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Last night Gordon Lynch and Jeffrey Alexander came to the RSA to talk about the power of the sacred. Gordon helpfully set the scene by explaining what ‘sacred’ is not, in the cultural sociological frame from which he considers it. Firstly, ‘sacred’ is not a synonym for religion. Secondly, it does not refer to our universal capacity for mystical experience. Perhaps surprisingly, Gordon explained that ‘sacred’ does not necessarily equate to goodness, but is actually morally ambiguous. In this context, it is also not something of deep personal significance. Rather, what is sacred is something like a sense of moral reality, which we may well only become aware of when it has been breached.

The sacred is a dynamic social process, using symbols, thoughts and collective action to take shape. There are many actions which have sacred significance – for example child protection legislation is a way of rehearsing the sanctity of childhood. Crucially, sacred forms inevitably involve the construction of profane-evil counterparts. Where childhood is regarded as sacred, the paedophile that breaches that sanctity is the profane-other which threatens to overturn the moral heart of society. With this kind of dichotomous construction, it is entirely possible that one person’s sacred is another’s profane.

Jeffrey Alexander put forward his view that the sacred and profane are as much at the core of modern life as they were in traditional society. Although modern society tends to be thought of as scientific, rational, empirical and transparent, opposed to traditional society’s mysterious, metaphysical, magical, religious ambiance, Jeffrey rejects this binary. While acknowledging that cultural shifts have certainly taken place, it is possible to recognise that people still need metaphysical beliefs, sweeping social narratives and core convictions about what is simple, important and pure.

In his questioning, Laurie Taylor drew attention to potential problems with dichotomising the sacred and profane. He suggested that setting up such crude oppositions brings with it the danger of naively overstressing innocence and boorishly overstating evil. He asked, isn’t it the job of liberal intellectuals to deconstruct dichotomies which oversimplify good and bad, and draw attention instead to the subtle complexity that underpins social transgressions? I particularly appreciated Gordon Lynch’s response to this point, in which he explained that although there is a complex interplay between deeply felt moral impulses and what we think about them, it is impossible to escape those impulses. However self-aware we might be about what’s going on, it is unfeasible to imagine reaching a point where we’re never moved by our impulsive moral responses.  Jeffrey Alexander expanded this by explaining that while moral rationality might underpin the ways in which we determine our legal codes it’s wrong to assume that it indicates how people act in society. He said that people don’t arrive at their values in a rational way and when something sacred has been breached, it is a passionate impulse that lets us know we don’t like it.

It seems to me that these responses are inevitably reliant on individuals’ place in a broader social setting, and that our reactions are likely to be sparked, fed and mediated by the reactions of those around us. What is sacred can’t be fixed and naturalistic; it must be socially constructed and made sense of relationally. All of which resonates with the ideas we’re working on through the Social Brain project.


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