The Sacred and the Profane

Excerpts from Chapter 15 of “The Political Brain” by Drew Westen.

The great nineteenth-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim proposed a distinction that has proven central to virtually every anthropological account of culture since, between the profane and the sacred.

The profane is the world in which we live our everyday lives and spend most of our time. It is the realm of the pragmatic, material, secular, commonplace, and self-interested.

The sacred is the realm of the communal, the transcendent, the moral, and the spiritual. We recognize it from the feelings of the profound and sanctified it engenders, the stylized language it employs (e.g., “Thou shalt,” “And the Lord said unto him”), and the rituals it employs. These rituals take us out of our everyday existence and redefine objects, actions, or words that would be profane in any other context into profoundly meaningful (e.g., bread, wine).

Durkheim noted how feelings of the sacred often emerge in rituals that elicit what he called “collective effervescence,” the feeling of oneness with the larger community that can occur in settings as spiritual as a religious revival or as secular as a sporting event, with cheering fans jumping to their feet and hugging strangers. What these two seemingly disparate communal experiences share … are two central elements: a feeling of oneness or unity with something bigger than oneself, and a shared sense of community and identification with that community and its collective symbols.

The capacity for experiencing sanctity is built into the structure of the human brain. Neurologists and psychiatrists first discovered this when they observed that a subset of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy were oddly hyper-religious. It may be no accident that religious epiphany experiences seen widely across cultures, particularly those that create an experience of rebirth, often involve experiences of paroxysm—seemingly uncontrolled, jerking bodily movements, and altered states of consciousness, two cardinal features of seizures. And perhaps it is no accident that people often describe themselves at such moments as having been seized, possessed, or swept up.