The Sacred/Profane distinction

I took Ross’s recommendation to read Sociological Insight: An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology.  I really liked the book, and we should all definitely read it and discuss it.  One insight that I particularly liked was Collin’s definition of religion.  He says, “The basic religious belief is that the world is divided into two categories: the sacred and the profane.  Things that are sacred can be anything: spirits, invisible gods, particular animals or trees, altars, crosses, holy books, special words that only the initiated can speak or songs that only they can sing.  The distinctive thing about the sacred is that it is dangerous and supremely important: you must approach it seriously, respectfully, and with due preparation.  Profane things, on the other hand, constitute the rest of the world: all the other things that you can deal with matter-of-factly, with whatever mood you wish, and for whatever purpose you find useful or desirable.  This is the basic religious belief: the dualism of the sacred and profane” (p. 33-34)

Reading this gave me an epiphany.  I realized after reading it that one way I’m very different from most people is that I don’t consider sacred what most people consider sacred.  I’m not sure if I take anything as sacred, under this specific definition.  I probably do, but I can’t think of anything.  I made a list of the things that many people take as sacred but I treat as profane:

1. Religion in the usual sense:  I am an atheist.  But even before I was an atheist, I never took religion seriously in the relevant sense.

2. Sports teams: I’ve never understood the obsession people have with watching professional sports, or rooting for certain teams.  Groner and I have argued about this many times, but he has yet to convince me that it is rational to be emotionally attached to a team that you are not connected to in any non-arbitrary way.

3. Voting:  I didn’t vote in the 2008 election (although I legally could), and I doubt I’ll vote in the future.  This is for a simple reason: there is no realistic probability that my vote will affect the outcome of an election.  When I tell some people this, they get more upset than if I had told them I voted for a candidate they thought was evil.

4. Funeral rites/respect for dead bodies:  I have often wondered why we waste so much money on expensive coffins and tombstones for dead people.  I told some of my U of C friends that I don’t care what happens to my body after I die.  Cremated, buried, mutilated, whatever.  They thought this was hilarious, and pledged to piss on my grave.  I said I had no problem with that, and I don’t.

5. Ethnic/cultural identity:  Maybe this would matter to me if I was a member of an ethnic or cultural minority, so my identity would be something salient.  But ethnic and cultural identities have never made sense to me – for example, being “culturally Jewish” has always seemed bizarre to me.

6. Flags (and patriotism generally):  Ross pointed out in a comment that many people think that, for example, it is morally wrong to clean a toilet with the national flag, even if it doesn’t hurt anyone.  I would have no problem with someone who did that.  People follow intricate rituals to store flags.  This has always struck me as odd and unnecessary.

7. Deontology.  I’ve always considered myself a consequentialist, and now I have a new interpretation for why this is.  Deontology is a kind of Ethics of Sacredness – individual actions are symbolically charged, right or wrong no matter what the consequences.

Note that “taking something seriously”, “getting offended” or “having a passionate interest” are not the same thing as sacred.  You can do all of those (I assume) without participating in a sacred/profane distinction.

I’m curious about what the implications are.  I wouldn’t be surprised if other people on this blog have similar experiences of “profanity.”  I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is a sign of very mild autism.  It could also be a case of self-deception: I take some things as sacred, but I delude myself into thinking that I don’t.  I am curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this issue.  Why is the concept of sacredness so universal throughout human cultures? What does sacredness have to do with happiness or the meaning of life?

3 Responses to The Sacred/Profane distinction

  1. Andrew Chesley says:

    I really liked this post and think this is an interesting distinction. I, like you, find all of the things that are normally thought of as “sacred” as “profane” except for being culturally Jewish and being a Bears fan. I wonder why I find these things to be sacred while someone whom I usually agree with does not. I’m inclined to blame it on upbringing (my parents have always been sports fans and Judaism has always been a part of my life), but I don’t really know Brian’s situation in this regard.

  2. David W says:

    I really like this.

    I was wondering:

    If there was potential that telling others you don’t vote would make them not vote (because either they respect you or agree with your argument) and this change would be large enough to change the outcome of the election, would you continue to not vote?

  3. mcdonaldb says:

    David – under the highly unlikely scenario that my public declaration of non-voting would change the outcome of an election for the worse, I would change my behavior. In this circumstance, however, my voting would no longer be symbolic. I am therefore content to say that I am a profane voter.

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