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49. Understanding ‘the sacred’ and the secular in society

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What is the relationship between the sacred and the secular in modern society?

It’s the time of year in Britain to traditionally start talking about how Christmas has become taken over by capitalism and lost its spirituality, but it’s worth thinking about what we mean by spirituality. In Sociology, debates about ‘the sacred’ are often framed in terms of a binary opposition between the secular and the religious, and their institutional forms of the state and organised religion. When we think about ‘the sacred’ in cultural or artistic terms, the binary invoked is more likely to be sacred/profane than religious/secular (or sacred/secular). However, it’s only really possible to imagine what the secular by invoking ideas of the religious or sacred. The definition of one depends on the other.

Indeed the Enlightenment (the European era of the rise of reliance on the ‘rational’) did not remove the religious from the secular, but reframed it as part of a renegotiation of Christianity. European colonial expansion created an idea of a hierarchy of religions, in which Christianity became the pinnacle of perfection against which other forms of belief could be measured.

Virinder Kalra’s book Sacred and Secular Musics: A Postcolonial Approach traces this argument through an examination of constructions of sacred and secular music and how the valuation of music follows these colonial hierarchies of worth. Colonial modernity produced transformations in patronage and musical livelihoods as well as attempts at reforming the practice of music with the introduction of notation and tempered scales. In the developing hierarchy of religions, a transformation of the musical aspects of religious ritual took place with, an emphasis on the written text and the separation of the sacred and the secular. Kalra argues that postwar humanities scholarship took religious difference as a granted, and comparative religions became the edifice upon which the discourse of ‘world religions’ was placed.

However, once we recognise religion as constructed and embedded in modes of classification and power, it becomes possible to discover a relationship with music that reflects the bonded nature of the sacred and the secular.


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