Sociology Index

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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.

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.

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.

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.

As W. S. F. Pickering points out, the duality of the sacred and profane in Elementary Forms has been seriously questioned. The basis of Durkheim's distinction between the sacred and profane is that religious thought reflects social organisation.

There is a classic interpretation that the male and the female dichotomy corresponds to a sacred and the profane dichotomy in aboriginal religion.

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