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 itself. 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

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?

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

Different kinds of social actions

Max Weber and the action perspective on society

Weber's influence on anthropology

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

Weber, Geertz and religion


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