Durkheim and Religion: How religion influences human behavior according to Durkheim

Durkheim saw religion influencing human behavior in a few ways

  1. Religion is part of the shared mindset that binds communities together — at least in pre-modern communities
  2. Delving into the process of that shared mindset, we see religion shaping our values, behaviors, and ultimately…
  3. Defining our belonging to our group.

Durkheim posits that in the past, human social communities were bound together by a shared mindset. He called this the conscience collective where conscience translates as both conscience and consciousness. So both our moral compass and our individual awareness.

Along those lines we share values with people in our communities. We approve of what they approve of, we are disgusted by what disgusts them, and we are outraged by what outrages them. Importantly, we as a community reward and sanction activity that we deem positive and negative, as a community.

In the process of defining behavior that is acceptable and deviant, and deciding how we will sanction those behaviors, we define what our people hold dear and what we reject. Either we’re the kind of people who do these things or we’re not. And when someone does something egregious enough, we cast them out of our community. We excommunicate them, exile them, or execute them. Because we’re not the kind of people who behave that way.

Most of our religious rituals are about bringing conscsiousness into shared focus — as in praying together, saying rosaries, participating in weekly services to refocus and reinforce our belonging to a community. Most of our large rituals are moving us through the stages of human life in relation to our communities. Christening brings us into the community. Reconciliation makes us right and keeps us on the behavioral straight and narrow. Confirmation (bar mitzvah) welcomes us into believing adulthood. Marriage (religious and civil) declares our relationship before our community. Last rights and funerals gently open the door for exit while recognizing that our community continues. (I grew up Catholic, those are my examples — others will work)

Understood thusly, we might say that God is the human understanding of society. When we have a transcendent experience we are relinquishing our ego to the larger community. When we participate in weekly communion mass we are sharing a meal as a united church.

Therefore, when we belong to a religious community, we belong to a community. When we share community values, even ones that appear secular, we are infusing our community with sacred significance (think of how morally outraged people get over the flag).

The question for Durkheim then becomes: If we are entering a period of lack of religion, what performs all of these community-binding functions?

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