What is the place of the sacred in this modern society?

Easter is a holiday. Or Easter is a sacred time. Take your pick. Most picked holiday these past few days. So is anything sacred?

“Sacred” usually connotes religion. And for some people religion connotes anti-science and/or violence and intolerance. Hence recent scathing books by biologist Richard Dawkins and social and political commentator Christopher Hitchens.

They see, in the apparent resurrection of religion in the past decade or two — and notably of evangelical or fundamentalist christian and muslim religion — a retreat from science and rationality into superstition and myth from which science has rescued us by enabling us progressively to understand more of our environment and ourselves.

Dawkins and Hitchens have evidence for their worry. What some hold sacred, others hold profane. Religions are the cause of strife in Nigeria, between fanatical muslims (or, at least, fanatics who are muslims) and “western values”, between Shia and Sunni in Iraq and between hindus and muslims in India.

Belief can, and too often does, beget bombs. Think back to Catholic Guy Fawkes’ attempt on the protestant Parliament in London. (Which we commemorate with a great deal more fervour than Easter.)

And even many liberal muslims say there are some areas where science may not go. So do those greens whose reverence for the planet has a quasi-religious quality. That denies the essence of the scientific method, which holds that inquiry may know no boundaries.

The American-originated “intelligent design” defence of the judaeo-christian creation myth has taken a different tack: it perverts the scientific method by invoking pseudo-science.

But are Dawkins and Hitchens right? Are we in danger of undoing the Enlightenment? Are our religions becoming more “fundamentalist”, less liberal?

Not so, says Alan Wolfe in this month’s Atlantic Monthly. “Religiosity”, as he puts it, is flourishing in the Middle East, the populations of which are mostly poor and recently urbanised, and in Africa, which is poor. But most everywhere else, including the United States, he argues, religiosity is qualified by “secularism” and by competition to win and hold adherents.

Secularism assigns to religion what belongs to it and the rest to other rules. In modern and modernising societies, Wolfe says, “religion’s priority of belief and secularism’s commitment to individual rights are not in opposition; they complement each other.”

So United States “megachurches” “owe more to Janis Joplin than Johann Sebastian Bach” in their music and “church officials learn more from business-school case studies than from theological texts… Having opted to grow on secular terms, American evangelicalism is becoming less hostile to liberal ideas such as tolerance and pluralism.”

Is globalisation prompting a reactionary religious backlash, especially in developing economies? Wolfe insists that “most of [today’s] religious revivals … complement and ultimately reinforce secular developments” and so “are more likely to encourage moderation than fanaticism”. In urbanising societies people are likely to look less to religion as instruction in traditional ways of living than as a means of coming to terms with new ways of living.

Wolfe doesn’t suggest fanaticism will die out. “Globalisation is just as capable of disseminating extreme ideas as it is of advancing moderation. But fanaticism should not be confused with religious intensity. One can pray passionately to God and lead an otherwise balanced life.”

And that, others argue, gives hope of reducing religious conflict, which seems to threaten to spill over into and corrode politics. “Interfaith dialogue”, a project vigorously promoted by our — non-religious — Prime Minister, aims to develop a secularist understanding between religions, an understanding based on individual freedom and tolerance.

Moreover, her party of social-liberals, which in recent years has often seemed to regard religion as reactionary and/or bigoted, discussed God and christianity at a standing-room-only workshop at its conference last year, reviving the notion, common 60 years ago, that Labour’s social programme is “applied christianity”.

What’s going on?

Put simply, the more science explains, the more there is to explain. There is less confidence now that science will eventually banish all mystery.

And science doesn’t explain the “sacred”. The sacred is a dimension many, maybe most, people sense somewhere deep in themselves, inexplicable except in myth and inner feeling but a source of meaning.

Sacred things, places and events are underpinnings of culture. Maori reassertion of sacred animist beliefs and practices was integral to reclaiming and rebuilding the culture which has been at the heart of their rise. The sacred, if shared, can unite and give strength.

Easter no longer is sacred. It no longer unites and gives strength. A holiday sure doesn’t either. So what is commonly sacred now? Or are we just common holidaymakers?