The French sociologist anticipated the fall of religion in the west, but understood that the sacred would manifest in different ways
Two of the most important founders of modern sociological thought, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim agreed on a key point. To understand modern society, they argued, required careful analysis of the role of religion in shaping social life. For Weber, this influence was to be found primarily in the past. In his classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he suggested that the origins of modern capitalism lay in an ethos of Protestant asceticism that encouraged a sense of thrift and duty in one's work as visible moral markers of the otherwise invisible state of personal salvation.
The hard work, careful management of resources, and aversion to conspicuous consumption inspired by this Protestant ethic enabled the development of an economic system built on the reinvestment of capital in increasingly sophisticated systems of production. Over time, though, the religious foundations of this capitalist system faded. The visible signs of material success, which was a cloak adorning the true motivation of inner sanctity, had now become the "iron cage" of a capitalist system of which human beings were servants not the creators.
Durkheim shared Weber's view that modern society was one in which traditional forms of religion were in terminal decline. Weber saw modernity in terms of the rise of secular, rationalised and bureaucratic social systems. Durkheim described it as an age in which the influence of the old gods of traditional religion was being replaced by new, more scientific ways of understanding the world. Durkheim was no mere passive observer of these processes. An ardent secularist, he was committed to the construction of the secular state of the French Third Republic and saw the emerging discipline of sociology as a more objective way of understanding the powerful realities of social life which traditional religious language had previously sought to articulate through symbol and myth. Traditional religion, in his view, had little to offer intellectually, morally or socially to a truly modern society.
Weber and Durkheim's firm belief in the secularisation of society proved deeply influential, not only on later sociological theory, but for subsequent generations of scholars and public thinkers who assumed that religion was an increasingly marginal force in modern social life. This confidence has clearly come under considerable challenge in recent times, with renewed public interest in the place of religion in today's world accompanied by a number of publicly-funded research programmes on this subject. In one sense, the greater public visibility of questions concerning religion today does not contradict Weber and Durkheim's convictions about the secular turn of modernity.
In Britain, it is precisely because far fewer people identify with traditional religious beliefs and institutions (particularly the Church of England) that issues of the appropriate role and influence of religion in public life have moved from being an unthought consensus to a matter of considerable contention. But at the same time, Weber and Durkheim failed to perceive the extent to which modern societies would function as part of a globalised system of markets, media and migration. The secular ethos of western Europe they described in their work is now increasingly challenged by flows of people, money and ideas from other, more religiously vitalised parts of the world. The influence of traditional religion thus persists more than either of them could have imagined.
Arguably what is most important, though, is not what Weber and Durkheim shared in terms of their beliefs about the inevitable decline of traditional religion in modern society, but what they disagreed about. While Weber saw the rise of a soulless, rationalised society ("specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart"), Durkheim believed the society of his day to be in a transitional moment in which the old gods might have faded, but new forms of the sacred were emerging. Religion might be dying, in its traditional forms, but sacred passions were not. We might, in Durkheim's terms, be living in a more secular age, but not in a desacralised one.
This disagreement goes to the heart of whether Durkheim's work has any relevance for us still today. If we believe, as Weber did, that modern society is defined by the secular machinery of capitalism, then the challenge becomes how to make that rationalised machinery work better, or rediscover a prophetic spirit that enables us to reconnect with what it is to be truly human and to design an alternative social system.
If Durkheim was right, though, this opens up the possibility that there are already powerful currents of moral sentiment that run through modern society with the capacity to overturn the rationalised systems of markets and bureaucracies, for example by forcing a market-leading tabloid newspaper to close within a week of a public scandal breaking around it. If Durkheim's analysis was more accurate than Weber's on this score then it would arguably be grounds for hope and fear about the power of these moral forces, and certainly grounds for curiosity to learn more about them.
Lynch, Gordon. 2013. “Emile Durkheim: religion – the very idea, part 2: new forms of the sacred”. The Guardian. Posted: December 17, 2012. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/17/emile-durkheim-religion-sacred