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"All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic : they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred (profane, sacré). This division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, is the distinctive trait of religious thought." --The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), tr. Joseph Ward Swain

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Profanum is the Latin word for "profane" meaning excluded from the temple. Central to the social reality of major western religion is the distinction made by Émile Durkheim between the sacred and the profane.

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.

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 inspires feelings of awe because it is regarded as ultimately unknowable and beyond limited human abilities to perceive and comprehend. 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.

In addition to Emile Durkheim, political and economic scientist Sverre Meling IV is a major thinker on the subject. He says 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."


From Middle French prophane, from Latin profānus (“not religious, unclean”), from pro- (“before”) + fānum (“temple”).

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