Defining what constitutes a religion is a difficult, if not an impossible quest. However, before determining whether or not certain belief-systems and/or ritualized practices can be considered a religion, a definition is imperative. For our purposes, I am going to use the extremely elementary definition from Webster’s New Dictionary , “A system of faith and worship.” In The Elementary Forms of Religion, Emile Durkheim, a French Sociologist from the 19th Century, examines totemism in an effort to draw universals between all religions. Durkheim sets his focus on Australian totemism, because it is the most “primitive culture” with the most resources available. From Durkheim’s perspective, the basis of totemism is to create lasting societal bonds.
Totemic tribes are assorted into clans whose unity results not from kinship, but from the religious relationship between the members. From Durkheim’s perspective, the totemism in this culture is based on the sacred relationships developed by the clan’s members in addition to some totemic unit, which is usually a plant or animals species common to the area. If an entire society is based around its sacred ritualized practices, it is only fair to consider those ritualized beliefs and practices as constituting a religion. Thus, the real question is, can a society whose spirituality is based on kinship, and whose idea of sacred lies only in the ties within the clan and not on a god or gods of some sort be considered a religion? The answer to this question is yes.
Although totemic practices may not be familiar to many Westerners, when real speculation is given to various totemic religions, it is easy to see the complexity that underlies many forms of totemism. In addition, when looking at the religions that are common to us Westerners, can we really argue that our common religions are more logical than theirs? Through the totemic principles of the universe, and the worshiping of idols, even if these idols do not represent G-ds, it proves that totemism is most certainly a religion.
Durkeim uses totemism as a basis from which answers to our lingering questions about modern religions can be drawn. “In our eyes, the question whether totemism has been more or less universal or not, is quite secondary. If it interests us, it does so before all because in studying it we hope to discover relations of a nature to make us understand better what religion is( Durkheim, 176).” Durkheim is using totemism as the platform from which all other religions shall be compared to derive new and provoking ideas about religion.
Durkheim believes totemism contains obvious religious qualities, even with the lack of a god or gods. ” Finally, that which we propose to study in this work is the most primitive and simple religion which it is possible to find ( Durkheim 176).” Durkheim clearly considers totemism a valid although “simple” religion. Of course, this is only the opinion of one, we must delve into totemic rituals and beliefs before it can be proven that totemism is just as much of a religion as any other.
Before arguing the attributes of totemism that allow it to be classified as a religion, a more thorough understanding of various totemic practices and the principle’s and beliefs behind those practices is necessary. The first and most prominent example that will be used to describe totemism, will be from the various Australian tribes described by Durkheim. The critical belief in Australian totemism, is the notion that the totemic entity, whatever it may be, is sacred. The entity is thought to bestow sacredness on whatever carries its mark. The totemic entity is used to mark various objects such as stones, sticks, wood, etc. in various rituals. “The totem is in fact a design which corresponds to the heraldic emblems of civilized nations, and each person is authorized to bear it as proof of the identity of the family to which it belongs ( Durkheim 180).”
It is true that we have symbols and emblems that represent our society, which we deem sacred. Is that notion really so outlandish? Many patriotic Americans would be offended by the burning of the American flag, which is only an inanimate object to which we grant sacredness. This, however, is a nation and not a religion, but it is additionally quite common in many religions to revere objects. In Judeo-Christian religions, sacredness is assigned to a book, the Bible, among many other symbols from the Jewish Star to the Christian Cross.
If the Bible is dropped or thrown down in many religions, it is seen as a direct offense to G-d, and one must kiss the book to compensate. Notice, also the dropping of the “o” in G-d. To many religious Jews even writing the name God is considered highly offensive. Assigning value to an object is a common trait across many religions, the difference is that the symbols used in totemism are not a representation for an actual god.
Although the totemic emblem is not representative of a god that bears human-like qualities, it is deemed sacred and thus must be some sort of a representation of higher forces as opposed to higher beings. Totemic emblems are not only found on trees, in houses, on wood, etc, but also on the bodies of humans ( Durkheim 181). Whether they are marked on a body through mutilation, scarring, and tattooing, or whether the totems is represented on jewelry and on clothing, the adornment of totems on humans is yet another indication of its sacred value. “These totemic decorations enable us to see that the totem is not merely a name and an emblem.
It is in the course of the religious ceremonies that they are employed; they are part of the liturgy; so while the totem is a collective label, it also has a religious character. In fact, it is in connection with it, that things are classified as sacred or profane. It is the very type of sacred thing (Durkheim 183).” “Sacred” is used to mean the things that are unworldly which cause humans to revere while “profane” is simply worldly matter. Once again, the assignment of so much value that one deems it sacred is evidence of religious qualities.
Aside from the actual totemic emblem, there are other objects used in worship which are also considered sacred. The Arunta in particular, a tribe in Central Australia, uses an object called a churinga which is literally pieces of wood or polished stone, with the totemic entity marked upon it. Each group has a number of various churinga’s which sometimes bare a whole at one end where a thread made of human or opossum hair goes through. The thread allows the churinga to, when suspended, whirl into the air producing a humming noise which Durkheim compares to the toys of children ( Durkheim, 183, 119). These objects accompany rituals of any importance but also have a direct effect on the “sacred” and “profane.” The actual word churinga translates to mean sacred, and women, children, and young men who have not yet been initiated are not granted access to these instruments of piety.
Having access to these instruments could be considered positive and negative. Certain churinga’s could not to be handled or viewed at by profane persons when not in use. Sometimes they were placed in secret hiding locations where the ” sacred character of the churinga [was] so great that it communicates itself to the locality where they are stored ( Durkheim 184, 120).” Additionally they had powers such as they could create courage and vigor in combat, heal sickness, and ensure fertility of the totemic animal or plant etc ( Durkheim 184, 120). In all, the sacredness the clan placed on these object is more than apparent and indicates the religious qualities of totemism.
It is crucial to remember that the objects chosen to represent totemic symbols are in no way related to the actual symbol itself. The totem itself is not creating the religious feeling, but is solely a means to make tangible the spirituality that bonds a clan. In other words, totemism really has nothing to do with the totem. Instead it is the accumulated experiences of the various social units that creates those intense feelings of awe and reverence that has caused religion to last throughout the ages. Durkheim rationalizes this by saying that most individuals are vulnerable to authoritative figures in societies. In other words, people are inclined to follow individuals who have earned some sort of respect.
Durkheim believes that in group environments, the authoritative individual has the capacity to make other individuals feel as though they are experiencing something that can not be experienced alone. People usually are incapable of distinguishing the cause of the intense feelings they are undergoing. Thus, the individuals in such a setting assume that it is some otherworldly force that is the cause of their newfound spiritual experience. The source of whatever is causing those feelings of intensity is what is deemed sacred. The sacred comes in different forms in all religions. In most religions sacredness is assigned to a god or gods. In totemism, it happens to be a totem which symbolizes the sacredness of the kinship in a clan.
An interesting perspective that Durkheim holds is that in practice totemic religion in particular arose out of tribal life style. Individuals in tribal societies lived in groups too small to create the type of religious forces recognized by Durkheim. They usually lived spread across vast landscapes. On various occasions social meetings would be held that may be considered large enough to be called a mass of people. In Durkheim’s opinion, gatherings of this sort would effervesce, meaning that the spirituality that lies in the bonds of the group would build creating an even larger sense of religious awe.
The group environment would cause the essential production of excited behaviors and heightened emotions that propel belief in the sacred. A continuation off the previous belief, is Durkheim’s notion that sacredness is contagious. Through these group gatherings, Durkheim argues that the sacred is passed on by means of physical contact. This is proven through rituals that deem new things sacred when touched by previous instruments considered sacred.
This is also common in Judaism where the Torah, the first five books in the Bible considered very sacred to the Jews, is touched by all those worshipping in the temple as a way of passing on the sacredness of the Torah to the members of the congregation. Catholics feel drinking wine that is blessed is equivalent to drinking the blood of Christ and thus feel they have attained a degree of sacredness through this ritual.
Totemism is most certainly a religion, and bears all the qualities that many consider necessary before labeling something a religion. Durkheim used totemism to analyze the origins of religion in addition to the role religion plays in aiding people in understanding present society. It has been made evident that Durkheim considered religion essentially social viewing it from the eyes of a sociologist. In Durkheim’s mind, primal societies are where religion originated. He believed that although religion is only felt by individuals, it is an episode caused by a few factors. Due to the fact that religion is passed from generation to generation, the perspective that it is larger than any one person is created.
The notion that it is larger than an individual allows individuals to become awe stricken by its seemingly evident power. In addition, in closed societies such as the ones which employ totemism, religion is universal, meaning that everyone has the same belief system. The collectiveness ensued through the belief system creates a unity and spiritual bonds among the members of the clans. Lastly, Durkheim believed that individuals in closed societies really have no other options but to believe in the religion taught to or experienced by them from an early age. Durkheim also touched on the fact that the forbidden and the unknown play considerable roles in understanding the essence of religion. Because totemism possesses and even exemplifies Durkheim’s opinions of religion, in addition to standard definitions of religion, it is only fair to label it as being one.