January 26, 2020
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6.7 The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Durham's most beautiful book appeared in 1912 the elementary forms of religious life deformity monte la vie religiosa it is presented as a study about the most distant origins of religious beliefs and practices Duke M used anthropological or ethnographic material he was for example very interested in field studies about a tribe in Australia Australian Aboriginals whose religion was supposed to be one of the oldest types to be found on the earth dirk i'm investigated those cleanse societies and he tried to prove that this kind of totem religion must have been one of the earliest primitive manifestations of religiosity in human societies but that is not why this is still such an illuminating masterpiece i think the book is especially relevant today because it touches on some other core questions in the sociology of religion let me begin with Durham's methodological principle that the sociologist should always take the words of the people he studies very seriously even if they tell you about an experience that seems to be very irrational or even crazy at first sight do not doubt their honesty the experience that they tell you about is a deep reality for them so if you notice for example that somebody treats a seemingly very ordinary object with a strange kind of awe and reverence try to understand what is going on there don't mock the aboriginal who seems to be strangely impressed by what appears to be an ordinary stone on the ground don't react with a smile when a catholic prays to a small wooden statue don't criticise a patriotic citizen who experiences genuine pain when he sees that his flag is burned try to understand them try to imagine well their world must be like for them and then the first thing you may notice is that the stone the statue the flag are in their eyes no ordinary everyday object they are different they are set apart they are charged with special energy Duke M says that for those people there is a clear distinction between the profane and the sacred between the mundane everyday world and the religious world between the ordinary and the extraordinary if you ask a religious person what it is that she or he experiences when they participate in a religious ritual or when they are confronted with an object that they believe to be sacred then they of course have to search for words first but then they will eventually come up with with an answer that you know they can feel a kind of power something that at the same time frightens them and also comforts them it can be frightening at times because it's a power that forces them to do certain things and to refrain from other things and if you do not obey you may be punished so it's a coercive force but it's also a source of strength because in times of grief and distress it will support you and comfort you you can rely on it for example when you mourn the loss of a loved one it will catch you when you have a sense of falling Duke M says that somebody who has participated in a religious gathering will often say that she or he feels strengthened energized and bold and empowered and again that's not something that they imagined he says it's something real maybe it's a feeling that to come himself remembered from the time when he still went to the synagogue this power is so overwhelming that the believers are convinced that it already existed before they were born and that it will exist long after they have passed away it is something that is not inside them it is external to them it is superior to everybody it envelops and unites their whole religious community now do your CEM is convinced that the believers tell the researcher honestly about what they feel but he interprets those facts in a different way a way that's far removed from the interpretations of the believers themselves this coercive and external power he says can be nothing else than the power of society it is society it is our own social network that supports and comforts us in times of trouble and grief it is society that gives that special feeling of strength and energy it is society it is the conscience collective that existed long before you were born and that will continue to exist long after you have passed away it is society that is external to us that over arches our lives and at the same time binds us together religious imagery is seen here as a kind of product sociology a metaphorical way to speak about something that is very difficult to imagine and to comprehend at a time when the science of sociology did not yet exist the idea that from the moment of our birth on we are inextricably woven into the tissues of society

Jean Kelley