Durkheim is strongly influenced by the concept of evolution. He prefers to study primitive forms of social things because they are closer to the evolutionary origin than advanced forms. In primitive religions, time and tradition have had less time to effect and distort the pure motives for which we began our various worships.
Durkheim felt that in studying the most advanced religions, sociologists might be misleading themselves. He looked at the totemic believes and rites of aborigines as a symbolic precursor to other, more evolved religions, and concluded that the aborigines were attributing the sense of social security of community to physical objects--totems. Thus the totems became sacred. This sacredness, according to Durkheim, is the thing which is common to all religions. Worshipers attribute many feelings which are beyond their comprehension to something sacred, whether it be a totem, nature, a pantheon, or God. Thus religion comes to serve the role of uniting the community. Through religion people can feel a strong sense of mechanical solidarity. They can symbolize their own reality in a second, idealized reality in which their norms and values are paramount. A through the expression of this reality (that is, by conforming perfectly to the collective consciousness) they can achieve that blissful religious fervor.
The way Durkheim applied primordial context and research to religion and the way he described how religion functions in society are trademarks of his method and perspective. Even from this one reading we could guess that he is a functionalist, and he is indeed the father of Functionalism. Durkheim's almost paleontological approach to religion reflects the way he tries to approach sociology not as a school of philosophy, but as a school of science. He is concerned with using hard, testable evidence to support his claims. Finally, his study of religion from the roots up is a tribute to his respect for the evolution of a thing as crucial to the understanding of it.
If Marx heard Durkheim's theory of religion, he would scold Durkheim for overlooking the conflict rampant in religion. He would agree that the sacred is important in religion, but he would see it as secondary. The point of religion for Marx would be to reinforce inequality. The doctrines of religions all set out a series of norms which comply to the society in which they are practiced. By setting these norms up as sacred, the bourgeoisie gives the proletariat spiritual incentives to obey. These sacred norms often advocate docility, subservience, and poverty. Yet those in control of religion are often wealthy, powerful, and noble: a veritable figurehead of the true bourgeois ideal.
Durkheim believes that when societies change from a highly ritualized mechanical society to a more organic society in which each individual has a greater level of independence, a state of anomie ensues. Anomie is most easily defined as 'normlessness.' It occurs when people throw off the ropes of old society and then find themselves in a free fall, no longer tied to society by tradition and mechanical solidarity. When an individual feels particularly lost because of anomie, he has an increased incentive (or decreased inhibition) to commit suicide. Thus suicide rates vary according to who experiences the most anomie. Two main factors affect this: occupation and class. Different occupations experienced different levels of division of labour during industrialization. Incidentally, I take issue with the chart provided. Although it shows suicides according to profession, it shows them as absolute numbers and not as percentages out of those plying the profession. Thus we can not confidently compare the different professional categories in their promotion of suicide. As far as the effects of class: a man who has lived humbly his whole life can accept a little heavier burden, but one who has never known the yoke will find their new burden disorienting and loathsome.
Durkheim identified four types of suicide. The first, anomic, we have already discussed as resulting from anomie. The sufferer is nolonger sure of how to interact with society. Egoistic suicide is vaguely related. It is the suicide that comes from taking no pleasure from life and therefore having no incentive to remain in it. For Durkheim life revolved around the social, so he said that for someone to feel no pleasure in life, they must be dissatisfied with their collective encounters. Both anomic and egoistic suicide result from "society's insufficient presence in individuals" (201). Altruistic and Fatalistic suicide come from the excessive presence of society in individuals. Altruistic suicide occurs when the individual gives up their life in order to comply with society. Fatalistic suicide occurs when society's presence is so oppressive that the individual would rather die than exist in it.
I take problem with these categorizations of society because they imply that the individual's will to live is completely dependent on society. By Durkheim's own rules we evolved from species that had no concept of society, so we should be able to function without it. I believe that people commit suicide for all of the reasons above, but what about the person who expects to find meaning in his life from things besides the collective, and not finding it, kills himself? The reason for his suicide was not lack of meaningful social connections or because he felt lost and disconnected in society, it was what he found outside of society.
Returning to the prompt: altruistic suicide. Some examples are kamikaze pilots, hara-kiri, going into battle for your country (you might expect to survive, but the statistics are that people will have to die), and suicide to make a point (I have a vision of monks burning themselves alive. Obviously the suicide is meant to be shockingly deviant, but they do it because their (sub)culture tells them it is what they must do for the sake of society.) I did not feel that the 12 words Durkheim allotted to altruistic suicide were enough to explain it. From what he said I thought that altruistic suicide was a rather psychological, spiritual endeavor, or something like in Inception whereby the suicidal person is awakening themselves to a truer life. I used Wikipedia to supplement my understanding of the suicides and to find an explanation of Fatalistic suicide, which I did not remember from and could not find in the text.