Debate Magazine

Durkheim’s Social Antecedents

By Cris

It is remarkable that of all the developmental-evolutionary theorists of religion that I have considered thus far (Hume, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Lubbock, Tylor, Darwin, Frazer, Marett, and Levy-Bruhl), all approached the subject from a psychological, cognitive, or “intellectualist” perspective. Such perspectives are nearly always focused on individuals who are experiencing and thinking in splendid isolation, untouched and unaffected by those around them. While Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud recognized that larger forces – such as society and culture – played major roles in the development and maintenance of religious ideas and institutions, this recognition did not amount to a social explanation of religion that was anchored in evolutionary theory. They remained focused on minds.

Darwin of course offered a social theory that explained the evolution of morals and religion (which he treated as separate and distinct developments that were joined only recently in history), but his social-instinct and group level selection theory was ignored by everyone. Why this occurred stands as one of the great mysteries of evolutionary religious studies. Darwin’s cogent ideas simply do not appear in the enormous wave of evolutionary theorizing about religion that followed the Descent in 1871. This important fact suggests that most or all of this theorizing revolved around a different kind of evolution – cultural as opposed to biological, and that Darwin’s theory did not play a dominant role in the work of Lubbock, Tylor, Frazer, and a host of others whose work in the same derivative vein has been (justly) forgotten.

While Marett paid lip-service to the social aspects of religion, only Lévy-Bruhl took it seriously. The manner in which he treated it was, however, always cognizant of people – there was intercourse and interplay between the individual and social levels. While “collective representations” about powers, forces, souls, spirits, and gods were front and center, they were not the only thing. What individuals said and thought about those collective representations was important and still taken seriously. This would all change with Emile Durkheim, who published The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life in 1912 (i.e., one year after Lévy-Bruhl’s first book). Durkheim not only swept the field with his exclusively social (and implicitly evolutionary) explanation of religion, he dominated it for decades to come. Durkheim’s ideas did not, of course, come from nowhere. He had two important intellectual predecessors, the first being Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and the second being William Robertson Smith (1846-1894).

Comte’s ideas are far too complex and subtle to deal with in any short space and I will not attempt to do so here. For our purposes, we need understand only that he was the founder of sociology, a notorious atheist, the original positivist (sensu stricto), and an almost messianic visionary. Just as it is significant that so many cognitive or psychological theorists of religion were embedded in Protestant cultures (which emphasized individual religious ideas), it is significant that Comte was embedded in a largely Catholic culture (which emphasized collective religious experiences).

It is perhaps even more significant that Comte was born into a French society still recovering from its bloody, fractious, and “secular” revolution. Taking his cue from Montesquieu, who in The Spirit of Laws (1748) proposed what was perhaps the first staged-developmental scheme for human history, Comte also divided history into epochs, each of which was characterized by a mode of thought or dominant worldview. Like so many similar schemes that would appear later in the new discipline of anthropology, this one supposedly tracked the long development of intellect beginning from the proto-evolutionary point when humans were “barely superior to that of a society of great apes” (1825:192). Also like those other schemes, Comte’s stages were progressive – it was always a matter of advance due to some unspecified “law” of development which he discerned from unobservable “social facts.” In Explaining Religion, J. Samuel Preus surveys Comte’s scheme: 

The social law for which Comte is best known is evolutionary and consists in three stages through which the human mind has passed en route to its present “positive” condition. The first of these stages is the theological, in which the forces of nature are personified as gods; [the second] is metaphysical, a transitional phase in which the gods are replaced by abstract transcendental entities and causes; and finally the scientific or positive, in which all the dynamics of nature and society are understood as conforming to immanent laws. This scheme merits attention, not only because of the importance Comte himself attributed to it, but because an evolutionary framework provided [similar to this] provided the first temporal paradigm through which modern sociological and anthropological study of religion really came into its own as a new discipline” (1996:113).


While Comte was a late-Enlightenment champion of progress, materialism, and science, his enthusiasm for secular advance was tempered by the “social fact” of the French Revolution. This exceedingly bloody and destabilizing affair had, after all, been pursued in the name of these very ideals. Comte surmised that something like religion was required to hold positive-scientific societies together, to unite and solidify the group under secular circumstances in the final “positive” stage of history. He asserted that people needed an emotional attachment to the group and that this emotion could be cultivated through the use of public symbols and rituals that transcended individual interests.

In his later work, Comte proposed a religion alternative in which “Humanity” or society would be worshipped as gods had been in the theological and metaphysical past. It was, in effect, a proposal for secular ritual and civil religion that would stoke emotions and bind people together. These (speculative) claims would later exert an enormous influence on Durkheim, who would acknowledged Comte as his intellectual “father.” But whereas Comte wanted to make humanity (which he called the “Great Being”) something that could be worshipped, Durkheim would transform this into the idea that society was in fact already worshipped. Durkheim went a step further and claimed that society was in fact god, and that all religion and ritual was devoted – despite outward appearances – to Society. Before we get to this radical claim we must pause to consider the other major influence on Durkheim, William Robertson Smith (1846-1894).

Fitting Smith into the history of evolutionary religious studies is no easy task. Though he is an obscure figure today, most late Victorian scholars (including many great ones) recognized him as a genius and polymath. Smith’s work spanned so many different disciplines, and influenced so many different fields, that it can be difficult to categorize and trace his influences. His life was equally complicated, which may explain something of his appeal; it certainly impacted his scholarship. Given these difficulties, it is perhaps best to begin with his life and proceed from there.

Smith, surely a prodigy, was educated in Scotland by his father. He excelled at mathematics, physics, and languages. At age 15, he attended Aberdeen University to study all these subjects and more. While there, he was introduced to the new anthropology by James McLennan, the Scottish attorney turned anthropologist whose Primitive Marriage (1865) did perhaps more than any other work to turn anthropological attention to the “primitive,” religion, and kinship. Thus began Smith’s lifelong interest in these subjects, which he approached using comparative methods. Given this expertise in languages (including Latin, Greek, and all Semitic languages) , it is not surprising that he spent two years in Germany studying philology, which at that time was focused on biblical writings. This focus was revealing things about the composition of the Bible that many religionists found disturbing. Smith’s focus was on Old Testament writings, especially the Pentateuch, which he concluded had not been written by Moses. Upon Smith’s return from Germany, he assumed a professorship at Aberdeen and contributed several articles on the Bible to the famous Encyclopedia Britannica. Given Smith’s critical philology, these articles outraged literalists, fundamentalists, evangelicals, ecclesiastics, and theologians. They were perceived to undermine the authority of the Bible, and were thus welcomed by the largely atheist or agnostic scholarly community.

None of this might have mattered for Smith the scholar and professor were it not for the fact that he was a deeply committed Protestant minister of the Scottish Free Church. He was passionate about his faith and occupied a professorial chair endowed by the church. In what was perhaps the most celebrated, protracted (5 years), and public heresy trial in recent British history, Smith was eventually convicted, stripped of his professorship, and excommunicated. This devastated Smith, who continued to support the church (in his iconoclastic way) even after all this. He was promptly offered the editorship of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a position he assumed in 1881, and in 1883 Cambridge appointed him its chair of Arabic. From this position, Smith continued his work on the Old Testament, “primitive” cultures, and comparative religions. Smith was fully aware of, and engaged with, the new evolutionary ideas and regularly conversed with its major figures, including Tylor and Huxley. He also knew that evolutionary studies had taken up religion as a primary object of concern and that the progressive evolutionary paradigm posed serious challenges to religion, including his own. The paradigm was dominant and had gone, at least thus far, unchallenged. Smith saw it as his religious duty to mount a challenge, which he duly undertook in a series of articles on ancient Semitic religions and a series of lectures that were published as The Religion of the Semites (1889).

While Smith fully accepted evolution and the idea that both cultures and religions progressed from the simple or primitive to the complex and modern, he completely rejected the idea that this process was individualist, mental, intellectual, or cognitive. His ardently felt Protestant faith told him that ideas and doctrines were far less important than practices and rituals. Belief or faith was a matter of deep feeling, and deep feelings were aroused most intensely by communal or group rituals. The evolutionist focus on doctrines and myth was far too focused on minds and ideas. Smith was focused on what people do, not what they think. As he put it:

It is of the first importance to realize clearly from the outset that ritual and practical usage were, strictly speaking, the sum total of ancient religions. Religion in primitive times was not a system of belief with practical applications; it was a body of traditional practices, to which every member of society conformed as a matter of course (1889:20).

Smith’s assessment was based not only his experiences, which confirmed this idea, but also on his study of early Semitic religions, a category that included early Judaism and neighboring traditions. Smith uncovered the “primitive” substrate of the former using philological methods that allegedly could reveal more ancient practices. With respect to the contemporaneous practices of neighboring tribes, or the general milieu out of which early Judaism had sprung, Smith reconstructed the “primitive” substrate using comparative methods borrowed from anthropology. Specifically, he closely analyzed a tribal ritual performed by extant Arab nomads who were, in Smith’s erroneous estimation, simple and static representatives of the “primitive” past. In both cases, Smith was convinced that the “primitive” forms revolved around animal worship or “totemism” and kinship groups. Hence was born the idea that totemism was not only the oldest form of religion, but that totems had from the beginning been bound up with kinship. Thus, by studying totemism, one could supposedly unravel the very structure of societies and logic of groups. How all this supposedly worked is exceedingly intricate, but Smith did not claim it was simply a matter of arousing emotions and commitments to the group through ritual. The details of his (often speculative) argument are rather less important for our purposes than the effects of the argument.

Smith’s focus on animal worship, clans, and totems would spark an enormous scholarly effort devoted to these subjects. Frazer took up totemism with a vengeance in Totemism and Exogamy, a typically elegant and abstruse four-volume work published in 1910. Lubbock published Marriage, Totemism and Religion in 1911, and Freud published Totem and Taboo in 1913. These were the big bombs among a host of others, all devoted to the deep exploration of the ways in which totems related to kinship and how both related to social structures. None of course were bigger than Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912).

As several of these titles suggest, and as all these and numerous other works claim, there is a deep and intricate connection between religion on the one hand and society on the other. This connection, conceived in various formulaic or even algebraic ways, supported and sustained the idea that the structurally “simplest” societies were also the oldest or most “primitive.” By studying these veritable laboratories of prehistory, the hidden structures and invisible networks of society would be revealed. Social cohesion, which seemed a great mystery to so many of these scholars, would be at last be understood.

Seen in these somewhat dubious lights, we can understand why Smith has been called, with considerable justification, the first “sociologist of religion.” We can also begin to understand how anthropology would veer so far off course – with seemingly endless and empty forays into kinship, structure, and function – for so long. Perhaps most importantly, this enables us to see that all of this was derived from Smith (initially) and Durkheim (primarily), and that both worked within the evolutionary paradigm. They did not reject evolution, history, progress, or advance: they were “simply” and “primitively” transforming the paradigm into something that appeared to be non-evolutionary and which eschewed evolutionary idioms. The entire (totemic, kinship, structural, functional, ritual) edifice, in turn, was based on McLennan’s and Smith’s “primitive” scheme, which Adam Kuper (1988) has aptly diagnosed as an “invention” and “illusion.”

While this implicitly progressive scheme was original, insightful, and erudite, it was also speculative, metaphysical, and intricate. It was, in a word, dubious. But what was dubious (and limited to Semites) in Smith became something fanciful (and generalized to all societies) in Durkheim. Neither sociology nor anthropology would ever be the same after him.


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