The sacred-profane distinction and the effects of ‘effervescence’

The first objection is that it is not clear that the taboos that maintain and preserve the sacred can also generate and explain altruism and social service through ‘effervescence’. Durkheim appears to be using one ethical code or structure, that is a rules/duty framework to explain the existence of virtue ethics.

On one level, Durkheim’s definition of the sacred is not unlike that of the Catholic Church. What both rule out is the idea that ‘sacrilege’ could ever involve something other than a rule by an authority. For instance, the New Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia defines the sacred as a juridical category—only those things that the Church has decided are sacred are sacred, the sacred in this sense is something that has been consecrated, it is a special status. Joseph Delany writes,

Theologians are substantially agreed in regarding as sacred that and that only which by a public rite and by Divine of ecclesiastical institution has been dedicated to the worship of God. The point is that the public authority must intervene; private initiative, no matter how ardent in devotion or praiseworthy in motive, does not suffice. Attributing a sacred character to a thing is a juridical act, and as such is a function of the governing power of the Church.[27]

This means that, according to the writers of the New Advent, there are a great many religious things that are not sacred. Hence they make a distinction between crimes of sacrilege, properly so called, which is the violation or injurious treatment of a sacred object, and transgressions against the virtue of religion, such as superstition, blasphemy and perjury, simony, idolatry and superstition, that might be commonly, and improperly, referred to as sacred.

While there is some similarity between Durkheim and the Catholic definition of the sacred, there are also significant differences. For one thing, Durkheim reduces all morality to a juridical morality, whereas the Catholic definition does not.

Durkheim appears straightforwardly wrong on this point, and there appear to be many moral codes that are not based in the sacred as he describes it—for example, the ethics of care, or loyalty to friends, and civic and religious virtues—that cannot be explained by reference to an authoritative source. Secondly, the New Advent recognises that although not crimes against the sacred, there are other moral values associated with religion, including a number of virtues.

Rules spell out a minimal action—they do not reflect aspirations. No-one is obliged to become a saint, or to live a life of devotion, even if they are expected to observe the rules of a religion, and practise, to the extent that they are able, the virtues. However, they are excused for failing to achieve virtues in a way that they are not excused for failing to observe rules. Durkheim might still argue that the virtues, such as good citizenship or devotion, are based on collective representations of the good, but he cannot argue that the ethics involved in these collective representations all depend on a rule-bound moral code.