There will be no church bells for us, no hymns, no doting vicar to join us together, and tell us when we are allowed to kiss. Because no church would have us. Too many miles on the clock, you see. Too much life lived.
I thought that I would regret that too. The lack of the sanctified. I thought that would be a definite damper on the proceedings.
But when she takes my hand, somehow it doesn’t matter anymore, because I can sense something sacred in the small secular room with the women in their hats, the men in their suits, the children in what my mum would call their Sunday best.
Everybody smiling, happy for us, white lilies everywhere, their scent filling the air.
There’s no place more sacred than this place.
And if anyone is blessed, then we are blessed …
And to tell the world – the best is yet to come. What could be more hopeful than that? What could be more right? More sacred? …
Just a simple ceremony joining together two complicated lives.
(Tony Parsons, Man and Wife, 2003, p. 5)
Functionally Secular / Substantively Nonreligious: Scottish Students, their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular
The next batch of conferences are coming up… and I am finally attempting to really push the boat out with my material. I have just had the following abstract accepted for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network‘s Conference in London, 4-6 July 2012:
Functionally Secular / Substantively Nonreligious: Scottish Students, their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular
The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive, and superficially synonymous dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, sacred/secular, religion/nonreligion – yet each serves a distinct, contextually dependent purpose. In this presentation I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students, in combination with a discussion of these dichotomies, to problematise the complex relationship between nonreligion and the secular.
When asked about their beliefs and ‘religious’ identities, many of these students were substantively nonreligious (utilising Lois Lee’s understanding of nonreligion as defined primarily by the way it differs from religion). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in divers ways, dependent upon idiosyncratic interpretations of ‘religion’, and always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to five distinct-yet-overlapping nonreligious types. Individual narratives exemplify pragmatic negotiation of nonreligious identities, ‘fluctuation’ in nonreligious beliefs, and the rhetorical creation of religious ‘others’ against which substantive nonreligiosity was constructed.
In terms of salience and practice, many of these students appeared functionally secular i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. However, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In many cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives.
This overview of the complex dynamics between these terms provides empirical clarification of the relationship between nonreligion and the secular, and demonstrates that nonreligion is a substantive phenomenon in its own right and, as such, an important component of secular society.
I have yet to (as promised) present a blogged version of my presentation on New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking (Lancaster University, 3 April 2012; University of Edinburgh, 25 April 2012). This WILL happen… in fact, I am in discussions with a colleague regarding developing this presentation as a book chapter… watch this space.
For now, here’s a picture of me just about to deliver that presentation:
Thomas, Terence. 2004. ‘“The Sacred” as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions’. In Religion: Empirical Studies, ed. Steven J. Sutcliffe, 47–66. Surrey: Ashgate.
The academic study of religions should
be conducted under the aegis of a descriptive, non-normative, non-evaluative agenda. This is the kind of academic study of religions that should be conducted in institutions claiming to be objective and non-evaluative in their aims and in receipt of public funds gathered in a secular state which, though maintaining a religious establishment of sorts in the UK, in most other ways has abjured the religious dimension in the pursuit of public life, and where the practice of religion, of various choices, is a voluntary form of behaviour. (59)
The objective, scientific, academic study of religions and of aspects of religions, unless it specifically refers to traditions and events and contexts in which the sacred is an ineradicable factor, calls for the use of ‘the sacred’ only in appropriate contexts and the abandonment of its use as a generic term, both in order to avoid regression to theology, out of which our discipline is held to have emerged and from which it is held to have achieved its independence, and to advance progression to a system based on academic integrity, academic rigour and academic independence. (65-66)
Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? In this interview, Jay Demerath tells me why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.
Jay Demerath is currently the Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has been a faculty member since 1972, including ten years as Chair. Prior to UMass, he received a 1958 A.B. from Harvard and a 1964 Ph.D from the U. Of California, Berkeley before rising from Instructor to Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and serving as Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Among his many publications, he is author or editor of fourteen books, including the award-winning Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001) and the recent Sage Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (2008). The current Chair-elect of the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association, he is also past-President of the Eastern Sociological Society, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.
I could comment on the agenda which this very worthwhile conference seems to be pushing, and the lack of representation of non-religious or ‘indifferent’ positions being studied, but I’ll leave that to you…
I’d surely submit a paper if I had the funding. Enjoy…
The ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network’s First Bi-Annual Conference, Transformations of the Sacred in Europe and Beyond, will be Monday 3- Wednesday 5 September, 2012 at the University of Potsdam, Campus Griebnitzsee.
The mid term conference is coordinated by the RN34 Vice Chair, Heidemarie Winkel (Potsdam/Berlin).
Call for Papers
ESA Research Network 34 – Sociology of Religion Call for papers – Mid-term Conference
University of Potsdam,, Germany
3-5 September 2012
Transformations of the Sacred in Europe and Beyond
The thesis of secularization, once sheer uncontested in the social sciences, is increasingly under fire. Secularization is nowadays often deconstructed as an ideology or mere wish dream that is intimately connected to the rationalist ambitions of modern Enlightenment. Such alleged blurring of morality and science, of what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’, informing sociological analysis obviously obscures clear sight on recent developments in the Western world.
Countless empirical and theoretical studies convincingly demonstrate that religion is alive and well in Europe and beyond. Particularly after the attacks of 9/11 in 2001, religious identities have become salient in a situation of cultural polarization and religious pluralization. Moreover, we are witnessing a trend towards ‘believing without belonging’ (Davie, 1994) and – particularly in those European countries that are most secular – a shift from organized religion to ‘spiritualities of life’ (e.g., Heelas and Woodhead, 2005), paganism and ‘popular religion’ (Knoblauch, 2009). And although the thesis of secularization has always been highly problematic from a non-European or global perspective, the rapid globalization of Islam and the Evangelical upsurge – especially in Africa, Latin America and East Asia – fly in the face of the long-held expectation that religion is doomed to be a marginal or socially insignificant phenomenon.
Evidently, then, the focus of sociological analysis has shifted over the last decades from religious decline to religious change. More than that: it is theorized that we are living in a “post-secular society” (Habermas, 2005) where religion is re-vitalized, de-privatized and increasingly influences politics, voting behavior, matters of the state and ethical debates in the public domain (e.g., Casanova, 1994). Motivated by such observations, the mid-term conference calls for papers addressing changes in the field of religion and, more in particular, transformations of the sacred in Europe and beyond. Particularly we welcome studies covering the following topics:
- Studies on how and why conceptions of the sacred, religious beliefs, doctrines, rituals and organizations of long-standing religious traditions – such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism – transform under the influence of processes of globalization, individualization, mediatization as well as changing gender relations.
- Studies dealing with trends of believing without belonging, i.e. non-institutionalized beliefs, personal ‘bricolage’ and privatized conceptions of the sacred outside the Churches, Chapels and Mosques. Encouraged are also studies addressing new, more informal ways of ‘belonging’, religious communication and collective effervescence, i.e. in loose social networks, discussion groups or virtual communities on the internet.
- Studies covering popular religion and post-traditional spirituality, i.e., New Age, esotericism, paganism, occultism, discussing for instance an epistemological turn from belief to experience and emotion; a shifting emphasis from transcendence to immanence; from seriousness to playfulness; or a transition from dualism to monism.
- Studies dealing with implicit religion, i.e. addressing a re-location of the sacred to seemingly secular domains in society such as self-identity, sports, modern science and technology. This avenue of research may also include the place and meaning of the sacred (i.e., religious narratives, symbols and images) in popular media texts – in novels, films, series on television or computer games.
These topics are rough guidelines; papers dealing with religious change and the transformation of the sacred in Europe and beyond other than these outlined above are also very welcome. Furthermore we invite PhD and post-doc candidates to contribute to a poster session, including work in progress; the best poster will get a – small, but nice – prize.
Dates & Deadlines in 2012
March 15 Submission of abstracts and online registration starts
April 20 Submission of abstracts ends
May 10 Acceptance of abstracts
June 30 Early-bird registration ends
September 3 – 5 Conference
For further information, please visit: http://www.esareligion.org
“Del de Chant’s The Sacred Santa (2002) […] disagrees with those who argue that Christmas has been secularised. Rather, de Chant contends that Christians have lost the holiday to a cultural religion in which meaning and value emerges from elaborate practices of commercial acquisition and consumption. He builds a narrative about this ‘religion of consumption’ that helps us make sense of a complex social phenomenon.”
From Mahan, Jeffrey H. 2007. Reflections on the Past and Future of the Study of Religion and Popular Culture. In Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture, ed. Gordon Lynch, 47-62. London: I.B. Tauris, p. 54.
I HAVE to see this book. Seemingly it sums up position on Christmas. Christians do not have a monopoly on the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas. In fact, if anything, the ‘true’ meaning is now what De Chant seems to describe.
Anyone read it?
Love it… the perfect summary of a difficulty associated with the term “religion”:
“In the history of theorising “religion” the term has tended to fidget nervously in its own opaqueness and […has therefore] not infrequently transvested itself to play peek-a-boo behind substitute terms such as “the holy” […] or “the sacred” […]. However, both of these substitute terms are equally mysterious, making their use conducive to explaining obscurium per obscurious, to account for one mystery by means of other mysteries.”
Braun, Willi. 2000. Religion. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 3-18. London: Cassell, p. 5.