On the profane

One of the most fundamental distinctions in human thought is between the profane (profanum) and sacred (sacrum). Summarized by Nisbet,

The sacred includes the mores, the non-rational, the religious and ritualistic ways of behavior that are valued beyond whatever utility they may possess.

The opposite of this is the profane, which is the utilitarian, individualistic world that we all inhabit. To see it another way, the profane revolves around the concerns of the individuals, while the sacred includes the concerns of the community. As Durkheim explained, people feel that the moral truths of the sacred are far more important than just personal preferences. Because they exist outside of the self and in the community, they command respect. He connected this respect with authority.

[Because authority] speaks to us in an imperative tone we certainly feel that it must come from some being superior to us; but we cannot see clearly who or what it is. This is why, in order to explain this mysterious voice that does not speak with a human accent, people imagine it to be connected with transcendent personalities above and beyond man, which then become the object of a cult. (Durkheim, 1973/1925, p. 89)

As he famously said, “God is society writ large.” God is society because God is this superior voice, which in turn is just society.

The Enlightenment changed the sacred/profane relationship by emphasizing each person’s individual worth. Beginning with the American and French Revolutions, there has been a general upward trend in the advancement of individual rights, beginning first with men and then extending to women and minority rights. And around these rights, modern social institutions have been built. Public school, Medicare, and Social Security all reinforce the worth of the individual.

To bring this to the point at hand, I am beginning to think that many see many modern institutions as being sacred. These are not just public services, they are “ritualistic ways of behavior that are valued beyond whatever utility they may possess.” To dismantle them is not just to reform government or cut back on spending but to destroy a specific sacred space.

First published Jul 8, 2011