Profane vs. Sacred: Definitions & Overview

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  • 0:00 Sacred and Profane
  • 1:40 Religion and Sociology
  • 2:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

Religion is defined as a social institution involving beliefs and practices based on recognizing the sacred. Let's look at the difference between the sacred and the profane and test our knowledge with a quiz.

Sacred and Profane

Emile Durkheim was a French sociologist who is commonly cited as the 'father of sociology.' Durkheim extensively studied the functions of religion and was among the first to distinguish between the sacred and the profane. Let's take a look at these two concepts with more detail.

Most things we come across in life can be distinguished as quite ordinary. If you think about the everyday things a person does - driving a car, going to work, checking your email - these things are all quite ordinary and are included as an ordinary element of everyday life. Durkheim would term these things profane - those routine aspects of our day-to-day existence. We cannot deny that we consider some things as sacred, however; those things we set apart as extraordinary, inspiring awe and reverence.

Driving in our car on the way to church is profane. Reading our favorite romance novel would be considered profane. Reading the Bible is sacred for Christians in the same way that Jewish people believe the Torah to be sacred and Muslims pay tribute to the Qur'an. Religion, then, is a social institution involving beliefs and practices based on recognizing the sacred.

Equally important parts of the social institution of religion are rituals. Rituals are those formal, ceremonial activities centered on recognizing the sacred. When Christians receive Holy Communion, it isn't the same as eating a wafer of bread and drinking a glass of wine at home. They are treated as the sacred symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ and are the central ritual of Christianity. These rituals bind the members of various religious groups together.

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