Émile Durkheim, the Sacred, and the Nonreligious

In this post, Galen Watts argues for a Durkheimian approach to nonreligion that focuses less on the labels “religion” and “nonreligion” and more on how the sacred manifests itself in contemporary life. Bio pic (1)

A quick peruse through this blog for articles that reference the work of Émile Durkheim will produce strikingly little in substance (an exception is Polina Batanova’s interesting article). Although Durkheim may be paid periodic lip service, there exists little in the way of in-depth exploration. Instead, far more attention is given to secularization theory and discursive approaches. I think this is unfortunate. Durkheim has much to contribute to the study of nonreligion, especially in light of contemporary social and cultural developments. Moreover, Durkheim’s sociology of religion opens up avenues of inquiry that secularization and discursive approaches overlook.

From a Durkheimian perspective, secularization theory falls short due to its preoccupation with what is being lost (some substantive conception of “religion”—often informed by Christianity) in lieu of what might be emerging and/or transforming—while discursive approaches (be they critical or otherwise) mistakenly assume that words have a degree of political import and power that they, on their own, rarely do. The truth is, studying how people construct “religion” and its consequences captures only a sliver of what is significant and interesting about the study of both religion and nonreligion. Moreover, too often debates within the critical study of religion seem either wholly detached from our most pressing social and political issues, and/or naïve about the efficacy of demystification to do anything about them.

How might Durkheim offer us a useful alternative? Let me outline what I take to be the basics of his sociology of religion to answer this question. [i] Let’s begin with his definition of religion and unpack things from there. Durkheim defined religion in the following way: “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 called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim 1995, 44).

At least three things follow from this. First, Durkheim’s functionalist approach begins with a simple dichotomy: the sacred and profane. For Durkheim this distinction is crucial to understanding religious (and indeed social) life. In fact, it’s so crucial that his sociology of religion might be more accurately called a sociology of the sacred. According to Durkheim, beliefs, or what he often called “collective representations,” which are held sacred are “set apart and forbidden,” that is, they are viewed and experienced by a moral community as having a special force because they are shared. Indeed, sacred forms are crucial to group cohesion and moral conduct because it is their immutable nature that both binds individuals (indirectly) together and commands individual adherence (Haidt 2012). For this reason, Durkheim saw religion and the sacred as essential to morality.

Second, rather than viewing religion as necessarily entailing a belief in a spiritual reality or divine entity, Durkheim, took a wholly sociological approach—he understood religion to be inherently social, that is, as a byproduct of collective life. As W. S. F. Pickering puts it, for Durkheim, “[t]o delineate a religion therefore requires the delineation of a group or society” (Pickering 1984, 179). Accordingly, from a Durkheimian perspective, every society has religion, whether or not that society is deemed by observers to be “traditional” or “modern”, “religious” or “secular”. For Durkheim, one finds religion wherever public, normative concepts, symbols, or rites are employed.

Third, according to Durkheim, religion consists of two basic categories: beliefs and rituals. Indeed, a religion only has force insofar as both of these elements are present and active. This allows for a critique of discursive approaches which narrowly focus on the former at the expense of the latter. From a Durkheimian perspective, religious beliefs are impotent unless transfigured through collective ritual. (Another corollary of this is that mere demystification is unlikely to sway anyone so long as their commitment to a belief is rooted in their attachment to a particular moral community. As Jonathan Haidt (2012) notes, individuals declare religious beliefs to be right because they hold them to be sacred, not the other way around). [ii]

How might this approach help us to study the nonreligious? A Durkheimian perspective would give less attention to the labels “religion”, “nonreligion”, and “secular”, and more attention to what individuals (and the communities they belong to) consider sacred. I should add here that there exists an extended literature on the study of the sacred, associated with the likes of Gordon Lynch and Kim Knott, among others, which I think the emerging study of nonreligion could fruitfully learn from. Within the study of the sacred one might begin by inquiring into how individuals self-identify in order to determine how they draw moral boundaries—(from a Durkheimian perspective “religious” and “nonreligious” are simply labels individuals use to denote their membership in particular communities)—but one would then move on to conduct an inquiry into the moral communities they belong to, and the range of collective representations held sacred by these communities.

Let me give some examples. Large-scale studies show that the “nonreligious” today are far more likely to be highly educated and politically liberal or progressive in their views. In studying them, then, a Durkheimian analysis would inquire into what educated progressives today deem sacred, and what moral communities they might belong to. A few ideas come to mind: the natural environment (environmentalist groups like Greenpeace could make interesting case studies of nonreligious identity); human rights (Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and other social movements committed to the sanctity of the individual (especially the most vulnerable) could be of interest here); science and rationality (consider the popularity of thinkers such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins—New Atheists who have achieved fame by sacralizing the Enlightenment values of reason and science); diversity and equality (we could think of the academy as a moral community wherein these values have been sacralized); and finally, romantic relationships (listen to Top 40 radio recently? It’s not difficult to detect the degree to which “the beloved” has become a target of worship and even salvation for both the religious and nonreligious alike).

Yet in my view these examples are less interesting than the way Durkheim’s sociology of the sacred enables us to understand ostensibly “nonreligious” phenomena such as the recent rise in populism across the West. [iii] A Durkheimian approach to populism would view the discursive dynamic of “us” versus “them”—as deeply religious insofar as it assumes membership in a particular moral community—be it, national or ethnic in nature—and is motivated by an impassioned commitment to sacred ideals (to be clear, saying they are held sacred is not the same as endorsing them. Nationalists may view their country as defined by the sacred qualities of “blood and soil” but this in no way justifies this deeply exclusionary and illiberal stance). It would also study the collective rituals that work to code certain individuals as “insiders” and thereby pollute “outsiders.” Remember: for Durkheim, religion and morality are always collective, and collectives always entail membership. This is the inescapable moral ambiguity at the heart of social life.

The study of nonreligion could conceivably attend to this and other pressings issues, but it must open itself to a Durkheimian approach; that is, it must learn from the study of the sacred. The study of nonreligion, in my view, ought to focus less on the labels “religion” and “nonreligion” and more on how the sacred manifests itself in contemporary life. From a Durkheimian perspective, the academic study of nonreligion is no different than the study of religion, since to study religion is simply to study the building blocks of society itself.

[i] For a comprehensive overview of Durkheim’s sociology of religion see Pickering 1984.

[ii] Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is a fascinating synthesis of Durkheim’s sociology of religion and evolutionary psychology applied to construct the discipline of moral psychology.

[iii] Of course, in saying this I am not suggesting religious discourses have played no role in spurring the recent waves of populism, only that few today speak about populism as essentially “religious” in nature.


Durkheim, Émile. [1912] 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage Books.

Lynch, Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pickering, W. S. F. 1984. Durkheim’s Sociology of Religion: Themes and Theories. Cambridge: James & Clarke Co.

Galen Watts is a PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program at Queen’s University. His research interests include religion, culture, and politics—specifically, how they interact discursively and practically in contemporary society. He is also interested in the sources of belonging, solidarity, and meaning in modernity, and how these influence levels of well-being and justice in liberal democracies.


One thought on “Émile Durkheim, the Sacred, and the Nonreligious

  1. Quite a reductionist construction of discursive study, I would say. A model, perhaps of “bad” discursive work. But in any case…. lots of resonances here with Kim Knott’s work, and I’d certainly encourage anything that problematizes and moves beyond the simplistic binary. And it’s great to see this being connected with issues such as “populism” which may not so intuitively be conceptualized as within our remit. Thanks!

    Knott, Kim. 2013. “The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/And?” In Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular, edited by Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter, 201–21. Farnham: Ashgate.

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