There is every reason to reappraise Émile Durkheim’s thought for the study and teaching of religion today. For any such reappraisal will show how Durkheim’s theory isolates religion as a distinct energy or power in human life, and thus allows us to appreciate the value, meaning, and truth of religion in human life. Thereby we also come to a more precise knowledge of the working of religion in society. Durkheim’s methodology makes us understand what it is to pioneer the study of religion empirically, sociologically, with a claim to the social scientific precision and clarity about a subject usually consigned to the humanities.
To appreciate an empirically-based study of religion we should begin with the admission that many of us professors of religious studies take the opposite approach. Most of us professors and many of our students tend towards what we might call the vertical approach towards teaching religion. The vertical approach assumes that religion consists of beliefs and rituals, whose root meaning is connected to the existence of a transcendent divine object. We need not always specify the transcendent divine object. It can be spirit, soul, demon, gods, or the God of the monotheistic religions. Vertical teaching of religion boils down to interpreting religious symbols and myths, recounting the history of the religious community, and describing the cardinal “truths of faith”—all of which teaching is in one way or another intended to convey the meaning of the transcendent or spiritual or supernatural being.
Vertical teaching of religion does not seek to demonstrate and justify the existence of the transcendent “other.” The “other” is the mysterious, unexplainable, supernatural realm of gods, spirits, souls, demons, gods, and God, which realm must remain unexplained. The best vertical teaching of religion can do is to bestow some sort of intellectual or intelligible status on the transcendent “other” by using words like revelation, hierophany, theophany, epiphany. For the most part then religion, under the vertical teaching approach, is understood to be a stimulus-and-response dynamism. The transcendent “other” provides revelations or impulses or communications or emanations, to which human beings respond. Religion consists of the various forms taken by the human response. Thus vertical teaching of religion is largely directed toward understanding of the transcendent “other” by the data of religious experience and expression. The all-important . . .