Sociologists Jeffrey Alexander and Gordon Lynch visit the RSA to explore the power of the sacred, the idea that modern society remains deeply influenced by visions of the sacred and the profane, using this to explore political power and the symbolic role of contemporary media. It may be true that we live in more secular times, but the sacred still retains its power in social life. Public debate and policy is still infused with sacred discourse of the norms that must be upheld to preserve society, as well as visions of various kind of evil that threaten to profane and pollute it, whether paedophiles, tyrants or terrorists. Attempts to find the ‘sacred centre’ of British-ness continue to pre-occupy policy-makers."
Jeffrey Alexander has played a pioneering role in the development of the ‘strong program’ of cultural sociology, which argues for the importance of taking seriously the role of cultural meaning in shaping social life. In particular, Alexander argues that societies are organised around symbolic representations of the sacred and the profane which have the power to shape political life and public identity, exploring these processes in cases ranging from public reactions to 9/11 and the changing meanings of the Holocaust.
More recently, he has developed a substantial argument that public life is constituted around a code of sacred and profane meanings which political actors, amongst others, must negotiate if they are to maintain public credibility and the moral authority to lead powerful public institutions (The Civil Sphere, 2006). In his most recent book (The Performance of Politics, 2010), he argues that it was the successful and unsuccessful attempts by political actors to present themselves in terms of these sacred codes that determined the outcome of the 2008 American Presidential election, rather than purely economic or demographic factors.
Gordon Lynch is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent, and has previously served as the chair for study groups on media and culture within the American Academy of Religion, and religion within the British Sociological Association.
For the past ten years, he has been making the case for the study of religion to turn its attention to key sources of meaning and value in contemporary society that go beyond traditional religious institutions. An advocate of the ‘strong program’ of cultural sociology, he is shortly to publish books by Oxford University Press and Acumen which explore how the concept of the sacred can support the social and cultural analysis of modern life. Specific cases on which he has written include the public scandal over the systemic abuse and neglect of children in the Irish industrial school system, and the significance of the controversy over the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the DEC humanitarian appeal for Gaza in January 2009.