Sacrilege and the sacred

To have sacrilege we must have the sacred, and how the sacred is construed will determine how sacrilege is construed. In chapter 6, following Durkheim, we argue that even secular societies, such as Australia, hold some events, places and things sacred, and perceive attacks on them as sacrilegious. Durkheim posed that the state, the individual and property could all be seen as sacred in contemporary societies, in that they are set aside and protected by interdictions. We argue that one way of explaining the profound reaction of the public and the legislature to the theft of the Australian coat of arms from Parliament House is in terms of an affront to the sacred. For Durkheim, those things that are constituted as sacred hold that character by virtue of the power relations of society that act to defend them. In contrast to earlier contributors to this volume, we present the experience of the sacred as a social, rather than personal event, and to the extent that it exists universally, as a characteristic of societies, and not of human beings.

In this vein, Colin Tatz explores the political constructions of the sacred (chapter 7). In particular, he explores the sacrality of the memorials to holocaust victims and to other peoples subjected to ethnic cleansing. In his analysis, sacrilege and blasphemy are irreverence towards persons or places held in high regard as a consequence of horrific acts perpetrated there or on them, and culminate in genocide denial—the attempt to erase from history knowledge of holocausts.

The question of what constitutes sacrilege is also at the heart of Dianne McGowan’s paper, which explores historical and cross-cultural variations in the treatment of the dead human body (chapter 8). At this historical juncture the body is ‘sacred’ in Western societies, though this has not always been the case, nor has it always been the case for all bodies. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the bodies of criminals and of the poverty stricken who could not afford a funeral were used for anatomical experiments in the newly developed medical schools. With the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, the West entered the current phase of protecting the body in death. How then to accommodate contemporary cultures where the body in death is, as part of religious practice, dismembered and left to carrion eaters in the open? Could Australia accommodate the use of parts of the body, such as the head (sometimes of people newly dead) in religious ceremonies, as Tibetans do? Moreover, what does it say about Western culture when it exhibits these religious artefacts of Tibetan culture, as art in museums. As McGowan points out, when this occurs, the artefacts are sanitised of their religious function, allowing us to see them in aesthetic ways rather than being offended by them. In a similar way, Liam Dee argues that in capitalist economies the sacred becomes commodified and used as a marketing tool (chapter 9). Indeed some religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, are willing sell their religious prestige to multinational companies. The processes of aestheticisation and commodification, which substitute the value of the sacred for more ‘acceptable’ or profane commercial values, may be considered part of the process and culture of secularisation.