Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

I came across the paper linked to below when trying to further investigate this Nassim Taleb quote from The Bed of Procrustes: "If you can't spontaneously detect (without analyzing) the difference between sacred and profane, you'll never know what religion means. You will also never figure out what we commonly call art. You will never understand anything." Before reading the paper, there is a few sentence entry on Wikipedia worth reading as background HERE.

Durkheim's primary purpose in The Elementary Forms was to describe and explain the most primitive religion known to man. But if his interests thus bore some external similarity to those of the ethnographer or historian, his ultimate purpose went well beyond the reconstruction of an archaic culture for its own sake; on the contrary, as in The Division of Labor and Suicide, Durkheim's concern was ultimately both present and practical: "If we have taken primitive religion as the subject of our research," he insisted, "it is because it has seemed to us better adapted than any other to lead to an understanding of the religious nature of man, that is to say, to show us an essential and permanent aspect of humanity."

But if Durkheim's goal was thus to understand modern man, why did he go to the very beginning of history? How can the crude cults of the Australian aborigines tell us anything about religions far more advanced in value, dignity, and truth? And if he insisted that they can, wasn't he suggesting that Christianity, for example, proceeds from the same primitive mentality as the Australian cults? These questions were important, for Durkheim recognized that scholars frequently focused on primitive religions in order to discredit their modern counterparts, and he rejected this "Voltairean" hostility to religion for two reasons. First, alluding to the second chapter of The Rules, Durkheim insisted that such hostility was unscientific; it prejudges the results of the investigation, and renders its outcome suspect. Second, and more important, he considered it unsociological; for it is an essential postulate of sociology that no human institution can rest on an error or a lie. If an institution is not based on "the nature of things," Durkheim insisted, it encounters a resistance in nature which destroys it; the very existence of primitive religions, therefore, assures us that they "hold to reality and express it." The symbols through which this reality is expressed, of course, may seem absurd; but we must know how to go beneath the symbol, to uncover the reality which it represents, and which gives it its meaning: "The most barbarous and the most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social. The reasons with which the faithful justify them may be, and generally are, erroneous; but the true reasons," Durkheim concluded, "do not cease to exist" and it is the duty of science to discover them."

In this sense, all religions are "true"; but if all religions are thus equal with respect to the reality they express, why did Durkheim focus on primitive religions in particular?