Emile Durkheim’s theory of religion was result of his concerns for social order and integration in society. He evolved a functional explanation for the existence of religion in the world and observed its existence as a social fact and not as a supernatural phenomenon. This theory was also partly in reaction to the existing explanations of religion which Durkheim as non-sociological explanation especially that of Tylor’s animistic theory based on supernatural and of Max Muller based on nature- myth. He dwells upon idea of religion in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life 1912 and he defines religion as ‘ A unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say- things set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite them into a single moral community for all those who adhere to them’. According to Durkheim, beliefs are system of ideas that explain the sacred, they constitute of myths, spiritual ideas, ethical code etc. Practices are rites or rituals explaining individual’s behavior towards the sacred. There are two types of such rites, positive and negative. Positive rites bring individual and sacred together and are easier to perform for example worship. Negative rites help in maintaining the distance between the two and keep them separated.
He concept of religion is based on this systematic view of society. According to him, society consists of two parts – the sacred and the profane. According to him, this process of dividing the world into the sacred and the profane started with the totems. The sacred are the things which are set apart and are forbidden. Sacred refers to all the things which are connected to the supernatural or the divine .A relationship of distance and fear is maintained with respect to these things. Profane are the things apart from the sacred. It includes all the day-to-day things which people use in their lives. Sacred and profane are two worlds apart and both are mutually exclusive. Durkheim also gave a causal explanation of religion by using the method of indirect experimentation. Modern religion is complex and full of variations so establishing a causal linkage is difficult. Durkheim conducted an experiment on simplest form of religion by using the method of indirect experimentation. Modern religion is complex and full of variations so establishing a causal linkage is difficult. The simple forms of religion exist and if the cause of such simpler forms is established is established; the same will apply to the modern religions also. Durkheim conducted an experiment on simplest form of religion , i.e totemism in which totems are worshipped. Durkheim argued that the totem is nothing but the representation of the clan itself. He drew this analysis from the study of religious practices among Arunta, the Australian aboriginals. According to Durkheim primitive men were wanderers and they kept on moving from one place to another. Occasionally when they came together for some purpose and interacted on such occasions, they felt different. This feeling disappeared once they separated. Individuals who experienced the heightened energy of social force in a gathering of the clan sought some explanation for this state. The gathering itself was the real cause and it was a show case of social forces. This feeling is called the state of exultation or collective effervescence – the heightened feeling of energy generated in collective gatherings. It takes individuals away from the concerns of profane social life to an elevated sphere in which they feel as if they are in contact with the higher forces. These higher forces are deemed as divine or supernatural and attributed to certain totems by the primitive tribes. Once they break the gathering and are separated, they feel lonely and sad. Primitive people create a totem to represent and regain that feeling. When people assemble near the totem, they relieve that feeling again. They fail to explain this phenomenon and by their primitive logic, they give it a sacred status. The clan member mistakenly attributes the energy he or she feels to the symbols of the clan. The totems are the material representations of the nonmaterial force that is at their base and that non material force is none other than the society itself.
Social obligations are represented in sacred terms and hence transformed into religious duties. Marriage becomes a sacrament to work becomes a symbol of pleasing of gods and death in a battle becomes a gateway to heaven. Durkheim sees religion as a social fact. He rejected the earlier philosophical and psychological explanations that it is a product of self-creation and autonomous development of society like other social facts. All the people following a particular religion follow specific beliefs and practices. These are also in nature of moral codes which each member follows. This binds them into a single community and integrates them together and they feel comfortable living together. He further explains the functions through his idea of similarity. Religion becomes basis for similarity and brings people together. His theory of religion is significant because it demonstrates that any subject can be approached from a sociological perspective.