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Durkheim: Functional Analysis of Religion

Religious activity is found in society because it has a positive function. It helps to maintain the moral unity of the society. He analyzed religious activity in a primitive tribe on the assumption that all societies have some basic characteristics in common and that an understanding of religions in such a simple society would lead him to an understanding of  the essential features of religion in any society. He studied Australian Aboriginal tribes and concluded that the function of religious ceremonies was to reinforce the solidarity of the members of a society. The ceremonial activity helped to show them that although they lived separate and scattered lives in their different clans they were all a part of the same society with the same fundamental moral rules expectations and obligations constraining them. Within the tribes the clan is the basic unit of social life and each clan has a totem. The totem is usually the name of an animal, is like a coat of arms or an emblem a symbol that is considered sacred and has very special meanings for those who take it as their totem. This totem is a tangible means of expressing men’s feelings that the society in which they are members is  bigger and  better than each individual.It serves to remind individuals of their tasks and connections with the whole tribe and how much they value those links.These feelings are reinforced by the whole tribe periodically assembling for feasting and dancing and religious ceremonies .Each individual experiences feelings of joy,high emotions which he can only obtain in the whole collectivity. The individual feels acted upon by outside and valued forces and he feels solidarity with his fellows. The totemic emblem reminds him of the uplifting force of society.Durkheim recognizes totem’s wider and hidden significance ; the function it has for maintaining the moral order of aboriginal society.

Durkheim compares the totem of a clan with the flag of a nation. National solidarity depends on sentiments of patriotism in the minds of the individual members of the nation. For national solidarity and patriotism to be maintained some collective expression is required from time to time. Rituals pertaining to flags, monarchs, state leaders all help to serve this function. These rituals enable the members of the nation to focus their feelings on to the collectivity of  which they form a part and thus help to maintain its existence by reinforcing their social solidarity.