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Sacred and Profane

Sacred Versus Holy; Profane Versus Secular

It is helpful to contrast Durkheim's concept of the sacred to that of the holy in the contemporary work of the noted German theologian Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy (1917). The holy, for Otto, derived from a sense of the "numinous" (a word Otto coined): the experience of awe, of the transcendent majesty, energy, and mystery of the wholly other. For Otto, the holy was grounded in individual feeling, the apprehension of something outside the individual and infinitely greater. Durkheim hardly denied the existence, or for that matter the importance, of such an experience but held that it derived from the idea of the sacred rather than constituting its essence. For Durkheim, the concept of sacred was above all intrinsically social, the product of the social classification of all phenomena into the antithetical categories of sacred and profane. Unlike Otto's "holy," Durkheim's sacred was literally unthinkable except in terms of the profane. The content of the category sacred was intrinsically fluid: anything might be classified as sacred. What mattered was the social act of separation from the profane.

At first sight, this dichotomy between sacred and profane seems identical to that between sacred and secular. While Durkheim did not explicitly argue against such assimilation, it is clear that he would have regarded it as analogous to that between natural and supernatural, a historically constituted distinction that made sense only in terms of relatively recent European history, with its emphasis on the separation of church and state. Most important, Durkheim very definitely refused to exempt the secular realm of the state from the domain of the sacred. One of his most powerful images—all the more so when one bears in mind that The Elementary Forms of Religious Life appeared only two years before the outbreak of World War I—was that of the flag: "The soldier who fall defending his flag certainly does not believe he has sacrificed himself to a piece of cloth" (p. 229); "A mere scrap of the flag represents the country as much as the flag itself; moreover, it is sacred in the same right and to the same degree" (p. 231).

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