Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Probably the key concept in the study of religion. Indeed, to define religion as "that which has to do with the sacred" has become almost a tautology. Yet the sacred, as a phenomenon, is far wider than religion—at least as that has often been understood by students (in contrast to practitioners) of religion.

The sacred, as a phenomenon of experience, is generally recognized, by witnesses both direct and indirect, as possessing four characteristics. In experience, it is special, even unique; in value, it is important, even all-demanding; in consciousness, it is fundamental, even primordial; in communication, it is dynamic, yet ineffable.

All these characteristics issue in a single consequence that is easily described but is less a separate quality than an aspect or by-product of them all: It imposes "taboos," restrictions. Ultimately, these are beyond rationality. This is necessarily the case, in view of its own character, such as being prior to reasoning. The Levitical prohibitions, for instance, regularly defeat well-meaning attempts at rationalizing them, yet they make sense —if they are understood as the "data" (gifts) of a "personalizing" deity. As a lover (or a Messiah) might say, "Do this (for my sake), in remembrance of me (because I want you to): That's the way I am."

The sacred can be, and has been, presented as the object of esoteric experience. In the 1960s, during the Indian summer (or the swan song) of the secularization thesis, students of religion or society would be introduced to the concept as referring to an experience that was peculiar to earlier societies but unknown in industrial society. Investigation has shown this view to have been based on ignorance.

In 1969, for instance, a hundred individuals in England (somewhat weighted toward urban teenagers) were asked, "Is there anything you might be prepared to use the word 'sacred' of?" The three replies that best represented the total spectrum (in descending order of popularity) are as follows: "Each person's own beliefs"; "To me, Jesus is a sacred. Our Lord is sacred—he's the most sacred thing in my life"; and "People talk about sacred places, but I wouldn't use it ['sacred'] at all." The interviewees were then asked, "What do you mean or understand by 'sacred'?" The three replies that best represented all the strands present (not necessarily from the same three respondents) are as follows:

Something which is personal, which should be cherished, and which you alone have got. . . .

It's a belief in something that is almost untouchable, or something that has got to be revered in some way.

Those aspects of life which directly or indirectly relate to God. (Bailey 1997:73)

It is this kind of finding that was echoed, for instance, by the Religious Experience Research Unit (now, the Alister Hardy Centre) in the 1970s. When the person-on-the-street (literally) was asked whether she or he had ever had a religious experience, one-third answered in the affirmative—and a further one-third felt too unsure to say no.

Such findings received theoretical recognition, for instance, in Phillip Hammond's "Introduction" to The Sacred in a Secular Age (University of California Press 1985:5):

We seem to have mistaken religion and the sacred. In any era, therefore, when religion, at least as commonly understood, is receding, vitality of the sacred may come as a surprise. The present era would seem to fit such a description, and we find ourselves unable to comprehend the sacred. The past accretions that transformed the sacred into religion—accretions which in many instances have been corroded by secularization—keep us from the re-focussing necessary if we are to study the sacred in a secular age . . . unless we can revise our thinking about secularization.

The first step that is necessary, so that a secular age can understand the sacred both in its own day and at other times, is to consider the possible ubiquity of the experience.

…mile Durkheim's point (1912)—that the sacred is part of the structure of consciousness, and indeed the continuing sine qua non of all its development, rather than an early stage that can be left behind—may have validity. The second step is the recognition that the experience it embraces is "both wider and narrower" than the one that early modern society meant by "religion."

The third step is probably to distinguish the sacred from the "holy." The 1969 interviewer, expecting respondents to be nonplussed by such esoteric addenda to the main interview, followed the question about the meaning of "sacred," by asking, "What would you mean or understand by 'holy'?" Again, it was understood—and was distinguished from sacred:

The "sacred" isn't religious, but "holy" does mean "religious" to me. I could apply it to everybody's religious symbols. But it's not a word I've clarified yet—it just carries overtones of incense.

It's very close to "sacred," but again I would understand it in other people's terms. I am impressed by people who are able to see something as holy, such as people who draw strength from a grave. I approve—although my approval is irrelevant, of course—of a personally-felt holiness.

God-fearing"—you can't be a 'holy' man, apart from religion; it's an attitude. (Bailey 1997:73)

Durkheim and Rudolf Otto (and their English translators), in choosing sacred and holy , respectively, for their accounts of religious experience, were therefore tapping into popular understandings of each term. They were in fact describing the type of religious experience to be found in different kinds of societies. In small-scale societies, it may be described as a "sense of the sacred"; in historical societies, as "an encounter with a holy."

The next steps in refocusing the meaning of sacred , and its various relations with society, may involve the recognition that the small-scale type of society and historical type of society survive within contemporary society; that individuals, as well as societies, progress through these stages, as they pass from mother's knee to first school to concrete jungle; that psychic health seems to require continuing movement between all three types of setting; and that three (at least) varying types of religious experience may be anticipated, in these different contexts. Thus the form it takes in contemporary society is the particular concern expressed in the concept of "implicit religion."

See also …mile Durkheim, Implicit Religion, Religious Studies, Rudolf Otto

Edward Bailey


S. S. Acquaviva, The Decline of the Sacred in Industrial Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979)

…. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1947)

P. E. Hammond (ed.), The Sacred in a Secular Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

J. C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred (New York: Macmillan, 1989)

R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1959 [1917])

R. Wuthnow, Rediscovering the Sacred (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992).

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