Gordon Lynch’s The Sacred in the Modern World (Book Review) – Do we Need a Sociology of the Sacred?

lynchsacredAlthough there seems to be plenty of evidence for secularization all around us – emptying churches, decline in ‘traditional’ beliefs about god, heaven and hell, and a lack of deference to religious institutions – most scholars of religion now admit that secularization isn’t as straightforward as it once seemed.

A new book by Gordon Lynch, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Kent, The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach (Oxford, 2012) offers some insights on how the sacred (he deliberately does not use the term religion or religious) is alive and well and impacting so-called ‘secular’ Western societies in ways we might not always notice or understand.

Lynch is developing a ‘theory of the sacred’ that is of most interest to academic scholars of religion, but the theory is illustrated with case studies that bring it to life for more general readers.

Readers of this blog may be particularly interested in his chapter on Irish Industrial Schools, which explores the sacred and cultural dynamics that allowed the abuse of children to continue.

So what’s the difference between the sociology of religion and the sociology of the sacred?

Classically, the sociology of religion is concerned with institutional forms of religion, people’s beliefs in a god or gods, ritual and symbolic practices orientated towards god or the transcendent, and so on.

Lynch conceptualizes the ‘sacred’ more broadly than this to include:

‘the central values system around which a particular society is formed, and also to the values held sacred by specific revolutionary, ideological, and religious groups’ (p. 35).

This allows Lynch to locate forms of the sacred not just in ‘religious’ institutions like churches, but in ‘different kinds of social structure’ such as ‘the nation state, the diasporic community, the transnational organization or movement, or other kinds of subcultural structure” (p. 35). Further, he argues that sacred forms may also include gender, human rights, the care of children, nature, and the neo-liberal marketplace (p. 5).

As is seen in the chapter on Irish Industrial Schools, the sacred may be heavily informed by the institutionally religious. But the utility of the broader concept of the sociology of the sacred comes through even more clearly in the chapter on ‘The Mediatization of the Sacred: The BBC, Gaza, and the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) Appeal’ where Lynch argues that the media (though probably loathe to recognize it) are in some cases ‘mediators of the sacred’ (p. 112).

Recently I was asked by another academic whether I found helpful the concept of the ‘quasi-religious,’ used to describe groups ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to terrorist cells to nationalisms. I said ‘no, not really,’ because to me it conflates our associations about institutional religions with phenomena that are clearly different, introducing more confusion than clarity by using the ‘religious’ moniker.

Having read The Sacred in the Modern World, it seems to me the sociology of the sacred is a more useful way of thinking about what other scholars might call the ‘quasi-religious.’ This is important, because the ‘sacred’ or the ‘quasi-religious’ are forms of social life that, as Lynch explores in a chapter on ‘The Light and Shadow of the Sacred,’ have the potential to be used for much good – or for much ill.

In today’s post, I’ll share a brief summary of the theoretical foundations of the book, and in a subsequent post I’ll consider Lynch’s analysis of the Irish Industrial Schools.

Theoretical Foundations of the Sociology of the Sacred

The Introduction and first two chapters of the book are heavy on theory, as Lynch offers what he sees as a reinterpretation of Emile Durkheim’s (1855-1917) theory of the sacred. In doing so, he draws on some of contemporary sociology’s heavy hitters such as Edward Shils, Robert Bellah, and Jeffrey Alexander.

Lynch identifies most closely with Alexander’s work, a main theme of which is that understanding culture is central to understanding social life. Alexander sees the sacred embedded in cultural forms and symbols (some explicitly religious, some not so much so) and ‘performances’ (like the September 11th attacks). Alexander also argues that ‘cultural sociology’ has a ‘moral task’ of helping people see how ‘cultural structures … continue to evoke powerful responses in contemporary social life’ (p. 46).

Lynch draws out four ‘theoretical foundations for a cultural sociology of the sacred.’:

1. As a social phenomenon, the sacred is morally ambiguous (p. 47). While true believers may see what they are committed to as unambiguously good, it is obvious that religions and sacred commitments have had mixed (and that’s probably putting it generously) impacts on social and political life.

2. Sacred forms are historically contingent (p. 48). What’s sacred for a particular people in a particular time or place varies, putting lie to the perception that the sacred is eternal and unchanging.

3. Modern society is characterized by the emergence of multiple sacred forms (p. 49). While it might once have been possible to imagine a ‘sacred canopy’ of unified belief and practice encompassing society, increased religious and ethnic pluralism means this is no longer the case. Managing these competing sacred forms within societies thus becomes central for maintaining relatively harmonious social relations.

4. The presence of the sacred in social life needs to be contextualized in relation to the mundane logics, practices, emotions, and aesthetics of everyday life (p. 49). The banal, as Lynch rightly notes, can also produce forms of evil and getting caught up in the ‘every day’ can blind people to social and political injustices. In other words – people aren’t thinking about the sacred all the time; it becomes important for them in response to particular events, promptings, and so on.

So do we need a sociology of the sacred?

For me the answer is yes. The sociology of the sacred seems a useful means to help identify what’s of utmost importance morally, existentially, emotionally, etc. (in other words, ‘sacred’) in the modern world and how what is ‘sacred’ functions in our societies. And if people can understand how their own thoughts and actions are shaped by cultures — especially ‘sacred’ elements of culture – that is the first step towards transforming cultures in ways that make for a more just and peaceful social life.

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