This paper is available, along with a podcast, at the University of California, Berkeley's website.

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Return? It never left. Exploring the ‘sacred’ as a resource for bridging the gap between the religious and the secular

 Matthew Francis & Kim Knott

In addressing the questions set out in the call for proposals, our paper draws on a critical discussion of the assumptions underlying both the secularization thesis as well as the contemporary discussion of religion in the public sphere.  Building on our own research as well as a report we co-authored (as part of a wider team) for the UK government,[1] we demonstrate both the need for a paradigmatic shift in understanding how religion and secularity relate to each other and highlight practical policy benefits of adopting such an approach.

In this paper we,

  • offer a critique of the dominant theoretical paradigm for explaining religious/secular relations;
  • explain the value of revisiting the concept of the ‘sacred’ as a means of signalling non-negotiable values on both sides of what is often presented as an unbridgeable gap between religion and secular context and ideology;
  • provide evidence of non-negotiable values at work in public secular as well as religious discourse;
  • offer a matrix of markers for capturing comparative data that can help identify ideological positions;
  • and show the value of these markers for policy makers and analysts.

Constructions of religion and secularity

We challenge the validity of the secularization thesis for explaining the relationship between the religious and the secular, and suggest instead that revisiting and providing a new perspective on the ‘sacred’ can move us from our current position of stand-off between the two.  With the example of the Rushdie Affair, we expose the relationship of contemporary religious and secular beliefs and values.  By looking at how debates take place both within and between differing ideological positions, we show how current assumptions based on the secularization thesis problematize rather than solve debates around faith and belief in modern pluralist societies.

Understanding the sacred

We suggest an alternative approach to framing the multiplicity of these ideological positions.  Working within the context of recent work on cognitive and spatial approaches for studying religious phenomena in secular spaces, we argue that the focus of academics and policy-makers is best directed towards the ‘sacred’, to the arena of non-negotiable beliefs and values.  It is here that we find boundaries of special significance to their communities which can erupt into conflict when threatened with transgression.  Such sacred values and beliefs are as likely to be found in secular, even atheist, discourses as within religious ones: hence our argument that what we refer to as the ‘sacred’ never really left Western society, but was merely re-configured in alternative, including secular, paradigms.

A resource for identifying ideological positions

Understanding where these non-negotiable boundaries lie is essential for policy-makers and analysts in order to understand the potential within society for conflict and thereby to avoid it.  We suggest a matrix of markers that can be used to assist in this process.  Focusing on the public discourse of groups, these markers can be can be used to identify and capture data relating to key variables, such as the expression of ‘dichotomous world views’ or ‘external legitimating authorities’, that may, for example, signal conflict and even suggest capacity for violence.  Utilisation of this approach may assist in identifying and negotiating the sacred territory of various ideological positions, help in intervention and conflict mediation, and assist in policy formulation in areas such as public order, radicalisation and community cohesion.

The sacred, the matrix and public policy

Recognising the sacred as both secular and religious opens up constructive potential for serious democratic debate between differing ideological camps, for example, between liberal humanist defenders of free speech and those who hold conservative Christian or Islamic values.  We therefore answer questions raised in the call to papers about what is distinctive about religion as a discourse of identity as well as how we think of religion in a secularized environment.  The methodology we outline for exploring these values,

  • contributes to public understanding about the importance of sacred beliefs and values for people’s identities;
  • deepens knowledge about ‘secular’ society, its beliefs and values and their relationship to religion;
  • shows how beliefs can be interrogated (with the application of the matrix of markers);
  • and challenges assumptions about the relationship of religion and the secular with reference to the ‘sacred’.

[1]Knott, McFadyen, McLoughlin and Francis. The roots, practices and consequences of terrorism: A literature review of research in the arts and humanities. Commissioned by the UK Home Office, 2006.