Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Individualist Durkheim

I've been describing "Seminar in the City" here more than my other course, "Theorizing Religion." That's partly because "Seminar" is the new course, partly because I'm teaching the two courses to back and I don't really have the time to digest what happened in the first course's discussions as I race from 66 West 12th Street up to 6 East 16th Street. I'm able to linger over today's "Theorizing Religion" discussion because the first year seminar is having its library workshop!

I'm really glad that happened today, because in "Theorizing Religion" we just had an awesome discussion. I wasn't sure we would; in fact I didn't dare hope we would. It was the second of our two sessions devoted to Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life and the first, on Monday, wasn't great. Students took offense at passages in which Durkheim asserted that some societies were more complex than others, and I sounded shrill and defensive pointing out that he was less judgmental than most in his time, that his point was precisely that differences of complexity, etc., were irrelevant to understanding the nature of religion. Also unpopular my insistence that his claiming there are no religions which are false is saying both more and less than the "everybody has a right to their own truth" line: religion really changes people, but not for the reasons religious people think it does. "Religion does not know itself" is no way of winning friends and influencing students in a Lang religious studies class!

To tell the truth, discussions of Durkheim usually flop in my class; I'm not sure why. (I can admit that because I think I finally cracked it.) So what was different today? I put the book aside and gave a mini-lecture. Students were sullen until I stopped, at which point a most surprising thing happened. Not just a vigorous and serious discussion, but one in which several students who rarely speak spoke a lot! It was easier to build a discussion around things I had said than the long reading. But I suppose I was able also to couch it in language familiar from our past discussions.

Instead of dwelling long on the claim that religious people are mistaken in their interpretations of their experiences, I emphasized that Durkheim is all about the cultivation of individuals with the moral courage to resist injustice and hypocrisy. (It may be a Princeton Religion Department thing to suppose "Individualism and the Intellectuals" to be the key to Durkheim's opus.) He agrees with William James that religion is "dynamogenic" - transfers energy to people to help them live - and that the origins of this effect are obscured by religious people's accounts of them: beliefs supervene on actual transformations. But James is mistaken to think that the story of religion is one of lone geniuses having transformative experiences, which derivatively spawn dogmatic, institutional and ritual systems. Those individual experiences are themselves possible only because the people having them had been equipped and empowered to "transcend themselves" by the support of society performing itself through ritual. The story of religion is of key communal practices, figured in myriad ways, which make possible powerful individual experiences.

Somehow this way of couching things jibed with the spiritual but not quite not religious ethos of this year's class. Durkheim isn't quite, or isn't necessarily, "negating" individual experience or its significance after all. Though most thought I was out on a limb to claim that hermits, forest monks and walkabouts are clearly participating in the rites of their society, they see religion as shared and social and worry about those who would truly leave society behind. We'll see if the ideas stuck when we continue our discussion of ritual Monday with "Ritual and its Consequences," and then continue discussion of the "sacred and profane" (and of Western scholars' speculations about Aboriginal Australia) with Mircea Eliade.

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