Monday, 19 March 2012

What counts as sacred? A message from the Editor.

The College of Sociology is advertised as promoting "Sacred Sociology, implying the study of all manifestations of social existence where the active presence of the sacred is clear". The College calls for “items in any media format, including but not limited to, short essays, notes, short stories, pictures and videos”. The submissions page stipulates that “all items will be considered by the Editor according to the following, simple criteria: Does it highlight the sacred? Does it consider how the sacred underpins the collective?” But what counts as sacred?

It is the intention of the College to take a wide-berth to what counts as sacred. I worry that placing constraints on what counts as sacred will limit innovation. But Adam Dinham, Director of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths College, a centre of excellence linking research, policy and practice in the field of faith-based social action, pointed out that “one response might be how to designate the sacred without simply calling everything that feels important sacred!” Moreover, it might be in the interests of converting present readers into future writers and artists that I give some idea of what we’re looking for. Let us try then, to flesh it out a little.

What I want to do is take the reader from a solid starting point to an acceptance of the wide-berth point of view promoted by the College. For Scott Atran the sacred is simply that which is believed in for non-instrumental reasons (2011). The sacred cannot be analysed in terms of rational action theory or in terms of evolutionary biology. To put it (a little too) simply, people do not have sacred beliefs because they benefit from those beliefs and nor because those beliefs increase the likelihood of passing on their genes. People will not give up their sacred beliefs for any instrumental benefit such as money or land. Indeed often beliefs are held at great cost to the beholder, such as when people are willing to undergo persecution and even death for their beliefs. And sometimes the beliefs themselves seem to be costly, such as when Christians concentrate on success in a next life.

According to Atran’s model the sacred is not the reserve of religions. Many people see their children as sacred. Atran himself suggests that in Iran the belief in the right to have a nuclear bomb may be becoming sacred.

The extension of the sacred to nonreligious activities such as protest is not new. Emile Durkheim believed that in early 20th century France, the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity had become sacred (2008). The College de Sociologie was set up in order to explore the ways in which the sacred extended to nonreligious activities just as was the revived College of Sociology. These activities may be as varied as riots, raves and football fanship.

Once we begin to explore this extension, a problem emerges; namely, that just anything that is deemed important can be called sacred. This creates legal difficulties: what sort of ideas deserve Equality and Human Rights protection? Could insulting someone’s football team become a prosecutable offence?

My thought is that Atran’s definition also fails to specify the importance of stressing the collective. For Bataille, it was not possible to achieve the deepest religious experiences without the collective (1985). This also had a moral dimension. For although some individual practices could bring us close to the deepest religious experiences, solitary meditation for instance, these practices are counterproductive because the point of the sacred is to underpin the collective. Similarly today there seems to be a sacred veneration for commercial products. Can we really be happy with this development? For Roger Caillois the sacred is essential to social cohesion (2001). To squander it on individualism is irresponsible. 

In these senses then, Atran’s description seems too loose. But the purpose of the College of Sociology is not to presuppose what counts as being sacred. Rather it is to provoke people to see the importance of the sacred and to explore what counts as sacred.

Perhaps then, Atran’s description is in fact too tight. Weber showed us how Protestantism created a strong work ethic, while the Church of England since the sixties sees part of doing God’s work to be fighting for social justice. At times then, the sacred is at least bound up with instrumental success.

Rudolph Otto had a far looser understanding of the sacred, seeing it is anything that is simultaneously mysterious and tremendous, anything that provokes awe (1958). But once we begin to get this loose, again we seem to lose any reason the sacred should be promoted. One might ask, why talk about the sacred at all if it will not serve any social benefit? But one might equally ask, are we really talking about the sacred if what we are trying to achieve is a social benefit?

I want to know people think is sacred, and perhaps a little of what they think should be sacred. I hope that the debate can continue here and I ask once more for any articles, pictures or videos from anyone who may know of an interesting human activity in which the sacred is present.


Tim Stacey

Works Cited

Bataille, George, ‘The Sacred’ in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939 (ed. Allen Stoekl), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985

Caillois, Roger, Man and the Sacred, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2001

Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008

Otto, Rudolf, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1958

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