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Emile Durkheim’s Views on Religion Critical Essay

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Updated: Dec 28th, 2019


In his writings, Emile Durkheim provides a sociological interpretation of religion. He regards it as one of the ties uniting the community members. This system of beliefs and practices is indispensible for the identity of a person and his or her sense of belonging to the group. This paper is aimed at discussing the views of this sociologist.

In particular, it is necessary to identify the comprising elements of religion that are culturally or ethnically determined. Moreover, Durkheim’s views should be applied to such film as Babette’s Feast which shows that religious communities strive for solidarity and emotional attachment.

Overall, according to Emile Durkheim’s interpretation, religion relies on the need for unity rather than belief in the deity or other supernatural phenomenon. This argument can also be applied to the film Babette’s Feast.

Durkheim’s views on the origins of religion

First, it should be noted that Durkheim does not accept the idea the religions originates from the belief in a higher power. He provides several examples to refute this claim. Namely, he says that there are some religions in which there are practically no references to deity or deities, for instance, Buddhism (Durkheim, 1972, p. 222).

The second argument is that the religion has a very palpable ritualistic component, which can hardly be attributed to the belief in the divine being. For example, one can mention that people of various religious beliefs can wear a certain type of clothes or eat certain type of food (Durkheim, 1972, p. 222). Such practices often have no relevance to the faith in god.

While explaining the origin of religion, Durkheim says, “The individuals who compose the group feel themselves bound to each other by the very fact that they have a common faith” (1972, p. 223). This premise is by far the most crucial components of Durkheim’s theory. It implies that religiosity is closely connected with a person’s desire to be a member of a group.

This quotation can also be very relevant to the film Babette’s Feast. It features the life of a very pious community. The people, living in this small village, share devotion to the principles of Protestantism. To a great extent, this common belief is one of the reasons why this settlement was founded in the first place.

At the very beginning, it was a religious sect established by Martine and Philippa’s father. In part, this example proves Emile Durkheim’s theory which postulates common religion can lay the foundations of a society.

The inherent elements of religion

Another important element of religion is its rituals. According to Emile Durkheim, their main purpose is to express the emotions, attitude, and sentiments of a person toward other members of the group.

He believes that rites have to demonstrate that the religious group still exists and strengthen the ties between these individuals (1972, p 230). It is possible to say that the dinner which Babette prepares for the family is a reference such Christian sacrament as Eucharist. Babette prepared this feast in order to express gratitude toward the people who gave her shelter.

Moreover, its purpose was to symbolize her unity with these people. One should bear in mind that this character has no relatives in France; so Martine and Phillipa substituted her own family.

Admittedly, the dinner which Babette offers to the guests cannot be viewed as a strictly religious rituals but it shares many common characteristics with religious practices, namely the expression of positive emotions like gratitude and, most importantly people’s sense of unity with one another.

A very important component of Durkheim’s theory is the contrast between sacred and profane things (1972, p. 232). The first group includes the beliefs, rituals, sentiments shared by the members of a religious community. In turn, such concept as profane refers to the individual interests and routine experiences of a person.

The profane activities are driven by utility and rationality, whereas the sacred aspects of human life can be mostly explained by moral values and sentiments. Again, it is possible to apply this theory to Babette’s Feast.

This woman can easily save the money which she wins. No one forces her to make a splendid and costly feast for this family. The news that all her money has been spent on this feast shocks them. Babette could have chosen the profane or rational decision and it would have been quite justifiable.

However, she rejects this idea and prefers to show her gratitude to Martine, Phillippa, and other members of this small religious community. In this way, Babette wants to emphasize her unity and dedication to this group. This character chooses the realm of sacred things and completely rejects the profane. This is the main reason why her behavior astonishes other people.

On the whole, this film demonstrates how members of small religious communities can behave. It shows that religion is important for them not because they believe in a higher power, but because it allows them to have the sense of belonging.

Apart from that, Emile Durkheim’s theory implies that the members have to share certain emotions and passions. This state of emotional unity can be defined as collective effervescence (Durkheim, 1972, p. 222). Durkheim says, “Following the collectivity the individual forgets himself for the common end and his conduct is directed by reference to a standard outside himself” (Durkheim, 1972, p. 222).

In other words, in the state of religious communion a person can act or behave which is not typical of him/her under normal circumstances. A good example of such behavior is Babette’s decision to spend her savings on the feast. Furthermore, we can certainly remember the moment of elation when every people present at the dinner, feel attached to one another. This elation is particularly noticeable at the moment when Plilippa is singing.

This experience can be observed in many religious groups irrespective of their cultural or ethnic origin. Thus, at this point we can distinguish at least two common elements of a religion; they are collective effervescence and the distinction between the sacred and profane world. They are essential for the very existence of religion or its continuity.

The main argument that Emile Durkheim expresses is that a person does not necessarily have to believe in a supernatural or divine being in order to be a member of a religious community. Adherence to common religious practices and moral values is one of the reasons why people can interact with each other.

Durkheim also points out that there is a third element shared practically by any religion, and in his view, it is the church (Durkheim, 1972, p. 223). We need to note that this term should be interpreted as a group of individuals who share common religious views. These people are not always governed by some official authority (Durkheim, 1972, p. 223). In fact, it is possible to mention the village depicted in Babette’s Feast.

These people are not forced or commanded to practice Christian religion. For them it is a source of unity with one another. Again, one has to emphasize that in this context such word as church can refer to any religion, not only to Christianity. Furthermore, it is quite possible for us to accept Durkheim’s argument that church should not always be regarded as some hierarchical institution which exercises close control over people’s lives.

In part, this discussion indicates that religion can still play an important role for people even despite the fact that the belief in supernatural has significantly declined. This idea lies at the core of Durkheim’s religious thought. Although his interpretation can be disputed theological point of view, it is still of great importance to modern social science.


Therefore, Durkheim regards religion as a necessity which lays the foundations for the functioning of a society. The film Babette’s Feast illustrates the life of a deeply religious community. This movie shows how a person can reject his/her needs as a symbol of belonging to the group.

One can distinguish three cross-cultural elements of religion, particularly, rituals, the distinction between the profane and the sacred, and the church or a group of people sharing common rites and ideas.

Certainly, Babette’s Feast is meant to be an illustration of Emile Durkheim’s theory. However, this movie shows us that religion can serve social functions. It provides what is now often called social capital or ties that promote interactions within the community.

Reference List

Betzer, J. (Producer) & Axel G (Director). 1987. Babette’s Feast. (Motion Picture). Denmark: Nordisk Film.

Durkheim, E. (1972). Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings. (A. Giddens Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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