In 1912 the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) published The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which presented his findings (not without controversy) on primitive clan-based religious culture. Durkheim sought to identify the nature of religion by studying it in what he took to be its pristine form. In the course of his work, he realized that modern secular societies had many important similarities to the societies he was observing. For Durkheim, religion satisfied a need for social solidarity and identification that would also require satisfaction in a secular scientific epoch. His observations are pertinent to the proposition that religion and purportedly secular ideologies like nationalism, rather than being opposites, are actually two members of the same family. One implication of this insight is that the West's proud determination to separate church and state has overlooked the dangers of joining ostensibly nonreligious worldviews to the state.
The parallels between modern Western societies and the Australian and North American aboriginal societies that Durkheim studied reach to things like public feasts, rituals, sacred objects (totems), and holidays (i.e., holy days). Durkheim thought the similarities stem from the very nature of social living (as least as most people have conceived it). He wrote:
In a general way, it is unquestionable that a society has all that is necessary to arouse the sensation of the divine in minds, merely by the power that it has over them; for to its members it is what a god is to his worshippers. In fact, a god is, first of all, a being whom men think of as superior to themselves, and upon whom they feel that they depend. Whether it be a conscious personality, such as Zeus or Jahveh, or merely abstract forces such as those in play in totemism, the worshipper, in the one case as in the other, believes himself held to certain manners of acting which are imposed upon him by the nature of the sacred principle with which he feels that he is in communion. Now society also gives us the sensation of a perpetual dependence….
[I]t imperiously demands our aid. It requires that, forgetful of our own interests, we make ourselves its servitors, and it submits us to every sort of inconvenience, privation and sacrifice, without which social life would be impossible. It is because of this that at every instant we are obliged to submit ourselves to rules of conduct and of thought which we have neither made nor desired, and which are sometimes even contrary our most fundamental inclinations and instincts….
[T]he empire which it holds over consciences is due much less to the physical supremacy of which it has the privilege than to the moral authority with which it is invested. If we yield to its orders, it is not merely because it is strong enough to triumph over our resistance; it is primarily because it is the object of a venerable respect.