Thursday, January 10, 2013

Emile Durkheim: religion – the very idea, part 3: ritual, ancient and modern

Part 3 of 3 parts.

For Durkheim, the sacred is conveyed through social rituals, which are now experienced through media retelling of big events

If Durkheim was right to claim that the sacred remains a powerful social force in the modern world, where can we find it? One obvious answer is the collective symbols that people gather around as they experience some form of shared moral sentiment: the flag of the nation, the image of the abused child, or the grave of the revolutionary hero.

These symbols aren't simply ideas. Their social and cultural power is always bound up by the ways in which they take material form, such as the imprints on coins, the architecture of public buildings, and the images on our walls or television screens. Durkheim himself tended to have a rather reductive view of the importance of such material objects, seeing them simply as things on to which the all-important symbolic meaning had been projected. But despite this, his accounts of "primitive" religion in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life continually give graphic illustration of how the sacred is made real through the things people eat, the material objects (including living things) that they venerate, the way people mark out special spaces and the things they do with their bodies. The real physical "stuff" of the sacred matters for how it works as a focus for collective moral emotion.

In The Elementary Forms, Durkheim understands these sacred actions as rituals, differentiating between "positive" rites celebrating or venerating a sacred object, and "negative" rites protecting a sacred object from impurity. The numerous examples he gives of these follow a common structure. A select group of people (usually excluding women and children) goes to a special (sometimes secret) place, to perform a defined set of actions in relation to a sacred object. The collective experience generated by such rituals is so powerful that it gives the participants a profound sense of connectedness to each other and a deep moral vitality that transforms the way in which they feel about themselves and their world.

There are, of course, a number of practical problems with this understanding of ritual. As Mary Daly pointed out, there is no guarantee that people will actually experience ritual in such compelling ways. Rituals can just as equally be experienced as empty, dull and formulaic. Perhaps more importantly, though, this notion of ritual sets too many limits on the kind of actions that we might think of as having sacred significance today. If we think just in terms of the distinct and highly structured rituals that Durkheim described, our attention will naturally be drawn to events such as coronations, funerals and other public ceremonies. But public action which evokes the sacred today takes a much wider variety of forms than this.

It's helpful here to take a step back and to remember our working definition of the sacred as that which people take to be unquestionable moral realities. A broader understanding of "sacred ritual" could then be anything that people do that reminds them of, and renews their identification with, these deep moral realities. In that sense, Durkheim's theory of the sacred is perhaps best understood as a theory of a particular kind of public communication. It points our attention towards social acts that convey powerful moral meanings in ways that are meant to draw a sympathetic public audience around them.

In this sense, the most common forms of sacred communication are not occasional public ceremonies that reflect the kind of rituals that Durkheim wrote about. They are found in the morally charged stories that circulate through our various forms of public and social media. People in contemporary society do not usually encounter the sacred and the evil-profane by taking themselves off to a remote location to perform some kind of arcane ritual. They experience them through news stories about the abuse and killing of Baby P, demonstrations of public mourning at Wootton Bassett, performances of patriotism in the speeches of presidential candidates or various forms of humanitarian disaster.

Or not. Because one of the effects of the circulation of these sacred meanings through our media is that we can be exposed to a wide range of sacred sentiments, some of which we identify with and some which we do not. Some of which we regard as cynical attempts to make us feel, vote or give money in particular ways, and some of which we just experience as powerful reminders of moral truth. We live in a world now in which we do not simply encounter the sacred through periodic ritual. We experience it instead through a continual flow of mediated stories and images, which evoke in us complex rhythms of moral passion, cynicism and indifference.

Lynch, Gordon. 2013. “Emile Durkheim: religion – the very idea, part 3: ritual, ancient and modern”. The Guardian. Posted: December 24, 2012. Available online:

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