By Professor Gordon Lynch
How do we explain the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of people stepping outside their homes to applaud the NHS, while more than half a million people have signed up as volunteers? People’s sense of society is organised around what they take to be sacred; and public phenomena like #Clapforourcarers, or the act of signing up to be NHS Volunteers, have a symbolic significance, as people experience a sense of being part of a wider moral community.
Although ‘religion’ is conventionally thought about in relation to traditional religious beliefs and institutions, another approach – following the work of the sociologist, Emile Durkheim – is to think about how the ‘sacred’ plays a central role in society, whether it takes traditionally religious forms or not.
Durkheim argued that people’s sense of society is organised around what they take to be sacred, and that rituals were a central means by which people create a sense of moral community by powerful collective engagement with these sacred forms. The sacred also exists in relation to the ‘profane’, forces that are the moral opposite to the sacred and which threaten to pollute or corrupt it.
An important part of Durkheim’s argument was the idea that anything could, in principle, come to be regarded as sacred in a society, not just divine or supernatural beings. In modern times, Durkheim saw the idea of the nation as a sacred value driving nationalist movements, and there is also a long tradition – accelerated by the current climate crisis – of the environment coming to be seen as sacred as well. Another important modern form is a humanitarian sacred – the sacred conviction of the importance of relieving human suffering.
The current coronavirus crisis has led to a significant public return of the humanitarian sacred. Key workers, particularly in health and social care, have come to be seen as moral heroes, representing our best social values. Public phenomena like #Clapforourcarers, or the act of signing up for the NHS “volunteer army”, have a symbolic significance as people experience a sense of being part of a wider moral community. Various ‘profane’ figures have also emerged who constitute the polar opposite to sacred values of care – exploitative employers unconcerned for their employees’ welfare, people flouting social distancing rules and people hoarding from supermarkets.
These sacred processes in society can play a key role in creating a sense of community, encouraging altruism and giving people a sense of connection with deeper moral values. But they can also sometimes create moralised ways of interpreting social events that can be unhelpful. Whilst the courage of key workers continuing to do their jobs without adequate protective equipment can be a powerful symbol of the humanitarian sacred, their public role as moral symbols could also contribute to a sense of pressure on them to continuing working in ways that may not be safe. Whilst moral shaming can play a powerful role in discouraging anti-social behaviour, it can also cross over into simplistic judgments about people or excessive attempts to control others.
Durkheim also suggested that, whilst rituals that connect people to these social forms of the sacred could be very powerful at the time, their effects could dissipate as people returned to normal, everyday life. Alongside the challenges and suffering of the coronavirus crisis, we can also see society re-connecting with important humanitarian values about the importance of care, community and international collaboration and which arguably challenge some of the populist, nationalist politics of recent times. It remains to be seen, however, whether this sense of connection with the humanitarian sacred will have a lasting effect on politics after the current crisis is over.
Profesor Gordon Lynch is the Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent at Canterbury
What is sacred? (short film by the educational charity, TrueTube)
On the Sacred, book by Gordon Lynch