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Profanum is the Latin word for "profane". The distinction between the sacred and the profane was considered by Émile Durkheim to be central to the social reality of human religion.[1]


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.[2]

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.[3]


Rites of passage represent movements from one state — the profane – to the other, the sacred; or back again to the profanum.[4]

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.

Profane progress[edit]

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.[5] The predominant 21st-century global world view is as a result empirical, sensate, contractual, this-worldly – in short profane.[6]

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”.[7]

Counter reaction[edit]

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[8]Wallace Stevens speaking for much of the movement when he wrote that “if nothing was divine then all things were, the world itself”.[9]

Fundamentalism – Christian, Muslim, or other – set its face against the profanum with a return to sacred writ.[10]

Psychology too has set out to protect the boundaries of the individual self from profane intrusion,[11] establishing ritual places for inward work[12] in opposition to the postmodern loss of privacy.[13]

Cultural examples[edit]

Seamus Heaney considered that “the desacralizing of space is something that my generation experienced in all kinds of ways”.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Durkheim, Émile (1976). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 37. London: George Allen & Unwin (originally published 1915, English translation 1915).
  2. ^ Peter Berger, A Rumour of Angels (1973) p. 15
  3. ^ Durkheim, p. 38
  4. ^ Durkheim, pp. 39–40
  5. ^ Fredric Jameson, The Jameson Reader (2005) p. 180-1
  6. ^ Berger, pp. 13–14
  7. ^ C. G. Jung, Man and his Symbols (1978) p. 295
  8. ^ Jameson, p. 180-2
  9. ^ Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1984) p. 412
  10. ^ Umberto Eco. Turning Back the Clock (2007) pp. 218–20
  11. ^ Eric Berne, The Psychology of Human Destiny (1974) p. 130
  12. ^ Robert Bly, Iron John (1991) p. 194 and p. 128
  13. ^ Eco, p. 77-88
  14. ^ Denis O'Driscoll, Stepping Stones (2008) p. 309

Further reading[edit]