In contrast to Marx Durkheim spent a good part of his intellectual effort in studying religion concentrating particularly on religion in small scale traditional societies. His Elementary Forms of Religious Life first published in 1912 is perhaps the single most influential study in the sociology of religion.He based his work upon a study of totemism as practiced by Australian aboriginal societies and urged that totemism represents religion in its most elementary or simple form.A totem was originally an animal or plant considered to have a particular symbolic significance for a group. It is a sacred object regarded with veneration and surrounded by various ritual activities. Durkheim defines religion in terms of a distinction between the sacred and the profane. Sacred : According to Durkheim sacred is ideal and transcends everyday existence; it is extra-ordinary potentially dangerous, awe-inspiring, fear inducing. The sacred refers to things set apart by man including religious beliefs, rites, duties or anything socially defined as requiring special religious treatment. The sacred has extra-ordinary, supernatural and often dangerous qualities and can usually be approached only through some form of ritual such as prayer, incantation or ceremonial cleansing. Almost anything can be sacred: a god, a rock, a cross, the moon, the earth, a king, a tree, an animal or bird. These are sacred only because some community has marked them a sacred. Once established as sacred however they become symbols of religious beliefs, sentiments and pratices.Sacred objects are symbols and are treated apart from the routine aspects if existence or the realm of profane. Eating the totemic animal or plant is usually forbidden and as a sacred object the totem is believed to have divine properties which separate it completely from other animals that might be hunted or those crops that can be gathered and consumed.
Profane : The profane is the realm of routine experience which coincides greatly with what Pareto called logico-experimental experience. The profane or ordinary or unholy embraces those ideas, persons, practices and things that are regarded with an everyday attitude of commonness, utility and familiarity. It is that which is not supposed to come into contact with or take precedence over the sacred. The unholy or the profane is also believed to contaminate the holy or sacred. It is the denial or subordination of the holy in some way. The attitudes and behavior toward it are charged with negative emotions and hedged about by strong taboos.
The sacred and profane are closely related because of the highly emotional attitude towards them. The distinction between the two is not very clear but ambiguous. As Durkheim pointed out the circle of sacred objects cannot be determined then once and for all. Its extent varies indefinitely according to different religions. The significance of the sacred lies in the fact of its distinction from the profane. The sacred thing is par excellence that which profane should not touch and cannot touch with impurity. Man always draws this distinction of two orders in different times and places. According to Durkheim totem is sacred because it is the symbol of the group itself, it stands for the values central to the group or community. The reverence which people feel for the totem actually derives from the respect they hold for central social values. In religion the object of worship is the society itself.
Durkheim strongly emphasizes the fact that religions are never just a matter of belief. All religions involve regular ceremonial and ritual activities in which a group of believers meet together. Ceremony and ritual in Durkheim's view are essential to binding the members or groups together.
Durkheim believes that scientific thinking increasingly replaces religious explanation and ceremonial and ritual activities gradually come to occupy only a small part of an individual's lives. Yet he says there is a sense in which religion in an altered from is likely to continue. Even modern societies depend for their cohesion upon rituals that reaffirm their values; new ceremonial activities thus may be expected to emerge to replace the old.