The sacred-profane distinction is not universal

As W. S. F. Pickering[28] points out, from its earliest reception the duality of the sacred and profane in Elementary Forms has been seriously questioned. Even pupils loyal to Durkheim such as Marcel Granet[29] found in his empirical work on religion in China that the dualism was not marked. Evans-Pritchard,[30] in his studies of the Azande rejected it flatly, arguing that the two categories intermingled and were inseparable and did not negate each other. Most damaging though has been the work of Stanner,[31] based as it is on fieldwork with Australian Aboriginals. Remember that the basis of Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and profane is that religious thought reflects social organisation. Durkheim asserts that since no individual can be a member of two moieties that it is this radical separation that is reflected in the religious thought and the basis of the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Stanner’s fieldwork shows that in fact members of different moieties do intermingle and that the moieties are not radically distinct. Groups can and do intermix while still preserving their identities and hence neither their social organisation, nor their conceptual thinking, reflects the dualism that Durkheim ascribes to them. What these objections show is that the distinction between sacred and profane that Durkheim develops does not explain all the features of societies that recognise something like a realm of the sacred, and that the concept of the sacred does not necessarily have the features that Durkheim suggests.

Part of this divergence between theory and reality can be explained by the fact that there is an equivocation in Durkheim’s concept of the binary, as there is in the word ‘profane’ itself. The profane may simply mean ‘not sacred’, but it also has a meaning of being irreligious, and a misuse or abuse of the sacred, which might be termed the ‘anti-sacred’. That these are different binaries can be shown logically. If, like Durkheim, you define the sacred as that which is set apart, then the profane defined as non-sacred, that is, as the every-day or ordinary, is a necessary condition for the concept. It is impossible to imagine a world in which some things are set apart, but nothing is ordinary. However, the profane as ‘anti-sacred’, that is, as acts against the sacred, is not a necessary condition for the concept of the sacred. While the sacred as ‘set apart and preserved by taboos’ requires rules to establish the sacred as a social fact, it does not require anyone to break those rules. It is possible to imagine a world in which there are things that are sacred, but that no-one ever breaks the rules. However, it is not necessary that we do define ‘the sacred’ as that which is set apart.

In his fieldwork, Jack Goody found that the Lo Dagaa of northern Ghana make no recognisable distinction between the natural and the supernatural. He wrote: ‘But neither do the Lo Dagaa appear to have any concepts at all equivalent to the vaguer and not unrelated dichotomy between the sacred and the profane’.[32] The fact that the sacred is not universal should not surprise us, as different cultures also understand the world in different ways. The ways in which the different groups and people explain the world, and the relationship between the spiritual and natural world, will affect the usefulness of the term. If you think that God, or the spirit of the world, is immanent, you will have a world in which the entire world is endowed with spiritual importance. If you describe this idea of ‘spiritual importance’ as the sacred, everything will be sacred, however, the conception of the sacred you will be using will be nothing like that which Durkheim uses, because there is nothing that distinguishes it from the ordinary. However, as we will argue in the next section of this paper, this does not mean that your usage cannot have normative force, merely that the normative force of the claim will be nothing like Durkheim’s sacred-profane distinction. In the next section of the paper we intend to analyse some of the common uses of the term, and the norms associated with their use.