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The Latin word sacer, from which the term sacred is derived, denotes a distinction between what is and what is not pertaining to the gods. In not a dissimilar fashion, the Hebrew root of k-d-sh, which is usually translated as “Holy,” is based on the idea of separation of the consecrated and desecrated in relation to the divine. Whatever the specific expression of the sacred, however, there is a fairly universal cultural division where the sacred constitutes phenomena which are set apart, revered, and distinguished from all other phenomena that constitute the profane or the mundane. However, in Hinduism there has long existed the belief that the sacred and the unclean both belong to a single linguistic category. Thus, the Hindu notion of pollution suggests that the sacred and the non-sacred need not be absolute opposites; they can be relative categories; what is clean in relation to one thing may be unclean in relation to another, and vice versa.
The interest of sociologists in the social significance of the sacred is largely derived from the concerns of the subdiscipline of the sociology of religion. However, considerable disagreement exists as to the precise social origins of that which is designated sacred. Hence, an understanding of the sacred is frequently intimately bound up with broad definitions of religion itself, the categorization of certain social activities as religious, and particular sociological approaches to the subject. Such concerns have subsequently ensured that sociological perceptions of what constitutes the sacred as a social manifestation are subject to constant change and have led to a divergence of thought as to its nature.
While early anthropological accounts of the nature of the sacred have informed sociological theorizing, it was in turn heavily influenced by the work of Durkheim. In the opening chapter to The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915) Durkheim summarized and rejected earlier definitions of religion. Durkheim argued that by sacred things we should not understand simply those things which are called gods or spirits – a rock a tree, a river, a pebble, a building – which are frequently held as sacred, as displaying inherent sacred qualities. The totem is the emblem of the clan, but is also at once the symbol of the sacred and society, for the sacred and society are one. Thus, through worship of god or the totem, human beings worship society – the real object of religious veneration. It is a relationship of inferiority and dependency. Durkheim argued that it is easier for human beings to visualize and direct feelings of awe towards a symbol than such a complex thing as a clan. This is what gives the totem, hence society, its sacred quality.
- Berger, P. (1967) The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Doubleday, New York.
- Freud, S. (1938) Totem and Taboo. Penguin, London.