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Bring an example of a religious practice you would like to know more about

Bring an example of a religious practice you would like to know more about

Ryan Schram


Mills 169 (A69)

March 15, 2017

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2667/2


Unit outline and assignment instructions.

Durkheim, Emile. 2008 [1912]. “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.” In A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion, edited by Michael Lambek, 34–47. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

Other media

Anonymous. 2013. “Emile Durkheim and Socialization.” YouTube, September 12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXUX4CvxP68.

What did you bring?

You should bring an example of a religious practice to your tutorial today. Maybe some of you already have some ideas… Walk around and introduce yourself to people. Share what you have brought.

Now is a good time to mention my guide to research, The Quest: Discovering new ideas through research. Check it out. This week are a starting to seek a topic of research.

What have people brought?

  • Do you have something in common with other students?
  • Was there something surprising?
  • Do you notice any themes or patterns?
  • Are we closer to defining religion now?

Finding a topic of research

You should now have all read the unit outline, the assignment instructions, and hopefully, The Quest.

What is an “ethnography”? Why would it be good to find one to read?

Do you have any questions for me?

Society, religion, social theory, social studies of religion

This class focuses on the relationships between religion and society, and the role played by religious ideas, practices and institutions in societies.

  • The social study of religion is different than the history of religion, studying religious literature or texts, and theology.
  • The social study of religion seeks to examine the significance of religion - whatever it may be - for human experience. Why do people have or follow religions? What do these religions tell us about human societies?

Anthropology has its own special way of tackling this.

  • Anthropology looks at human behavior and experiences in relation to the social and cultural context. Thus, it seeks to place religion in that kind of context too. Not only are there many, many kinds of religions, but the value of religion itself is different in every society, because every society is different.
  • Anthropology looks broadly at the human condition in all its diversity because it wants to draw a general conclusion about what it means to be human. Religion has been particularly useful for this, because it seems to be everywhere, yet everywhere it is different–really, really different.
  • Anthropology seeks to look at the world from the the native's point of view. We look at people's lives from the outside in order to draw conclusions about what it is like from the inside. We observe the things people, do, say, and make in order to figure out how they think. Religion is a particularly hard problem for anthropology then. We can only see it on the outside, but many people will tell you that you'll never get their religious practices and never really know what it matters to them unless you are on the inside, unless you convert!

Weeks 2, 3, 4, and 5 introduce to key theories - abstract, general explanations or models - anthropology uses to understand religions in all their cultural diversity, and all their complexity.

The study of religion before anthropology

  • Describing and theorizing religion was first a branch of theology. This results in a 'normative' theory of religion.
  • European Enlightenment philosophy attempts to prove whether or not there is a basis in 'reason' to believe in God, or to derive a 'natural religion,' i.e. the beliefs you could have based purely on reason.
  • The development of science meant that the is could be separated from the ought. Studying religion became a topic people wanted to talk about objectively.
  • E. B. Tylor puts forward one of the first 'cultural' explanations of religious belief, and anthropology is born!

Emile Durkheim, founder of sociology and anthropology

Emile Durkheim invented the scientific study of society.

Durkheim's key ideas

  • Society is a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. A society is a collective consciousness.
  • The ideas (or 'constructs') of a collective mind are different than the ideas of an individual mind. They seem so much more powerful. It is as if they are facts. Hence, we must “[c]onsider social facts as things” (Durkheim 1964 [1895]: 14).
  • The essence of society is its solidarity. Society perdures in time because the members often feel and know in their bones that they are part of the whole. Durkheim says that this is expressed in terms of “the sacred.” He argues that all societies define some things as sacred and some things as profane.

Durkheim on religion and society

  • Religion is essential to all societies. Every society must have a distinction between the 'sacred' and the 'profane'. This is the first social fact.
  • Religion as we know it, and many other kinds of social institution, perform this “function” to maintain the distinction between sacred and profane for their societies. Religion is, in essence, an orientation to the sacred as society defines it. Religion is thus also socially functional. It connects people to the social whole. It fosters mechanical solidarity.
  • Durkheim also spoke of “organic solidarity”–or connections to one's society based on specialized roles with the division of labor. All societies have both organic and mechanical solidarity. Religion functions to foster mechanical solidarity and economy functions to foster organic solidarity. We want to focus on mechanical solidarity.

Society worshipping itself

Durkheim is best known for his statement that 'Religion is just society worshipping itself'. What does that mean?


Durkheim, Emile. 1964 [1895]. The Rules of the Sociological Method. Edited by George E. G. Catlin. Translated by Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller. New York: The Free Press.

A guide to the unit

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