Sacred and Profane
Durkheim's Definition Of Religion
In his last great work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim set out "to study the simplest and most primitive religion that is known at present, to discover its principles and attempt an explanation of it" (p. 1) in order to uncover universal properties of religion. But first he needed to define religion, or else "run the risk of either calling a system of ideas and practices religion that are in no way religious, or of passing by religious phenomena without detecting their true nature" (p. 21). Rather than immediately proposing a definition of his own, he began by rejecting two existing definitions. Religion could not be defined, he argued, in terms of the "supernatural," a category that made sense only in opposition to a modern European paradigm of scientific explanation for "natural" phenomena; for most of the world's peoples, including premodern Europeans, religious phenomena were perfectly natural. Nor, he continued, could religion be reduced to ideas of "divinity" or even "spiritual beings." For instance, salvation in Buddhism was not predicated on divine assistance, and many religious practices—Jewish dietary regulations, for example—were "wholly independent of any idea of gods or spiritual beings" (p. 32).
Instead, Durkheim formulated a radical proposition:
Whether simple or complex, all known religious beliefs display a common feature: They presuppose a classification of the real or ideal things that men conceive of into two classes—two opposite genera—that are widely designated by two distinct terms, which the words profane and sacred translate fairly well. The division of the world into two domains, one containing all that is sacred and the other all this is profane—such is the distinctive trait of religious thought. (p. 34)
Unlike definitions in terms of "supernatural," "divinities," or "spiritual beings," Durkheim's definition in no way predicated any specific kind of belief, much less belief in any particular kind of being. On the contrary, for Durkheim, the division into "sacred" and "profane" was a necessary precondition for religious beliefs, indeed their very foundation. "Religious beliefs are those representations that express the nature of sacred things and the relations they have with other sacred things or with profane things … rites are rules of conduct that prescribe how man must conduct himself with sacred things" (p. 38).
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