A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

By Michele Dillon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
The Ritual Roots of Society and Culture
Robert N. Bellah

There is probably no better place to begin a discussion of the place of ritual in the sociology of religion than with a famous passage in Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life :

Life in Australian [Aboriginal] societies alternates between two different phases. In one phase, the population is scattered in small groups that attend to their occupations independently. Each family lives by itself, hunting, fishing–in short, striving by all possible means to get the food it requires. In the other phase, by contrast, the population comes together, concentrating itself at specified places for a period that varies from several days to several months. This concentration takes place when a clan or a portion of the tribe … conducts a religious ceremony.

These two phases stand in the sharpest possible contrast. The first phase, in which economic activity predominates, is generally of rather low intensity. Gathering seeds or plants necessary for food, hunting, and fishing are not occupations that can stir truly strong passions. The dispersed state in which the society finds itself makes life monotonous, slack, and humdrum. Everything changes when a [ceremony] takes place. … Once the individuals are gathered together a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them into an extraordinary height of exaltation. … Probably because a collective emotion cannot be expressed collectively without some order that permits harmony and unison of movement, [their] gestures and cries tend to fall into rhythm and regularity, and from there into songs and dances (1912/1976: 214–16).

Thus Durkheim makes his critical distinction between profane time, which is “monotonous, slack and humdrum, ” and sacred time which he characterizes as “collective effervescence.” Sacred time is devoted primarily to ritual. Further, the community that ritual creates is at the center of Durkheim's definition of religion: “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” (ibid.: 47).1

Since ritual, for Durkheim, is primarily about the sacred in a sense in which the religious and the social are almost interchangeable, subsequent work on ritual under

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1
In the original, the entire definition is in italics.

-31-

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