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Sacralisation and Desacralisation

Sacralisation and Desacralisation

In today’s »post-secular« configurations, the vigour of religious phenomena, or of phenomena that develop structures and manifestations similar to religion, is vividly present. Its productivity gives historical analyses of »sacralisation« and »desacralisation« particular significance. Investigating such processes makes it possible to analyse the transformation of fundamental moral concepts and their social function. By »sacralisation« is meant symbolic processes through which things, people, and ideas are communicated as intangible and inalterable entities and consequently demand recognition in terms of subjective evidence and affective intensity. Accordingly, »desacralisation« refers to processes through which sacralised entities change or lose their status. By understanding these terms as symbolic, ritual, and discursive action, this heuristic makes it possible to overcome an essentialising distinction between an otherworldly, religiously connoted »holy« and a mundane, secular »profane«, instead grasping this distinction itself as an act of »sacralisation« or »desacralisation«.

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From the perspective of the history of religion, »sacralisation« is manifested above all in ritualisation, the creation of a canon of authoritative texts, the veneration of images and objects, and, in more far-reaching terms, the formulation of dogmas and the establishment of religious moral rules of behaviour. Such instances of »sacralisation« can guide the process of community-building in all periods and all religions, to the extent that this process is defined via notions of sacrality and practices of sacralisation. As for »desacralisation«, a first focus of analysis will be on transformations in the orbit of religion, for example in connection with the European »Enlightenment«. That is when, in the name of a rationalist approach, not only did the development of the modern critique of religion begin, but doctrine was subordinated to morals – indeed to the point of sacralisation. After that, the desacralising impacts of developments outside the sphere of religion will be studied. The development of modern natural science leads to the »desacralisation« of the world, whereupon the sciences themselves, which are now ascribed the highest possible authority, are endowed with a sacral aura. Topics pertaining to the history of religion include: first, the historical criticism of »Holy Writ«; second, the changing relationship between religion and natural science since the Enlightenment; third, the development of new religions and religious movements (e.g., Pentecostal churches, free church congregations, anthroposophy) in Europe; and fourth – complementing the historical studies – the religious interpretation of politico-military conflicts in their respective contexts and justificatory structures.

From the perspective of historical studies, the two terms shed new light on the functioning of a »secularly« and »post-secularly« coded society, going beyond the distinction between transcendence and immanence, and comprehend the transfer or transformation of epistemologies. Instances of »sacralisation« are especially linked with the metaphorical transfer of transcendence to non-religious spheres of reference. Thus, changing forms of »sacralisation« can be grasped through a study of the early modern concept of a political divine right and its fractured persistence down to legitimisations of democratic rule. »Desacralisation« includes, for example, the multifarious representational and discursive iconoclasms from early modern to modern times. Assuming that such processes of epistemic transfer between political, social and religious spheres are basically open and variable in their direction, the question of the transfer, interaction, and compatibility of differing systems of sacrality arises. Specific topics are: first, »Holy War« in comparative perspective from the early modern period to the »War on Terror«; second, human rights as a universal imperative (and their »racist« perversion); third, the sacralisation of the human body and its gender identities; and fourth – stemming from the early modern valorisation of secular life – the meaning given to labour in industrial society and the attendant reinterpretation of work as an emancipatory practice of self-realisation.

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