Durkheim and religious experience

Andy Perrin has a post at Scatterplot about the value of religious experience to sociology. I started writing a comment on it but it got a little out of hand, so here it is as a post. The context is Andy’s argument that

religious experience is an amazingly widespread social phenomenon, and it has a sui generis quality to it that makes it difficult to explain without some sort of experiential link. The longer answer rests firmly on a Durkheimian base. Whether we understand the phenomenon as culture, as shared mental representations, or as beliefs, rites, and rituals separating the sacred from the profane and thereby organizing the believers into a church, I am convinced that much of the character of social life is essentially religious. That is, it is shared, taken for granted, and supra-material. Having experienced sociality that is explicitly religious helps in identifying sociality that is only implicitly so. Hence my claim.

As we know, a central feature of Durkheim’s thinking is his insight that religious experience is a social phenomenon. But the radical character of this insight is often underestimated, maybe because—in the Holy Trinity of undergraduate sociological theory—we often present Marx as the one concerned to undermine the truth of religion or explain it away, Weber as the one who is uninterested in explaining the origins of religion and focuses instead on its consequences, and Durkheim as the one who emphasizes the centrality and universality of religious experience. Although it shouldn’t, this makes it easy to forget that for Durkheim the elemental forms of religious life are rooted entirely in the social structure and the dynamics of groups, not the other way around. Sociologists and others get a lot of mileage in classrooms, papers, essays, and books pointing out the “religious” character of various sorts of activities and rituals, sometimes emphasizing the collective effervescence of group life, sometimes the careful categorization of the sacred and profane. Hence stock examples like the Macy’s Day Parade, the Presidential inauguration, the Superbowl or college football game, rules about about the placement dinner forks at a formal dinner, and so on.

When it comes to interpreting Durkheim, though, we shouldn’t slide from illustrating the continuity of “obviously” religious ritual with secular ritual to the idea that religious experience per se is somehow primary or special, while other, secular rituals are merely like it in some derivative or ersatz fashion. Durkheim is not out to show that there is a distinctive kind of experience—religious experience—which, once identified, can then be found hidden in many other places in society, but rather to argue that religious experiences are themselves the product of kinds of social life, group structure, and social action.

Durkheim’s insistence that researchers and “free thinkers” should “confront religion in the same mental state as the believer” is understandable given his concern to rebut alternative theories of religion. In his view these alternatives missed the most important thing about religion, seeing it either as a primitive survival to be explained away or a sort of understandable but failed precursor to a scientific attitude of mind. Durkheim’s move is to give religion its “truth” or “reality” with one hand, by insisting that it is eternal and will be found wherever you find society, but then to take it away with the other, by revealing that the “truth” or “reality” underlying religious experience is a feature of the social structure—not something numinous or theological in any sense a believer would endorse, but something that can be naturalistically explained by social scientists.

So I think I’d rather not lean too heavily on the phrase “much of the character of social life is essentially religious” because it puts the religious cart before the social horse. I understand what Andy is saying in his post (and what Karen Fields is saying in her brilliant Introduction to The Elementary Forms). Clearly there’s a lot right about the idea that “having experienced sociality that is explicitly religious helps in identifying sociality that is only implicitly so”. But I also think it’s a little too easy, and maybe too common, to leave “religious experience” per se unanalyzed and represent Durkheim as just saying “much of social life is a lot like religious life”. This makes it easy to forget that first and foremost Durkheim was making the radical argument that even the most religiously intense and spiritually meaningful forms of experience were explicable as aspects of the structure of social groups.

I am not arguing that Durkheim’s view is right. He was wrong about a lot of things. But in the first comment on Andy’s post, Bedhaya notes that, upon reading Durkheim in a course he or she taught, some of the religiously-minded students were “perturbed” by the idea that “the sacred power that people experience in rituals is society”. I think they were right to be. They saw where the cutting edge of the argument really is. Durkheim’s goal is to take religious experience seriously in order to explain it socially. This is a much more radical idea than the watered-down version of Durkheim that presents him as affirming the “truth”, “reality” or “eternal” character of religion and then focusing on the quasi-religious character of academic conventions or college sports. It would almost be more faithful to Durkheim’s view—truer to the consternation his argument originally provoked—to begin with the case of the Superbowl and go on to talk about the “quasi-football” character of religious ritual, instead of the reverse.

Written by Kieran

June 8, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Posted in sociology

6 Responses

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  1. Amen.



    June 8, 2011 at 4:51 pm

  2. “…first and foremost Durkheim was making the radical argument that even the most religiously intense and spiritually meaningful forms of experience were explicable as aspects of the structure of social groups.” Nice post, Kieran. In fact, my students expressed their concerns during a class discussion of how Durkheim’s fascination with religion and ritual grew out of his interest in the development of social structure and the social character of the categories of space/time, etc.



    June 8, 2011 at 5:51 pm

  3. This is a great post, Kieran, thanks. As I think about it, part of what I’m saying is that (most) contemporary Americans understand religion itself as in some way partial; even fiercely committed religious students are generally reticent to claim that their nonreligious classmates are Evil, a question I often ask in discussing this material. Thus they are more able to translate that partiality of sacredness to areas of life where sacredness (a.k.a. meaning) is less obvious.

    Kieran’s take on Bedhaya’s comment is absolutely spot-on; the ultimate goal of this process is not to demonstrate (the possibility) that all social life is essentially religious but rather that all religious (a.k.a. cultural) life is essentially social.

    That said, the paragraph in Division of Labour in which Durkheim notes the increasing reverence paid to the individual as a sacred object is important. To say that religious/cultural life is essentially social is emphatically not to say that it is disenchanted in a Weberian sense. The modern individual confronts his individual-ness as foreign, as a given; and that is a sacred fact. It is a sacred fact explicable through social mechanisms, but it is nevertheless experienced in the real as sacred.

    Hoping that’s not too convoluted-



    June 8, 2011 at 8:07 pm

  4. So, reflecting not on Durkheim but on subjective religious experience, which I have had, it seems to me that there is social construction, individual choice, and identity maintenance involved in whether and how to interpret experiences as religious rather than secular. I’m thinking not of collective effervescence, but the subjective experience of being full of joy or peace and at one with the “something” people call God or the universe or just well-being. There’s also mystical experience, which has been identified as a particular brain state in which the time-space functions temporarily shut down. The experience itself is quite individual, although there is a lot of social stuff in how it is interpreted and whether these psychic states are sought and nurtured or viewed as unhealthy.

    That is, the individual psychic experiences that some call religious and others do not are all interpreted in a social/cultural context. But that isn’t the same thing as saying they are social experiences. Nor is it the same thing as saying the psychic experiences would not exist at all without the socially-constructed interpretations people put on those experiences. Specifically, whether something is “religious” or not is itself a social construction, and one that is often contested in our society. Similarly, whether the realm of religion is primarily about defining good and evil is, itself a social construct. As is saying that a “religion” by definition involves a belief in a certain kind of “God” as the definer defines that God.

    The other thing about the individual psychic experiences is that there is individual variation in the experience itself, and a common tendency to disbelieve or be bothered by the subjective reports of others about an experience one has not had oneself. The “mysticism” researchers report that individuals vary in their ability to put themselves into a mystical state. Some can do it easily, others cannot do it at all. Those who cannot do it may often deny that others are experiencing what they say they are experiencing, even though it can be measured in the brain. This phenomenon can be readily observed in more mundane everyday things like what cilantro or olives taste like to you or what music sounds like to you. Or, for that matter, in the subjective state we call “love.”



    June 8, 2011 at 10:09 pm

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