Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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People sharing the same representations of the sacred (beliefs and rituals) feel like being members of the same society and are concerned by what is happening in their society. According to Émile Durkheim (1912), their belonging is not only the result of this sharing, it is also the source of it.

Religious people are aware of being part of something that goes beyond themselves: the sacred. With respect to belonging, the sacred is the semantic function that regulates the social tension of human life by forging links of solidarity between individuals, groups, and societies through symbolic representations of their respective identities. The symbol of "God," for example, conveys a sense of belonging to something greater, the identity of which is close enough to their own that they act on its behalf. This is the sacred: the representation of a moral power that tells people to act in a certain way; it is not wholly they because it transcends them. Such a normative representation responds to one of the exigencies of being human, that of life in society, because of the de facto interdependence linking human beings. This is why Durkheim perceived the origins of all manifestations of the sacred in the "moral power" of society: Belonging is first, and religion is a functional way to maintain it.

See also Beliefs, Émile Durkheim, Moral Community, Ritual, Sacred

Robert Tessier


É. Durkheim, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (Paris: Alcan, 1912); The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1965).

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