Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular

In recent years, the centrality of ‘the sacred’ to the academic study of religion has come under sustained attack in recent years due to the apparent (un)conscious assumption amongst its advocates of an ‘ontological phenomenon that transcends signification’ (Lynch 2012, 15). It is against this backdrop that Gordon Lynch sets out – in his recent book, The Sacred in the Modern World, and in his interview with Jonathan Tuckett – to rehabilitate the ‘sacred’ as a viable academic concept, to map out a cultural sociology of the sacred, and to ‘conceptualise the focus of [the sociology of religion…] beyond the study of traditional, institutional forms of religion’ (2012, 3).

In this response I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students (Cotter 2011), in combination with my engagement with Lynch’s book (which I would thoroughly recommend), as a springboard to suggestively open up the complex relationship between the concepts religion, nonreligion and the secular.

Some Terms

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, religion/nonreligion, sacred/secular for example. However, I suggest that it is generally unhelpful to speak of rigid dichotomies when considering these terms, and in some contexts it makes sense to refer to two triads – sacred/mundane/profane and religion/secular/nonreligion – from which terms can be combined to provide compound designations which apply to distinct real-world phenomena.

Let us defer to Lynch for an understanding of the first of these triads. He defines the sacred as ‘what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meanings and conduct of social life’ (2012, 29). Against this backdrop, the profane is defined as ‘the evil that threatens this sacred form and pollutes whatever it comes into contact with’ whilst the mundane constitutes ‘the logics, practices, and spaces of everyday life’ (2012, 26). There are a number of things which I find compelling about this account: firstly, this makes no ‘claim that there is an actual ontological referent for sacred forms (ibid, 15). Secondly, it provides a space for the mundane, and allows us to potentially conceptualise degrees of sacredness/profanity and commitments to multiple sacred forms. Finally, as Lynch effectively demonstrates in the interview, this account shows that the sacred is not an exclusively religious category. As Kim Knott (2013) writes, citing Viekko Antonnen:

The ‘sacred’ (or its equivalent in other languages) can be attributed by people in non-theological as well as theological contexts, irrespective of the nature of their belief systems: ‘It is not a uniquely religious category…’ (Anttonen 2000, 274)

Turning to religion/secular/nonreligion, I take Lois Lee’s definition of non-religion, as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’(2012a, 131), and the secular as a space where ‘religion is not the primary or immediate reference point’ (Lee 2011, 3). From this it is clear that nonreligion’ does not simply refer to everything which is not explicitly ‘religious’. It is also clear that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’ are, ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This also enables me to run away from the problem of defining religion until another time, because in the context of the examples below, definitions of ‘religion’ (and its semantically parasitic other, ‘nonreligion’) were left open to the interpretation of my research participants

With these basic and brief understandings of these terms in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Kim Knott to write that:

“… those forging social identities in secular contexts – who draw on non-religious commitments and beliefs including atheism, humanism and secularism – mark as ‘sacred’ those occasions (such as marriage), persons (a lover), things (a ring), places (a registry office) and principles (equality and justice) that they value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable: those things that may be deemed to be both secular and sacred.” (2013)

A Scottish Example

My study – which will only be given the briefest of introductions now – involved engaging with the narratives of undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh via electronic questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, taking Abby Day’s ‘researching belief without asking religious questions’ (2009) approach as a basic model. Ultimately, the students were classified into a ideal-typical five-fold typology of naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical, with a key outcome being that these types were ‘independent of religious categories’ (Quack 2011, 2) . Full details of results, sampling strategy, methods, interview schedules etc can be found in my dissertation.

Secular Sacreds

In terms of beliefs and self-identification, many of the students were what could be described as substantively nonreligious i.e. the terms with which they described themselves, and their reported beliefs, stood in contradistinction to what they understood to be ‘religion’ (for a rigorous and in-depth treatment of substantive nonreligiosity, see Lee (2012b)). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in diverse ways which were always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to my five types. To take the example of Courtney – a 21 year-old ‘humanistic’ student from the US – discourse became noticeably hostile when ‘religion’ was considered in conjunction with ‘sacred’ humanitarian values (in this instance, when the topic of ‘Faith Schools’ was raised):

Eugh. I don’t… I just… ew it, it [the term] gives me a visceral reaction because I believe so strongly that if… due to my own experience of, you know, if you don’t tell a kid about religion they’ll turn out atheist because everyone’s born an atheist, like I… I truly believe that and I just, I mean it’s… I hesitate to use such a… like a militant sounding phrase but it’s indoctrination of children and it just… it makes me very uneasy…

Then we have Niamh, a 19 year-old student from England, who is an example of what I would term a ‘familial’ student. For these students, beliefs, faith and values were frequently located in the ‘sacred’ family unit. In the following section of interview, Niamh has just described how her Protestant grandmother disowned Niamh’s father when he married her Catholic mother. Her father then went through a particularly traumatic emotional period after his own father died, since he had effectively been ostracised from the family:

…but after all of that with my mum and dad I just stopped going [to church] altogether… like I’d been quite religious before that but I just stopped… like… partly because I was too busy trying to get my mother out of bed, but partly because I just didn’t… I just thought it was a pile of crap basically, like… em… and, yeah that kind of… because up until then I suppose I had quite an easy life, like we’d never had a lot of money but I’d always had… emotionally there’d always been everything there, eh, and then suddenly there wasn’t and I had to sort… I suppose it made me like… because now if my … my mum stuck by my dad through everything, and that kind of made me feel like now I have to… you know you don’t give up on relationships even if… even if they’re going to shit you don’t… you don’t give up, you stick by people because if you don’t they might be in a mess, like my dad basically said if my mum had left him he’d have sh’… he’d have killed himself, so like now I like sort of have this view that you stick by people through as long as you can bear to, you know, and I guess that affects a lot…

I’m not saying that these are the only sacreds in their lives but that through their narratives they were the primary sacreds by which they were classified in my typology. If it comes down to the wire, to use a phrase from Kim Knott’s forthcoming chapter, these ‘trump’ other sacred values. Niamh actually placed a great deal of importance on her former religion but was willing to abandon it because of what it had done to her relationships: ‘it [religion] was always about family relationships and politics, basically, it was never about faith’. Courtney seemed to really value her nonreligiosity, but was willing to set it to the side when humanitarian issues were at stake: ‘I’d prefer if [charities] were secular, but I’m not going to quibble when you’re doing charity’. Although religion and nonreligion were referred to in both quotations, they were of secondary importance to the sacred values concerned, which could be described as their secular sacreds. Therefore, in this situation we have substantively nonreligious students, whose lives are oriented around a number of secular sacreds with different degrees of sacredness and which trump both religion and nonreligion.

This understanding of secular sacreds should not be seen as implying that these sacreds are solely the domain of secular individuals, and although I can understand Lynch’s uneasiness about the term, I agree with Knott (2013) that the addition of ‘secular’ is necessary at this stage, due to the uncritical conflation of ‘sacred’ with ‘religious’ in much prior scholarship.

The Sacred Secular

In terms of the relative importance (‘salience’ – see Day 2011) and practice of religion, many of these students appeared functionally secular, i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. Few were members of ‘nonreligious’ organisations, and some participated in religious activities for the sake of relatives, or persisted in communal religious worship regardless of disagreements with many fundamental aspects of the religion’s teaching or personal crises of faith. Although I don’t have space to go into my deliberations here, evidence such as this led me to conclude that ‘being nonreligious’ does not play a major part in most of these students’ lives.

However, stating that one aspect of a person’s life is not the most important does not imply that this aspect is unimportant. Most claimed that their nonreligiosity came to the fore when challenged by particular situations – particularly when their sacred values are challenged.

‘The “sacred” can be located in reversible category positions, whether in things pure or impure, licit or forbidden (taboo), fixed or unfixed, violable or sacrosanct.’ (Anttonen 2005, 198) Various things, places and people are set apart according to time and context. The boundaries that become the focus of sacred-making discourse and activities have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible. (Knott 2013)

At such moments of eruption, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In fact, in some cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives. For instance:

…everyone’s always talking about like religious tolerance and that. I’m definitely tolerant towards people of all religions and no more so to like one than any other, um, but I’m not really tolerant of like public religion. I really dislike public religion and the fact that we’ve got an established church [in the UK … and that] everything’s allowed to be sort of quietly… quietly influenced by religion, and that annoys me.  (Harriet, 19, F)

There is a lot here which I think could be developed, and which I intend to develop during the course of my PhD, but basically what I wanted to suggest was that nonreligion is a complex substantive phenomenon characterised by a relationship of difference to prevailing religion, and the adoption of secular sacreds by individuals and, perhaps, sacralising the secular itself. Reframing understandings of (non)religion according to types of sacred which are independent of religious categories, allows (non)religious identities to be conceptualised to acknowledge the simultaneous intersection of multiple subjectively compatible (yet seemingly contradictory) religious and/or nonreligious identities, and paves the way for scholars to take religion seriously whilst avoiding unwarranted reverence. Paradoxically, if it provides robust models which work regardless of individual self-descriptions, it could also add to the growing critique of the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytic category.

[NB – This response is based on a presentation given at the BASR conference in Winchester, September 2012.]


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