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.
The exploration of the cultural perception of the sacred is by no means limited to the discipline of sociology. Psychoanalytical theory and anthropology have also brought their own unique reductions and these have not infrequently informed past sociological speculations. In terms of psychoanalytical accounts, the sacred is discussed in Freud’s theory of totemism and is central to his famous analysis of religion in Totem and Taboo (1938). For Freud, the link between totemism and the sacred is evident in certain aspects of the development of religion which have left their traces in historical myth and legend. In Freud’s account the Oedipus myth symbolizes a son’s desire to possess his mother and murder his father. Freud interpreted sacred animal sacrifices in “savage” tribes as partly a reenactment of the original parricide and partly an expiation of it and where the totemic animal is the symbolic substitute for the father or the dominate male. However, in more civilized communities where in the totemic feast the totem animal is slaughtered and eaten, Freud believed that sacrifice loses its sacredness and becomes an offering to the gods rather than a representation of the gods.
In anthropological terms, Robertson Smith (1889) identified the principal difference between primitive taboo and rules of the sacred as the difference between friendly and unfriendly deities. The separation of sacred and consecrated things and persons from profane ones, which is an integral part of the religious cult, is basically the same as the separation which is inspired by fear of malevolent spirits. Separation is the essential idea in both contexts, only the motive is different, since friendly gods are also to be feared on occasion. Robertson Smith maintained that distinguishing between the holy and the unclean marks a real advance above savagery. In this way he produces a criterion for classifying religions as “advanced” or ”primitive.” If primitive, then rules of sacredness and rules of uncleanliness are indistinguishable; if advanced, then rules of uncleanliness disappear from religion.
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. He dismissed Tylor’s (1903) ”substantive” definition of religion, namely ”belief in spiritual beings.” This definition was bound up with Tylor’s account of the origins of religion in a system of thought which he referred to as ”animism” – the belief that all things, organic and inorganic, contain a soul or a spirit which infuses them with their particular sacred nature and characteristics. Durkheim insisted that this emphasis was erroneous since it ignored practices, the real essence of religion, which are more important than beliefs. Durkheim likewise dismissed Marett’s (1914) conjecture that the essence of religion is the experience of a mysterious, sacred occult power or force that was associated with deep and ambivalent emotions of awe, fear, and respect of natural phenomena which predated conceptualizations of spirits, deities, and the like.
Durkheim then proceeded to adopt two criteria which he assumed would be found to coincide: the communal organization for the community cult and the separation of the sacred from the profane. For Durkheim, the sacred was the object of worship. The rules of separation between religion and the secular are the distinguishing marks of the sacred, the polar opposite to the profane. The sacred, according to Durkheim, is frequently projected as abstract religious entities, but these are merely collective ideas and expressions of collective morality. Moreover, the sacred needs to be continuingly enforced by prohibitions. The sacred must always be treated as contagious because relations with it are bound to be expressed by rituals of separation and demarcation and by beliefs in the danger of crossing forbidden boundaries.
Durkheim’s advanced his own “functional” definition of religion which amounted to a distinction between the sacred and profane, so that religion was ”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 them into one single moral community called a church of all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim 1915: 47). Thus, beliefs and practices in relation to the sacred are the defining factors of all religions.
Durkheim’s deductionist approach gave way to an examination of what he perceived as the most simple and primitive religion, that of the Australian aborigine, which he believed would provide insights into the origins of religion that are predominantly social in cause. Durkheim described the clan organization of aboriginal society and the association between each clan and a sacred totem animal or plant species. These totems are represented by stylistic images drawn on stones or wooden objects called churingas which, since they bear the representation of the sacred totem, are also sacred. In aboriginal collectives churingas are surrounded by taboo and treated with the utmost respect. These totemic symbols, Durkheim insisted, are emblems of the clan in much the same way as a flag of a country. The churingas are the most sacred objects in aborigine ritual – the outward and visible form of the totemic principle or god.
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 more than what the churingas represents. The churingas are 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.
Durkheim also explored how human beings partake of the sacred. At one level social members express their faith in common values and beliefs. In the highly charged atmosphere of collective worship, the integration of society is strengthened. Members of society express, communicate, and acknowledge the moral bonds between them. At the same time, as members of clans with sacred totems and who believe themselves to be descended from such totems, they too are sacred. Through totemic representation to which they belong, they are in some sense of the same essence as the totemic species and consequently, sacred. In the same way, in the totemic system of ideas, since all things are related with one or another clan totem, natural phenomena such as rain, thunder, and clouds become sacred. As totemic clans partake of a universal principle they are part of an anonymous impersonal force which constitutes society as a whole greater than its parts and which has a sacred quality. This impersonal force has a particular mysterious quality related to the totem and the social consciousness and unity which it represents. This force may be understood by the Polynesian term mana, which has parallels among some North American Indian tribes with the notion of orenda and in ancient Persian, maga.
There are a number of problems frequently identified with Durkheim’s definition of the sacred. Firstly, such a definition is derived from a western context that is not readily appropriate to the worldviews of a number of non western societies, since it carries various culture bound connotations. Thus, Durkheim’s assertion that religion is related to the sacred and that this is a universal conception in human society has been disputed by anthropologists: Evans Prichard (1937), for example, found that the distinction was not meaningful among the Azunde tribe he studied. The idea of the sacred, therefore, is one which exists in the mind of the observer and not necessarily of the believer or social agent. It might nonetheless be argued that the distinction remains a useful analytical conception by which sociologists can operationalize the study of religion. However, there remain difficulties with such a methodology even as an analytical distinction that focuses on the criteria by which the sacred is distinguished from the profane. Anthropologists point out that this is not useful in distinguishing a sacred from a profane sphere in at least some societies. While many cultures do have a category of things set apart and for bidden, these things are not always those that feature in religious belief and ritual and, on the other hand, things which do figure in religious belief and ritual may not be set apart and forbidden.
Durkheim also speaks of the sacred as commanding an attitude of respect. This does not, however, provide a consistent criterion because, in many religious systems, religious objects and entities do not necessarily receive reverence. Idols, and the gods and spirits they symbolize, may be punished if they do not produce the benefits they are called upon to bring. Such difficulties have led Goody to abandon the attempt to define religion in terms of the sacred. Goody (1961) maintains that it is far from legitimate for the observer to establish a definition of religious activity on a universal perception of the sacred world – no more than is the actor’s division of the universe into a natural or supernatural sphere.
Despite such critiques of Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and profane, his work inspired important schools of anthropological thought. Radcliffe Brown, for instance, saw the nature of the sacred as a communal cult. In his classic study The Andaman Islanders (1933) Radcliffe Brown was heavily influenced by Durkheim in asserting that ritual provided a socially integrative force which compensated for a lack of unitary political structure. Ritual is a symbolic action regarding the sacred and essentially expressed social sentiments, although Radcliffe Brown recognized that not all rituals are sacred rituals. Taboo rituals related to the sacred express, for example, the value of child birth taboos among Andaman Islanders -emphasizing the value of marriage and maternity, alongside the danger to life in the birthing process.
There are aspects of Mary Douglas’s work which also developed some of the themes of Durkheim’s thesis, although she also departed significantly from a number of his basic tenets (Douglas 1966). Like Durkheim, Douglas identified the sacred and the impure as opposite poles, but noted that in some primitive cultures the sacred is a very general idea meaning little more than prohibition. In that sense the universe is divided between things and actions which are subject to restrictions and others which are not. Among such restrictions some are intended to protect the divine from profanations, and others to protect the profane from the dangerous intrusion of the divine. Sacred rules are thus merely rules hedging divinity off, and uncleanliness is the two way danger of contact with the divine.
Douglas established the sacred as the polar opposite of uncleanliness, although what constitutes either she understood as socially defined and thus varied between cultures. For Douglas, religion often sacralized boundaries related to food, sexuality, dress, etc., as integral to caste systems, gender relations, or distinguishing communities. This is exemplified by a number of the rules of pollution in the “abominations” as outlined in the Judaic scriptures of the book of Leviticus, which are associated with ambiguities such as animals which part the hoof but are not cloven footed and the stipulation that those who touch them are likewise polluted (Leviticus 11).
A rarely observed perspective on Durkheim’s work is that it also constituted a study in the sociology of knowledge. For Durkheim, the basic social concepts and categories of thought, time, space, and causation, in addition to the distinction between the sacred and the profane, are born in religion as a community enterprise. Through the shared beliefs and moral values which form the collective conscience, social order is made possible and the social and natural world understood and given meaning by those who comprise the “sacred” community. Durkheim proceeded to show how the totemic system was also a cosmological system and how such basic categories had origins within totemism and the clan structure.
A more stringent phenomenological approach to the sacred was offered by Peter Berger in a series of influential works written since the late 1960s (e.g., Berger 1967). In Berger’s account religion is essentially derived from a subjective interpretation of reality from which meaning is given to the world (including the social world) and, indeed, the entire cosmos. Religion is thus one of the most important means by which human beings categorize and make sense of their existence. Such an enterprise is a collective one and, in constructing a universe of meaning, human beings perceive a ”plausibility structure” of understanding which, in turn, feeds back to inform and sustain the social order. According to Berger, this plausibility structure constructs a ”sacred canopy” which includes not just religious belief systems but also philosophical notions about how the world is and enforces everyday taken for granted knowledge. In doing so, the sacred canopy upholds the precariousness of human existence. Therefore, in most historical societies religion helped build, maintain, and legitimate a universe of meaning and provided ultimate answers to ultimate questions. This was achieved through beliefs in supernatural powers that created all things and further functioned to legitimate social institutions through a sacred and cosmic frame of reference. Since the sacred canopy is derived from a social base, that which is regarded as ”true” and legitimate is only so in the minds of the human actors who have conceived it. Hence, through notions of the sacred, as an ultimate frame of reference, any given social order comes to see itself as the center of the world and the cosmos.
In a more recent account, in which he makes a contribution to the secularization debate, Demerath (1999) differentiates the concept of religion from that of the sacred. Demerath argues that the sociological study of religion has long labored under the constraint and misleading premise of concepts of religion, and has not sufficiently dwelt on the sacred. He thus argues that religion should be defined ”substantively” and the sacred ”functionally,” thus resolving the longstanding tension in earlier definitions of both. Religion, according to Demerath, is a category of activity, and the sacred a statement of function. Demerath observes that religious activities do not always have sacred consequences. This is very often because religion frequently displays organized expressions and bureaucratic encumbrances. Nonetheless, the substantive definition of religion does suggest an orientation towards the supernatural world and ”externally” imposed moral systems. By contrast, ”the sacred” is a category of social phenomena which is not religious in conventional terms even though sacred phenomena may display some aspects of religion. Demerath therefore sees ”folk,” ”implicit,” ”quasi,” and ”para” religions as part of the ”sociology of the sacred,” conceptions which hitherto had the disadvantage of using a conventional image of religion with unfortunate consequences, one of which has been to narrow the search for the sacred to include those things which are religious in character. There are sacred entities and symbols which have a compelling power without necessarily being religious. Since any social activity has potentially sacred functions there may be a large inventory of any society’s cultural stock which constitutes the sacred.
- Berger, P. (1967) The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Doubleday, New York.
- Demerath, N. (1999) The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove. Presidential Address, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, November 6, Boston.
- Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
- Durkheim, E. (1915) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Allen & Unwin, London.
- Evans-Prichard, E. E. (1937) Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Clarendon Press, Oxford.
- Freud, S. (1938) Totem and Taboo. Penguin, London.
- Goody, J. (1961) Religion and Ritual: The Definitional Problem. British Journal of Sociology 12: 142 64.
- Marett, R. R. (1914) The Threshold of Religion. Methuen, London.
- Radcliffe-Brown, R. (1933 ) The Andaman Islanders. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Robertson Smith, W. (1889) The Religion of the Semites. Edinburgh, A. & C. Black.
- Tylor, E. (1903 ) Primitive Culture. Murray, London.
Back to Sociology of Religion