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In the end, Durkheim concluded, "men find themselves the prisoners of this imaginary world of which they are, however, the authors and models. If this animistic hypothesis is to be accepted as an account of the most primitive religion, Durkheim observed, three parts of the argument are of critical significance: its demonstration that the idea of the soul was formed without borrowing elements from any prior religion; its account of how souls become spirits, and thus the objects of a cult; and its derivation of the cult of nature from ancestor worship.

Doubts concerning the first were already raised by the observation, to be discussed later, 44 that the soul, though independent of the body under certain conditions, is in fact considerably more intimately bound to the organism than the animistic hypothesis would suggest.

Even if these doubts were overcome, moreover, the animistic theory presumes that dreams are liable to but one primitive interpretation -- that of a "second-self" -- when the interpretive possibilities are in fact innumerable; and even were this objection removed, defenders of the hypothesis must still explain why primitive men, otherwise so unreflective, were presumably driven to "explain" their dreams in the first place. The "very heart of the animist doctrine," however, was its second part -- the explanation of how souls become spirits and objects of a cult; but here again Durkheim had serious doubts.

Even if the analogy between sleep and death were sufficient to suggest that the soul survives the body, for example, this still fails to explain why the soul would thus become a "sacred" spirit, particularly in light of the tremendous gap which separates the sacred from the profane, and the fact that the approach of death is ordinarily assumed to weaken rather than strengthen the vital energies of the soul. Most important, however, if the first sacred spirits were souls of the dead, then the lower the society under investigation, the greater should be the place given to the ancestor cult; but, on the contrary, the ancestor cult is clearly developed only in relatively advanced societies e.

But even if ancestor worship were primitive, Durkheim continued, the third part of the animist theory -- the transformation of the ancestor cult into the cult of nature -- is indefensible in itself. Not only is there little evidence among primitives of the complicated analogical reasoning upon which the animist hypothesis depends; neither is there evidence among those practicing any form of nature worship of those characteristics -- anthropomorphic spirits, or spirits exhibiting at least some of the attributes of a human soul -- which their derivation from the ancestor cult would logically suggest.

For Durkheim, however, the clearest refutation of the animistic hypothesis lay in one of its unstated, but implied, consequences; for, if it were true, not only would it mean as Durkheim himself believed that religious symbols provide only an inexact expression of the realities on which they are based; far more than this, it would imply that religious symbols are products of the vague, ill-conceived hallucinations of our dream-experience, and thus as Durkheim most certainly did not believe have no foundation in reality at all.

Law, morals, even scientific thought itself, Durkheim observed, were born of religion, long remained confounded with it, and are still somewhat imbued with its spirit; it is simply inconceivable, therefore, that "religions, which have held so considerable a place in history, and to which, in all times, men have to receive the energy which they must have to live, should be made up of a tissue of illusions. What sort of science is it, Durkheim asked, whose principle discovery is that the subject of which it treats does not exist?

In sharp contrast to animism, the naturistic theory 46 insisted that religion ultimately rests upon a real experience -- that of the principal phenomena of nature the infinity of time, space, force, etc. But religion itself begins only when these natural forces cease being represented in the mind in an abstract form, and are transformed into personal, conscious spirits or gods, to whom the cult of nature may be addressed; and this transformation is allegedly achieved by language. Before the ancient Indo-European peoples began to reflect upon and classify the phenomena of nature, Durkheim explained, the roots of their language consisted of very general types of human action pushing, walking, climbing, running, etc.

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When men turned from the naming and classifying of actions to that of natural objects, the very generality and elasticity of these concepts permitted their application to forces for which they were not originally designed. The earliest classes of natural phenomena were thus metaphors for human action -- a river was "something that moves steadily," the wind was "something that sighs or whistles," etc. Once these agents had received names, the names themselves raised questions of interpretation for succeeding generations, producing the efflorescence of fables, genealogies, and myths characteristic of ancient religions.

Finally, the ancestor cult, according to this theory, is purely a secondary development -- unable to face the fact of death, men postulated their possession of an immortal soul which, upon separation from the body, was gradually drawn into the circle of divine beings, and eventually deified. Despite the contrast mentioned above, Durkheim's objections to this naturistic hypothesis followed much the same line as those objections to its animistic counterpart.

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Leaving aside the numerous criticisms of the philological premises of the naturistic theory, Durkheim insisted that nature is characterized not by phenomena so extraordinary as to produce a religious awe, but by a regularity which borders on monotony. Moreover, even if natural phenomena were sufficient to produce a certain degree of admiration, this still would not be equivalent to those features which characterize the "sacred", and least of all to that "absolute duality" which typifies its relations with the "profane.

And in fact, the earliest objects of such rites were not the principal forms of nature at all, but rather humble animals and vegetables with whom even the primitive man could feel himself at least an equal. Durkheim's major objection, however, was that the naturistic theory, like animism, would reduce religion to little more than a system of hallucinations.

It is true, he admitted, that primitive peoples reflect upon the forces of nature from an early period, for they depend on these forces for their very survival. For precisely this reason, however, these forces and the reflections upon them could hardly be the source of religious ideas; for such ideas provide a palpably misleading conception of the nature of such forces, so that any course of practical activity based upon them would surely be unsuccessful, and this in turn would undermine one's faith in the ideas themselves. Again, the important place granted to religious ideas throughout history and in all societies is evidence that they respond to some reality, and one other than that of physical nature.

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  • Whether from dreams or from physical nature, therefore, animism and naturism both attempt to construct the idea of the sacred out of the facts of our common, individual experience; and for Durkheim, whose argument again parallels Kant's attack on empiricist ethics, such an enterprise is simply impossible: "A fact of common experience," he insisted, "cannot give us the idea of something whose characteristic is to be outside the world of common experience.

    Aside from the human individual and the physical world, there should be some other reality, in relation to which this variety of delirium which all religion is in a sense, has a significance and an objective value. In other words, beyond those which we have called animistic and naturistic, there should be another sort of cult, more fundamental and more primitive, of which the first are only derived forms or particular aspect.

    The peculiar set of beliefs and practices known as totemism had been discovered among American Indians as early as ; and though repeated observations for the next eighty years increasingly suggested that the institution enjoyed a certain generality, it continued to be seen as a largely American, and rather archaic, phenomenon. McLennan's articles on "The Worship of Animals and Plants" showed that totemism was not only a religion, but one from which considerably more advanced religions had derived; and L.

    Morgan's Ancient Society revealed that this religion was intimately connected to that specific form of social organization that Durkheim had discussed in The Division of Labor -- the division of the social group into clans. As the same religion and social organization were increasingly observed and reported among the Australian aborigines, the documents accumulated until James Frazer brought them together in Totemism But Frazer's work was purely descriptive, making no effort to understand or explain the most fundamental aspects of totemism.

    All these works, however, were constructed out of fragmentary observations, for a true totemic religion had not yet been observed in its complete state.

    Naomi Janowitz

    This hiatus was filled, however, in Baldwin Spencer and F. Gillen's Native Tribes of Central Australia , a study of totemic clans almost definitively primitive; and, together with the studies they stimulated, these observations were incorporated within Frazer's four-volume compendium, Totemism and Exogamy The initial contribution of The Elementary Forms to this rapidly growing literature was simply its methodological approach. As a member of the "anthropological" school, for example, Frazer had made no effort to place the various religious systems he studied within their social and historical context; rather, as the name of the school implies, he assumed that man has some sort of innate, religious "nature" regardless of social conditions, and thus "compared" the most disparate beliefs and rites with an eye to their most superficial similarities.

    For this reason, two facts from different societies cannot be usefully compared simply because they seem to resemble one another; in addition, the societies themselves should resemble each other -- be varieties of the same species. But where, in such totemic societies, was one to look first? At their rites, as had Robertson Smith and the early Frazer? Or at their beliefs, following Tylor and Frazer's later work?

    The fact that myths are frequently constructed after the rite in order to account for it suggested the first; while recognition that rites are often the sole expression of antecedent beliefs argued for the second. On this contemporary controversy in the scientific study of religion, Durkheim ultimately leaned heavily toward the second alternative; and on the ground that it is impossible to understand a religion without a firm grasp of its ideas, his discussion of Australian totemism in The Elementary Forms thus began with its beliefs.

    The most fundamental of these beliefs is that the members of each clan 56 consider themselves bound together by a special kind of kinship, based not on blood, but on the mere fact that they share the same name. This name, moreover, is taken from a determined species of material objects an animal, less frequently a plant, and in rare cases an inanimate object with which the clan members are assumed to enjoy the same relations of kinship.

    But this "totem" is not simply a name; it is also an emblem, which, like the heraldic coats-of-arms, is carved, engraved, or designed upon the other objects belonging to the clan, and even upon the bodies of the clan members themselves. Indeed, it is these designs which seem to render otherwise common objects "sacred," and their inscription upon the bodies of clan members indicates the approach of the most important religious ceremonies.

    The same religious sentiments aroused by these designs, of course, are aroused by the members of the totemic species themselves. Clan members are thus forbidden to kill or eat the totemic animal or plant except at certain mystical feasts see below , and the violation of this interdiction is assumed to produce death instantaneously.

    Moreover the clan members themselves are "sacred" in so far as they belong to the totemic species, a belief which gives rise to genealogical myths explaining how men could have had animal and even vegetable ancestors. Durkheim thus rejected McLennan's interpretation of totemism as a form of animal worship; for man belongs to the sacred world himself, and thus his relations with his totem are much more like those uniting members of the same family.

    Totemism is thus a religion in which three classes of things -- the totemic emblem, the animal or plant, and the members of the clan -- are recognized as sacred; but in addition, totemism constitutes a cosmology, in which all known things are distributed among the various clans and phratries, so that everything is classified according to the social organization of the tribe.

    How, then, were these beliefs to be explained?

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    Totemism, in short, is not a religion of emblems or animals or men at all, but rather of an anonymous, impersonal "force," 62 immanent in the world and diffused among its various material objects. But, surely, such a conception surpasses the limits of the primitive mind? On the contrary, Durkheim argued, whether it is described as mana , wakan , or orenda , this belief in a diffused, impersonal force is found among the Samoans, the Melanesians, various North American Indian tribes, and albeit less abstracted and generalized among the totemic clans of central Australia.

    And quite aside from its purely religious significance, Durkheim argued that this was the original form under which the modern, scientific idea of force was conceived. To explain totemism is thus to explain this belief in a diffused, impersonal force. How might such a belief arise? Obviously, not from sensations aroused by the totemic objects themselves, Durkheim argued, for these objects -- the caterpillar, the ant, the frog, etc.

    Of what, then, are they the symbols? Durkheim's initial answer was that they symbolize both the "totemic principle" and the totem clan; but if this is the case, then surely that principle and the clan are one and the same thing: "The god of the clan, the totemic principle," he insisted, "can therefore be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and represented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem.

    This hypothesis -- that god is nothing more than society apotheosized--was supported by a number of characteristically Durkheimian arguments. It was insisted, for example, that a society has all that is necessary to arouse the idea of the divine, for it is to its members what a god is to his worshippers.

    It is both physically and morally superior to individuals, and thus they both fear its power and respect its authority; but society cannot exist except in and through the individual conscience , and thus it both demands our sacrifices and periodically strengthens and elevates the divine "principle" within each of us -- especially during periods of collective enthusiasm, when its power is particularly perceptible.

    It is this succession of intense periods of "collective effervescence" with much longer periods of dispersed, individualistic economic activity, Durkheim suggested, which gives rise to the belief that there are two worlds -- the sacred and the profane -- both within us and within nature itself. But how does this belief give rise to totemism? Briefly, the individual who is transported from his profane to a sacred existence in a gathering of the clan seeks some explanation for his altered, elevated state. The gathering of the clan itself is the real cause, though one too complex for the primitive mind to comprehend; but all around him, the clan member sees symbols of precisely that cause -- the carved engraved images of the totem -- and fixes his confused social sentiments on these clear, concrete objects, from which the physical power and moral authority of society thus seem to emanate.

    Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

    Just as the soldier who dies for his flag in fact dies for his country, so the clan member who worships his totem in fact worships his clan. To the classical formula Primus in orbe deos fecit timor -- the fear-theory defended in various ways by Hume, Tylor, and Frazer -- Durkheim thus added a decisive, if not entirely original, dissent. Following Robertson Smith -- indeed, it was probably this idea, seized upon in his anti-Frazerian mood of , that so dramatically altered Durkheim's conception of religion itself -- Durkheim insisted that the primitive man does not regard his gods as hostile, malevolent, or fearful in any way whatsoever; on the contrary, his gods are friends and relatives, who inspire a sense of confidence and well-being.

    The sense thus inspired, moreover, is not an hallucination, but is based on reality; for however misunderstood, there actually is a real moral power -- society -- to which these beliefs correspond, and from which the worshipper derives his strength. This argument -- the very heart of The Elementary Forms 69 -- was also intimately bound to Durkheim's important conception of the role of symbols in society.

    Their utilitarian value as expressions of social sentiments notwithstanding, Durkheim's more ambitious claim was that such symbols serve to create the sentiments themselves.