October 17th, 2014
Durkheim’s theory on the future importance of religion.
Merry Christmas! Tomorrow we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. In origin a religious holiday, but how important is this aspect still in our modern society? It sometimes seems Christmas is nowadays only about dinner parties, presents, eating and drinking. Is religion slowly disappearing from our lives or is it just changing form?
The great sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) provides answers. He believed that religion has two functions. First, it gives meaning, making the world more understandable. And second, religion has a social function, it develops social cohesion.
Durkheim argued that the first function of religion is indeed getting less important. As science provides us with a new understanding of the world, religion is being gradually superseded. If it comes to producing knowledge, Durkheim thought that science would win the battle against religion. He seems to have been right about that.
However, Durkheim recognized that this does not mean that religion will completely disappear in the future. He believed that society was the source of religion and he therefore saw the sacred, God and society as one and the same. The disappearance of the sacred would thus imply the disappearance of society.
Durkheim instead envisioned religion adapting to new social necessities and old gods and rituals eventually dying. He predicted that, for example, civic celebrations, parades and patriotism would take the place of church services, binding society’s members by prompting them to affirm their common values and beliefs.
This might be exactly what is happening with the celebration of Christmas. Although its old religious aspects are less visible, the celebration of Christmas remains very important for social cohesion. So enjoy social bonding at the dinner table this Christmas!
Photo: Flickr, tobias.bjorkgren
Emile Durkheim (1912). The elementary forms of religious life new york: free press DOI: 10.2307/3405938