Before so liberally attributing such a ‘sense of the sacred’ to humanity, however, are there not good reasons first of all to ponder the meaning of this notion? Far from being eternal, the category of the ‘sacred’, such as we spontaneously contrast it with the ‘profane’, was in fact invented very recently—in the early years of the twentieth century, when Émile Durkheim published Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912), and Rudolf Otto a famous work entitled Das Heilige (1917). These books have inspired the two major currents in the historiography of religion. The first comprises the ‘immanentist’ historians, who regard religious facts as assimilable to the same type of explanation as the set of phenomena studied by the social and human sciences. The second inspires those who regard such facts as intrinsically different from other facts, because they refer to a distinct order of reality. But ultimately, the opposition between ‘immanentists’ and ‘transcendentalists’ proves secondary. The essential thing is that ‘religious facts’ exist and that they are observable, identifiable as such, throughout human history. What, however, of the conception of religion that has governed the characterization of these ‘facts’? Let us read Otto: it is clearly a Christian conception—the particular conception that prevailed in the Lutheran current of the Reformation, placing emphasis upon inner feelings, on the faith that would inevitably be born out of the experience of transcendence. By what right do we universalize this conception? Can the ‘facts’ assembled under the heading of ‘Greek religion’ really be conceived in these terms? Or Roman religion? Or Aztec rites and beliefs? Buddhism? There are excellent reasons to doubt it. What, then, is the purpose of such universalization? Otto—who at least does not conceal his hand—answers as follows: in the end, it involves a celebration of the superiority of Christianity, such as he practises it, over all other religions!
SOURCE: Lecourt, Dominique. The Mediocracy: French Philosophy since the Mid-1970s; translated by Gregory Elliott (London; New York: Verso, 2001), pp. 89-90.