Book Review: Camille Tarot – Le Symbolique et le Sacré. Théories de la Religion

Photo4244What’s at stake in the definition of Religion? Why should one feel the need today to devote 910 pages to this subject and its evolution during the 20th century in France? Camille Tarot’s Le Symbolique et le Sacré: Théories de la Religion [The Symbolic and the Sacred: Theories of Religion] answers these questions through a fascinating and pedagogical approach. His big book on the debate about the status of religion in French social thought sets a high standard for future discussions in the field.

A Close-up on French Sociology of Religion

In order to provide a general overview on the sociological debate evolving around the term of religion in the 20th century, Tarot makes use of what he calls the “scholastic mode of reasoning”. This translates into the quadripartite structure of his book: exposition of the problem, presentations of existing opinions on the subject, discussion of their validity, and finally, the establishment of the author’s own theory in the final part of the book.

 In a time where the publishing of short articles on complex questions has become an academic imperative, Tarot reminds us of the importance of reexamining the texts that are at foundational for the Sociology of religion. Tarot’s project is to give an overview and an evaluation concerning state of art French thinking on the subject. In one of his previous publications he has already examined the thinking on religion of French sociology’s founding fathers, Durkheim and Mauss. His findings now provide the basis for a further discussion of what has been erected upon these first pillars of French social thought. While basically presenting the thinking of Mircea Eliade, Goerges Dumézil, Claude Lévi-Strauss, René Girard and Pierre Bourdieu, the first part of the book also resumes Tarot’s reading of Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, with a view to providing the reader with a solid basis on these landmark sociologists. As Tarot is pursuing the goal of establishing his own theory of religion, from a synthesis of each of the aforementioned author’s thought, references to Durkehim and Mauss are legion in the book, even though there are no further chapters devoted exclusively to their ideas.

An Exhaustive Treatment, sometimes overstretched

Tarot 1If one sets apart Tarot’s ambition to establish his own theory of religion in the last part of the book, one is still left with some 650 pages that provide what has to be one of the most authoritative accounts of the Sociology of religion in France available. Being an attentive reader and a good teacher at one and the same time, Tarot clearly succeeds in laying out the theoretical decisions taken by each author and in discussing the advantages and shortcomings of each theory in the further advancement of the book. What is more, in this frame, Tarot establishes an account of the “big problems” of the sociology of religion, like the definition of religion, secularization, the distinction between religion and magic etc. without losing track of his general interrogation. This striving for an encyclopedic exhaustion of the subject is what causes the considerable size of the book. Generally, this concern with being exhaustive is praiseworthy, but at times, some chapters tend to get a little lengthy and one may find oneself longing for some condensation.

This is especially true of the last of the 26 chapters which deals with the question of a possible link between drugs and religion. Surely an interesting topic, which is used by Tarot as a proof for the superiority of his findings over simplistic accounts of religion as a result of drug abuse. But as this discussion is not particularly linked to the French school of thought on religion and as Tarot has chosen to directly address French thinkers only, while not dealing with figures like Max Weber, this chapter might have been left out and published apart without seriously diminishing the quality of the book.

Another minor criticism concerns the use of German terms in the book, when the latter are not always spelt correctly. The same goes for some cross reference that doesn’t indicate the right page or work of the author in question. But as one can easily imagine, these minor shortcomings do not seriously impair the quality of an otherwise outstanding book. A book that reentries substantial reasoning in the sociology of religion and advances a serious engagement with all of the relevant theses French social thought has come up with on the subject of religion since its inception.

A Syncretic Appropriation of French Thinking about Religion

For Tarot, a model for religion has to be established around the pillars of the sacred (Durkheim) and the symbolic (Mauss) as the two products of the overcoming of Man’s original violence (Girard). The murder of the scapegoat, which is the condition sine qua non for the establishment of human society is also foundational for the latter. It is the cadaver of the victim of Original Violence unchained by the mimetic desire of human beings that enables society to form itself around a solid point of reference. Ritual, myth and religion can only be understood as an answer to this foundational event of human society. They are at once the product and the means of the cooling-down of that once overheated Original Violence. 

Tarot 2By comprehending the violence that is at the ground zero of every society and domesticating it, religion permits society to safeguard its civilizational merits. On this basis Tarot identifies three major functions of religion: first of all religion is a healing force for social and personal problems by providing a means to put an end to the suffering from violence. Furthermore, it serves the purpose of defining the group against its other. Finally, religions are powerful systems that regulate the exchange of donations and the practice of sacrifice in a given society. Tarot designates these three functions by three neologisms of his own coin and identifies them as the pharmakological, xenological and dorological functions.

As one may easily observe, the model of religion established by Tarot provides a narration of the origins of religion and enables to distinguish between different aspects of the latter. These different functions isolated by Tarot provide the reader with a theoretical framework that enables him to set about examining empirical religions, by analyzing the elements they emphasize and how they do so. So, all in all, Tarot accomplishes the goals he has set forth in his introduction: providing us with an exhaustive account of French thinking on religion, he exposes the strong and the weak points of each theory and finally comes up with his own model of religion as well as some suggestions for further research. This all-encompassing ambition and its nearly flawless execution make this book a must read for anyone interested in the Sociology of religion. If everyone in the field took the trouble to thoroughly review the positions already elaborated by their predecessors and peers before establishing their own theory, as Tarot does, sociological thinking might regain one of its prime raisons d’être: the seeking for the most comprehensive model in order to understand a certain aspect of society and finally get a little closer to the ultimate truths lying behind our being together..

>Read the General Introduction to WRW's Religion and Philosophy Dossier

>See article II on Habermas's Engagement with Religion