Stretching the sacred

Elizabeth Burns Coleman

Kevin White

Table of Contents

Durkheim and ‘the sacred’ in the social sciences
Religion to society
Society to religion
The sacred-profane distinction and the effects of ‘effervescence’
The sacred-profane distinction is not universal
The uses of the term ‘sacred’ and their normative content

The term sacred tends to be used interchangeably with a wide variety of terms: terms like mystical, religious, divine, magical, and, most commonly, spiritual and religious. In 2002, the Humanities Research Centre at The Australian National University ran a conference entitled ‘Locations of Spirituality: “Experiences” and “Writings” of the “Sacred”’. All of these topics were addressed in the papers presented at the conference. On one level this suggests that the term ‘sacred’ is inherently vague.

Yet there are some features the uses seem to have in common. A writer for the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Edward Bailey, has suggested that the realm of those things we might call sacred is generally recognised as possessing four characteristics:

in experience, it is special, and even unique; in value, it is important, even all demanding; in consciousness, it is fundamental, even primordial; in communication, it is dynamic, yet ineffable…All these characteristics issue a single consequence that is easily described but is less a separate quality than an aspect or by product of all of them: It imposes “taboos”, restrictions.[1]

The term ‘sacred’ tends to be used synonymously with ‘religious’, and it is not uncommon to see people using the terms interchangeably. Yet, when someone says ‘this is sacred land’, they may or may not be introducing a particular religious framework into a discussion. But they are implying that something normative follows from their statement. The issue that we wish to explore in this paper is the normative force of the attribution of sacred as a quality. What does it mean to say that something is sacred, and does it always have the same normative force across different usages?

The term sacred is stretched beyond ‘religion’, leaving traditional truths and virtues behind it, and used interchangeably with terms like ‘spiritual’. A person need not recognise the authority of any religion, and may insist upon a highly individualistic claim to the truth or validity of their experience. Certain kinds of experience might be considered an experience of the ‘sacred’. We might include amongst these altered states of consciousness such as ecstasy, a special way of knowing or hyper-consciousness, visions and auditions, the experience of paranormal or occult phenomena, or the experience of a connection with the earth, for example, as in ‘nature mysticism’.

The term sacred is also applied secularly, in relation to such things as the State, memorials and ANZAC Day, and even property. The stretching of ‘the sacred’ to this application of the term sacred was made possible through the analysis of the concept within the social sciences, in particular, by Emile Durkheim. At the same time, Durkheim’s analysis ‘closes down’ other applications of the term, such as the use of the term sacred to personal feelings and spiritual sentiments. Durkheim’s concept of the sacred suggests that the use of the term has normative force only in connection with authority, and that therefore the personal use has none.

In the first part of the paper, we will consider Durkehim’s analysis of the sacred, and the way this has been applied within the social sciences, and extended to secular society. The second part addresses Durkheim’s idea that the sacred and profane are necessary, and opposite, categories and the normative content of the concept. Anthropologists have criticised Durkheim’s analysis on the basis that the binary does not seem to operate in every society. Different metaphysical conceptions, as well as different understandings of the relationship between religion, spirituality and secular institutions and ‘the sacred’ have different implications for what might be considered taboo. Moreover, the duality sacred/profane does not seem to fully explain the normative content of the relationship in its common usages. In the third part, we will suggest a third way of understanding the normative content of the claim that something is sacred—and argue that the mobilization of the term sacred may involve different, and heterogeneous norms.

Durkheim and ‘the sacred’ in the social sciences

Before Durkheim, in the works of Tylor,[2] Mueller[3] and Fraser,[4] religion was considered as a property of the individual, as the individual’s reaction to nature, or a series of delusions. Even William James did not break with this tradition. For William James the sacred and its experience is variable, dependent on the individual, and has its authority from the psychological experience of the individual. His focus is on religious feelings and impulses as related by individuals. He ignores the ‘institutional branch of religion’ completely focusing on ‘that which lives itself out within the private breast’.[5] Alternatively, for Durkheim the sacred is specific and independent of the individual, based in communal action and ritual, evoking emotional responses of belonging and awe in the believer. He specifically criticises James for neglecting institutions and churches. The sacred is neither about feelings of brotherhood or a matter of voluntary association. It is a social imperative that affirms society and binds the individual to it. Against James, Durkheim argues that religion is not about belief in god(s) but in the distinction between the sacred and the profane. This was a very powerful analytic move on Durkheim’s part and substantially shaped the sociology of religion.

Durkheim’s approach was itself shaped by William Robertson Smith’s Lectures on the Religion of the Semites [6] (1889) which argues that the sacrificial meal between god and men produces a sacral community and which Durkheim read in 1912, and Fustel Coulanges’, The Ancient City [7] (1901) in which Coulanges argued that the religion of Ancient Rome reflects the social structure of Roman society.[8]

As always Durkheim is arguing against liberalism and pragmatism. No account of social life can be based on contractual theories, nor is a religion a set of ‘truths’ which hold good because they work for the individual (James’ position). Rather religious beliefs provide the basis for social action and are based on the truth of society. What does religion function to do? It creates a social bond; it remakes social commitments through the ‘effervescence’; it produces individuals who are versed in sacrifice and asceticism, which result in altruism and social service; and in bringing the group together around collective ritual it maintains the collective memory of the group, thereby producing continuity over generations.[9] As Durkheim puts it in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, religion is,

the way societies become conscious of themselves and their history…The gods are no other than collective forces personified and hypostasised in material form. Ultimately, it is the society that is worshipped by the believers; the superiority of the gods over men is that of the group over its members. The early gods were the substantive objects which served as symbols to the collectivity and for this reason became representations of it.[10]

Durkheim attacks, then, individualist accounts of religious experience and provides his famous definition of religion as that ‘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 those who adhere to them’.[11] The importance of this definition is that religion is defined in terms of the sacred, not the sacred in terms of religion. This allows Durkheim to subsequently explore the non-religious aspects of the sacred in his exploration of what is going to hold a society with a weak conscience collective together.

Durkheim develops his argument on two fronts. On the one hand he argues that religion is a manifestation of the collective values of society. On the other, society is held together by religious beliefs. Religion is thus central to social solidarity and represents social solidarity. Durkheim’s two arguments can be labelled as a ‘religion to society’ analysis, and as a ‘society to religion’ analysis.

Religion to society

Durkheim sees religion as the deep grammar of society because religion is the source of social norms; and social norms have the quality of religious obligation. Religion is the pre-contractual foundation of social solidarity. It is custom, ritual and morality that make contracts binding. As is well known, Durkheim also locates the categories of thought in religion.

Society to religion

Religion is a social fact. All societies are based on collective representations. But the religion is not just a collective representation. It is the symbol of the collective identity. It stands above any given collective representation, integrating all of them. As Pickering[12] puts Durkheim’s position, the society-religion and the religion-society circuit is that the sacred is ‘a fundamental element in the ordering of society’ and the representation of collective ideals and beliefs.

It is important to note that Durkheim is defining religion in terms of the sacred, not the sacred in terms of religion. This moves him away from his institutional definition of religion as a church and generalises the concept of the sacred beyond religion. ‘The sacred is the concept associated with the collective ideas represented through religious symbols and metaphors’. There can be no society without the sacred, since the sacred is society’s idealised vision of itself. As Durkheim puts it:

There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and collective ideas which make its unity and its personality. Now this moral remaking cannot be achieved except by means of reunions, assemblies and meetings where individuals, being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments, hence come ceremonies which do not differ from regular religious ceremonies, either in their object, the results they produce or the processes employed to obtain the result.[13]

With the decline of religion, Durkheim suggests that nationalist sentiment and national ceremonies provide social cohesion. In Professional Ethics and Civic Morals [14] Durkheim points to ‘a cult of the state’ worshipped by citizens in which patriotism, ‘the ideas and feelings as a whole which bind the individual to a certain state’, performs the function of the sacred.

Another location of sacred, Durkheim suggests, is the ‘cult of the individual’. As the division of labour becomes more complex, society invests more in each individual, resulting in the individual becoming sacred. ‘Morality would no longer be morality if it had no element of religion…The respect which we have for the human being is distinguishable only very slightly from that which the faithful of all religions have for the objects they deem sacred’.[15] ‘Society has consecrated the individual and made him pre-eminently worthy of respect’.[16] While Durkheim had developed this theme in Suicide and in The Division of Labor in Society,its strongest statement is to be found in his essay ‘Individualism and the Intellectuals’ in which he states that the:

human person (personne humaine), the definition of which is like the touchstone which distinguishes good from evil, is considered sacred in the ritual sense of the word. It partakes of the transcendent majesty that churches of all time lend to their gods; it is conceived of as being invested with that mysterious property which creates a void about sacred things, which removes them from vulgar contacts and withdraws them from common circulation. And the respect which is given comes precisely from this source. Whoever makes an attempt on a man’s life, on a man’s liberty, on a man’s honor, inspires in us a feeling of horror analogous in every way to that which the believer experiences when he sees his idol profaned. Such an ethic is therefore not simply a hygienic discipline or a prudent economy of existence; it is a religion in which man is at once the worshipper and the god.[17]

He also says the same thing about property: Property is property only if it is respected, that is to say, held sacred.[18] This is explained by his insistence that the right of property consists in essence as ‘the right to withdraw a thing from common usage’, and that this feature of property is shared by ‘all religious and sacred things’.[19]

What all these things that might be considered sacred have in common is that they are exclusionary. Durkheim says,

The feature that distinguishes the sacred entities is that they are withdrawn from general circulation; they are separate and set apart. The common people cannot enjoy them. They cannot even touch them. Those who would have a kinship, as it were, with sacred things of this kind, can alone have access to them—that is, those who are sacred as they are: the priests, the great, the magistrates, especially where the latter have a sacred character’.[20]

This extension of the sacred away from institutional churches has been influential in twentieth century social theory. For Berger, following Durkheim, cognitively, the sacred orders chaos and a ‘rumour of angels’[21] is present even in modern society. Callois,[22] like Durkheim, analysed religion as the deep grammar of society, even in modern societies, arguing that public space is divided into the sacred and profane. In Canberra, for example, we have Parliament, and the War Memorial, laid out as the axis of the city, with Anzac Parade linking them. Industrial suburbs, which include the brothels, are located on the outskirts of the city, as are the tips. The sacred is thus an organising factor in the way we lay out our cities. In this analysis, at the centre of modern societies is the sacred. A similar argument had been advanced by de Tocqueville in 1832, and then most influentially in the twentieth century by Bellah[23] with his concept of civil religions. Thus it is argued that modern societies are deeply religious, if secularised, and they have to recognise the power of the sacred in their own societies. Parsons has suggested, and subsequently Habermas, that the normative content of modernity is produced by ‘the Hebrew morality of justice in the Old Testament and the Christian ethics of love in the New Testament’.[24] Modernity is still sacred, if not religious.

The moral force of the sacred-profane distinction Durkheim tends to equivocate between religion and sacred in his texts. The religious is defined in terms of the sacred, but he will often refer to the religious, rather than the sacred, as the source of moral rules.

The sacred may be defined as those things set apart, and identified by taboos, which set it apart from the profane. The profane, the opposite of the sacred, is not a clear concept. Durkheim never defines it although commentators have listed its characteristics as ‘ordinariness’, ‘work’, ‘individual’, or the ‘body’.

According to Durkheim, in both modern and pre-modern life, morality can be defined by the interdictions of taboos around the sacred. ‘It is impossible to imagine on the evidence,’ Durkheim states, ‘that morality should entirely sever its unbroken historic association with religion without ceasing to be itself’.[25] In Professional Ethics and Civic Morals he argues, ‘Man is a moral being only because he lives within established societies. There are no morals without discipline and authority…Morals do not seem like obligations to us, that is, they do not seem like morals to us—and therefore we can have no sense of duty—unless there exists about us and above us a power which gives them sanction’.[26] What is clear in this comment is that the moral injunctions are those that preserve the sacred—and are based on a rules/duty model of morality. These rules are the sanctions or taboos around the sacred. In a sense, the taboos maintain and preserve the sacred. Durkheim goes on to acknowledge that individuals develop their own image of God and spirituality, but this cannot be a source of ethics for Durkheim. He argues that it is the authoritarian, and not the individual, conception of the sacred that is the source of ethics on the grounds that if the authority of the state is weakened, the sense of duty and therefore of ethics is also weakened, and this leads to a general anarchy and immorality.

Importantly here, individual experience or sentiment could not be considered ‘sacred’ on Durkheim’s account, and cannot generate any moral force. As pointed out in the introduction, this is one of the most common features of the contemporary usage of the term. This is not necessarily a significant point against Durkheim’s analysis, as it could be that the usage is a form of rhetoric that borrows its force from the Durkheimian juridical sense. Furthermore, to the extent that Durkheim’s definition is stipulative, a way of using terms to identify and discuss a specific phenomenon, there is no reason not to exclude some uses. More pertinent objections are that the distinction does not seem to account for the morality and behaviour that Durkheim suggests it does, and that even where the distinction is found in other cultures, it does not necessarily have the features Durkheim suggests it does. This evidence points to Durkheim failing to give a definition that will achieve what he sets out to explain cross-culturally—the relationship between social structure and religion.