The American Religion

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community…all those who adhere to them.” – Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p. 17.

Emile Durkheim is one of the fathers of the social sciences and the father of sociology. When he first studied the aboriginal people of Australia, he carried with him a bias against all religion.

“During Durkheim’s life, his thinking about religion changed in important ways. Early in his life, as in Division, he argued that human societies could exist on a secular basis without religion. But later in his life he saw religion as a more and more fundamental element of social life. By the time he wrote Forms, Durkheim saw religion as a part of the human condition, and while the content of religion might be different from society to society over time, religion will, in some form or another, always be a part of social life. Durkheim also argues that religion is the most fundamental social institution, with almost all other social institutions, at some point in human history, being born from it. For these reasons he gave special analysis to this phenomenon, providing a philosophy of religion that is perhaps as provocative as it is rich with insights.

“According to Durkheim, religion is the product of human activity, not divine intervention. He thus treats religion as a sui generis social fact and analyzes it sociologically. Durkheim elaborates his theory of religion at length in his most important work, Forms. In this book Durkheim, uses the ethnographic data that was available at the time to focus his analysis on the most primitive religion that, at the time, was known, the totemic religion of Australian aborigines. This was done for methodological purposes, since Durkheim wished to study the simplest form of religion possible, in which the essential elements of religious life would be easier to ascertain. In a certain sense, then, Durkheim is investigating the old question, albeit in a new way, of the origin of religion. It is important to note, however, that Durkheim is not searching for an absolute origin, or the radical instant where religion first came into being. Such an investigation would be impossible and prone to speculation. In this metaphysical sense of origin, religion, like every social institution, begins nowhere. Rather, as Durkheim says, he is investigating the social forces and causes that are always already present in a social milieu and that lead to the emergence of religious life and thought at different points in time, under different conditions.”
– Paul Carl’s entry on Emile Durkheim published June 3, 2012 in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: a Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.


Later sociologists like Robert Bellah look today at American society and ask what “sacred things” are enshrined in American culture and practices.

What are the equivalent beliefs and practices, “sacred things” set apart or forbidden, that give coherence to a fast-changing American society?

8 thoughts on “The American Religion

  1. Pingback: Life on the island: Is the digital age enabling a disturbing rise in hyper-individualism? | pundit from another planet

  2. As to us continually evolving, I will play either an impartial observer here, or devil’s advocate, depending on how you look at it. By working so hard to lower child or infant mortality (remember now, that about 200 years ago, about one child in two made it to the age of two years and even fewer made it to maturity), we have been allowing the weak to reproduce and thus have more and more strain on our resources, and since the wealthier have fewer and fewer children – …. well think about it. And by trying to avoid the subject of death, we are also eroding our understanding of spirituality and the life circle or spiral. Never mind, we have also out paced the Earth’s ability to provide for all of us. I could go on, but this is more than enough for now.


  3. Pingback: Human Evolution | VIEWS from the EDGE

  4. As the commodification & colonization of all human action spreads maybe science ironically becomes the way we try to maintain some semblance of order. IOW, science as the religion of “Scientism” becomes the replacement for the traditional spiritual attitudes. In a desperate attempt to ward off death, which science has eroded our ability to accept, we replace acceptance of death with a process that attempts to extend life indefinitely. As I heard Arthur C. Clark say yrs. ago we are in the process of using science to evolve out of organic existence into artificial life forms that will self replicate but will not die as organic life does.


      • This reminds me of a recent comment by Sir David Attenborough that humans have stopped evolving, because we have reduced our child mortality to such a negligible level and improved our overall health. Which fits with your observation about utopian death wishes.
        Fortunately Sir David is totally wrong on all counts. It is only a small fraction of humanity that benefit for these improvements and even then, it has little to no measurable impact apparently on generic change across population. There is a nice rebuttal of his views here:
        But he is tapping into a wider sentiment that some day we might be so in control of our own destiny that we are no longer subject to this nasty, animal based thing called evolution.
        Isn’t that when we force our way back to the garden and eat from the second tree?


        • David, it’s so good to get a view of this from New Zealand.

          I couldn’t agree more with your comment, including the NPR piece, criticizing Attenborough’s claim that the human species has stopped evolving. Control is the illusion. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, knew better and mourned the horror he had set loose in the world. The Idealism that conveniently ignores the childhood mortality rate in Africa or the effect of the continuing evolution of all life on the planet is just what you say it is. It’s the deadly assumption that we can “force our way back (of forward) to the garden and eat from the second tree. In the biblical story the forbidden tree was the tree of control (“If you eat of it, you will become like God”). There are two other legends of Genesis that surely follow in the wake of species glorification: the story of Cain slaying his brother Abel and the attempt to build a permanent city (the Tower of Babel) and the collapse of the whole project.


      • The myth of the ‘permanent city’ is one we are wrestling with in NZ these days. We have had one city (Christchurch) pretty much destroyed by an earthquake and recovering and facing what is permanent about its identity – the buildings, the place, the people – what does it mean to rebuild? This is not an easy question to answer. When more than half your population under 40 has left for Australia, and large areas of land are declared unsafe to build on, will it be the same city if you replace the buildings?

        Meanwhile Wellington (my city) has been hit by two large earthquakes. We are on established faultlines (unlike Christchurch), so our building are stronger. But I think there is a lot more hidden damage than is being talked about. it will come out over the next 6 months as to how many buildings have to be demolished or substantially rebuilt. And we keep spending huge amounts of money of further strengthening – but continue to cut back expenditure on community health care, cycle paths, children’s play areas etc etc.


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