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Great Jewish Thinkers-Durkheim ‘Religion is the worship of society’

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Emile Durkheim conducted fascinating studies leading to insightful yet sweeping conclusions. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were rabbis though he broke tradition and studied philosophy.[i] Much to his credit, he defended Alfred Dreyfus during the Dreyfus affair.[ii] He was one of the pioneers of sociology and he examined religion across various societies separating what was collectively considered sacred and profane.

As a Functionalist he considered the Aboriginal natives worshipping images carved onto totem poles, hence the items inscribed represented valuable aspects of their immediate community. He also considered the problem of coping with death and understood the collective aspect off rituals and mourning as highly necessary for them to continue. His famous conclusion was that ‘religion is the worship of society.’  He viewed religion as necessary to provide meaning and purpose.

Two and a half millennia before Durkheim, the prophet Isaiah observed and wrote of idolatry, not from a sociological perspective, but a biblical one. He drew the reader’s attention to the effort, expense, and futility of designing an idol, wearing himself out in the process before worshipping it and asking it to deliver him (Isaiah 44:9-17). Idolatry often involved worshipping an image that represented a particular deity that was supposed to be responsible for particular aspects of life such as agricultural success, health, or protection. It is therefore more accurate to say that ‘idolatry is the worship of society’ or what we value most. Idolatry directly contravenes the second commandment and fails to give glory to the Creator.

Durkheim recognised the importance of societal norms and values since otherwise society would inevitably regress into anarchy. Society needs to be regulated for it to continue. Collective norms and values enable society to function. For much of the Western world, the Ten Commandments form the basis of a legal system and without that basic framework any form of democracy would be in jeopardy.

The Problem of Death

But what about the problem of death? Durkheim noted the importance of collective ritual to help individuals to cope with loss and no doubt he would see that as a helpful and important function in all societies.

The Bible provides hope beyond death. Job is probably the earliest written book of the Bible. Job suffered horrifically even though he was blameless and upright. Yet Job spoke with certainty of his lasting hope of seeing God after his death.

“For I know that My Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns with me.” (Job 19:25-27)

King David, like Job was confident of his resurrection but also of the resurrection of His greater Son.

“For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will you allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fulness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:10-11)

There is a paradox involved here since the Messiah was innocent, yet a Man born to die. He conquered death. The most famous Rabbi that ever lived gave Himself to die yet He rose from the grave and whoever believes in Him though they may die, they shall live. Job was blameless yet Yeshua (Jesus) was sinless. David was a great King of Israel, yet the Lord Jesus is the King of the Jews and the King of the Universe.

Durkheim recognised that societies worldwide have their ways of coping with death to enable us to continue but the Messiah of Israel provides hope after death and life eternal. Sin separates us from God, but the sinless Saviour redeems those under the curse of sin and reconciles us to God.

He is the perfect substitutionary atonement who paid the debt of sin to reconcile us to a holy God.

[i] Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy A-Peer Reviewed Academic Source

[ii] Ibid,