Key figures associated with the emergence of the scholarly study of religion disagreed sharply over how sacred or holy or religious things ought to be characterized and, by extension, how they could be understood. Rudolf Otto, a German theologian and historian of religions, argued that the holy should be characterized in terms of a distinctive nonrational element, which he called “the numinous.” This distinctive numinous object gave rise to an associated feeling or mental state that Otto claimed was “perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other.” As such, it could not be precisely defined and certainly could not be explained in terms of other, more ordinary feelings. The only way to help others understand it, he said, was to discuss how it was like and unlike other things until they began to experience it for themselves (Otto 1923/1958, 7).
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, the American psychologist William James made the opposite claim. He argued, by way of contrast, that as far as he could tell there were no distinct religious emotions, such as Otto's feeling of the numinous. Moreover, he speculated that there might not be any specifically religious objects or essentially religious acts. He viewed religious emotions as composites that could be broken down into an ordinary feeling and an associated religious concept (James 1902/1985, 33). The French sociologist Emile Durkheim elaborated this idea more fully in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, wherein he defined a religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is, things set apart and forbidden” (Durkheim 1912/1995, 44). Here, as William Paden observes, the sacred is that which is set apart and forbidden. As such it is purely relational and has no essential content of its own. “The sacred is simply what is deemed sacred by any group” (Paden 1994, 202–3 [emphasis in original]).
Before proceeding, it is important to note that in the space of two paragraphs we have had occasion to refer to numinous objects (Otto); religious experiences, objects, and acts (James); and sacred things (Durkheim). Moreover, Durkheim distinguished between “sacred things” and “a religion,” which he understood as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.” In what follows, I will use “things” to refer to any thing, whether an experience, object, act, or agent.