Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was one of the progenitors of what is now called sociology. He was among the first scholars who (rightly) saw that religion and religious institutions merited further study; not as theological or philosophical – or even historical – subjects, but as social and cultural institutions. He argued that religions – whatever their stripe – were the results of powerful and largely subconscious needs being manifested by a society. I spent a great deal of time with Durkheim’s work during my first round of grad school, and there is a quote that I came across that I wanted to put here, not because I want to make a point, or because it upholds an argument that I’ve been making; but rather because I like it and I find it insightful. I hope some of you might too.
“In fact, it is an essential postulate of sociology that a human institution cannot rest upon an error and a lie, without which it could not exist… When only the letter of the formulae is considered, these religious beliefs and practices undoubtedly seem disconcerting at times, and one is tempted to attribute them to some sort of deep-rooted error. 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. In reality, then, there are no religions which are false. All are true in their own fashion; all answer, though in different ways, to the given conditions of human existence.”
~ Emile Durkheim, “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, 1912