Sociology Index

SACRED-PROFANE DICHOTOMY

David Emile Durkheim claimed that all religions divide objects or phenomena into the sacred and the profane. The sacred objects are those which are extraordinary and are treated as if set apart from the routine course of events in daily life. The profane are those objects or phenomena seen as ordinary and constituting the reality of everyday living. There is a classic interpretation that the male and the female dichotomy corresponds to a sacred and the profane dichotomy in aboriginal religion. W. S. F. Pickering points out, the duality of the sacred and profane in Elementary Forms has been seriously questioned.

In Prince: An Appreciation And Farewell, Matt Phillips wrote: "Then there was the spiritual element to Prince’s music, increasingly visible as the ‘80s progressed. He was a living embodiment of the sacred/profane dichotomy. The man who wrote ‘Sister’ and ‘Lady Cab Driver’ ended the decade by telling us: ‘Look to the light’. He could write ‘I Love U In Me’ one day but then follow it up the next with ‘God’."

The basis of Durkheim's distinction between the sacred and profane is that religious thought reflects social organisation. The profane, in the sacred and the profane, may simply mean not sacred, but it also has a meaning of being irreligious, and a misuse or abuse of the sacred, which might be termed the anti-sacred. If, like Durkheim, you define the sacred as that which is set apart, then the profane defined as non-sacred, that is, as the every-day or ordinary, is a necessary condition for the concept. The profane as anti-sacred, that is, as acts against the sacred, is not a necessary condition for the concept of the sacred. While the sacred as set apart and preserved by taboos requires rules to establish the sacred as a social fact, it does not require anyone to break those rules. It is possible to imagine a world in which there are things that are sacred and the profane, but that no-one ever breaks the rules.

Durkheim's claim of the universality of sacred-profane dichotomy for all religions and cults has been criticized by many scholars because there have been many societies which have no words that mean sacred or profane. The secularization and rationalization of Western societies has reduced the realm of the sacred in the sacred and the profane. The sacred and the profane distinction is not universal.

Collective effervescence is the basis for Émile Durkheim's theory of religion "Elementary Forms of Religious Life." Durkheim argues that the dichotomy of profane and sacred results from the lives members of tribes like the hunter gatherer society whose life is almost spent performing menial tasks such as hunting and gathering. These tasks are profane according to Émile Durkheim. The occasions on which the entire tribe gathers together become sacred, and the high energy level associated with these events gets directed onto physical objects or people which also become sacred. According to Durkheim's idea of sacred-profane the celebration of religious beliefs and sacred ritual united the community and integrated individuals and that it enhanced the sharing of collective sentiments and solidarity in profane areas of social life.

Sacred and profane in elementary forms has been questioned. Even pupils loyal to Durkheim such as Marcel Granet found in his empirical work on religion in China that the dualism was not marked. Evans-Pritchard, in his studies of the Azande rejected it flatly, arguing that the two categories intermingled and were inseparable and did not negate each other. Most damaging though has been the work of Stanner, based as it is on fieldwork with Australian Aboriginals.

The basis of Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and profane is that religious thought reflects social organisation. Durkheim asserts that since no individual can be a member of two moieties that it is this radical separation that is reflected in the religious thought and the basis of the distinction between the sacred and the profane.

What these objections show is that the distinction between sacred and profane that Durkheim develops does not explain all the features of societies that recognise something like a realm of the sacred, and that the concept of the sacred does not necessarily have the features that Durkheim suggests. Part of this divergence between theory and reality can be explained by the fact that there is an equivocation in Durkheim’s concept of the binary, as there is in the word ‘profane’ itself. The profane may simply mean ‘not sacred’, but it also has a meaning of being irreligious, and a misuse or abuse of the sacred, which might be termed the ‘anti-sacred’.

Jack Goody found that the Lo Dagaa of northern Ghana make no recognisable distinction between the natural and the supernatural. He wrote: ‘But neither do the Lo Dagaa appear to have any concepts at all equivalent to the vaguer and not unrelated dichotomy between the sacred and the profane.’

The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. Mircea Eliade, Willard R. Trask.
In The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade observes that while contemporary people believe their world is entirely profane, or secular, they still at times find themselves connected unconsciously to the memory of something sacred. It's this premise that both drives Eliade's exhaustive exploration of the sacred; as it has manifested in space, time, nature and the cosmos, and life itself; and buttresses his expansive view of the human experience. The Sacred and the Profane serves as an excellent introduction to the history of religion, but its perspective also encompasses philosophical anthropology, phenomenology, and psychology. It will be of concern to anyone seeking to discover the potential dimensions of human existence.

Psychoanalysis: The Sacred and the Profane
Allan Frosch. Am J Psychoanal. 2014 Jun;74(2):133-46.
Abstract: Colleagues from a variety of perspectives have written about the propensity to enshrine psychoanalytic theory. The meaning of the word "enshrine" is to cherish as sacred an idea or philosophy and protect it from change. In other words, the way we view psychoanalysis, our theories of mind and technique, become holy writ and we have divided the world of theory into the sacred and the profane. This is the kiss of death for theory, which must constantly evolve and change, but comforting for the analyst who believes he is on the side of the right, the sacred. In this paper I will discuss how our propensity to enshrine theory has had a debilitating effect on the development of psychoanalysis and, in particular, as a treatment for the most vulnerable people who seek our help. I also address the idea that movement away from enshrined positions allows us to construct different versions of reality. In this context, the notion of "action at a distance" is presented along with the attendant idea of psychoanalytic entanglement.

Sacred Space, Profane Space, Human Space - SHINER J - American Academy of Religion.1972; XL: 425-436.