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What do we talk about when we talk about ‘religion’?

Let us start at the Vatican in Rome. St. Peter’s Basilica has a strict dress code: no skirts above the knee, no shorts, no bare shoulders, and you must wear shoes. At the entrance there are signs picturing these instructions. To some visitors this comes somewhat as a surprise. Becky Haskin, age 44, from Fort Worth, Texas, said: “The information we got was that the dress code only applied when the pope was there.” Blocked on her first attempt, she bought a pair of paper pants and a shawl. “It was worth it,” she commented. Other special places are marked in a similar way. When visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., you will see signs like “no smoking, no food or drink, no bikes, no running.”Apparently, it cannot be taken for granted that visitors know how to behave in such spaces. Their special character is marked by prohibition signs.

The extraordinary character of such places is often characterized by saying that they are sacred or holy . But what exactly does it mean, calling a particular space “sacred”? One of the most famous scholars in the history of the study of religion who has tried to answer this question is the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. In his classical work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), he wrote that all religions have a common feature:

“They presuppose a classification of the real or ideal things that men conceive of into two classes […] that are widely designated by two distinct terms profane and sacred.”

After explaining that not only gods and spirits, but also rocks, trees, houses, etc. can have a sacred character, he asked: how, then, are sacred things distinguished from profane things? Durkheim’s final answer is that the relation between the sacred and the profane must be defined by their heterogeneity, which is absolute. There is no other example of two categories of things as profoundly different from or as radically opposed to each other. Yet, this does not mean that a thing cannot pass from one of these worlds to the other. Initiation rites are an example, the change of status accomplished by such rituals is radical. It is a fundamental transformation: after the initiation, the young man or woman gets a completely new status as a full member of the clan.

 It is a fundamental transformation: after the initiation, the young man or woman gets a completely new status as a full member of the clan.

What strikes me most is that the distinction between the sacred and the profane is first of all, a structural one and seems to lack any kind of content: there seem to be no special features that are characteristic of the sacred, or for that matter the religious. Even saying that the sacred is characterized by enormous power, does not add much content. In line with this, scholars have stressed – and rightly so – that nothing is inherently sacred, and that “sacred” is best regarded as a linguistic or classificatory device. Something is called sacred, and thereby (if the speech act succeeds) becomes sacred. This, again, implies that the sacred can be contested. Did the consecration succeed? Is this really a sacred site, and for whom? And at what times (as the example of the woman from Texas shows)? No doubt, some elements – such as burning candles, inscriptions and flowers – are frequently associated with ‘the sacred’ and are used to sacralize, but these are not in themselves things which make a spot, a person or a deed sacred. Something becomes sacred by the elusive act of making it sacred.

At closer inspection the absolute dichotomy is not completely convincing. In the older books on “primitive” and ancient religions, scholars were looking for particularly “strong” examples of religion, which would reveal the essence of religion. The sacred, however, is no absolute value, but a value that indicates specific situations. The fact that “sacred” is a relational notion explains that various levels or grades of sacredness may be possible. With the ongoing processes of the diffusion of established religions into more fluid types of religiosity, ‘the sacred’ has lost its strong contours as well.

The American historian R. Laurence Moore has argued that in the USA “sacred” and “secular” are mixed and in his essay Touchdown Jesus he states: “religion is about something else.” Religion is always connected with attitudes and practices that we would not call “sacred.” Conservative forms of Christianity are also about family values, anti-abortion and the right to carry a gun. New Agers may define themselves by organic gardening or a vegetarian diet. And, thus, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish “sacred” and “profane.” “Religion” is “mixed up” with other areas such as law, politics, sport and sexuality. I would even claim that the interrelationships between the religious and the not-religious is one the most important themes in the future study of religion.

Featured image credit: “Faith” by Thomas Leuthard. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. the Stupid Atheist

    Religion then, is that which decrees the naked human knee profane…

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