Sacred beyond religion: cultivation of individuality in post-Christendom

In this post, doctoral student Polina Batanova discusses the enduring relevance of the classic work of sociologist Emile Durkheim to the study of nonreligion. She argues his functionalist definition of religion, which emphasizes the fundamental importance of sacred forms, helps to illuminate the nature of “religion” in secular modern societies—that being, the cult of the individual. Tracing its genealogy through liberalism and back to the Reformation, and offering contemporary examples to demonstrate its IMG_0195prevalence in modern societies, Batanova makes a powerful case for thinking the sacralization of the “individual” may be the quintessential sacred form in modernity.

In his classic sociological work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Emile Durkheim adopted a conception of religion that is based on a dichotomy of the sacred and profane (Durkheim 1995).

At its most general, the sacred refers to those values that in a given social context are considered to be of ‘absolute’, ‘special’, or of ‘vital’ importance for the upholding of a particular social order. The sacred thus concerns those key ideas which exert a profound moral claim over peoples’ lives; these sacred ideas lie at the core of social life and, collectively shared, they secure solidarity. At the same time, the sacred is not to be understood as an ontologically fixed category; the sacred is neither divine, nor transcendent in a Kantian sense. Rather, it becomes tangible only through conceptual and symbolical representations which may vary across historical epochs, cultures, and social contexts. In other words, it is purely social.

From this view, religion is an entirely social phenomenon and its main function is the transmission of knowledge by means of ritual practices, where collective representations are generated and revived. Collective representations define sacred things as well as their relations to the profane, and rituals, in their turn, demonstrate the rules of interaction with the sacred. Both the representations and rituals can be called ‘sacred forms’ (Lynch 2012).

But what happens to sacred forms in modern societies with their religious and cultural diversities, and increasing secularization?

According to Durkheim, although religious traditions are the main sources of general knowledge regarding the sacred (and profane), nevertheless they are not the source of sacred ideas. Religions do not generate the sacred and do not hold a monopoly on defining the sacred and profane. It is not religions that draw the line between the sacred and profane worlds ¾ the social life itself does this (Durkheim and Mauss 2009). As long as we are dealing with traditional society, religion appears to be the quintessence of social life. However, as a society gets more complex, different areas of social life become institutionalized and the emerging institutions maintain the social order just as religion once did. Virtually, each of them – like law, art, science, etc. – becomes a separate system of collective representations. This entails the diversification and multiplication of sacred forms. As part of this process, the vital ideas like that of love, justice, honesty, etc. are increasingly cultivated in non-religious frameworks and can be represented in different ways depending on the context. For example, the representations of love in artwork or scientific research (i.e. psychology) differ, although both refer to the same idea.

In line with Durkheim’s thesis that in traditional society all sacred ideas are represented by religion while in modern society sacred forms transcend religious contexts, I propose to talk about the traditional/modern distinction in the terms religious/post-religious. By ‘post-religious’ I mean newly established sacred ideas which have come to replace previous (religious) ones as they have weakened. In short, sacred forms still exist in our modern secularized world, but in order to spot them, we must refuse always identifying the sacred with religion.

To illustrate the rise of the sacred beyond religion, let us turn to the idea of individuality. With Europe in mind, Durkheim proposed the concept of the ‘cult of individual’ (culte de la personne)[1] which he expected to emerge in modern society. I will not conjecture whether his words came true or not. Instead, I propose to discuss two main issues in this regard: (1) the origin (genealogy) of the cult of individual and (2) the representations of the idea of individuality.

The cult of the individual begins with the idea of the individual being, which lies at its core; the process of turning the abstract individual into a sacred form is inseparable from the process of individuation. Both emerge from the springs of liberal thought and humanism (precisely, the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and, later, Alexis de Tocqueville) and develop into the Enlightenment project and the division of labor, which characterize modernity. Yet it is not a coincidence that humanistic virtues were shaped within a Christian context. Despite its secular tone and claims to universalism, liberal thought derived from Christian theology. For instance, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber demonstrated the elective affinity between the Protestant idea of salvation and the notion of ‘calling’ (der Beruf) which contributed to the development of capitalism. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it: “Reformation was from the beginning pregnant with humanist secularism – it set humans free to focus on things other than those kept in the secret compartments of divine offices” (Bauman 2008). In addition, Rodney Stark argues the Christian cherishing of human reason was what made the project of European Enlightenment possible (Stark 2006).

Thus the sacralization of individuality should be seen as the extension of the Christian belief-system which eventually gave birth to secular morality. This understanding aligns with Gianni Vattimo’s considerations about the continuity between Christianity and secularity.

Like any sacred idea, ‘individuality’ is not fixed, but constantly reconstructed via conceptual or symbolic representations, so we can speak of it in terms of a process, as the ‘cultivation of individuality’. Obviously, the twentieth century witnessed an intense period of this cultivation, and today we can point to numerous loosely related conceptualizations of individuality: ‘subject’, ‘person’, ‘self’, ‘agent’, etc. These conceptual representations have become entrenched in people’s minds. We are witnessing contemporary social life become increasingly oriented towards representations of individuality as sacred. Among others, the United Nations Declaration on human rights, the widespread acknowledgment of the importance of personal freedoms (civic liberties) in liberal democracies are all grounded in, and presuppose, the sanctity of human life and respect for human reason. All these representations – both conceptual and symbolic – relate to different domains of social life and obviously are not religious as such (although they also may hold on Christian meanings). Nevertheless, they are influential social facts: people do refer to and recognize them as moral forces guiding their lives (Bellah 1985; Levine 2006; Joas 2013).

The most striking thing about this is how pervasive it is; the cult of the individual is found across diverse cultural, linguistic and social contexts[2]. In my doctoral project, I am doing a comparative study of how students living in the U.S.A., Russia and Finland conceptualize individuality and what the primary meanings which inform this idea in their personal lives are. So far I’ve found that almost all of the interviewees (both religious, spiritual, and atheists) acknowledge the ultimate primacy of individual freedoms. Basically, this tells us that moral individualistic values have great potential for solidarity without restraint. Using the words of Bill McConochie, we might call moral individualism a meta-religion. Anyway, the idea of individuality seems particularly important for both understanding modern morality and finding a common ground for people with various religious and non-religious outlooks.

[1] Durkheim E. 1991. De la Division de Travail Social. Quadrige. P.396

[2] Drawing upon the empirical data of the international research project “Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective” (Abo Akademi University) ( that I am involved into.


Bauman Zygmunt. 2008. Individualized Society. Polity Press

Bellah N. R. et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. University of California Press

Durkheim Emile. 1991. De la Division de Travail Social. Quadrige.

Durkheim Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The Free Press

Durkheim Emile and Marcel Mauss. 2009. Primitive Classification (Routledge Revivals). Routledge

Joas H. 2013. The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Georgetown University Press

Levine D.N. 2006. Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America. University Of Chicago Press

Lynch Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford University Press

Stark Rodney. 2006. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success. Random House

Weber Max. 2016. Die protestantische Ethik und der „Geist“ des Kapitalismus (eds. Lichblau K., Moebius S.). Springer


Polina Batanova is a doctoral student of Comparative Religion at Abo Akademi University (Finland). She is also a researcher at the “Sociology of Religion” laboratory at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University (Russia). Her research interests include the sociology of morality, theories of the sacred, and individualism. She is currently working on a doctoral thesis tentatively titled, “Sacred individual: conceptual and narrative cultivation of individuality among young adults in Russia, Finland, and the USA.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s