Thursday, September 12, 2013

Religion and the force of the social: some notes on Durkheim’s "Elementary Forms of Religious Life"

What would be the perfect embodiment of the force of the social identified and theorized by Durkheim in the Rules of Sociological Method (1895)? The Durkheiman answer is without hesitation: religion. One of the most interesting passages of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) is the parallel- even identity- between society and religion: “Society in general, simply by its effects on men’s minds, undoubtedly has all that is required to arouse the sensation of the divine”; “A society is to its members what a god is to its faithful”; individuals defer “to society’s orders” because society is an “object of genuine respect” and has a strong “moral influence” (p.210).

 Thus, the whole Elementary forms can be read as a metaphor of the social for Durkheim in which the description of the primitive-universal religion in its almost naked simplicity is, in fact, the description of the social and its force. For example, the totem and the duplication of the soul are understood in terms of relationship between the inside and the outside: “the totem is the individual’s soul, but the soul externalized and invested with greater powers that hose it is believed to have while inside the body”“it is the extension inside us of a religious force that is outside us” (p.283).

From this perspective, Durkheim is not only working on “the simplest and most primitive religion” in
order to find the social phenomenon in its purity and applying the rule of simplicity formulated in the Rules of Sociological Method almost twenty years before The Elementary Forms was published, he is also looking for an eternal and universal form of the social from which every meaningful institution or set of practices are derived. All fundamental social phenomena should be encompassed in The Elementary Forms. This is why we should not be surprised to read from Durkheim -the scientist and Auguste Comte’s heir- the following: “fundamental categories of thought and thus science itself, have religious origins”; “all great social institutions were born in religion”; “the idea of society is the soul of religion” (p.421); “scientific thought is only a more perfect form of religious thought” (p.431).

 The discourse on science is also paradoxically important in the Elementary Forms because it is related to Durkheim’s ambition to make sociology the prime authority of all social sciences, which are necessarily all science of the social and all encompassed by it. Here there is a tension-contradiction between one the one hand the Kantism claimed by Durkheim in The Rules and by the a priori definition of religion and the theorization of “the social origin of the categories [of knowledge]” (p.14), for example the category of causality given by the collectivity (p.372).

 This parallelism-analogy-identity between science and religion in the Elementary Forms raises precisely the question of “forms”, and their relationship to “norms” (Rabinow, French Moderns). The “social” and the Durkheiman conception of religion are themselves a social construction that emerges in the context of new relationships between power and knowledge (industrialization, the development of the modern state and its technocracy, colonization and the new sciences) in which a new social imaginary is made possible by the circulation of recognizable and reproducible forms and norms. For example, according to Durkheim, both religion and science “connect things to one another, establish internal relations between those things, classify them” and translate reality into “intelligible language”. 

Among the historical and social conditions enabling Durkheim to think of religion “in general” and to look for “what is eternal and human in religion” and for its “whole objective content” (p.4) is the new relationship of the West to the rest. It is true that Durkheim takes for granted that there is a universal thing called religion because of his attempt to theorize the universal social. But we should recall here that the general category of “religion” emerged in Europe in the context of sectarian conflicts and the colonial encounter of the Other (see for example Cantwell Smith, Talal Asad), notably after the “discovery” of America and the debate among the scholastics about the nature of the Indians in the sixteenth century. The definition of religion has always been problematic. Max Weber in his sociology of religion thinks that giving a definition of religion is not relevant and the main problem for him is rather to find religion in the social. Paradoxically, Geertz who claims to pursue the Weberan project and sees reality as a text to be deciphered by a hermeneutical approach, gives an essentialist definition of religion.

 It would be, then, less paradoxical to read in the Durkheiman universal definition of religion the words “Church” or “sacred and profane”. The latter dichotomy was not even part of Christian theology but was used mainly by the Enlightenment as part of the discourse of accusation against religion. Durkheim does not question its own terminology or the relationship between language and the formation of concepts, and seems reproducing its own pre-notions.

No comments:

Post a Comment