Developing New Public Insights on the Sacred in the Modern World
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Kent
Unit of AssessmentTheology and Religious Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Philosophy
Summary of the impact
Through a range of media and educational activities, Gordon Lynch has
developed public understanding of the importance of morally-charged
visions of the sacred and the profane for contemporary society. In his
work, the sacred refers not necessarily to traditional forms of religious
belief, but to whatever people collectively experience as unquestionable
moral realities, whose profanation evokes reactions of outrage, disgust
and the search for restitution and renewed moral solidarity. In articles
for newspapers, blogs for influential websites, and on-line films for use
in secondary schools, he has introduced public audiences to this way of
thinking about the sacred and shown its relevance for making sense of
contemporary cases involving strong public moral emotion. These have
ranged from the UK phone-hacking scandal to public responses to the mass
murders committed by Anders Behring Brievik. His work has been engaged
with by a global audience of at least 250,000-300,000 people, and has
enabled public audiences both to identify sacred passions in the modern
world and to adopt a more self-critical attitude towards instinctive moral
Lynch's work on the cultural sociology of the sacred has been developed
through a number of publications since he joined the University of Kent in
January 2011, including two monographs (see, e.g., Lynch, 2011a; 2011b;
2012a; 2012b). Through this, Lynch has produced a theoretical framework
for understanding the sacred, influenced in particular by the `strong
programme' of cultural sociology, and has explored its analytical value
for interpreting contemporary society through different case studies.
Cases explored through his work have included the role of sacred meanings
of the nation and childhood in relation to public scandals over the abuse
of children within the Irish industrial school system and the
morally-charged controversies over the refusal by the BBC to broadcast a
Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza in 2009.
In his work, Lynch defines the sacred as that which people together take
to be timeless moral realities which present an unquestionable moral claim
over the conduct of social life. The sacred is thus understood as a
communicative structure that makes possible the collective experience of a
morally-boundaried society. Understanding sacred forms as comprising
symbols, thought, emotion, action and social groups, Lynch has explored
the ways in which these elements of sacred forms interact. His work has
also addressed the ways in which sacred meanings relate to institutional
structures, including different forms of institutional power, as well as
the ways in which they can serve to mobilize and legitimize public action.
Within this, attention has been paid to how visions of the evil-profane
evoke public reactions of abhorrence and disgust, and legitimize public
responses that seek moral restitution. He has also argued that public
media should be regarded as a key site for public engagement with sacred
meanings. He has presented a broad historical narrative of the changing
nature of sacred forms from classical societies to late modernity, in
which he argues that the dominant sacred forms of modernity are focused
around the nation and humanity. Lynch has argued for the need for a
reflexive approach to the sacred, which challenges the assumption that
acting out of deeply-felt moral certainties necessarily produces moral
action and invites a more complex understanding of moral sentiment. This
reflects a wider understanding of this cultural sociological approach as a
form of `cultural psychoanalysis', which seeks to establish the nature and
significance of sacred meanings in social life, in order to encourage
greater reflexivity about the ways in which these can have both positive
and harmful consequences.
References to the research
Lynch, G. (2011a) `What can we learn from the mediatisation of religion
debate?', Culture and Religion, 12(2), 203-10. [submitted in REF2]
Lynch, G. (2011b) `Public media and the sacred: a critical perspective',
in G. Lynch, J. Mitchell & A. Strhan (eds.), Religion, Media and
Culture: A Reader, London: Routledge, pp. 244-50.
Lynch, G. (2012a) The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural
Sociological Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [submitted
Lynch, G. (2012b) On the Sacred. London: Acumen.
AHRC Fellowship award (Lynch as PI), `The Sacred in the Modern World: A
Psychosocial Approach', (AH/H037012/1), Oct. 2010-June 2011, £66,656.
Details of the impact
- Ten articles were written by Gordon Lynch for print and on-line media
with national and international profiles:
hacking and sacrilege' was uploaded onto the Guardian
Comment is Free website on 8 July 2011, and reprinted in the Saturday
print edition of the Guardian on 9 July 2011 (250,000 copies
sold). The Guardian played a leading role in the coverage of the
phone-hacking scandal during that week, following the publication of its
story about the hacking of Millie Dowler's phone on 5 July, and this
comment piece was one of a select number of opinion pieces chosen for
publication by the Guardian during the height of public interest
in this story.
b) six blog
pieces on the relevance of Durkheim's concept of the sacred for
understanding contemporary society were published as part of the `How to
Believe' series for the Guardian Comment is Free website from 10
December 2012 to 14 January 2013. Comment is Free does not provide
details of individual page hits but has said that each post has, on
average, 10,000 readers. These articles received a total of 1076
comments on the Guardian website by 31 July 2013.
c) `Shamed media: News
Corp, the profane and the sacred' and `Remapping
space in the wake of violence' (on the murders committed by Anders
Behring Brievik) were published on 13 July 2011 and 29 July 2011
respectively, on The Revealer website, a public engagement
project run by the Center for Media and Religion at New York University.
values after the English riots' was published on the Open
Democracy website on 17 August 2011.
- Gordon Lynch was invited by the RSA to give a lecture, on 17 October
2011, with Prof. Jeffrey Alexander on `The Power of the Sacred' to an
audience of more than 200 RSA Fellows. An audio
podcast and edited
film of this event were subsequently uploaded onto the RSA website
and the RSA's Youtube channel. Lynch was also an invited speaker at the
Hay Literary Festival Fringe, on 4 June 2012, on a panel discussion of
journalism after the phone-hacking scandal chaired by Samira Ahmed
(BBC), which also included Yasmin Alibah-Brown (national columnist),
John Tomlinson (QC for victims of phone hacking) and John Kampfner
(former editor of the New Statesman), a film of which was
available online by the event organizers.
- Four on-line films, `What
is Sacred?', `The
Cult of the Child' (on the sacralization of the care of children),
to Save the Nation' (on the sacralization of nationalism and human
rights) and `Is
Nature Sacred?', were produced by Gordon Lynch in conjunction with
Truetube, an award-winning provider of free on-line educational
materials for religious education, PSHE and citizenship education at
Keystages 3 and 4. These films were uploaded to Truetube's website with
associated lesson plans in October 2011. A launch event for the films
was held at Lambeth Palace on 1 February 2012, and attendees included
the Chair of the RE Council, a representative of the National
Association of SACRE's, as well as members of local SACRE's, teachers
and journalists who write on on-line educational materials.
- On the basis of his lecture at the RSA, Lynch was appointed in 2012 as
one of the lead advisers for a research programme on the significance of
spirituality and the sacred in contemporary society currently being
undertaken within the Social Brain Centre at the RSA (see sources #1).
He advised the Centre on a successful application for funding for the
project from the Templeton Foundation and his work was cited in
an early article on this project written by the Centre's Director,
Dr Jonathan Rowson, in July 2013 for the RSA's quarterly journal. The
journal is available online as well as being circulated to its 27,000
Fellows who are based in 80 countries around the world.
Reach of impact:
The extent of public engagement with these impact activities is indicated
by the following:
- The print version of the `Phone hacking and sacrilege' article and
seven articles for the Guardian Comment is Free website alone
are likely to have had a minimum of 150,000- 200,000 readers.
- Truetube estimate that by 31 July 2013, around 57,000 Keystage 3 and 4
students in the UK had watched the films on the sacred (sources #2).
- By 31 July 2013 the film of the `Power of the Sacred' lecture had been
viewed 9,878 times on the RSA's Youtube channel with 107 `likes'.
- In addition to first viewings of this material, on-line articles and
films were re-circulated by users through other sites. Details of the
articles in the Comment is Free `How to Believe' series were, for
example, posted 271 times on to individual Facebook pages and 232 times
on individual Twitter accounts. In one instance, the third blog in this
series, on sacred ritual, was tweeted by Sonali Ranade in India to her
35,537 followers, with her describing it as a `searing insight' into
morally-charged public protest in the context of the mass protests in
response to the Dehli rape case in December 2012 (sources #3).
- These figures suggest that a minimum 250,000-300,000 people are likely
to have read or viewed one or more of these impact materials on the
cultural sociology of the sacred.
Significance of impact:
The overall aim of the impact activities was to encourage more widespread
use of a cultural sociological understanding of the sacred to interpret
contemporary social life. This change was evident in audience responses
that indicated that this framework was understood and perceived as
interesting, useful and worthy of serious discussion:
- The online films produced in conjunction with Truetube were named
`Humanities resource of the week' in the 17 February 2012 issue of the Times
Educational Supplement, with the editor writing that the `films
are fascinating and explore how the sacred can be both profound and
problematic' (see sources #4).
- In an evaluation of the Truetube films with Year 10 GCSE Religious
Studies students, respondents commented that they had learned from
watching and talking about the films that the `sacred is not all about
God and religion', `it allows you to critically think about "religion"
and "sacred" and compare what the two mean and whether sacred should
always be linked to religion', `it helps us to see what is important in
our lives', it made `us question what is important, sacred to us', and
that `the sacred can be used to describe a thought or feeling not just
an object' (see sources #5).
- Material produced through impact activities (i-iii) above was
circulated and re-used on other websites. Lynch (2012a) was cited as a
key text on a
resource page on the sacred on the website Philosophy Talk.Org, a
public out-reach programme of Stanford University. The RSA film, `The
Power of the Sacred', was also adapted as an
educational resource on the leading American educational website,
TED-ED.com. Two of the Guardian `How to Believe' articles on
Durkheim were reproduced
in full on the website for the Ash Center for Democratic
Governance and Innovation at Harvard University which circulates
resources for policy-makers and policy advisers.
- Lynch (2012a) was described as a `lucid reconsideration of the term
"sacred"' by Bernice Martin in the Times Literary Supplement
(see sources #6). The Truetube films were described as `intriguing and
explore how the sacred can be both profound and problematic [in ways
that are] accessible for a teenage audience' by the national religious
education magazine, SACRE News (vol. 12, p. 13; see sources #6)
and as `an excellent resource to kick-start debates in lessons and
perhaps unexpectedly bring together the subjects of RE, PSHE and
Citizenship by taking a modern approach to asking the question, "what is
sacred?"' by bee-it.co.uk,
a leading website for the use of technological resources in the
- Positive comments about impact materials and activites were also made
by other readers. On his blog (19 August 2011), the journalist Mark
that `Gordon Lynch has penned an excellent piece for Open
Democracy on the riots and the habits of virtue', and tweeted this
comment to his 497 followers on Twitter. Comments on `The Power of the
Sacred' film left on on Youtube also indicated that many viewers had
understood and welcomed this analytical framework. As one respondent
wrote, `the video shows how important the sacred is to our very secular
lives. [It] is the unconscious of society.'
- Stuart Porter, Director of Innovation and Development at Truetube, has
written that `the subject matter of the sacred films was extremely
interesting to us, and we felt that it would be a strong addition to the
RE section of our site. The films took a sideways look at religion and
religious behaviour that was a refreshing departure from the usual
knowledge-based films we have for Religious Education. The films
encourage higher-level thinking in pupils, in terms of understanding the
content, in reflecting upon it, and applying it. Pupils sometimes
question why they are studying a religion they don't believe in, but
seeing the world in terms of what is deemed "sacred" and what is thought
of as "profane" helps teachers to explain the importance of deeply held
beliefs whether they are religious or secular, and how they might affect
a person's or a society's behaviour' (see sources #7). Neil McKain, Head
of Religious Studies and Philosophy at John Hampden Grammar School in
High Wycombe, similarly commented that the films `ask profound questions
about whether or not religion is the same as sacred and whether or not
religions `own' sacred anymore. The tone of the film on children as
sacred clearly engaged my class and, though entertained by it, they came
up with some incredibly thoughtful responses afterwards' (see sources
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Letter from Jonathan Rowson, Director of the Social Brain Programme at
the RSA, corroborating Lynch's involvement with the RSA.
- Data on viewings of the sacred films provided by Truetube,
corroborating that an estimated 57,000 secondary school students have
viewed these films.
- Screenshot of tweet by Sonali Ranade, corroborating the content of her
tweet and the number of her followers.
- Screenshot of page on Times Educational Supplement website,
corroborating the naming of the Truetube films as humanities resource of
the week and the content of the editorial commendation.
- Copies of anonymized evaluation sheets completed by students,
corroborating statements made by students about the Truetube films.
- Copy of the Times Literary Supplement review of The Sacred
in the Modern World and in SACRE News, corroborating
quotations from these reviews.
- Testimonial from Stuart Porter, Director of Innovation and Development
at Truetube, corroborating his statement about the value of the Truetube
films for classroom use.
- Letter from Neil McKain, corroborating the testimonial quotation
attributed to him.
Copies of corroborating evidence are held on file at the University of
Kent for audit if required.