Monday, 7 January 2013

The Canute Effect: Why radical community development might be fighting a losing battle

I recently attended a discussion and debate hosted by the Faiths and Civil Society Unit attached to Goldsmiths’ College. The discussion was with Ted Cantle, author of the so-called ‘Cantle Report’ on Community Cohesion, written in response to the Bradford Race Riots of 2001. The discussion also included Adam Dinham, and Marjorie Mayor, both Professors at Goldsmiths, Jenny Kartupelis, Director of the East of England Faiths Council and Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters.

The main feature was Ted Cantle’s introduction to his latest concept ‘Interculturalism’ whereby rather than seeking for people of different faiths and races to merely peacefully coexist, we should be seeking for them integrate and understand one another. Cultivating interculturalism, it was explained, was important for a number of reasons. This piece will focus on just one of those reasons. Cantle explained that with the end of the cold war, there was no clear ideological opposition to commercialisation or globalisation, but that recently it had emerged that faith groups were perhaps the last bastion of such opposition. Implicitly one of many uses of interculturalism was to improve public understanding of the way that faith groups resist commercialisation and globalisation.

What came next was fascinating. A number of the speakers that followed Cantle suggested that the problem with creating overarching structural ideas like interculturalism is that they are too top-down and so neglect the various ways in which local people resist commercialisation and globalisation. Such structural approaches ended up forming their own oppressions. So Cantle’s approach was too knee-jerk – too strong-handed.

Conversely, what had struck me was how weak Cantle’s response was. When we consider the unprecedented power of global organisations with greater GDPs than many countries, it seems that perhaps only international political bodies and agreements, let alone national bodies, are capable of holding of the forces of commercialisation and globalisation. And yet without an ideological agenda to match the scale of the problem, it is all too easy for these bodies and agreements to collapse under pressure. Just consider the impossibility of achieving global agreements on corporate taxation. National governments tell us that they simply cannot pressure businesses to work in the interests of the common good lest those businesses move elsewhere. We need a new ideological agenda.

In the face of all this, Cantle’s talk of interculturalism seems far too weak. Of course, what Cantle is really suggesting is a sort of compromise. He recognises that a strong top-down ideology might oppress people just as much as do the forces of commercialisation and globalisation and so instead he offers a concept whereby international bodies and governments can work with local groups to stave off these forces together.

Who needs the king anyhow?

It seems to me that those acting aggressive even towards Cantle’s compromise are suffering from what I am describing as the Canute Effect, but which is in fact its opposite. For rather than seeing the wise king’s demonstration that he could not roll back the tide as being a metaphor for the powerlessness of even he, they have taken it to mean that the king must be worthless and so only the people in their various fragmented bodies can roll back the tide.   

Ted Cantle’s ‘Interculturalism: The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity’ will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on December 11th

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Against a Democratic Upper House

The below article is by the College of Sociology's Editor and was originally published by the think-tank Respublica on 01/07/12. It offers reasons for holding on to the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords.
Heredity, incompetence, sleaze, corruption, misrepresentation, lack of transparency – there are plenty of reasons to reform the House of Lords. One only need turn on BBC Parliament to see peers sleeping on the job. But we cannot allow these failures to cloud our appreciation of the system. Wiser than Solon but more democratic than Plato, the theoretical basis of the British bicameral system is a triumph of political philosophy.
The House of Commons is democratic. Its members are elected every four years, more or less, and its legislative agenda corresponds to the manifesto on which the majority party was elected, more or less. The House of Lords is an unelected body for the most part appointed by the Queen on advice of the Prime Minister or the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Lords is rather like the House of Commons’ mentor – the former scrutinises the latter’s work and rejects it when it’s not good enough.
Why should an unelected body have such sway over the work of an elected body? Three simple reasons: because some of the best minds in the world are equally the worst politicians; because pandering to popular feeling or party ideology undermines philosophical integrity; and because election itself does not necessarily guarantee representation. All of these speak to the Platonic-republican tradition in politics. Let’s look at the arguments in more detail.
There is a long history of great philosophers whose political aspirations were never fulfilled. Plato, to whom almost all political philosophy from communism to liberalism is indebted, famously tried and failed to become governor of Sicily. J.S. Mill, father of modern liberalism, enjoyed only one year in parliament despite multiple attempts.
Interesting as they are, these anecdotes may actually draw us away from the point that there are many pursuits requiring of great wisdom and which play an important role in shaping our social order but which nonetheless are not strictly political. The protagonists of these pursuits can help guide policy. Good examples are business leaders, academics and faith leaders: these represent us in a much deeper way than democracy can allow for – they represent the wisdom of the institutions we cherish.
This notion of sourcing people of greater wisdom speaks to my own preference of functional constituencies: constituencies representing institutions rather than people directly. In places like Hong Kong functional constituencies are limited to areas such as business, media, education and environment. I imagine a more innovative system whereby we place in the Lords people of wisdom from all the fields that we deem important.

We also rely on wisdom to overcome the dangers of populsim. This has never been more important. In an age of evidence-based practice in which we rely far more on empirical truth than moral truth, so that the fact that 80% of people want something has greater import than whether or not it is right, having peers not bound by the morally corrosive obligation to pander to an electorate is essential. We have never needed this strictly undemocratic process more than now.
Nor do we want peers to ‘toe a party line’. The whole point is that they scrutinise individual policies. One would not want certain policies to go unscrutinised simply because one party has a majority. Nor would we want a good policy to be ignored for the same reason.  
Wisdom speaks to the age problem too. Some politicians have called for an upper age limit on serving in the House of Lords. My own feeling is that wisdom comes with age and that incompetence on account of age should be scrutinised on a case-by-case basis.
Finally, I want to challenge the idea that election confers representation. There is an all too obvious point that parties are well known for ignoring manifesto promises. But there is a deeper point about what representation means too. Anyone with even the scantiest knowledge of music can see that reality music shows like the X-factor bring success to people whose talent is questionable. And they do so specifically because the outcome is put to the vote. I have found myself madly voting for someone or other to win the X-factor and yet once they get the record deal, our bond dies and I could not care less: the fact that I voted has very little to do with their representing good music. We see that democracy is corrosive in other areas, so why do we not see it in politics? Representation is too often associated with representing popular feeling. We forget that it may also mean representing what is wise, moral or virtuous.
None of these arguments are against reforming the House of Lords. There are plenty of issues that need to be tackled. Apart from the list offered in the opening sentence, the Lords Spiritual should represent all faiths and none, and the process of selecting peers should be opened up and made more rigorous. As I have said, there are many ways to be representative without being more democratic. My feeling is that democracy often gets support de facto because the only undemocratic systems we learn about are morally reprehensive: fascism, communism. But in the words of Jed Bartlett from the West Wing: ‘You know, we forget sometimes. In all the talk about democracy, we forget it's not a democracy. It's a republic. People don't make the decisions.’

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Folk Festivals

The article posted below is written by Amber Cowan and was originally posted in Metro on 25/06/12. Metro is a free newspaper that can be found dotted around London's Underground network. The article highlights a recent revival of folk festivals in the UK and explores their implicit and explicit religious aspects, especially with reference to their indicating a sociological shift in the ways that Britons want to collectively escape from the modern life. But most of all the article provides a good example of accessible and unbiased writing concerning religion and society that the College is excited to showcase in the hope of its providing food for critical reflection for those wanting to explore these issues in more depth.

Last summer, Glastonbury godfather Michael Eavis declared that music festivals were ‘on their way out’, blaming high ticket prices and the feeling that people ‘have seen it all before’. 

Glasto is taking a break in 2012 and the big, branded events are sticking to safe territory – but home-grown folk festivals are enjoying a creative renaissance not seen since the days of cheesecloth blouses.

From the much-loved Green Man in Wales to newcomers such as Wilderness and Folklore, this season’s calendar is full of opportunities to let your hair down, perform a pagan ritual and connect with the spirit of Albion.

‘There has definitely been a rise in the number of cool, small folk festivals in the last few years,’ says Alex Neilson of Glasgow psych-folk band Trembling Bells, who are playing Green Man and FolkEast in Suffolk. 

‘I think people are looking for something different and more honest. No one wants to pay £200 to be rained on while drinking expensive beer any more.’

The British festival scene has its roots in folk music: Cambridge Folk Festival, which was started in 1965, arguably pioneered the bands-in-a-field format, while the first Glastonbury, held five years later, stemmed from the same folky ethos. 

However, the new generation of folk festivals is also about the idea of connecting with a mythical, magical past.

Loyally attended fixtures such as Fairport’s Cropredy Convention and the Cambridge event still play to the real-ale brigade: Cropredy annually sells 20,000 tickets to fans who want little more than to relax in the sun and enjoy some music and dancing. 

But on folk’s fringes, you can take your pick from more intriguing options, from relative newcomer Wilderness in the Cotswolds – a hedonistic celebration of ‘Arcadian arts, lost traditions and outdoors pursuits’ in a forested country estate – to Folklore in Jersey, where rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson and Ray Davies of The Kinks will play a stone’s throw from St Helier beach.

‘Many of these niche folk festivals have a unique location,’ says Neilson, ‘and being somewhere stunning really adds to the experience. It’s about escapism.’ 

As well as feeling more ancient and earthy, they also have the little luxuries you don’t get at big events. ‘The organisers know the importance of providing artisan food and inspiring places to relax. Plus, there are proper toilets.’

The current folk revival started with Green Man, the festival that combines the appeal of a lost weekend in the Brecon Beacons with the chance to burn a wicker effigy at the end of it. 

It was founded in 2003 by Jo Bartlett and Danny Hagan, and has since grown into a phenomenally popular three-day event, with 15,000 tickets on sale, a no-sponsorship rule and an influential music policy: Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling and Noah And The Whale were among the names the festival championed before most of us had heard of them.

Green Man’s line-up this year is as impressive as ever, with Van Morrison headlining, but it’s the only folk event that competes with big names. For the rest, it’s all about the vibe, man. 

‘Wilderness isn’t really about sitting watching bands,’ says organiser Tim Harvey. 

‘The centre of gravity is more ethereal than that. It’s about turning your phone off and enjoying the time-honoured pleasures of feasting and celebration.’

This year, you’ll be able to see a performance of Homer’s Odyssey on a lake, dine in a souk and even learn to fly-fish.

Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, which has been a fixture since 1976, is proof that folk festivals are about more than star-studded bills. The event has exactly the same headline act every year – Fairport Convention, obviously – and puts its longevity down to its family-friendly atmosphere.

‘I’ve seen four generations of one family rocking up to Cropredy,’ says Simon Nicol, a founding member of the folk-rock veterans. 

‘In fact, I’m often told the children were conceived at the festival. We sell more pints at Cropredy than at the Great British Beer Festival but we don’t have any trouble. You can let your kids roam free here and you can’t do that at Glastonbury.’

Harvey agrees that families are a big reason for the new popularity of folk festivals. 
‘We have people in their twenties who come to Wilderness for the parties but also people in their late thirties and forties who bring their kids. We want to make the festival a spiritual experience for them too.’

Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, Aug 9 to 11,; Wilderness Festival, Aug 10 to 12,; Green Man Festival, Aug 17 to 19,

Read more:

Monday, 23 April 2012

The sacred and the human

Occasionally the writers at the College of Sociology take a break to highlight an excellent piece of writing published elsewhere. Today, we present 'The Sacred and the Human' from Prospect Magazine, Issue 137, August 2007, and available online at:


Today's atheist polemics ignore the main insight of the anthropology of religion—that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred. As René Girard argues, religion is not the cause of violence, but the solution to it
It is not surprising that decent, sceptical people, observing the revival in our time of superstitious cults, the conflict between secular freedoms and religious edicts, and the murderousness of radical Islamism, should be receptive to the anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others. The “sleep of reason” has brought forth monsters, just as Goya foretold in his engraving. How are we to rectify this, except through a wake-up call to reason, of the kind that the evangelical atheists are now shouting from their pulpits?
What is a little more surprising is the extent to which religion is caricatured by its current opponents, who seem to see in it nothing more than a system of unfounded beliefs about the cosmos—beliefs that, to the extent that they conflict with the scientific worldview, are heading straight for refutation. Thus Hitchens, in his relentlessly one-sided diatribe God is Not Great, writes: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody… had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).”
Hitchens is an intelligent and widely read man who recognises that the arguments most useful to him were well known 200 years ago. His book takes us through territory charted by Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Kant, and nobody familiar with the Enlightenment can believe that our contemporary imitators have added anything to its stance against religion, whatever examples they can add to the list of religiously motivated crimes. However, Enlightenment thinkers, having shown the claims of faith to be without rational foundation, did not then dismiss religion, as one might dismiss a refuted theory. Many went on to conclude that religion must have some other origin than the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and some other psychic function than consolation. The ease with which the common doctrines of religion could be refuted alerted men like Jacobi, Schiller and Schelling to the idea that religion is not, in essence, a matter of doctrine, but of something else. And they set out to discover what that might be.
Thus was born the anthropology of religion. For thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment, it was not faith, but faiths in the plural, that composed the primary subject matter of theology. Hence the appearance of books like CF Dupuis’s Origine de tous les cultes, ou Religion universelle (1795), and the busy decipherment of oriental religions by the Bengal Asiatic Society, whose proceedings began to appear in Calcutta in 1788. For post-Enlightenment thinkers, the monotheistic belief systems were not related to ancient myths and rituals as science to superstition, or logic to magic. Rather, they were crystallisations of the emotional need which found expression both in the myths and rituals of antiquity and in the Vedas and Upanishads of the Hindus. This thought led Georg Creuzer, whose Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker appeared between 1810 and 1812, to represent myth as a distinctive operation of the human psyche. A myth does not describe what happened in some obscure period before human reckoning, but what happens always and repeatedly. It does not explain the causal origins of our world, but rehearses its permanent spiritual significance.
If you look at ancient religion in this way, then inevitably your vision of the Judeo-Christian canon changes. The Genesis story of the creation is easily refuted as an account of historical events: how can there be days without a sun, man without a woman, life without death? Read as a myth, however, this naive-seeming text reveals itself as a study of the human condition. The story of the fall is, Hegel wrote (in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 1827), “not just a contingent history but the eternal and necessary history of humanity.” It conveys truths about freedom, about guilt, about man, woman and their relationship, about our relation to nature and mortality. For Hegel, myths and rituals are forms of self-discovery, through which we understand the place of the subject in a world of objects, and the inner freedom that conditions all that we do. The emergence of monotheism from the polytheistic religions of antiquity is not so much a discovery as a form of self-creation, as the spirit learns to recognise itself in the whole of things, and to overcome its finitude.
Between those early ventures into the anthropology of religion and the later studies of James Frazer, Emile Durkheim and the Freudians, two thinkers stand out as the founders of a new intellectual enterprise—an enterprise which seems not to have been noticed by Hitchens, Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. The thinkers are Nietzsche and Wagner, and the intellectual enterprise is that of showing the place of the sacred in human life, and the kind of knowledge and understanding that comes to us through the experience of sacred things. Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, and Wagner, in Tristan, The Ring and Parsifal, as well as in his writings on tragedy and religion, painted a picture that, while rooted in the post-Enlightenment tradition, placed the concept of the sacred at the centre of the anthropology of religion. The lesson that both thinkers took from the Greeks was that you could subtract the gods and their stories from Greek religion without taking away the most important thing. This thing had its primary reality not in myths or theology or doctrine, but in rituals, in moments that stand outside time, in which the loneliness and anxiety of the human individual is confronted and overcome, through immersion in the group—an idea that was later to be made foundational to the sociology of religion by Durkheim. By calling these moments “sacred,” we recognise both their complex social meaning and also the respite that they offer from alienation.
The attempt by Nietzsche and Wagner to understand the concept of the sacred was taken forward not by anthropologists but by theologians and critics—Rudolf Otto in Das Heilige (1917), Georges Bataille in L’Érotisme (1957), Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane (1957), and, most explicitly and shockingly, René Girard in La violence et le sacré (1972). It is Girard’s theory, it seems to me, that most urgently needs to be debated, now that atheist triumphalism is sweeping all nuances away. For it helps us understand questions that even atheists must confront, and that their dogmatic certainties otherwise obscure: what is religion; what draws people to it; and how is it tamed?
Girard begins from an observation no impartial reader of the Hebrew Bible or the Koran can fail to make, which is that religion may offer peace, but has its roots in violence. The God presented in these writings is often angry, given to fits of destruction and seldom deserving of the epithets bestowed upon him in the Koran—al-rahmân al-rahîm, “the compassionate, the merciful.” He makes outrageous and bloodthirsty demands—such as the demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. He is obsessed with the genitals and adamant that they should be mutilated in his honour—a theme that has been explored by Jack Miles in his riveting book God: A Biography (1995). Thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens conclude that religion is the cause of this violence and sexual obsession, and that the crimes committed in the name of religion can be seen as the definitive disproof of it. Not so, argues Girard. Religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it. The violence comes from another source, and there is no society without it since it comes from the very attempt of human beings to live together. The same can be said of the religious obsession with sexuality: religion is not its cause, but an attempt to resolve it.
Girard’s theory is best understood as a kind of inversion of an idea of Nietzsche’s. In his later writings, Nietzsche expounded a kind of creation myth, by way of accounting for the structure of modern society. On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) envisages a primeval human society, reduced to near universal slavery by the “beasts of prey”—the strong, self-affirming, healthy egoists who impose their desires on others by the force of their nature. The master race maintains its position by punishing all deviation on the part of the slaves—just as we punish a disobedient horse. The slave, too timid and demoralised to rebel, receives this punishment as a retribution. Because he cannot exact revenge, the slave expends his resentment on himself, coming to think of his condition as in some way deserved. Thus is born the sense of guilt and the idea of sin. The resentment of the slave explains, for Nietzsche, the entire theological and moral vision of Christianity. Christianity owes its power to the resentment upon which it feeds: resentment which, because it cannot express itself in violence, remains turned against itself. Thus arises the ethic of compassion, the mortification of the flesh and the life-denying routines of the “slave morality.” Christianity is a form of self-directed violence, which conceals a deep resentment against every form of human mastery.
That “genealogy” of Christian morals was effectively exploded by Max Scheler in his book Ressentiment (1912). Scheler argues that the Christian ethic of agape and forgiveness is not an expression of resentment but rather the only way to overcome it. Nevertheless, there is surely an important truth concealed within Nietzsche’s wild generalisations. Resentment remains a fundamental component in our social emotions, and it is widely prevalent in modern societies. The 20th century was the century of resentment. How else do you explain the mass murders of the communists and the Nazis, the seething animosities of Lenin and Hitler, the genocides of Mao and Pol Pot? The ideas and emotions behind the totalitarian movements of the 20th century are targeted: they identify a class of enemy whose privileges and property have been unjustly acquired. Religion plays no real part in the ensuing destruction, and indeed is usually included among the targets.
Girard’s theory, like Nietzsche’s, is expressed as a genealogy, or a “creation myth”: a fanciful description of the origins of human society from which to derive an account of its present structure. (It is significant that Girard came to the anthropology of religion from literary criticism.) And like Nietzsche, Girard sees the primeval condition of society as one of conflict. It is in the effort to resolve this conflict that the experience of the sacred is born. This experience comes to us in many forms—religious ritual, prayer, tragedy—but its true origin is in acts of communal violence. Primitive societies are invaded by “mimetic desire,” as rivals struggle to match each other’s social and material acquisitions, so heightening antagonism and precipitating the cycle of revenge. The solution is to identify a victim, one marked by fate as outside the community and therefore not entitled to vengeance against it, who can be the target of the accumulated bloodlust, and who can bring the chain of retribution to an end. Scapegoating is society’s way of recreating “difference” and so restoring itself. By uniting against the scapegoat, people are released from their rivalries and reconciled. Through his death, the scapegoat purges society of its accumulated violence. The scapegoat’s resulting sanctity is the long-term echo of the awe, relief and visceral re-attachment to the community that was experienced at his death.
According to Girard, the need for sacrificial scapegoating is implanted in the human psyche, arising from the attempt to form a durable community in which the moral life can be successfully pursued. One purpose of the theatre is to provide fictional substitutes for the original crime, and so to obtain the benefit of moral renewal without the horrific cost. In Girard’s view, a tragedy like Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus is a way of retelling the story of what was originally a ritual sacrifice in which the victim can be sacrificed without renewing the cycle of revenge. The victim is both sacrificed and sacred, the source of the city’s plagues and their cure.
In many Old Testament stories, we see the ancient Israelites wrestling with this sacrificial urge. The stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac and Sodom and Gomorrah are residues of extended conflicts, by which ritual was diverted from the human victim and attached first to animal sacrifices, and finally to sacred words. By this process a viable morality emerged from competition and conflict, and from the visceral rivalries of sexual predation. To repeat: religion is not the source of violence but the solution to it—the overcoming of mimetic desire and the transcending of the resentments and jealousies into which human communities are tempted by their competitive dynamic.
It is in just this way, Girard argues, that we should see the achievement of Christianity. In his study of the scapegoat, Le Bouc émissaire (1982), Girard identifies Christ as a new kind of victim—one who offers himself for sacrifice, and who, in doing so, shows that he understands what is going on. The words “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” are pivotal for Girard. They involve a recognition of the need for sacrifice, if the guilt and resentment of the community is to be appeased and transcended, and the added recognition that this function must be concealed. Only those ignorant of the source of their hatred can be healed by its expression, for only they can proceed with a clear conscience towards the tragic climax. The climax, however, is not the death of the scapegoat but the experience of sacred awe, as the victim, at the moment of death, forgives his tormentors. This is the moment of transcendence, in which even the cruellest of persecutors can learn to humble himself and to renounce his vengeful passion. Through his acceptance of his sacrifical role, Christ made the “love of neighbour”—which had featured in the oldest books of the Hebrew Bible as the standard to which humanity should aspire—into a reality in the hearts of those who meditate upon his gesture. Christ’s submission purified society and religion of the need for sacrificial murder: his conscious self-sacrifice is therefore, Girard suggests, rightly thought of as a redemption, and we should not be surprised if, when we turn away from our Christian legacy, as Nazis and communists did, the hecatombs of victims reappear.
Girard’s account of the Passion is amplified by many references to Freud and Lévi-Strauss, and by a conviction that religion and tragedy are, as Nietzsche argued, adjacent in the human psyche, comparable receptacles for the experience of sacred awe. The experience of the sacred is not an irrational residue of primitive fears, nor is it a form of superstition that will one day be chased away by science. It is a solution to the accumulated aggression which lies in the heart of human communities. That is how Girard explains the peace and celebration that attends the ritual of communion—the sense of renewal which must always itself be renewed. Girard takes himself to be describing deep features of the human condition, which can be observed as well in the mystery cults of antiquity and the local shrines of Hinduism as in the everyday “miracle” of the Eucharist.
There are many features of Girard’s theory that can be criticised—not least the idea that human institutions can be explained through creation myths. We need more evidence than is contained in a creation myth for the view that our “original” condition is one of vengeful competition. And the alleged “mimetic” nature of human competition is underjustified. Moreover, there are other plausible explanations of the ancient ritual of animal sacrifice besides the one offered by Girard; and the success of the Christian ethic has other causes besides the mystical reversal that allegedly occurred on the cross. The growth of towns under Roman imperial jurisdiction meant that people were in daily contact with “the other,” and living under competing urges both to exclude and to forgive. Why is that not an equal factor in explaining the rapid spread of a gospel of disinterested love?
Such criticisms do not, it seems to me, account for the comparative neglect of Girard’s ideas. Girard’s thesis has been received with the same dismissive indifference as Nietzsche’s in The Birth of Tragedy, and though he has been honoured with a siège (seat) at the Académie française, the honour has come only now, as Girard approaches his 90th year. I suspect that, like Nietzsche, Girard has reminded us of truths that we would rather forget—in particular the truth that religion is not primarily about God but about the sacred, and that the experience of the sacred can be suppressed, ignored and even desecrated (the routine tribute paid to it in modern societies) but never destroyed. Always the need for it will arise, for it is in the nature of rational beings like us to live at the edge of things, experiencing our alienation and longing for the sudden reversal that will once again join us to the centre. For Girard, that reversal is a kind of self-forgiveness, as the concealed aggressions of our social life are transcended—washed in the blood of the lamb.
Girard’s genealogy casts an anthropological light on the Christian ethic and on the meaning of the Eucharist; but it is not just an anthropological theory. Girard himself treats it as a piece of theology. For him, it is a kind of proof of the Christian religion and of the divinity of Jesus. And in a striking article in the Stanford Italian Review (1986), he suggests that the path that has led him from the inner meaning of the Eucharist to the truth of Christianity was one followed by Wagner in Parsifal, and one along which even Nietzsche reluctantly strayed, under the influence of Wagner’s masterpiece.
Of course, you don’t have to follow Girard into those obscure and controversial regions in order to endorse his view of the sacred as a human universal. Nor do you have to accept the cosmology of monotheism in order to understand why it is that this experience of the sacred should attach itself to the three great transitions—the three rites of passage—which mark the cyclical continuity of human societies. Birth, copulation and death are the moments when time stands still, when we look on the world from a point at its edge, when we experience our dependence and contingency, and when we are apt to be filled with an entirely reasonable awe. It is from such moments, replete with emotional knowledge, that religion begins. The rational person is not the one who scoffs at all religions, but the one who tries to discover which of them, if any, can make sense of those things, and, while doing so, draw the poison of resentment.
Roger Scruton

Monday, 16 April 2012

Sacred Action: what mainstream politics can learn from religious groups about political engagement

The College of Sociology’s Editor, Timothy Stacey, was recently invited to the PIDOP International Conference on Civic and Political Engagement. PIDOP is a large-scale, three-year project measuring the factors contributing to and restricting civic and political engagement in Europe. The project fails to mention religion as either a contributing or restricting factor. Timothy Stacey explained the importance of religion as a contributing factor. Below is the abstract with a few accompanying slides:

The last fifteen years has not been a great time for liberal democracy. Despite the mitigated realignment of politics around the centre-left we have simultaneously seen amongst the most disadvantaged a radical disengagement with mainstream politics.

The loss of meaning on the part of mainstream politics, and the consequent disconnect with real people as they live their lives has been relatively unexplored by academics, although it has been widely observed by think-tanks, politicians and journalists[1]. It is clear from an historical look at voter turnout records and party membership records.

But the answer from mainstream parties too quickly becomes to seek new and more efficient ways to engage people with the same politics.[2] Increasingly it borrows from the market techniques for doing this. There is a failure to see anything inherent to the system that undermines engagement.

On the other hand religious groups have never stopped in their sole purpose of making meaning happen for people as they live their lives. This paper explores religious groups in the hope of finding pathways to a new politics. It explores how religious groups engage their core membership, the extent to which that membership is politically engaged, and which political bodies have best engaged religious groups until now.


Tim Stacey

[1] For think-tanks see Jenny Bristow 2001; Tom Bentley 2005. For politicians see Douglas Carswell 2005; Hazel Blears 2008. For journalists see especially the website of the London paper The Guardian:
[2] See especially Phillip Gould’s The Unfinished Revolution (1999) in which focus groups are shown to align policy towards the opinion of the most influential voters; Mark Penn’s Microtrends (2008) which details the move of politics away from mass organizing towards collective goods and towards polling undecided voters in swing states; and Douglas Carswell’s Direct Democracy (2005), which looks to bring referenda to local matters. 

Monday, 9 April 2012

Thích Nhất Hạnh’: A Zen Master’s Sacred Presence.

As Thích Nhất Hạnh's UK visit draws to a close, Freddie Matthews reflects on the sacred ideas and ideas of the sacred that are left with us, with particular reference to politics and lifestyle.

The name ‘Thích Nht Hnh’ (pronounced ‘Tik N'yat Hawn’) is unlikely to provoke familiarity for the average UK citizen. Nonetheless, for modern spiritual seekers, social reformers as well as many 20th century historians, this Vietnamese monk’s name chimes as powerfully as the bronze temple bell he so often sounds at his public talks. Indeed, at a time in British history when sources of spiritual sustenance appear as lacking as the water in our reservoirs, Thích Nht Hnh’s visit to the UK this month was a timely reminder of the importance of experiencing the sacred in our lives; not simply for the betterment of the individual, but for the grander goal of social, political and ecological harmony.

Born in Central Vietnam in 1926, the 85 year old Zen Master has lived his life both as Buddhist monk and global peace activist, compassionately directing his students towards the eternal (yet eternally overlooked) presence of the sacred within their own lives. During the 1960s, whilst lecturing at various North American Universities, the young monk urged the U.S. government to withdraw its troops from Vietnam. In honour of his worthy efforts, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, petitioning that Thích Nht Hnh’s ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” Despite this, in 1976 the Vietnamese government refused the monk re-entry back into Vietnam, forcing him to seek exile in France where he established ‘Plum Village’, the meditation centre and Buddhist community where he has resided and taught ever since.

Fast forwarding into the 21st century, the Zen Master still continues to spread his message of social harmony and peace. Over the past month ‘Thây’ (as he is affectionately known to his students) has tirelessly conducted a string of sold-out public events across the UK including an evening lecture at the Royal Festival Hall, a five day residential retreat in Nottingham, a four day ‘Educators Retreat’, as well as an intimate address at the House of Commons hosted by Lord Richard Layard; where he spoke to politicians, educators and journalists (amongst others) about the practical application of Eastern spiritual practices such as ‘mindfulness’ within modern secular settings, as well as tangible methods for creating a more loving, sustainable, and emotionally balanced society. A particularly poignant moment of the discussions came with the suggestion by one journalist that Westminster politicians adhere to the chimes of Big Ben as if they were ‘mindfulness bells’; tools to bring the incessant bickering of political debates (as well as one’s own attention) back to the present moment with coolness, alertness and compassion.

Perhaps the profoundest moment of Thây’s visit however, was a two hour guided meditation led by the monk in Trafalgar Square on Saturday 31st March. On this mild Spring afternoon, unprecedented numbers of meditators (around 2000) flocked to the square, mats and cushions in arms, ready to join in what is increasingly becoming an annual tradition in the capital. Certainly, the gesture of uniting over two thousand dedicated meditators into a public space was itself a sacred act, and testament to the value of meditation practice on countless people’s lives in modern Britain.

Though Thây’s tranquil voice was often drowned out beneath the incessant traffic that orbited the sea of attendees, meditators appeared calm and diligent in their practice, generating a tangible atmosphere of serenity for the curious onlookers who respectfully flanked the area’s peripheries. As Thây uttered serenely to his audience, “Breathing in, I am aware of my in-breath, breathing out I am aware of my out-breath.” Though this guidance may at first seem simplistic to many, as countless meditators have experienced, mindful re-acquaintance with one’s own breath is a potent method for reconnecting oneself with the sacred, itself buried in the present, eternal now.

As Thây advises of the experience of drinking tea in one of his earlier works:
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”
As one might sense, as part of this practice (referred to broadly as ‘mindfulness’), one strives to become something of a ‘connoisseur’ of the present moment, unswayed by the inevitable internal chatter of intellectual bias. As Thây notes in his classic writing, The Miracle of Mindfulness (1991):
“Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant, and teapot are all sacred.”

Pertinently, such an attitude of radical engagement with the world allows ‘the sacred’ to be accessed in every moment (and object) of life, releasing this profound experience from the confines of subjective pre-conditions.  Furthermore, as Thây notes in his recent work on ecological awareness, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (2008), this state of awareness is causally connected to the state of the planet itself. As Thây warns, “The bells of mindfulness are calling out to us, trying to wake us up, reminding us to look deeply at our impact on the planet.” Regardless of one’s own acknowledgement of the ecological peril the world currently faces, Thây’s sentiment reminds us that ‘the sacred’ lies in our connection to the world around us; as Thây would call it, our sense of ‘interbeing’ with it. This sense of ‘interbeing’ may be felt strongest in churches, temples, nature, raves, protests, or indeed, alongside our loved ones. As thousands of British citizens evoked at Trafalgar Square however, it is no more simply accessed than in a humble recognition of the present moment.

Thích Nht Hnh continues a programme of teachings across Ireland until the 15the April. His tour then recommences in Germany and the Netherlands in August 2012. More information on his life, teachings, practice and schedule can be found at


Freddie Matthews

Works Cited

Hạnh, Thích Nhất, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Rider, London, 1991

                           ---The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Parallax, Berkeley, 2008

King, Martin Luther, 'Nomination of Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize' , World History Archives [online], Available at: