One of the major projects for sociologists of religion in the West in recent decades has been the attempt to study forms of meaning and value beyond traditional forms of institutional religion (see, e.g., Luckmann 1967). As increasing numbers of people in many Western societies no longer identify with or participate in traditional religious beliefs and activities, so sources of meaning and value beyond traditional forms of religion have begun to attract greater scholarly attention. This chapter forms part of an on-going attempt to contribute to this broader
project of thinking about sources of meaning and value in contemporary culture through a renewed focus on the concept of the sacred. The concept of the “sacred” has gone through diﬃcult times recently in the study of religion, with many scholars cautious about using it because of its association with a tradition of religious studies inﬂuenced by the work of Mircea Eliade. Eliade (1959) understood the sacred as an ontological reality which ﬁnds expression through diﬀerent kinds of religious structure across human cultures (e.g. myth, ritual, sacred time and space). This notion has, however, been criticized particularly by scholars inﬂuenced by post-structuralism, who are skeptical about any claims to be able to identify ahistorical, universal essences in social life (e.g. McCutcheon 2003). Eliade’s understanding of the sacred looks to many contemporary scholars more like an attempt to interpret diﬀerent cultures through a particular theological lens than a genuinely useful tool for social and cultural analysis. The approach to the sacred taken in this chapter represents a diﬀerent intel-
lectual tradition to the ontological theories of the sacred oﬀered by scholars such as Eliade. Rather than seeing the sacred as an ontological reality in the structure of the cosmos or the essence of human being, the approach taken here adopts a cultural sociological perspective. Here, the sacred is seen as a particular kind of cultural structure whose precise form and content vary signiﬁcantly across diﬀerent historical contents. This cultural sociological approach emerged initially from Emile Durkheim’s (1912) theory of the sacred in his seminal book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, but has been subsequently developed by sociologists such as Edward Shils (1975), Robert Bellah (1967) and, most recently and most extensively, Jeﬀrey Alexander (1988a, 1988b, 2003).