Explain the views of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte on religion.

Emile Durkheim

Durkheim defines religion as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, namely, things set apart and forbidden which unite into one single moral community all those who adhere to them. Religion, therefore, has a community dimension and it entails a congregation or Church. A basic distinction found here is between the sacred that includes all phenomena which are set apart and forbidden, and the secular or the profane. Sacred things are those things protected and isolated by prohibitions; while profane things are those things to which such prohibitions apply and which must keep their distance from what is sacred.

Religious practices or rites are central to Durkheim’s conception of religion. He defines them as rules of conduct that stipulate how one must conduct oneself with sacred things. According to him, it is cults that enable believers to live and to act. In fact, anyone who has really practiced a religion knows very well that it is the cult that evokes these impressions of joy, of inner peace, of serenity, of enthusiasm, which the faithful retain as the experimental proof of their beliefs. The cult is not simply a system of signs by which faith is articulated outwardly. It is a collection of means by which it is created and periodically recreates itself. Thus, cults are cellular to religion and constitutive to society in as much as society would weaken without it. Even the gods would die if cults were not celebrated.

Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte was a French positivist, sociologist and philosopher. He coined the term ‘sociology’ and found his new science equally as religion and as science. In his work Positive Philosophy, Comte set out his law of the three stages which states that in the intellectual development of humanity there are three distinct stages, namely, theological, metaphysical and positive. In the theological stage, the thoughts and ideas about reality are essentially religious in nature. They are dominated by ideas that make reference to the supernatural. The overriding belief is that all things are created by God.

Comte did not think that with the arrival of science, religion would disappear totally. According to him, religion was not only an attempt to explain and understand reality but also the unifying principle of human society. If a traditional religion were to vanish with the growth of science, it would have to be replaced with a new form of religion based upon sound scientific principles. He further states that since the science which is concerned with understanding the principles of social unity and cohesion is sociology, then the new religion would be a kind of applied sociology and the sociologist would be the high priest of this new secular creed. Comte was so serious about his opinion that he even devised the robes and vestments that the sociological priesthood would wear, the rituals they would perform and actually founded a Church of Positivism. Comte believed religion to be a product of reason and of the human capacity to generalize in an attempt to understand and explain the world.

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