Durkheim devotes The Elementary Forms of Religious Life to a study of religion. In doing so, he proposes to study religion as a social fact. Following his method, he defines religion as follows:
"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say separate, prohibited, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere " (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p 55)
Durkheim avoids the word God in his definition of religion, preferring the concept of a sacred object. Sacred objects are at the heart of all religion, but they do not necessarily allude to a supernatural force, as a God would be (for example, the Four Noble Truths are, in Durkheim's sense, sacred objects to Buddhists). Other physical objects, such as a feather, flag, cross, or stone, can be infused with this collective power and thus serve as physical representations of a society's sacred object, becoming sacred in this way. This definition also contains the concepts of sacred, church, rites, and moral community that we see in its definition of religion.
It is also important to note the importance of the social in its definition of religion. Indeed, Durkheim fights against animist or naturalist interpretations of religion. Animists find the origin of religion in psychological phenomena, such as dreams, a thesis defended by Spencer. Naturalists find the origin of religion in the attempt to explain natural events (thunderstorms, earthquakes) by supernatural forces, a thesis defended by Edward Tylor , and James Frazer , and later by Sigmund Freud . Durkheim argues that these interpretations are learned socially, and are only the result of an already established religion, not its cause.56 . To refute the naturalist thesis, Durkheim also notes that faith in religion is maintained, even when religion expresses natural forces in an erroneous way, or, indeed when it is contradicted by natural facts. The cause of religion must therefore be found elsewhere.
Additional summaries of Emile Durkheim:Emile Durkheim - The Rules of Sociological Method
Emile Durkheim - Suicide
"The Genesis of the Notion of the Totemic Principle or Mana" – summary and review" - part 1 -2 -3
What is a Social Fact?
Division of Labor in Society
Elementary Forms of Religious Life (another summary of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life)
Types of Suicide according to Emile Durkheim
Anomie according to Durkheim
Definition of social facts
On Morality and Society