Sacred and Profane

Robert Launay. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

In order to define and explain the paired concepts of sacred and profane, it is important to look at these concepts as developed in the influential work of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917).

Durkheim’s Definition of Religion

In his last great work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim set out “to study the simplest and most primitive religion that is known at present, to discover its principles and attempt an explanation of it” (p. 1) in order to uncover universal properties of religion. But first he needed to define religion, or else “run the risk of either calling a system of ideas and practices religion that are in no way religious, or of passing by religious phenomena without detecting their true nature” (p. 21). Rather than immediately proposing a definition of his own, he began by rejecting two existing definitions. Religion could not be defined, he argued, in terms of the “supernatural,” a category that made sense only in opposition to a modern European paradigm of scientific explanation for “natural” phenomena; for most of the world’s peoples, including premodern Europeans, religious phenomena were perfectly natural. Nor, he continued, could religion be reduced to ideas of “divinity” or even “spiritual beings.” For instance, salvation in Buddhism was not predicated on divine assistance, and many religious practices—Jewish dietary regulations, for example—were “wholly independent of any idea of gods or spiritual beings” (p. 32).

Instead, Durkheim formulated a radical proposition:

Whether simple or complex, all known religious beliefs display a common feature: They presuppose a classification of the real or ideal things that men conceive of into two classes—two opposite genera—that are widely designated by two distinct terms, which the words profane and sacred translate fairly well. The division of the world into two domains, one containing all that is sacred and the other all this is profane—such is the distinctive trait of religious thought. (p. 34)

Unlike definitions in terms of “supernatural,” “divinities,” or “spiritual beings,” Durkheim’s definition in no way predicated any specific kind of belief, much less belief in any particular kind of being. On the contrary, for Durkheim, the division into “sacred” and “profane” was a necessary precondition for religious beliefs, indeed their very foundation. “Religious beliefs are those representations that express the nature of sacred things and the relations they have with other sacred things or with profane things … rites are rules of conduct that prescribe how man must conduct himself with sacred things” (p. 38).

Sacred Versus Holy; Profane Versus Secular

It is helpful to contrast Durkheim’s concept of the sacred to that of the holy in the contemporary work of the noted German theologian Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy (1917). The holy, for Otto, derived from a sense of the “numinous” (a word Otto coined): the experience of awe, of the transcendent majesty, energy, and mystery of the wholly other. For Otto, the holy was grounded in individual feeling, the apprehension of something outside the individual and infinitely greater. Durkheim hardly denied the existence, or for that matter the importance, of such an experience but held that it derived from the idea of the sacred rather than constituting its essence. For Durkheim, the concept of sacred was above all intrinsically social, the product of the social classification of all phenomena into the antithetical categories of sacred and profane. Unlike Otto’s “holy,” Durkheim’s sacred was literally unthinkable except in terms of the profane. The content of the category sacred was intrinsically fluid: anything might be classified as sacred. What mattered was the social act of separation from the profane.

At first sight, this dichotomy between sacred and profane seems identical to that between sacred and secular. While Durkheim did not explicitly argue against such assimilation, it is clear that he would have regarded it as analogous to that between natural and supernatural, a historically constituted distinction that made sense only in terms of relatively recent European history, with its emphasis on the separation of church and state. Most important, Durkheim very definitely refused to exempt the secular realm of the state from the domain of the sacred. One of his most powerful images—all the more so when one bears in mind that The Elementary Forms of Religious Life appeared only two years before the outbreak of World War I—was that of the flag: “The soldier who fall defending his flag certainly does not believe he has sacrificed himself to a piece of cloth” (p. 229); “A mere scrap of the flag represents the country as much as the flag itself; moreover, it is sacred in the same right and to the same degree” (p. 231).

Totems, Society, and the Sacred

Durkheim’s analysis centered on what he considered to be the simplest and most primitive known religion, namely Australian totemism, and rested on the consideration of what the Australians held sacred: “totemism places figurative representations of the totem in the first rank of the things it considers sacred; then come the animals or plants whose name the clan bears, and finally the members of the clan” (p. 190). It is important to note that representations of totem animals were far more sacred than the animals themselves. Such designs were placed on ritual objects such as churinga (bullroarers), the very sight of which might be forbidden to profane noninitiates—foreigners, but also women and children—on pain of death. The relatively abstract nature of such representations made them particularly appropriate symbols, concrete manifestations of an abstract idea, just as the flag represented the nation; indeed, Durkheim noted, the “totem is the flag of the clan” (p. 222).

More generally, the totem represented a sacred force of energy that Durkheim (borrowing a term from other Melanesian and Polynesian peoples for lack of an appropriate Australian word) named mana. This force, external to the individual but in which he also participated, was nothing else but society itself, Durkheim argued. Ultimately, the sacred was not only social but also the very form in which society represented itself to its members.

The Ambiguity of the Sacred

The sacred was not in any simpleminded way reducible to “the good.” Mourning rituals pointed the way to another dimension of the sacred, connected with “[any] misfortune, anything that is ominous, and anything that motivates feelings of disquiet or fear” (p. 392). The domain of the sacred also included “evil and impure powers, bringers of disorder, causes of death and sickness, instigators of sacrilege” (p. 412). Just as the sacred and the profane could be defined only in terms of one another, so the pure and the impure constituted two inextricably linked modalities of sacredness. After all, both holy and polluting things need to be kept separate from the profane realm of everyday reality.

In some cases, Durkheim suggested that the same object could easily pass from one state to another. The impurely sacred, according to Durkheim, was necessary in order to represent inevitable negative facets of social reality. “[The] two poles of religious life correspond to the two opposite states through which all social life passes. There is the same contrast between the lucky and the unlucky sacred as between the states of collective euphoria and dysphoria” (p. 417).

Durkheim’s Critics

Despite the profound influence of Durkheim on the structural-functionalist school of British anthropology, many of its practitioners were highly critical of the pertinence of his antithesis between sacred and profane. E. E. Evans-Pritchard proposed “a test of this sort of formulation …: whether it can be broken down into problems which permit testing by observation in field research, or can at least aid in a classification of the observed facts. I have never found that the dichotomy of sacred and profane was of much use for either purpose” (p. 65). Specifically, British anthropologists challenged its applicability to the real-life situations they observed in the course of field research.

Evans-Pritchard argued that among the Azande of central Africa, sacredness might be situational. Shrines erected for the purposes of ancestor worship in the middle of a compound might serve as a focus of ritual offerings on some occasions but on others, might be a convenient place for resting spears. W. E. H. Stanner found that the distinction was impossible to apply unambiguously in studying Australian religion, the very example on which it was ostensibly based. Jack Goody noted that many societies have no words that translate as sacred or profane and that ultimately, just like the distinction between natural and supernatural, it was very much a product of European religious thought rather than a universally applicable criterion.

Sacred and Profane Since Durkheim

The American anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, after conducting ethnographic research in Australia, turned in the 1930s to field work in a New England town that he called “Yankee City.” He published a series of monographs about American life through the lens of a small town, the last of which, The Living and the Dead (1959), focused on symbols and symbolism. The central chapter of the book, the one that most closely reflects the title of the book, was an analysis of Memorial Day rites, which “are a modern cult of the dead and conform to Durkheim’s definition of sacred collective representations” (p. 278). These rites transcended the division of the community in terms of class, ethnicity, and religion, uniting it around sacred symbols, including the cemetery, and national heroes—Lincoln, Washington, the Unknown Soldier. “The graves of the dead are the most powerful of the visible emblems which unify all the activities of the separate groups of the community,” whereas the celebration of the deaths of men who sacrificed their lives for their country “become powerful sacred symbols which organized, direct, and constantly revive the collective ideals of the community and the nation” (p. 279).

The sociologist Robert Bellah explicitly built on Warner’s analysis of Memorial Day rites to elaborate a concept of “American civil religion”—”a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity” (p. 10). Examining various presidential addresses on ceremonial occasions, from the founding father down to Lyndon Johnson, he notes the strategic invocation of “God” and the complete absence of mentions of “Christ,” which he argued signaled the transcendent, sacred nature of the nation while acknowledging the separation of church and state by avoiding references to any particular institutionalized religious faith. Ultimately, these analyses of American civil religion developed the analogies that Durkheim had suggested by stressing the identity of “flag” and “totem” and demonstrated the extent to which this conception of the sacred could not be opposed in any straightforward way to the secular.

More than any other contemporary anthropologists, Mary Douglas has made Durkheim’s distinction between sacred and profane a central focus of her work. In Purity and Danger (1966), she proposed a sweeping cross-cultural analysis of rules concerning purity and pollution that stressed Durkheim’s central thesis that religious ideas depended on the active separation of antithetical domains, a separation that in turn implied a system of classification. The central premise of her analysis was that “dirt is essentially disorder” (p. 12). For this reason, anomalous persons or animals, those that did not fit neatly into preconceived, socially determined categories, were especially powerful or dangerous. Seen in this light, European-American preoccupations with hygiene were not qualitatively different from non-European anxieties about ritual pollution. Such preoccupations with the maintenance of order and the separation of antithetical categories were intimately related to the perpetuation of social boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Most recently, Durkheim’s concepts have reappeared in a heated debate between anthropologists as to whether Captain James Cook, who arrived in the Hawaiian islands in 1778 and was killed by native Hawaiians in 1779, was really considered by his killers to be an avatar of the god Lono. Marshall Sahlins, in Islands of History (1985), asserted that Cook’s murder was a direct outgrowth of his deification. Sahlin’s analysis centered on the opposition between the god Lono, “associated with natural growth and human reproduction who annually returns to the islands with the fertilizing rains of winter” (p. 105) and the god Ku, associated with kingship, warfare, and human sacrifice.

Each year, the Makahiki festival celebrated the arrival of Lono along with the rains, his journey throughout the islands, and his departure/death, marked by the resumption of human sacrifice to the god Ku. The arrival of Cook in Hawaii, his journey around the island, and his departure all coincided with the ritual trajectory of the god Lono, with whom, Sahlins argued, Cook was literally identified, particularly by the priests of Lono. Disaster struck when, after his departure, Cook was obliged to return to Hawaii. The arrival of “Lono” at the wrong time and from the wrong direction was precisely a violation of rules of separation of antithetical categories, a direct threat to the god Ku and the king, who promptly had Cook killed. “Cook was transformed from the divine beneficiary of the sacrifice to its victim—a change never really radical in Polynesian thought, and in their royal combats always possible” (p. 106).

This analysis has been challenged by Gananath Obeyesekere, who has argued that such accounts of the deification of explorers like Cook were part of European imperial mythologizing rather than “native” thought. Advocating an approach derived from the sociology of Max Weber and emphasizing “practical rationality,” he has suggested that Cook’s death be interpreted more prosaically in terms of factional power struggles in Hawaii. Sahlins, it must be noted, carefully avoid the assertion that all Hawaiians accepted that Cook was a god. Rather, his point was that the historical events could be understood only in terms of the framework of Hawaiian ideas about the sacred, ideals that revolved around the classification of the social and the physical world in terms of one another, where the mixture of antithetical categories generated either great power or danger.

The debate shows clearly that Durkheim’s distinction between sacred and profane continues to inform anthropological analyses of religion (as well as of ostensibly secular ideologies) but also that such approaches continue to be challenged and contested, and that the relevance of such distinctions is far from universally accepted.