Sacred and Profane Essay

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The significance of the sacred/profane distinction in sociology is to be most directly credited to Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, where he defines religion as ”a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all who adhere to them” (1915: 47). The sacred thus involves things set apart and forbidden. Everything else is profane. As a result, ”profane” is always easy to define: it is anything within a society that is not sacred. To come to this conclusion about the sacred and its role in establishing a ”single moral community,” Durkheim read anthropological works, specifically on the Australian aborigines and particularly the role of totems among clans or tribes of what were considered ”primitive” peoples. This is the significance of the word elementary in the title of his book. Durkheim, like many other early sociologists, believed that by studying the maintenance of social organization   among   these   peoples significant insights could be obtained about core processes that enabled societies to develop and maintain themselves – and, as a corollary, what changes in the transition to modernity might explain the emerging social problems of his day. The distinction had an enormous direct effect in the sociology of religion, but also powerfully influenced the broader sociological theoretical paradigm of functionalism, especially through its integration into Talcott Parsons’s The Structure of Social Action (1938).

In the Parsonian synthesis that popularized and standardized Durkheim’s definition for an especially formative generation of sociologists, the notion of ”church” in the original Durkheimian formulation of the definition of religion was gradually secularized into ”society” – that is, whereas Durkheim spoke quite specifically of a moral community ”called a Church,” later generations came to identify the moral community with society or in other cases with virtually any other ongoing social group. Rather tautologically, in fact, social scientists began to look for ”the sacred” in groupings and structures that one would not normally associate with religion – ranging across as wide a spectrum as the flag and related patriotic paraphernalia in the USA and the tombs of Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union to Babe Ruth’s bat as sacred to baseball. This understanding of sacrality had a twofold effect on the study of both society and religion: On the one hand, it made religion an essential social institution: no religion, no society. On the other hand, it also said that while religion was good (functional), it was not true. That is, it reduced the end point of religion (the divine, in whatever name or form) to a social construction.

Durkheim’s sacrality proposition led in at least two directions in the study of religion. The positive outcome was a corpus of work on political religion that flowed freely and broadly from a seminal essay by Parsons’s former student Robert Bellah, ”Civil religion in America” (1963). This concept refers to a ”transcendent religion of the nation” and resonates well with the functionalism of both Durkheim and Parsons. A move away from functionalism generally in sociology beginning in the late 1960s brought in its wake first secularization theory, and then a reaction against the Parsonian-Durkheimian formulation as an adequate understanding of religion. Secularization theory hence led to anti-secularization theory, which amounted to a rethinking of both religion and sacrality in the Durkheimian context.


  1. Bellah, R. (1963) Civil religion in America. Dadalus 96: 1-21.
  2. Durkheim, E. (1915) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Allen & Unwin, London.
  3. Parsons, T. (1937) The Structure of Social Action. New York: Free Press.
  4. Swatos, W. H., Jr. (1999) Revisiting the sacred. Implicit Religion 2: 33-8.

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