The Affects of Studying Religion

What is a belief system? In today’s society, people’s practice of religion is referred to as their religious belief or practice of a belief system. This term “belief” became redefined during the Protestant Reformation era in order to differentiate themselves from the Catholic Church. Lord Herbert’s theory of Natural Religion focused on belief, ethics, and practices which was appealing to the Protestant Church (McCloud, 12). From Herbert’s theory, Protestants and others “located religious belief as the primary object of religion itself”. Emile Durkheim, a twentieth-century scholar, defined religion as “‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them’” (McCloud, 15). Translators found that the English “belief” “came from the Middle English blieven (“to prize; to value; to hold dear”). Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and loyal commitment to God” (B. Davis, “Religion is Not About Belief”). However, today to believe in something tends to mean its actual existence, not a following. Therefore, a religious belief would entail both believing in the existence of your “god” and “religion” as well as practicing your “religion”. For arguments sake, while analyzing the affects of personal belief systems on Emile Durkheim and Ellen Davis, we are going to use Durkheim’s definition of religion.

Durkheim lived an interesting early life that led him to his passion for the study of religion. Being “born into a Jewish family of very modest means” with his father being a rabbi, it was expected that Durkheim follow the same path (Peyre, “Emile Durkheim”). However, while attending school in north-eastern France, Durkheim was taught by a Roman Catholic schoolteacher who had a strong affect on Durkheim’s life (Pals, 82). “The death of his father before Durkheim was 20” led Durkheim down a much different path than his family was expecting (Peyre). It was during this time that Durkheim declared himself as “an avowed agnostic” to go on to study how religion works, how it affects society, and ultimately lead to his theory that society and God are one and cannot be separated (Pals, 83).

Ellen Davis was born in the late twentieth century and has degrees from University of California, Berkeley, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and a Ph.D from Yale University (Duke Divinity School, Ellen Davis). She was born and raised in the Episcopal Church and says in an interview “I always enjoyed the church service, including the hymns, the liturgical prayers, and sometimes the sermon, more than Sunday School. Since Anglicans ‘do theology’ best through liturgy, I suppose that was my introduction to theology” (Manwaring, “10 questions with Ellen F. Davis”). Her main focus in her studies and theology has been in “how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their response to urgent public issues”, as well as the study of the Old Testament (Duke). She goes on in the interview to explain, “The most obvious benefit is that the OT is three quarters of the Christian Bible, and the New Testament assumes that readers know the story” (Manwaring). Davis is known to still have a strong faith and claims, “an adult lifetime of study, including history and theology, has given substance to my faith” (Manwaring).

These two theorists come from very different backgrounds and ultimately thier religious belief has been affected in one sense or another by their studies of religion. Durkheim viewed belief systems in more of the traditional sense coming from bileven, while Davis’s main focus is determining the Old Testament’s purpose in today’s definition of belief. Analyzing the history and lives these two theorists have led over the past couple of centuries, one can see the affects their personal belief has had on their studies as well as the other way around.

Although Durkheim was not a religious man, his religious influence as a child led to his great success as a religious theorist. This influence was seen in his studies of “tribes of Australia and New Guinea and on the Eskimos” in order to find the beginning of religion (Peyre). Durkheim had been mentored by many great philosophers and social scientists, however his real passion was in his study of religion in society. His childhood influence led to his great theories on “anomie” and “collective effervescence” which ultimately led to his own belief that God is Society and Society is God. Therefore, it can be argued that Durkheim’s early exposure to religion influenced his studies, and his studies ultimately influenced his own belief system as well. Life events may have led him to being an agnostic, but his theories led him to his belief that “‘religion is something eminently social’” (Pals, 103). Durkheim was also known for being a strong nationalist in France and often discussed nationalism as a form of religious experience in his studies. However, in the mixt of an unruly time in France, Durkheim celebrated the individual as well. From his background of coming from a Jewish family and his influence from the Roman Catholic Church, Durkheim took the stand that “respecting the integrity of individual differences was perhaps the only national collective value imaginable in a divided nation like France” (Strenski, 133). Seeing how people’s faith bled into their everyday life, Durkheim eventually deduced “God to society, and as asserting that society had an essentially religious – “godly” – core” (Strenksi, 134). This was further confirmed during his study of collective effervescence he saw while analyzing the tribal religions in Australia. Durkheim wrote “The effervescence often becomes so intense that it leads to oudandish behavior; the passions unleashed are so torrential that nothing can hold them” (Durkheim, 218). This sense of oneness shown through collective effervescence is what makes people’s beliefs so strong.  Durkheim believes that “religious force is none other than the collective and anonymous force of the clan”, ultimately showing that society and God are one (Durkheim, 223). It is through the religious influence of his childhood that Durkheim finds his passion for studying religion and is able to respect the influence that it has on society.

Davis juxtaposes Durkheim in many cases. For instance, Durkheim found that religion exists because of a society, while Davis studies why society needs religion in order to answer the questions of the world. Through her many years of studying the theology of Christianity, especially the Old testament, Davis states in an interview, “I think that the practical value of the Old Testament is that it speaks to us as people in community and in complex political situations” (The Bible for Normal People). Davis goes on to explain that political situations include anything ranging from family situations to national political complications. One of the many books that Davis has written is, “Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible” connecting the Bible to the current environmental awareness in today’s society. Davis goes on to explain the importance of the material concerns of the Bible and how it “does not separate human life from nonhuman life and that God cares for all creation” (Shimron, “Ellen Davis unearths…”). Nevertheless, Davis also addresses questions about the Bible and its relevance to today’s society and how it can be interpreted. After being asked the question, “Is there any text you would reject?”, Davis responds with answers directly from the Bible. Davis first proposes to “consider how the biblical writers themselves dealt with difficult texts” (Davis, “Critical traditioning…”). Davis goes on to discuss “ethical problems posed by the Old Testament” and the importance of understanding the history and timeline of the Bible when analyzing such facts (Davis). She furthers this discussion in an interview and explains that when she is teaching, she keeps a map of the land up behind her in order to give the students a reference point of where the events are occurring (The Bible for the Normal People). However, though all of her studies, Davis does not feel that she has had conflict in her position at the Church versus as a scholar (The Bible for the Normal People). Davis finds most of how she thinks about theology through her sermons and her own personal faith, once again juxtaposing Durkheim.

It is found that through their personal belief systems and influences, both Durkheim and Davis found their passion for studying religion. Through Durkheim’s early exposure to both Judaism and Roman Catholicism, Durkheim developed a deep interest in how society affects religion and how religion is incorporated in society Daivs’s early involvement in the Episcopal Church led to her study of the Bible starting at the young age of 18. As she continued her studies and now teaches at Duke’s Divinity School, Davis has only found her religious belief to become more secure. Emile Durkheim and Ellen Davis have both been affected by their religious studies and entered into their professions due to the early influence of their personal belief systems as children.  


Bible for Normal People, The. Episode 16: “Ellen Davis – What is the Practical Value of the Old Testament?”. 2017 July 30.

Davis, Brian. “Religion is Not About Belief: Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God” in Religion Dispatches. 2009. 

Davis, Ellen. “Critical traditioning: Seeking an inner Biblical hermeneutic”. Anglican Theological Review. Fall 2000.

Duke Divinity School. “Ellen Davis”.

Durkheim, Emile. Excerpts on “collective effervescence” from Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (transl. Karen Fields). 216–25 (e)

Manwaring, Kurt. “10 questions with Ellen F. Davis”. 2018 April 4.

McCloud, Sean. “Religions are Belief Systems” in Stoddard and Martin, Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés. 11–21 (e)

Perye, Henri. “Emile Durkheim”. 2019 November 11.

Shimron, Yonat. “Ellen Davis unearths an agrarian view of the Bible”. Religion News Service. 2013 October 29.

Strenski, Ivan. Understanding Theories of Religion. Second Edition.

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