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Energy and contagion in Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

Emile Durkheim was a foundational figure in the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, yet recapitulations of his work sometimes overlook his most intriguing ideas, ideas which continue to have contemporary resonance. Here, I am going to discuss two such ideas from Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (originally published in 1912 and then in English in 1915), firstly his concept of energy and secondly, his concept of contagion.

At the heart of Durkheim’s theory of religion was his account of aboriginal religion or ‘totemism.’ According to Durkheim, aboriginal life was marked by two distinct phases: the first was characterized by the different totemic groups dispersing for the purposes of hunting and gathering while in the second, the dispersed groups came together to perform the totemic ritual. Durkheim characterized the first phase of hunting and gathering as of “mediocre intensity” and as being marked by activities unlikely “to awaken very lively passions.” However, once the groups had come together a transformation occurred. Durkheim described the rite as generating “a general effervescence” [une effervescence générale], a “current of energy” [afflux d’énergie] and “a sort of electricity” [une sorte d’électricité]. Durkheim understood that societies—if they were to be sustainable—had to withstand forces of disintegration (he explored these negative energies in The Division of Labor and Suicide where anomie functioned as an implosive principle, as disorganization, disaggregation, and disconnection, and as a kind of short circuit or misfire). According to Durkheim, the performance of ritual supplied so-called aboriginal society with the resources it needed to ensure the right balance between the generation of energy on the one hand, and the consumption of energy on the other. Durkheim, of course, could not have known how apposite this line of thought would be to we humans of the Anthropocene, a term coined to mark that moment in Earth’s history when human impact on eco-systems (notably the extraction of resources for generating energy) now threatens the sustainability of all human societies.

Bust of Emile Durkheim by Christian Baudelot. CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A second important and under-explored element of Durkheim’s theory of religion was his idea of the “contagiousness of sacredness” [la contagiosité du sacré]. New atheists and evolutionary psychologists have characterized religious beliefs as side-effects of ordinary psychological processes, and have characterized them as viruses that inhabit the mind, hijacking it for their own purposes. For the new atheists, beliefs, in order to be rational, should maximise the self-interest of the believer, and they argue that the striking feature of religious beliefs is that they do the reverse. Their promotion of epidemiological and genetic models for understanding the transmission and distribution of religious beliefs in a population may appear, at first sight, to have been anticipated by Durkheim’s use of the word ‘contagion’. However, for Durkheim—influenced perhaps by Gustave Le Bon’s (1841-1931) work on the psychology of crowds—contagion pointed to the social and emotional force of religious ideas. Ritual occasions—with their interdictions and transgressions—were precisely the moments at which the “contagiousness of sacredness” was evident.

Dead, white French professors whose work is out of fashion and whose empirical data is suspect might not seem the likeliest source of inspiration for our troubled times but, in Durkheim’s case, he is worth revisiting because his questions and the answers they furnished, are interesting. Since Durkheim, new atheists and evolutionary psychologists have made the individual the sum of their focus in the study of religions, a move which reflects a wider tendency in the humanities and social sciences to take the individual as the primary unit of analysis. One of the problems with focusing on the individual is that complex social, historical, political and economic contexts tend to be blurred or may even disappear entirely from view. Durkheim’s conceptions of energy and contagion remind us that the question of religion is a social question.

Featured image credit: title page of De la division du travail social by Emile Durkheim. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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