The profane world consists of all that we can know through our senses; it is the natural world of everyday life that we experience as either comprehensible or at least ultimately knowable — the Lebenswelt or lifeworld.
In contrast, the sacred, or sacrum in Latin, encompasses all that exists beyond the everyday, natural world that we experience with our senses. As such, the sacred or numinous can inspire feelings of awe, because it is regarded as ultimately unknowable and beyond limited human abilities to perceive and comprehend. Durkheim pointed out however that there are degrees of sacredness, so that an amulet for example may be sacred yet little respected.
Religion is organized primarily around the sacred elements of human life and provides a collective attempt to bridge the gap between the sacred and the profane.
Modernization and the Enlightenment project have led to a secularisation of culture over the past few centuries – an extension of the profanum at the (often explicit) expense of the sacred. The predominant 21st-century global world view is as a result empirical, sensate, contractual, this-wordly – in short profane.
The political and economic scientist Sverre Meling IV was speaking for many when he said that nothing is sacred because what a man can sense and touch are the only things he can rely on. Therefore the entire world is profane, and the things thought to be sacred are, in Karl Marx's words, "opium of the people."
Carl Jung expressed the same thought more subjectively when he wrote that “I know – and here I am expressing what countless other people know – that the present time is the time of God's disappearance and death”.
The advance of the profane has led to several countermovements, attempting to limit the scope of the profanum. Modernism set out to bring myth and a sense of the sacred back into secular reality — Wallace Stevens speaking for much of the movement when he wrote that “if nothing was divine then all things were, the world itself”.
Psychology too has set out to protect the boundaries of the individual self from profane intrusion, establishing ritual places for inward work in opposition to the postmodern loss of privacy.
- Durkheim, Émile (1976). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 37. London: George Allen & Unwin (originally published 1915, English translation 1915).
- Peter Berger, A Rumour of Angels (1973) p. 15
- Durkheim, p. 38
- Durkheim, pp. 39–40
- Fredric Jameson, The Jameson Reader (2005) p. 180-1
- Berger, pp. 13–14
- C. G. Jung, Man and his Symbols (1978) p. 295
- Jameson, p. 180-2
- Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1984) p. 412
- Umberto Eco. Turning Back the Clock (2007) pp. 218–20
- Eric Berne, The Psychology of Human Destiny (1974) p. 130
- Robert Bly, Iron John (1991) p. 194 and p. 128
- Eco, p. 77-88
- Denis O'Driscoll, Stepping Stones (2008) p. 309