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Why do so many, perhaps all, cultures have religions?

Why do so many, perhaps all, cultures have religions?

Ryan Schram


Mills 169 (A26)

March 16, 2016

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2667/3


Douglas, Mary. 2002. “The Abominations of Leviticus.” In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 51–71. London: Routledge.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1973. “Sherpa Purity.” American Anthropologist 75 (1): 49–63. doi:10.2307/672339.

Other media

Speigel, Alix. 2011. “Why Cleaned Wastewater Stays Dirty In Our Minds.” Morning Edition. National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/2011/08/16/139642271/why-cleaned-wastewater-stays-dirty-in-our-minds.

Durkheim, continued

In his book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915), Durkheim states that religion is society worshipping itself1). To understand what this means, we need to understand Durkheim's argument that the social fact of the category of the sacred is functionally connected to and reinforces mechanical solidarity through collective rituals.

Some key terms of Durkheim

  • Societies are wholes which are greater than the sum of their parts. A society is a collective consciousness, like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation (or possibly some other, more current, science fiction).
  • Social facts are collective representations (or 'constructs') that society, as a collective consciousness, imposes on its members' consciousnesses. Social facts appear to people as being external and coercive. The thoughts of the hive mind appear to each of us as being 'facts' even though they are constructs.
  • Solidarity in one form or another is the substance of the social whole. Solidarity is the quality of being part of something larger, an integrated system which is greater than the sum of its parts. Mechanical solidarity is feeling like one belongs to a group where everyone is alike. Organic solidarity is feeling like one depends on people who depend on you, or that everyone occupies a position within a division of labor.
  • Patterns of society, institutions, rules, and norms, in other words, social facts, exist because they function as part of a total system. It does not necessarily matter what people believe the purpose or reason for a social fact is. It stays in place because it reinforces other patterns, and the society as a whole. Many social facts exist because they reinforce mechanical or organic solidarity.
  • Sacred and profane: All societies must have at least one social fact, the distinction between sacred and profane. Sacred things are things set aside and forbidden. Profane things are normal, everyday things with no special meaning or importance.

Durkheim and relativism

Is Durkheim saying that the sacred is whatever people in a society say is sacred?

Why must a society worship itself?

Durkheim observes that religious forms consist of both beliefs and practices. Sacred things need not merely be ideas or objects which people believe are sacred. Actions can be sacred too. What seems important to religious practice is that, unlike other everyday activities, there is a definite right way to do it, and this is connected to the sacred. Let's call this ritual, a pattern of action which is connected to the sacred.

Ritual, or sacred action, is a kind of social fact. It is, furthermore, functionally connected to and reinforces the social fact of the sacred.

Durkheim also observes that many societies' rituals are collective in nature. All people of one community come together as a “church” to engage in sacred action. Durkheim takes this as a general rule: All societies have a sacred ritual which they perform together as one community. From the perspective of the whole, this ritual is a way to cultivate mechanical solidarity. Durkheim also notes that these collective rituals excite and energize people. They feel special and important, and one feeds off the energy of the group as a whole engaged in a sacred action. Durkheim calls this “effervescence” (1915: 226).

Because a society must be greater than the people who make it up, then a society must have its own totality as a social fact. Through ritual, the social fact of the sacred appears to people in a symbolic form, as a god or as a mystical unity of nature, or as something which greater than mere mortals. This is in fact a symbol of society itself, a collective consciousness, imposing itself on the minds of people as the ultimate ground of reality. The collective effervescence of sacred rituals fosters a very basic form of mechanical solidarity. One feels part of something bigger than oneself and one feels that one is subordinated to it.

What is polluting?

Do you observe taboos? What are things that pollute you?

  • bathroom door handles (1)
  • cannibalism
  • breastfeeding in public (1)
  • How would you feel if you saw a woman give her child to another woman to breastfeed? (1, 2)
  • alcohol
  • women, children and younger, uninitiated men. (Atchin, Malakula Island, Vanuatu)
  • toilet-to-tap (NPR story on the 'cognitive sewage' attached to recycled water)

We have two questions we need to consider. The first is why would a society teach its members to feel anxiety over taboos? Is there any reason for these rules? We have two answers to this. One comes from Durkheim and Douglas, the other comes from Ortner.

The second question is what do taboos, pollution tell us about people's religious thinking. How can we fit these ideas into our larger ideas about religion? If a society imposes taboos on things because they are dirty, what does this society consider pure?

Toilet to tap

  • Some people can never be convinced that recycled water is the same as clean water.
  • In an experiment, people who refused recycled water would accept it when they were told a story that included the idea that recycled water would sit underground for one year before entering the water system.
  • Even in spite of the facts, people only could understand the process of recycling water through symbols.
  • Symbols guide how people think and act. Emile Durkheim and Max Weber each offer explanations for why.

Different kinds of social actions

  • Waiting for the train. Standing on the platform.
  • Offering your seat to a pregnant woman.
  • Buying a coffee for a friend.
  • Sending a get-well card.
  • Sending a text to Mom and Dad.
  • Signing a petition.
  • Donating money to cyclone relief for Vanuatu.
  • Buying ramen.

Max Weber and the action perspective on society

  • In order for society to exist, individuals must act, and patterns of action must develop.
  • Sociology should look at the basis for people's actions and choices, or what specific forms of action mean to a person, and give them a motivation to act.
    • There are four main types of action: traditional, affective, value-rational, and instrumentally rational.
  • In another sense, Weber looks at society from the ground up, and asks how individuals fit into social systems.
  • Weber: “methodological individualism”; Durkheim: “methodological holism”.

Weber's influence on anthropology

The most prominent example of Weber's influence on anthropology is in the work of Clifford Geertz.

  • Culture is like a text. People read the patterns of action they see in other people's behavior and derive meaning from it.
  • People's own action is a way of communicating, often very implicit. Your behavior shows other people what you think, how you feel, and what is valuable to you.
  • Even people who are not consciously trying to send a message through their behavior will have meaning read into what they do. Consider the difference between a twitch in your eye, and a wink. There isn't much, but if you wink, everyone will know that you did.
  • Fashion is also a rich area for applying the Geertzian method. Many uni students say, “Who cares about fashion? I just put on whatever and go to class!” But even that is a kind of symbolic message: “I don't care.”

Weber, Geertz and religion

  • Are you good? It is, in a sense, impossible to know on one's own. You can never be sure.
  • Through manipulating symbols, one can reassure oneself one is OK, that one fits in, and one is normal.
  • For Sherpa people, and possibly all people, avoiding pollution and/or pursuing purity are two complementing ways people can do this. Their symbolic actions of preserving purity are like holding up a mirror to themselves.
  • According to Geertz, religion gives people “powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations” (Geertz 1973: 90).


Durkheim, Emile. 1915. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen and Unwin.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Religion As a Cultural System.” In The Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 87-125. New York: Basic Books.

A guide to the unit

While this catchy phrase is often attributed to Durkheim, as far as I know, it is not a quotation from Elementary Forms. However in the conclusion and at several points in the book he does equate society and the sacred in this way, and he says in the conclusion, “If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion” (1915: 419). In other words, it is not the empirical group which is the object of veneration, but through venerating sacred things, people come into contact with the essence of belonging to a group, and being part of a social whole.
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