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Book Preview – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, edited by Day, Vincett and Cotter

[Abby Day, Goldsmiths, University of London, previews the edited collection, Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013), co-edited with Giselle Vincett and Christopher R. Cotter].

How and why people are religious is a theme that has motivated my work ever since I began questioning why so many people, in an apparently secular country like the UK, would identify as ‘Christian’ on surveys and even the decennial national census.  My recent book, Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World  offered evidence, analysis and a theory about why this would be so and its relevance to other Euro American countries. Although the US census doesn’t have a question on religion, other surveys show a similar pattern: the rate of ‘nominal’ or ‘marginal’ religiosity is high. Rather than dismiss these people as confused or muddled, I argued that a claim to religious identity was often a marker of other social identities; ethnic, natal and aspirational nominalism are three I identified as significant cultural expressions. The theory drew heavily on Durkheim, of course, with a few variations: while he concluded that people worship themselves as society, I concluded they worship the act and ethos of belonging. I further questioned his binary distinction of sacred and secular, as I found the categories were often collapsed and interchanged amongst the people I studied.

It was therefore a significant privilege for me to work with other colleagues who are also interested in the idea of the social and how the social may fill the space often ignored, or thought to be empty, between ‘the sacred’ and ‘the secular’.

Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular, edited with Giselle Vincett and Christopher R. Cotter, has brought together authors from a number of disciplines – sociology of religion, anthropology, religious studies, political studies – to examine the challenges of talking about identities between the sacred and the secular, the kinds of places which might foster or include the in-between, and the way some identities shift according to context, so that one might be ‘sometimes religious’. The authors in this volume move beyond simple description or statistics, for, in interrogating the middle ground, they also needed to re-think both where the boundaries lie of that which is on either side of the middle and what is meant by categories such as ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. In other words, the authors here begin to re-theorise the sacred and the secular.

We divided the chapters in this book into three sections:  the public space; the social, identity-dominated space; and the methodological space.  Grace Davie’s Preface opens the selection with observations on how the discipline has adapted to considerations about the sacred and secular; Jay Demerath’s Afterword closes it by calling attention to the importance of collective identity.

In the first section, Jeremy Carette and Sophie-Helene Trigeaud examine ‘religious’ NGOs at the United Nations, considering the role of ‘religious’ actors as instruments for world peace and reconciliation inside the structures of a secular international organisation. In the same section, Jane Cameron looks at religious fashion bloggers’ interpretations of ‘modesty’, at the heart of which are self-representations in both sacred and secular contexts and the blurring of those lines in the space of these blogs. Peter Collins, meanwhile, examines the ambiguous space of hospital chaplaincies, tracing the historical link between hospitals and faith institutions and groups, their secularization, their more recent re-sacralization with the push to include the ‘spiritual’ in healthcare, and their boundary walking in terms of inclusion of all faiths and none.

In the second section, Abby Day describes how ‘belief’ does not disappear for ‘nominal’ Christians but acts as a hinge, allowing access to both secular and sacred identities, depending on context.  David Gellner and Sondra Hausner continue the theme of identity by looking at the problem of multiple or cross-over religious identities and practices and how they intersect with national or ethnic identities in the Nepali community in the UK. Sally Munt examines how individuals negotiate religious and sexual identities in the silence of Quakerism, finding both an accommodating space and a space where difference is not acknowledged or discussed. Based upon studies with young people in high schools in the UK, Elisabeth Arweck found a wide variation in attitudes towards religious diversity, identities and practices, with social contexts strongly influential on young people’s attitudes.  Lori Beaman and Peter Beyer consider how Canadian second-generation young immigrants identified across boundaries (‘spiritual but not religious’, ‘a little bit Buddhist’, ‘I’m not religious, but I’m not a complete atheist’, and so forth) but what they all had in common was a sense of the autonomous individual who freely chooses and constructs his or her own religious identity, beliefs and practices.

In the third section, Kim Knott suggests that the commonly understood binary of secular/sacred is actually mutually implicated and that the sacred operates in both the religious and the secular. She argues that de-coupling the sacred from the preserve of religion can enable us, as scholars, to understand how the sacred functions in the lives of ordinary people and claims that there has been a shift in everyday understanding of the sacred from a hierarchical model to an egalitarian model. Martin Stringer listens in public spaces and at street festivals for discourses on religion in the public realm. These are not media discourses, nor political/state discourses, but those of everyday people in everyday space, particularly in those places which blur the sacred and secular. Sariya Contractor, Tristram Hooley, Nicki Moore, Kingsley Purdam and Paul Weller also concentrate on the methodological issues, looking as those faced by researchers studying religion and belief in higher education.  Anders Sjöberg underlines the way in which individuals actively and critically self-define their religious/secular identities, cautioning that these may be very different from how survey designers and coders interpret the same categories.

The book concludes with a combined, outstanding bibliography – the first of its kind to reference exhaustively the range of works on this important theme.

In summary, this book acknowledges and investigates multiple examples of a late-modern tendency to collapse and mutate the sacred/secular divide, of the way individuals and communities interweave multiple and shifting identities.  It demonstrates that scholars cannot assume that this tendency stems from religious ignorance or confusion. Rather, it is often conscious and deliberate. For many, beliefs, practice and belongings are de-coupled from faith institutions and this book investigates where and how they re-couple in the in-between sacred/secular spaces. It belies the assumption that such blending must be individualized and illustrates several public spaces and practices, such as those in State institutions. The sacred-secular informs, and is informed by, a multitude of intersecting social identities and relationships, including the other-than-human or more-than-human.

Interestingly, when the authors first began to explore these intersecting identities a decade ago, many scholars resisted the evidence. If this book does nothing else, it demonstrates that we cannot simply ignore or dismiss the so-called non-religious, sometimes religious, or in-between, and it challenges other scholars to further theorise or theologise such standpoints or phenomena.

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