Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 15

Method and Theory in the Study

of Religion (04) -5

METHOD

&THEORY in the
STUDY OF
RELIGION

brill.com/mtsr

Religious Symbolism and the Human Mind


Rethinking Durkheims Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Carles Salazar
Department of Art and Social History (Anthropology Program),
University of Lleida Plaa de Vctor Siurana, 1, 25003 Lleida,
Catalonia, Spain
Salazar@hahs.udl.cat

Abstract
The purpose of this paper is to assess Durkheims approach to religion and the validity
of the time-honoured principle of the social determination of mental representations.
The thesis to be defended is that Durkheim was essentially right in understanding religious ritual as a symbolic language. But he was wrong both in his social deterministic
theory of mental representations and in his definition of religion as an exclusively
social phenomenon. As current evolutionary sciences have amply demonstrated,
human mental architecture has been shaped by a long evolutionary process and cannot be easily reconfigured through cultural indoctrination. Two consequences can be
derived from this. First, religious ideas can successfully colonise human minds thanks
to their ability to parasitize on biologically evolved human cognitive structures.
Second, due to their counterintuitive properties, this colonisation can only succeed if
those ideas are culturally transmitted through a special language.

Keywords
cognition Durkheim mind ritual symbolism

Part of the research for this article was supported by a grant from the Ministry of Science and
Innovation of Spain (ref.: cso2009-08093). An earlier version was presented at the conference Biological and Cultural Evolution and Their Interactions: Rethinking the Darwinian
and Durkheimian Legacy in the Context of the Study of Religion, held at the University of
Aahrus, 26-30 June 2012. I would like to thank the participants of that conference and an
anonymous reviewer for their constructive comments on earlier drafts.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 4|doi 0.63/570068-3436

doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326|Salazar

This article aims to discuss two aspects of Durkheims work which I think are
particularly relevant to current understandings of religion, specifically, from a
cognitive and evolutionary perspective. The first is Durkheims theory of the
human mind, what he defined as sociology of knowledge, and the second is his
theory of religious symbolism. Although Durkheims sociological approach to
the study of religion appears to be inimical to the naturalistic standpoint taken
by cognitive scientists, it was also based, interestingly enough, on a theory of
the human mindthough that theory was very different indeed from the way
in which the mind is seen by current cognitive science. Durkheims theory of
the mind or sociology of knowledge was explicitly exposed in the Introduction
of the Elementary Forms, developed in different parts of that work, and in
other of his works, such as Primitive Classifications (1963), co-authored with
Marcel Mauss. While I think this theory is inadequate and grossly misleading,
it has been (and still is) a very important milestone in the development of the
social sciences in the 20th century, and it constitutes one of the key theoretical
foundations of the, at that time, nascent discipline of social anthropology. As I
will try to demonstrate in this paper, despite the flaws in Durkheims sociology
of knowledge, key aspects of his overall approach to religious symbolism can
be suitably teased apart from that theory.
What did Durkheim say about the human mind that, inaccurate as it was,
became the benchmark for the modern social-scientific approach to religion
and culture in general? In the Introduction to the Elementary Forms Durkheim
stated that his work had two subjects of research: a principal subject and a secondary one. The principal subject was to study the most primitive and simplest
religion known or currently known at that time, his point being that we cannot understand a religion, any religion, if we have not first analyzed the most
simple of them all. The secondary subject was to study what he defined as the
genesis of our fundamental notions of thought or categories of understanding.
I shall begin by focusing my attention on this secondary subject.
According to Durkheim, there were two competing theories that tried to
account for the origins of those fundamental notions of thought. The empiricist perspective, as had been developed amongst others by Scottish philosopher David Hume, maintained that all the contents of our mind comes from
individual experience. This constitutes the philosophical foundation of the
so-called blank slate hypothesis. When we are born our mind is just like a
blank sheet of paper, and whatever we find in it afterwards can only come
from the impressions left upon it by our individual experiences. Against this
view, Immanuel Kant argued that in order to make sense of any individual
experience we need to have some mental tools, instruments of thought that
in turn cannot originate in individual experience otherwise we would fall into

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

Religious Symbolism|doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326

a vicious circle. This is what Kant called apriori synthetic judgments. Apriori
synthetic judgments are substantial propositions about the world, i.e., they
are not merely logical syllogisms or analytical judgments, that cannot originate in our experience of that world since we need them in the first place
to make sense of it. Our notions of time, space, causality, etc. are the typical
examples of these somewhat mysterious and fundamental categories. But if
they do not originate in individual experience, where do they come from? How
do they happen to be in our minds? Kant could not find any solution other
than to consider them as given, that is to say, innate. We must be born with
them otherwise we could never acquire any form of knowledge whatsoever.1

The Sociology of the Human Mind

Durkheim accepted the Kantian critique of Humean empiricism, but he was


unhappy with Kants solution to the problem of the origins of knowledge
for two reasons. First, because he thought that to consider our categories of
understanding as given or innate was not a proper explanation, in fact, it
was not an explanation at all. Given by whom or what? We might speculate
what Durkheim would have thought had he known or had he been familiar
with modern Darwinian theory of the evolution of the human mind-brain. If
evolution through the process of natural selection can be seen as the cause of
our categories of understanding, would he still consider that to see something
as innate is to leave it unaccounted for? In all probability, Durkheim would
not have been very impressed by the Darwinian argument and here comes the
second reason why he dismissed Kantian apriorism. This is what he called the
incessant variability of the categories in different times and places. Our categories of understanding, no matter how basic and elementary they might look
to us, are not universal, but they vary, they are different in different societies.
So how could they be innate if different societies have different categories of
understanding? (see Lukes 1985: 435-449).
The notion according to which human societies, and the cultures they generate, can be very, very different from each other was very common in early
20th century anthropology. Durkheims conclusion was that because those categories of understanding happen to be so different in different societies they
can only have a social origin, they are social constructs. So neither are they
1 For whence should experience take its certainty if all the rules by which it proceeds were
always, again and again, empirical, therefore contingent, and hardly fit to serve as first principles? (Kant 2007: 40).

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326|Salazar

givens or innate, nor do they come from individual experience. It is society


that provides us with them.
[I]t is the rhythm of social life which is at the basis of the category of
time; the territory occupied by the society furnished the material for the
category of space; it is the collective force which was the prototype of the
concept of efficient force, an essential element in the category of causality. (Durkheim 1915: 440)
Let us leave aside for the moment the difficulty of accounting for how society
manages to introduce into our minds those mental tools without going through
some sort of individual experience. It is to the question of their alleged variability that I want to turn. Now this view of the savage mind or, more appropriately, that of members of culturally distant societies, as being very different
from our mind is highly controversial, to say the least. Subsequent anthropological research has amply demonstrated that most of those basic categories
of understanding, such as notions about time and space, are not all that different across the ethnographic spectrumthough relativistic anthropologists
might still argue otherwise.2 It is instructive to look at some of the examples
Durkheim puts forward in order to demonstrate that those categories of understanding can be very different in different societies. He refers to mythical narratives, which are packed with highly counterintuitive representations, such as
beings who are half human half animals, or humans who turn themselves into
animals and then back again they take a human form, or individuals who can
travel through time, backwards and forward, etc. Isnt that a proof that different cultures can have very different basic categories of thought or understanding? Well, it isnt.
Myths are tales about supernatural beings and extraordinary events, which
by definition are full of counterintuitive representations because that is precisely what makes them supernatural and extraordinary, not to the foreign
anthropologist, but to the natives themselves who are supposed to believe
in those narratives. Durkheims mistake is still, unfortunately, a very common mistake among anthropologists, past and present. And that is the confusion between what we might call ordinary representations and extraordinary
representations, that is, representations of ordinary reality and representations of extraordinary or supernatural reality. A quotation from Wittgensteins
work Remarks on Frazers Golden Bough (1979: 4) may illustrate the point I am
making:
2 See Gell (1992) for a sound critique of relativistic understandings of time.

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

Religious Symbolism|doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326

The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his
knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts
his arrow with skill and not in effigy.
To take the representation of extraordinary or supernatural reality for a representation of ordinary reality makes members of culturally distant societies
look very different indeed. But these are not real cultural differences, they are
merely illusory or fake differences originating in a sort of perspectival error.
Religious believers the world over perform the most bizarre rituals, from a
rational or materialistic point of view, for different kind of purposes, such
as getting a good harvest or a good hunt or overcoming an illness, etc. and
yet they do not cease to work hard to attain those objectives, in materialistic
terms, because of that. Otherwise they would have been wiped out form the
face of the earth long ago. Nowadays we can safely say that there are sound
evolutionary reasons that explain why it is very improbable that humans in
whatever society they happen to live or have lived may hold representations of
ordinary reality very different from our own.
Where does all this leave Durkheims sociology of knowledge, the theory
in virtue of which our categories of understanding are social constructs? The
important point in my view is not so much to conclude that Durkheim made
a mistake in thinking that our mental categories were socially determined,
but that this very same mistake has been at the root of much anthropological research and anthropological theorizing in the 20th century. The idea that
you only have to look at the nature of society, of social structure in RadcliffeBrowns terms (1952: 188-204), to make sense of alien cultural representations,
no matter how alien or irrational they happen to be or appear to be, is without a doubt a foundational idea of modern social anthropology. For better or
for worse, the theory of sociological determinism got hold of anthropological
imaginations for much of the 20th century. Now that we are precisely celebrating the first centenary of Durkheims work, I think it is a good time to take a
critical stance on that particular aspect of its legacy.

Symbols That Stand for Something Else

But I do not want to honor that lasting legacy by merely pointing out the
inadequacies of Durkheims theory. It would be very unfair because I think
that despite those inadequacies or mistakes there is another part of his
whole approach to the study of religion that, it is my contention, deserves a
more positive appraisal, specifically, I believe, by those who are interested in

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326|Salazar

the new cognitive science of religion. And this is his theory of religious symbolism. As I have said, it is unlikely that our representations of ordinary reality, our
basic categories of understanding, are very different in other, culturally distant,
societies. So the question is, if people the world over do have access to what
we might call ordinary reality in the same way as we do, they have a representation of ordinary reality very similar to ours, why is it that this very same
people may simultaneously entertain highly counterintuitive representations
of another form of reality, which we can only define as extraordinary (such as
the one depicted in myths, for instance)?
In the first chapters of the Elementary Forms (chapters ii and iii of book i)
Durkheim makes a critical review of extant theories of religion: animism and
naturism. The interesting thing about his critique is what he understands as
the key mistake that the two of them make. And that is to consider religion as
an illusion, the product of some kind of error or malfunctioning of the minds
of our ancestors. This could either be the confusion of dreams with reality,
as Tylor contended, the celebrated representative of the so-called animistic
theories of religion, or the confusion of symbols with what they stand for, as
suggested by Max Mller, who in turn was the instigator of the theory of religion known as naturistic. For both of them religion was no more than just
an illusion, a fantasy originated in our ancestors minds, probably the result
of their ignorance, and that has been bequeathed to the present generation
by cultural inheritance. Durkheim thought that it was not possible to see in
religion just an illusion, otherwise it would not have lasted for so long and in so
many different societies.
It is inadmissible that systems of ideas like religions, which have held so
considerable a place in history, and to which, in all times, men have come
to receive the energy which they must have to live, should be made up
of a tissue of illusions (...) How could a vain fantasy have been able to
fashion the human consciousness so strongly and so durably? (Durkheim
1915: 68-69)
But being an agnostic, Durkheim knew all too well that religious representations were false, they referred to beings such as gods, demons, ghosts, spirits, etc. which did not in fact exist. So how could it be that despite referring
to an inexistent reality they were not or could not be seen as illusions?
Religious representations were, in Durkheims view, symbols, i.e., they stood
for something different from themselves. That is why they could be false and
true at the same time, so to speak. Symbols are a special kind of signifier. They
are signifiers with not one but two signifieds, an apparent or superficial one

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

Religious Symbolism|doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326

plus another signified underneath, the real one. It is the apparent signified
which is false, but the real one, the one behind the scenes, can be perfectly
true.Thus the totem is before all a symbol, a material expression of something
else. But of what?
From the analysis to which we have been giving our attention, it is evident that it expresses and symbolizes two different sorts of things. In the
first place, it is the outward and visible form of what we have called the
totemic principle or god. But it is also the symbol of the determined society called the clan. It is its flag; it is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from the others, the visible mark of its personality, a mark
borne by everything which is a part of the clan under any title whatsoever, men, beasts or things. So if it is at once the symbol of the god and
of the society, is that not because the god and the society are only one?
How could the emblem of the group have been able to become the figure
of this quasi-divinity, if the group and the divinity were two distinct realities? The god of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore be nothing
else than the clan itself, personified and represented to the imagination
under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem.
(Durkheim 1915: 206)
The apparent meaning of religious symbols are the gods, the supernatural
beings they refer to. But this is not their real meaning, underneath this apparent meaning there is another one, a truer meaning, and that is society. And
this is why religious representations cannot be seen as mere illusions, they
are true in their own way, they are true because they are symbols, symbols of
society, and this is something that really does exist. In this way religious representations fulfill the very important function Durkheim attributed to them: to
enable human beings to represent the society where they live, i.e., to acquire
collective consciousness or conscience. Durkheim thought that this representation of society was extremely important because without it social life was
impossible. Due to the fact that humans are able to represent the society where
they live they can transcend their natural selfishness and become social/moral
subjects. Now the problem is that society appears to the individuals imaginations not for what it is, a society, but as a mysterious force that compels people
to behave in a certain way. That is what we call a god, what in Durkheims
analysis of Australian ethnography appears as the totem, the god of the clan
or totemic principle. But why do humans need to become aware of the society
where they live, to acquire their precious conscience collective, through this
mystical transformation?

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326|Salazar

Once again, the interpretation of religious beliefs and behaviors as symbolic, and the postulation of social structure as the ultimate meaning of
those symbols, was to become another important tenet of 20th century social
anthropology (Skorupski 1976). And once again, though this interpretation has
already been challenged withing anthropology itlsef (see Sperber 1975). This
paper aims to push a bit further the critique of this time-honored principle.
It is unclear why the concept of god of the clan or totemic principle should
be easier to represent to the Australian aborigines rudimentary intelligences
(Durkheim 1915: 220) than the concept of clan. In fact, there is no evidence that
the concept of clan poses any serious intellectual or cognitive problems to the
minds of tribal peoples. Much to the contrary, in fact. Even from Durkheims
detailed description, it is rather the totemic principle or god of the clan that
looks like a much more complex, mysterious and mystifying concept.
Durkheim was somehow carried away by a sort of social metaphysics into
thinking that the ultimate and truer meaning of religious symbolism had
to be society itself. It is my contention that he was so mystified by the very
idea of society as a supreme moral value (i.e., the sacred), that prevented him
from seeing a much more obvious and plain meaning for religious symbols.
Religious symbols refer simply to supernatural beings. They are the tools with
which human beings represent, or become conscious, not of the society the
belong to, but of the god they worship. Durkheim could not accept this conclusion because, in his view, that would simply mean that religions are illusions.
And remember his critique of animistic and naturistic theories: if religion is
just an illusion of the mind, how come that it has survived for so long and
in so many societies? The very existence of religions and religious symbolism
in so many places and for so many centuries means that they must fulfill a
very important function, and this function could not be merely to represent
something inexistent. But my point is: why not?

Religion Beyond the Sacred

I will address the problem of religious symbolism in a minute. But first let me
tackle a closely related issue, that of functionalism in religious sociology and
anthropology, for it is commonly argued that religious symbols exist precisely
because they fulfill a function. Functionalist theories in anthropology have
been, and still are, very common. We can know the reason for the existence
of any social institution if we find out the function it fulfills, that is, the sort
of fundamental human need it satisfies. Being an anthropologist myself, I am
not against functionalist explanations per se. In fact, I believe that most of

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

Religious Symbolism|doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326

them are perfectly correct. Social institutions are artifacts and, like any other
artifact, they have been made for a purpose. So to find out what this purpose
could be makes an important contribution to the explanation of why that
institution exists. Not only this. It is a very important principle of functionalist
sociology that the functions that a social institution fulfills do not need to be
consciously appreciated. So we normally have, on the one hand, the explicit
and conscious purpose for which an institution has been made and, on the
other, a myriad of implicit and unconscious purposes or functions that institution equally performs. Furthermore, it is these latter, the latent somehow
invisible functions, those which provide the ultimate explanation for why the
institution exists at all.
As I said, I think functionalist explanations (in sociology, anthropology, and
in biology as well) are perfectly acceptable and most of the time they are likely
to be correct or nearly so. But there is a problem, however, when we apply this
functionalist approach to the analysis of religious institutions. It may well be
the case that religious institutions fulfill many different latent or implicit functions in different societies, whatever these happen to be. And what is more:
I have no problem in accepting that the acquisition of some form of conscience
collective may figure prominently among them. I would rather say, however,
that there is a close association between the existence of those religious institutions and the enforcement of fundamental moral principleswhich in fact
would not be too far from Durkheims concept of collective conscience, if
I understood him well. But this is a secondary issue to the main point I am trying to make. And this is that there is something missing in functionalist explanations when we apply them to the explanation of religion.
The problem is to account for the existence of religious symbolism in
itself. If the sole or the main purpose of religious symbolism were to set up in
humans minds some sort of collective consciousness or conscience, we might
as well argue why the means to obtain such laudable aim need to be religious
at all. Why do we need or why do humans need to invent beings packed with
counterintuitive characteristics, such as the gods of all religions, or the totemic
gods in particular, to become somehow aware of the existence of something,
in my view, much simpler and much more intuitive as the relevant social
group to which they belong, be this the clan, the nation or whatever it may be?
Suppose we conclude that the function of all forms of art, or a particular kind
thereof, is to create a form of collective consciousness, hence society is their
hidden meaning. Surely this is a function that can be aptly attributed to art
forms, perhaps under special historical circumstances, such as the oppression
of a particular society by a foreign colonial power. But should we infer from
this that art exists because of that important social function it fulfils? Is that

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

10

doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326|Salazar

what art is all about? Clearly not, for art can exist without creating any collective consciousness, and collective consciousness can be created without the
assistance of art forms.
Perhaps the existence of modern nationalism, with its conspicuous ritual
paraphernalia and mythological narratives, furnishes the tangible proof that
humans can acquire collective consciousness without the intervention of any
religious feeling. Much the same applies if we understand Durkheims collective consciousness in moral terms, i.e., as collective conscience. I know
that this can be a controversial issue among those who spouse the cognitive
approach to the study of religion, but I dont think that humans need any religious feeling or religious belief to behave morally. In fact, it seems to me that
basic and fundamental moral principles are far more intuitive, i.e., are more
likely to be hardwired into our brains, than religious beliefs themselves (cf.
Hauser 2006).
It is Durkheims definition of religion as the sacred that led him astray in
this analysis of religious symbolism. Admittedly, for many religions the sacred
and the religious can be cogently taken as synonymous. But that is not by any
means applicable to all religions or to all definitions of the sacred. If the sacred
is taken to refer to a societys ultimate values, it is clear that these do not have
to be necessarily religious valuesunless we think that all morality originates
in religion, which is noticeably not the case, as I have just argued. Similarly,
mainly outside mainstream world religionsa relatively recent development
in human religious historythere are all sorts of beliefs and practices, which
we would normally define as religious, such as beliefs in ghosts, spirit possession, witchcraft, etc. but which can hardly be defined as sacred (in what
sense is the devil or a malign spirit a sacred being?). Now once we see the difference between religion and the sacred, the postulated connection between
the sacred and the formation of conscience collective turns out to be almost
tautological. If the sacred is nothing but our ultimate moral values, well, that
is what having some sort of conscience, collective or otherwise, is all about,
isnt it?
In the analysis of religious symbolism Durkheim fell prey to the influence
of what has been defined as the hermeneutics of suspicion. There has to be
a truer meaning in symbolic languages, a meaning that lays underneath their
apparent irrationality or absurdity, and the purpose of the analysis of those
languages must be uncover that hidden meaning.3 Symbolic languages are like

3 Freud was another prominent representative of this hermeneutics of suspicion in the analysis of symbolism, which is the sort of interpretative practice whose purpose is to decode or

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

Religious Symbolism|doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326

11

encoded messages; hence in order to understand them, to grasp their meaning,


we have to decode them.
But one must know how to go underneath the symbol to the reality which
it represents and which gives it its meaning. The most barbarous and
the most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human
need, some aspect of life, either individual or social. The reasons with
which the faithful justify them may be, and generally are, erroneous; but
the true reasons do not cease to exist, and it is the duty of science to
discover them. (Durkheim 1915: 2-3)
My point is precisely that the purpose of symbolic languages is not to hide
anything but merely to convey a special knowledge (Sperber 1975: 85-113). This
is knowledge for which ordinary languages prove inadequate, and hence it
seems to be somehow hidden. But it is not. In what sense does a work of art
have a hidden meaning? Art does not have any hidden meaning. It is our effort
to translate the, overt but non-linguistic, knowledge it contains into a text, a
linguistic expression with a meaning, that creates the delusion that we have
decoded or disclosed some concealed message. In the case of religious symbolic languages, that special knowledge refers to the existence of supernatural beings. And the reason why we need symbolic languages to refer to those
supernatural beings, the reason why religious knowledge is special, is because
supernatural beings are endowed with counterintuitive properties, hence their
characteristics cannot be easily processed by human minds for they contradict
our ontological intuitions, i.e. our basic categories of understanding (or some
of them at least). And with this I am back to the point where I started this
paper: the constitution of the human mind and the categories of understanding that we use to make sense of our experience.

Representing the Supernatural

Durkheim wrongly assumed that the human mind is infinitely malleable by


society. That explains why, in his view, the most elementary norms of human
social behavior, call it conscience collective, basic moral principles, in one word:
the sacred, need to be somehow engraved into our brains by some external
force. In his view, we can only acquire this sense of collective self, the founding
disclose disguised meanings (Ricoeur 1970). See Sperber (1975: 34-50) for an early critique of
this form of analysis.

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

12

doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326|Salazar

stone of any moral life, through religious symbolism, specifically, religious


ritual. Thus the existence and persistence of religious rituals the world over
and in practically all sorts of societies can finally be accounted for by that very
important function they are meant to perform. But as modern evolutionary
sciences have shown, the human mind is not just a blank slate waiting for the
inscription of societys fundamental values. Far from it, it comes equipped with
all sorts of intuitions concerning not only fundamental moral principles but
also the nature and characteristics of the different entities humans are likely
to stumble upon in their ordinary lives, and are likely to be relevant to their
survival and reproduction, such as animals, plants, inanimate objects, artifacts,
other human beings, etc. (Boyer 2001: 93-136; cf. Carruthers et al. 2005) These
ontological intuitions do not need to be innate in the literal sense that we
are born with them, but we may grow them as we mature, giving rise to what
Robert McCauley (2011) has defined as maturational cognition. The important thing to emphasize here is that those ontological intuitions are culturally
underdetermined. In other words, contrary to Durkheims view, society has
very little to do with their formation.
So what could be the purpose of religious symbolism, then, once we have
discarded the engraving of societys fundamental values, i.e., once we have
seen that the sacred and the religious do not always coincide? It is arguable
whether or the extent to which that maturational cognition includes religious
ideas themselves or merely the propensity to entertain those religious ideas.
Now the point I wish to make here is that religious symbolic languages are
needed to turn our religious ideas or our hypothetical propensity to entertain religious beliefs into fully fledged cultural representations. And this is so
because the human minds ontological intuitions are systematically violated
by religious representations. In Robert Bellahs words, all humans have the
potentiality for religious experience, but that potentiality remains inchoate
until given shape by symbolic form (2011: 12).4 Durkheim became fully aware
of the importance of religious symbolism, be this the totems themselves or
the emblems that stood for them, and of religious symbolic language, such as
that of myth and ritual, in the formation of religious representations. In fact,
he went as far as to concede that sacred beings exist only in and through their
representations.

4 The need to take culture into account in order to turn religious ideas into actual beliefs has
been emphasized by several scholars working within the cognitive approach to religion
(Banerjee and Bloom 2013; Gervais et al. 2011; cf. Salazar 2010).

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

Religious Symbolism|doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326

13

In fact, whoever has really practised a religion knows very well that it is
the cult which gives rise to these impressions of joy, of interior peace, of
serenity, of enthusiasm which are, for the believer, an experimental proof
of his beliefs. The cult is not simply a system of signs by which the faith is
outwardly translated; it is a collection of the means by which this is created and recreated periodically. (my emphasis, Durkheim 1915: 417)
It is hard to find a clearest statement of the creative power of symbols.5 By
standing for something different from themselves they actually create what
they represent. And that must be society, Durkheim concluded. Both because
he thought that the ultimate meaning of religious symbolism could not be
a mere illusion (the gods) but had to be something real (society), and also
because he understood that societys fundamental moral values had to be
somehow inscribed in individuals minds for society, even the simplest one,
to exist. But it was precisely his radically social constructivist approach to the
formation of the human mind that prevented Durkheim from seeing the real
purpose of religious symbolism. If anything can be carved into our minds, religious ideas can enter in there as easily as any other. The only reason that would
explain why they have to do it through a special language, symbolic language,
is because those ideas stand for something different from themselves, they
have a hidden meaning: they stand for society.
But the human mind is not an amorphous mass of plasticine, for it has a
natural shape and contenta shape and content that can be partially modified through enculturation or through any other kind of environmental pressure, but always at a price: we need a special moulder. Because our mind comes
already equipped with a fair, though highly schematic, picture of how things
are in the world, the representation of beings with characteristics clearly at
odds with our ordinary experience of that world (as depicted in that picture) needs some additional mechanism, some special languages appropriate to convey a special knowledge (cf. Day 2004), languages with the capacity
to create what they stand for, hence the need for religious symbolism. I rush
to add that there is nothing mystical or mysterious in this creative capacity of
5 Sacred beings exist only when they are represented as such in the mind. When we cease to
believe in them, it is as though they did not exist (Durkheim 1915: 345). Durkheim understood that sacred beings are created through symbols because he did not think they could
exist in any other way. But agnosticism or atheism is not a necessary corollary of the alleged
creative power of symbols, for it could be equally argued that, due to their counterintuitive
properties, special means or special languages are needed to perceive and represent those
beings.

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

14

doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326|Salazar

symbolic languages. Obviously, it is not the physical reality they can create, but
its mental representation. Hence Durkheims apposite remark that though the
apparent function of rituals is to produce physical effects (i.e., to aid or to provoke the increase of the totemic species) their real function is to act entirely
upon the mind and upon it alone (375). But notice the important difference
between symbolic communication and ordinary linguistic communication.
As Skorupski perceptively pointed out (1976: 119-124), whereas words denote
things in the world, symbols represent them: Certainly, symbolic objects do
not say anything inexpressible in wordsthey do not say anything at all.
Their function is to be something (Skorupski 1976: 147).
To conclude, Durkheim was partially right in his theory of the social origins of religion, but only in what concerns the social origins of religious symbolic languages. He was wrong, however, in extending this social deterministic
theory to the whole of human thought. In this paper I have tried to use a
critical assessment of Durkheims seminal work to draw connections or build
bridges between traditional anthropological analyses of religions, specifically
concerned with the interpretation of religious symbolism, and modern cognitive and evolutionary approaches, which have, in my view, unduly ignored
or glossed over the symbolic nature of religious forms of communication. My
conclusion is that a proper cognitive approach to the study of religion cannot
ignore the importance of religious symbolic languages because it is precisely
out of the characteristics of the human mind and its hard-wired cognitive tools
that we can explain the existence of those symbolic languages and the important function they perform.

References
Banerkee, Konika and Paul Bloom (2013). Would Tarzan believe in God? Conditions
for the emergence of religious belief. Trends in Cognitive Science 17(1): 7-8.
Bellah, Robert (2011). Religion in Human Evolution. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press.
Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.
New York: Basic Books.
Carruthers, Michael, Stephen Laurence and Stephen Stich (eds.) (2005). The Innate
Mind. Structure and Contents. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Day, Martin (2004). Religion, off-line cognition and the extended mind. Journal of
Cognition and Culture 4(1): 101-121.
Durkheim, Emile (1915). Elementary Forms of Religious Life. London: George Allen and
Unwin.

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15

Religious Symbolism|doi 10.1163/15700682-12341326

15

and Marcel Mauss (1963). Primitive Classifications. London: Routledge and


Kegan.
Gell, Alfred (1992). The Anthropology of Time. Oxford: Berg.
Gervais, Will M., Aiyana K. Willard, Aran Norenzayan and Joseph Henrich (2011). The
cultural transmission of faith. Why innate intuitions are necessary, but insufficient,
to explain religious belief. Religion 41(3): 389-410.
Hauser, Marc D. (2006). Moral Minds. How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of
Right and Wrong. New York: HarperCollins.
Kant, Immanuel (2007). Critique of Pure Reason. London: Penguin.
Lukes, Stephen (1985). Durkheim. His Life and Work. Stanford: Stanford University
Press.
McCauley, Robert (2011). Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. New York: Oxford
University Press.
Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred R. (1952). Structure and Function in Primitive Society. New York:
The Free Press.
Ricoeur, Paul (1970). Freud and Philosophy. An Essay on Interpretation. London: Yale
University Press.
Salazar, Carles (2010). Anthropology and the cognitive science of religion: A critical
assessment. Religion and Society 1: 44-56.
Skorupski, John (1976). Symbol and Theory. A Philosophical Study of Theories of Religion
in Social Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sperber, Dan (1975). Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1979). Remarks of Frazers Golden Bough. Nottinghamshire:
Brynmill Press.

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2014) 1-15