The circle of sacred objects cannot be fixed once and for all; its scope can vary infinitely from one religion to another. What makes Buddhism a religion is that, in the absence of gods, it accepts the existence of sacred things, namely, the Four Noble Truths and the practices that are derived from them.

But I have confined myself thus far to enumerating various sacred things as examples: I must now indicate the general characteristics by which they are distinguished from profane things.

One might be tempted to define sacred things by the rank that is ordinarily assigned to them in the hierarchy of beings. They tend to be regarded as superior in dignity and power to profane things, and particularly to man, in no way sacred when he is only a man. Indeed, he is portrayed as occupying a rank inferior to and dependent upon them. While that portrayal is certainly not without truth, nothing about it is truly characteristic of the sacred. Subordination of one thing to another is not enough to make one sacred and the other not. Slaves are subordinate to their masters, subjects to their king, soldiers to their leaders, lower classes to ruling classes, the miser to his gold, and the power seeker to the power holders. If a man is sometimes said to have the religion of beings or things in which he recognizes an eminent value and a kind of superiority to him, it is obvious that, in all such cases, the word is taken in a metaphorical sense, and there is nothing in those relations that is religious in a strict sense.

On the other hand, we should bear in mind that there are things with which man feels relatively at ease, even though they are sacred to the highest degree. An amulet has sacredness, and yet there is nothing extraordinary about the respect it inspires. Even face to face with his gods, man is not always in such a marked state of inferiority, for he very often uses physical coercion on them to get what he wants. He beats the fetish when he is displeased, only to be reconciled with it if, in the end, it becomes more amenable to the wishes of its worshipper. To get rain, stones are thrown into the spring or the sacred lake where the god of the rain is presumed to reside; it is believed that he is forced by this means to come out and show himself. Furthermore, while it is true that man is a dependent of his gods, this dependence is mutual. The gods also need man; without offerings and sacrifices, they would die. I will have occasion to show that this dependence of gods on their faithful is found even in the most idealistic religions.

However, if the criterion of a purely hierarchical distinction is at once too general and too imprecise, nothing but their heterogeneity is left to define the relation between the sacred and the profane. But what makes this heterogeneity sufficient to characterize that classification of things and to distinguish it from any other is that it has a very particular feature: It is absolute. In the history of human thought, there is no other example of two categories of things as profoundly differentiated or as radically opposed to one another. The traditional opposition between good and evil is nothing beside this one: Good and evil are two opposed species of the same genus, namely morals, just as health and illness are nothing more than two different aspects of the same order of facts, life; by contrast, the sacred and the profane are always and everywhere conceived by the human intellect as separate genera, as two worlds with nothing in common. The energies at play in one are not merely those encountered in the other, but raised to a higher degree; they are different in kind. This opposition has been conceived differently in different religions. Here, localizing the two kinds of things in different regions of the physical universe has appeared sufficient to separate them; there, the sacred is thrown into an ideal and transcendent milieu, while the residuum is abandoned as the property of the material world. But while the forms of the contrast are variable, the fact of it is universal.

This is not to say that a being can never pass from one of these worlds to the other. But when this passage occurs, the manner in which it occurs demonstrates the fundamental duality of the two realms, for it implies a true metamorphosis. Rites of initiation, which are practiced by a great many peoples, demonstrate this especially well. Initiation is a long series of rites to introduce the young man into religious life. For the first time, he comes out of the purely profane world, where he has passed his childhood, and enters into the circle of sacred things. This change of status is conceived not as a mere development of preexisting seeds but as a transformation totius substantiae. At that moment, the young man is said to die, and the existence of the particular person he was, to cease -- instantaneously to be replaced by another. He is born again in a new form. Appropriate ceremonies are held to bring about the death and the rebirth, which are taken not merely in a symbolic sense but literally. Is this not proof that there is a rupture between the profane being that he was and the religious being that he becomes?

rdIndeed, this heterogeneity is such that it degenerates into real antagonism. The two worlds are conceived of not only as separate but also as hostile and jealous rivals. Since the condition of belonging fully to one is fully to have left the other, man is exhorted to retire completely from the profane in order to live an exclusively religious life. From thence comes monasticism, which artificially organizes a milieu that is apart from, outside of, and closed to the natural milieu where ordinary men live a secular life, and that tends almost to be its antagonist. From thence as well comes mystic asceticism, which seeks to uproot all that may remain of man's attachment to the world. Finally, from thence come all forms of religious suicide, the crowning logical step of this asceticism, since the only means of escaping profane life fully and finally is escaping life altogether.

The opposition of these two genera is expressed outwardly by a visible sign that permits ready recognition of this very special classification, wherever it exists. The mind experiences deep repugnance about mingling, even simple contact, between the corresponding things, because the notion of the sacred is always and everywhere separate from the notion of the profane in man's mind, and because we imagine a kind of logical void between them. The state of dissociation in which the ideas are found in consciousness is too strongly contradicted by such mingling, or even by their being too close to one another. The sacred thing is, par excellence, that which the profane must not and cannot touch with impunity. To be sure, this prohibition cannot go so far as to make all communication between the two worlds impossible, for if the profane could in no way enter into relations with the sacred, the sacred would be of no use. This placing in relationship in itself is always a delicate operation that requires precautions and a more or less complex initiation. Yet such an operation is impossible if the profane does not lose its specific traits, and if it does not become sacred itself in some measure and to some degree. The two genera cannot, at the same time, both come close to one another and remain what they were.

Now we have a first criterion of religious beliefs. No doubt, within these two fundamental genera, there are secondary species that are themselves more or less incompatible with each other. But characteristically, the religious phenomenon is such that it always assumes a bipartite division of the universe, known and knowable, into two genera that include all that exists but radically exclude one another. Sacred things are things protected and isolated by prohibitions; profane things are those things to which the prohibitions are applied and that must keep at a distance from what is sacred. Religious beliefs are those representations that express the nature of sacred things and the relations they have with other sacred things or with profane things. Finally, rites are rules of conduct that prescribe how man must conduct himself with sacred things.

When a certain number of sacred things have relations of coordination and subordination with one another, so as to form a system that has a certain coherence and does not belong to any other system of the same sort, then the beliefs and rites, taken together, constitute a religion. By this definition, a religion is not necessarily contained within a single idea and does not derive from a single principle that may vary with the circumstances it deals with, while remaining basically the same everywhere. Instead, it is a whole formed of separate and relatively distinct parts. Each homogeneous group of sacred things, or indeed each sacred thing of any importance, constitutes an organizational center around which gravitates a set of beliefs and rites, a cult of its own. There is no religion, however unified it may be, that does not acknowledge a plurality of sacred things. Even Christianity, at least in its Catholic form, accepts the Virgin, the angels, the saints, the souls of the dead, etc. -- above and beyond the divine personality (who, besides, is both three and one). As a rule, furthermore, religion is not merely a single cult either but is made up of a system of cults that possess a certain autonomy. This autonomy is also variable. Sometimes the cults are ranked and subordinated to some dominant cult into which they are eventually absorbed; but sometimes as well they simply exist side by side in confederation. The religion to be studied in this book will provide an example of this confederate organization.

At the same time, we can explain why groups of religious phenomena that belong to no constituted religion can exist: because they are not or are no longer integrated into a religious system. If, for specific reasons, one of those cults just mentioned should manage to survive while the whole to which it belonged has disappeared, it will survive only in fragments. This is what has happened to so many agrarian cults that live on in folklore. In certain cases, what persists in that form is not even a cult, but a mere ceremony or a particular rite.

Although this definition is merely preliminary, it indicates the terms in which the problem that dominates the science of religions must be posed. If sacred beings are believed to be distinguished from the others solely by the greater intensity of the powers attributed to them, the question of how men could have imagined them is rather simple: Nothing more is needed than to identify those forces that, through their exceptional energy, have managed to impress the human mind forcefully enough to inspire religious feelings. But if, as I have tried to establish, sacred things are different in nature from profane things, if they are different in their essence, the problem is far more complex. In that case, one must ask what led man to see the world as two heterogeneous and incomparable worlds, even though nothing in sense experience seems likely to have suggested the idea of such a radical duality.


Even so, this definition is not yet complete, for it fits equally well two orders of things that must be distinguished even though they are akin: magic and religion.

Magic, too, is made up of beliefs and rites. Like religion, it has its own myths and dogmas, but these are less well developed, probably because, given its pursuit of technical and utilitarian ends, magic does not waste time in pure speculation. Magic also has its ceremonies, sacrifices, purifications, prayers, songs, and dances. Those beings whom the magician invokes and the forces he puts to work are not only of the same nature as the forces addressed by religion but very often are the same forces. In the most primitive societies, the souls of the dead are in essence sacred things and objects of religious rites, but at the same time, they have played a major role in magic. In Australia as well as in Melanesia, in ancient Greece as well as among Christian peoples, the souls, bones, and hair of the dead figure among the tools most often used by the magician. Demons are also a common instrument of magical influence. Now, demons are also surrounded by prohibitions; they too are separated and live in a world apart. Indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish them from gods proper. Besides, even in Christianity, is not the devil a fallen god? And apart from his origins, does he not have a religious character, simply because the hell of which he is the keeper is an indispensable part in the machinery of the Christian religion? The magician can invoke regular and official deities. Sometimes these are gods of a foreign people: For example, the Greek magicians called upon Egyptian, Assyrian, or Jewish gods. Sometimes they are even national gods: Hecate and Diana were objects of a magic cult. The Virgin, the Christ, and the saints were used in the same manner by Christian magicians.

Must we therefore say that magic cannot be rigorously differentiated from religion -- that magic is full of religion and religion full of magic and, consequently, that it is impossible to separate them and define the one without the other? What makes that thesis hard to sustain is the marked repugnance of religion for magic and the hostility of magic to religion in return. Magic takes a kind of professional pleasure in profaning holy things, inverting religious ceremonies in its rites, On the other hand, while religion has not always condemned and prohibited magic rites, it has generally regarded them with disfavor. As messieurs Hubert and Mauss point out, there is something inherently antireligious about the maneuvers of the magician. So it is difficult for these two institutions not to oppose one another at some point, whatever the relations between them. Since my intention is to limit my research to religion and stop where magic begins, discovering what distinguishes them is all the more important.

Here is how a line of demarcation can be drawn between these two domains.

Religious beliefs proper are always shared by a definite group that professes them and that practices the corresponding rites. Not only are they individually accepted by all members of that group, but they also belong to the group and unify it. The individuals who comprise the group feel joined to one another by the fact of common faith. A society whose members are united because they imagine the sacred world and its relations with the profane world in the same way, and because they translate this common representation into identical practices, is what is called a Church. In history we do not find religion without Church. Sometimes the Church is narrowly national; sometimes it extends beyond frontiers; sometimes it encompasses an entire people (Rome, Athens, the Hebrews); sometimes it encompasses only a fraction (Christian denominations since the coming of Protestantism); sometimes it is led by a body of priests; sometimes it is more or less without any official directing body. But wherever we observe religious life, it has a definite group as its basis. Even so-called private cults, like the domestic cult or a corporate cult, satisfy this condition: They are always celebrated by a group, the family or the corporation. And, furthermore, even these private religions often are merely special forms of a broader religion that embraces the totality of life. These small Churches are in reality only chapels in a larger Church and, because of this very scope, deserve all the more to be called by that name.

Magic is an entirely different matter. Granted, magic beliefs are never without a certain currency. They are often widespread among broad strata of the population, and there are even peoples where they count no fewer active followers than religion proper. But they do not bind men who believe in them to one another and unite them into the same group, living the same life. There is no Church of magic. Between the magician and the individuals who consult him, there are no durable ties that make them members of a single moral body, comparable to the ties that join the faithful of the same god or the adherents of the same cult. The magician has a clientele, not a Church, and his clients may have no mutual relations, and may even be unknown to one another. Indeed, the relations they have with him are generally accidental and transient, analogous to those of a sick man with his doctor. The official and public character with which the magician is sometimes invested makes no difference. That he functions in broad daylight does not join him in a more regular and lasting manner with those who make use of his services.

It is true that, in certain cases, magicians form a society among themselves. They meet more or less periodically to celebrate certain rites in common in some instances; the place held by witches' meetings in European folklore is well known. But these associations are not at all indispensable for the functioning of magic. Indeed, they are rare and rather exceptional. To practice his art, the magician has no need whatever to congregate with his peers. He is more often a loner. In general, far from seeking company, he flees it. "He stands aloof, even from his colleagues." By contrast, religion is inseparable from the idea of Church. In this first regard, there is already a fundamental difference between magic and religion. Furthermore, and above all, when magic societies of this sort are formed, they never encompass all the adherents of magic. Far from it. They encompass only the magicians. Excluded from them are the laity, as it were -- that is, those for whose benefit the rites are conducted, which is to say those who are the adherents of regular cults. Now, the magician is to magic what the priest is to religion. But a college of priests is no more a religion than a religious congregation that worships a certain saint in the shadows of the cloister is a private cult. A Church is not simply a priestly brotherhood; it is a moral community made up of all the faithful, both laity and priests. Magic ordinarily has no community of this sort.

But if one includes the notion of Church in the definition of religion, does one not by the same stroke exclude the individual religions that the individual institutes for himself and celebrates for himself alone? There is scarcely any society in which this is not to be found. As will be seen below, every Ojibway has his personal manitou that he chooses himself and to which he bears specific religious obligations; the Melanesian of the Banks Islands has his tamaniu; the Roman has his genius; the Christian has his patron saint and his guardian angel, and so forth. All these cults seem, by definition, to be independent of the group. And not only are these individual religions very common throughout history, but some people today pose the question whether such religions are not destined to become the dominant form of religious life -- whether a day will not come when the only cult will be the one that each person freely practices in his innermost self.

But, let us put aside these speculations about the future for a moment. If we confine our discussion to religions as they are in the present and as they have been in the past, it becomes obvious that these individual cults are not distinct and autonomous religious systems but simply aspects of the religion common to the whole Church of which the individuals are part. The patron saint of the Christian is chosen from the official list of saints recognized by the Catholic Church, and there are canonical laws that prescribe how each believer must conduct this private cult. In the same way, the idea that every man necessarily has a protective genie is, in different forms, at the basis of a large number of American religions, as well as of Roman religion (to cite only these two examples). As will be seen below, that idea is tightly bound up with the idea of soul, and the idea of soul is not among those things that can be left entirely to individual choice. In a word, it is the Church of which he is a member that teaches the individual what these personal gods are, what their role is, how he must enter into relations with them, and how he must honor them. When one analyzes the doctrines of that Church systematically, sooner or later one comes across the doctrines that concern these special cults. Thus there are not two religions of different types, turned in opposite directions, but the same ideas and principles applied in both cases -- here, to circumstances that concern the group as a whole, and there, to the life of the individual. Indeed, this unity is so close that, among certain peoples, the ceremonies during which the believer first enters into communication with his protective genie are combined with rites whose public character is incontestable, namely, rites of initiation.

What remains are the present-day aspirations toward a religion that would consist entirely of interior and subjective states and be freely constructed by each one of us. But no matter how real those aspirations, they cannot affect our definition: This definition can be applied only to real, accomplished facts, not to uncertain possibilities. Religions can be defined as they are now or as they have been, not as they may be tending more or less vaguely to become. It is possible that this religious individualism is destined to become fact; but to be able to say in what measure, we must first know what religion is, of what elements it is made, from what causes it results, and what function it performs -- all questions whose answers cannot be preordained, for we have not crossed the threshold of research. Only at the end of this study will I try to look into the future.

We arrive thus at the following definition: 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. The second element thus holds a place in my definition that is no less essential than the first: In showing that the idea of religion is inseparable from the idea of a Church, it conveys the notion that religion must be an eminently collective thing.

Translation and Introduction copyright © 1995 by Karen E. Fields

About The Author

Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) was a French sociologist who formally established the academic discipline and, with Karl Marx and Max Weber, is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (June 1, 1995)
  • Length: 464 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780029079379

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