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The Sacred and the Profane

The Sacred and the Profane


This lesson introduces and juxtaposes the concepts of the sacred and the profane, where "profane" is understood broadly as that which is necessarily "profanus," i.e. "outside the temple" and thus not within the realm of the sacred.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] The French sociologist Emile Durkheim use the categories of the sacred and the profane to explain much of what happens in religion. To put it briefly, Durkheim said that the community tends to label as sacred those things which are perceived as benefiting the community and label those things as profane things that are perceived as anti-social. So religion has the function of holding the community together and benefiting the community through imposing these two categories on various types of behavior.

These terms, of course, predate Durkheim's sociology and can be found as far back as the ancient Latin profanis, which means outside the temple. So the profane is that which is worldly or not spiritual and the sacred is that which takes place within the bounds of spirituality and religion. In our contemporary usage we think of the profane as having to do with cursing and vulgarity. It originally had this religious meaning dating back to the Latin.

Both cursing and blessing, the sacred and the profane, the clean and the unclean have original religious meanings. Religious people, both in the major world traditions and in indigenous traditions or primal traditions, have the idea that the intentions of our hearts, the things that we say, the things that we think are actual forces that operate in the world. So if you think ill of someone, if you give someone the evil eye, if you curse them, that is a type of performative speech. And if you ask God to bless that person, or if you ask God to curse that person, this action has a real effect in the world.

You could actually harm that person by cursing them or you could actually benefit them by blessing them. So we can see that these two categories of blessing and cursing, or the sacred and the profane, or the clean and the unclean run throughout the various world traditions. And they could regulate everything from behavior, to dietary laws, to the type of clothing that you can wear. That religion tends to divide the world up into these two categories, to say that some things are good and other things are bad. Some activities are good and some activities are bad.

So Durkheim was certainly not the first one to use these terms, but he was the first one to bring them into scholarly usage, to say that the sacred is something that benefits the community and the profane is something that the community perceives as deleterious. We talked about Emile Durkheim's sociology of the sacred and the profane. Durkheim said that the sacred is that which the community wants to emphasize as being pro-social and the profane is that which the community wants to discourage as being antisocial.

We looked at the origin of this terminology in the Latin. The sacred is that which is set apart from the ordinary and the profane is that which is profanis or outside the temple, that is not spiritual, or worldly. Religions tend to divide up the world into these two categories, proclaiming some things as good and other things as bad. In this way, religions can organize society and govern individual reactions with the world.

Terms to Know

Anything that is "pro fanus" (outside the temple), not spiritual, worldly.


That which is set apart from the ordinary, the worldly, and the mundane.