I found an image, not long ago, while hunting around for something new for Facebook, in which three silhouettes gestured the proverbial “three wise monkeys” poses, with the words “the sacred and the profane” written across it. Mulling it over, it seemed to be a rather useful way into the problem of how those technical terms are used by scholars of religion.
For there’s broadly two different ways of using the terms: naming some identity and value in the objects so named (a tradition I associate with the work of Mircea Eliade, among many others) and, instead, naming the rule systems people devise to distinguish, rank, and thereby ascribe identities and values to objects (a tradition I associate with the work of Emile Durkheim, among others).
One generally names things and their effects on people and the other names the human systems that make it possible to value things in either this or that way.
But often I find these two (as I see them, rather divergent) approaches confused, as if any use of these two technical terms was equivalent — for example, I find uses of the term sacred that strike me as being well in line with Eliade’s work (i.e., talking about this or that thing being sacred, or using the definite article to talk about “the sacred” as if it hovers over the world, manifesting itself first here and then there) associated (quite incorrectly, I think) with supposedly supporting quotations from Durkheim, though with no attention given to the all too human rule systems that, according to the latter’s work, made it possible for something to be treated as if it was either sacred or profane.
There are those, of course, who think that certain things — words, for example — carry some inherent quality with them, that they just are meaningful in this or that way. But there are those who see it quite differently, of course, instead seeing words — like those you’re reading right now — as arbitrary arrangements of symbols and sounds that only become meaningful inasmuch as they are used in this or that way, in this or that setting, by this or that person, for this or that purpose. Whereas the first approach shines a light on the words themselves (the “giving the text a close reading” approach associated with old school lit crits), the latter focuses on the users, seeing the words as mere pawns in some other game, one that follows precise rules.
And that’s where the monkeys come in.
For the one approach sees those wily monkeys as responding to obviously offensive words and sights whereas the other finds their gestures themselves as what marks but also that which makes the offense, for it puts into practice a rule system to which they’re each so accustomed, perhaps, that they start thinking that the offense is in the words themselves rather than a product of their shared sensibilities. For plenty of people don’t mind hearing or seeing this or that but its the gesture itself that marks this one listener out from all the others, thereby distinguishing them. Making them sacred, in Durkheim’s sense of the term: merely set apart and forbidden — by whom, for what purpose, by what means, for what implications, we ought to ask, instead of scrutinizing the words and the sights for their apparent inappropriateness.
Evil, like beauty, is thus in the eye of the beholders (it’s always social, no?) for Durkheim. And that’s not how I read Eliade.