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The Power of the Sacred by Hans Joas (trans. Alex Skinner)

29 April 2022

Bernice Martin reads a new academic critique

THE book The Power of the Sacred by Hans Joas, the distinguished German sociologist of religion, is a powerful addition to the critique of secularisation theory. Joas argues that Max Weber’s narrative of “disenchantment” in modern life is mistaken. Joas is a Roman Catholic, but his commitment is not paraded here, although it implicitly underlies the “Normative Conclusions” of the coda.

Joas accepts that parts of the West are, indeed, “secularised”, but sees the sacred as an inescapable aspect of human society, particularly in relation to power and social solidarity. He justifies this view in a meticulous textual examination of detached scholarship on religion as it emerged over the past two centuries.

He begins by discarding “two pseudo-certainties”: that secularisation must mean the loss of all morality; and that the rejection of religion is an “avant-garde step” into the inevitable secular future. Scholarship must explain secularising change not as stages of evolutionary progress, but as a project in which individuals and organisations are actors. Much of the book unpacks the term that David Martin coined in his criticism of the hidden teleology in much secularisation theory; misleading “nouns of process”, namely, secularisation, rationalisation, and modernisation.

In his substantive analysis, Joas draws on his own extensive research, beginning with a chapter on David Hume, who set the pattern for much subsequent history of religion as critique of religion. He then brings in William James as theorist of “individual self-transcendence”, and then Émile Durkheim on “collective self-transcendence”. This is then related to Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch and Weber’s “disenchantment” thesis. Here, Joas uses insights from Troeltsch to show the variety of meanings of “disenchantment”, particularly the contradictions between them.

The nub of the argument is, first, that all human groups generate experiences of the sacred which yield forms of “self-transcendence”, whether as individuals — as in erotic love or ecstatic unity with a god or a divine power — or through collective intensity that delivers a heightened sense of belonging — whether through religious ritual or the hunters in hunter-gatherer societies, or “bands of brothers” (or sisters) in modern warfare, revolutionary assemblies, and nationalist movements, and even in football stadiums and music festivals. Such experiences are anchored in a “semiotics of the self” which recognises the centrality of language for how we understand the self and experiences of the sacred.

Second, these experiences give rise to “idea/ideal formations” in all societies. Joas examines “the Axial Age”, the period when all the main “world religions” were founded, introducing significant moral and ethical change that affirmed universal ideals encompassing all humanity rather than a particular group.

Joas believes that secularised societies still produce “ideal formations” and the experience of the sacred. Moreover, secular ideals are just as susceptible as religions to pressure to justify actual distributions of power and authority in terms of the ideal. Joas hopes that recognising these common features might encourage secularists and religious people to talk rather than treat one another as enemies.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, the University of London.


The Power of the Sacred: An alternative to the narrative of disenchantment
Hans Joas
Alex Skinner, translator
Oxford University Press £25.99
Church Times Bookshop £23.39

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