The Sacred in Exile

What It Really Means to Lose Our Religion

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Gillian McCann, Gitte Bechsgaard
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , September
     2017.
     150 pages.
     $59.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783319664989.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Gillian McCann and Gitte Bechsgaard are sounding the alarm. Society, they claim, has lost its moral center. It is too fragmented and individualistic, left without a greater sense of meaning or purpose. The split-second time scale of social media, paired with capitalism’s short-term imperative to produce ever more profit, leaves us without time or incentive for deeper thinking and contemplative problem solving. Add increased rates of anxiety and depression, an impending environmental crisis, and ever-present inequality to the mix of what plagues society, and the outlook is pretty grim. The solution, they argue, lies in the resources of the world’s religious traditions. 

McCann, an associate professor of religious studies at Nipissing University, and Bechsgaard, a psychotherapist and founding director of the Vidya Institute in Toronto, Canada, lament a world that has put religion in exile. Their goal is to recuperate the wisdom of religion for the good of society. Writing for a general readership of North Americans, McCann and Bechsgaard hope to initiate a broader cultural conversation about the moral and ethical implications of secularism. Over the course of eight chapters they describe the problems afflicting modern society and make a case for why religious traditions are suitable resources for confronting these problems. 

While numerous scholars have debated, complicated, and rejected the secularization thesis over the past several decades, McCann and Bechsgaard take its facticity as their starting point. The authors gesture toward the literature on secularism, but a substantive engagement with scholars of secularization is not their primary goal. Instead, they seek to promote religious literacy and initiate conversations about religion as a public resource among non-academic readers. While reading The Sacred in Exile, I imagined its accessible prose finding a home among high school students and book clubs interested in an introduction to the comparative study of religion. Their argument that religion has been largely absent from public life since World War II and their claim that religions are the distillation of the world’s wisdom are provocative. Do students agree that religion is truly absent? Is the book club divided over whether or not religious revitalization is the solution to the world’s most pressing problems?

The Sacred in Exile is a suitable primer to the topic of religion. However, its heavy reliance on secondary sources and light engagement with scholarly literature does not make it appropriate for graduate or advanced students of religion. As an introductory text it does a fair job of showing readers how religion impacts aspects of everyday life. McCann and Bechsgaard accomplish this in the middle chapters, which collectively mount an argument for why all people need religion. In chapters 2 to 4 they emphasize the social and psychological well being derived from adhering to religious order. They argue that the transcendent and the sacred elements of life are not only real but are also fundamental for human flourishing. People can make smoother psychological transitions through the stages of life with ritual action, for example. And structuring elements such as sacred time and rites of passage provide direction, instruction, limitation, and an orientation toward a purpose alongside a sense of security and trust. 

Chapters 5 and 6 highlight the healing power of religion. McCann and Bechsgaard admire the holistic approach to health found amid various religious traditions. They praise religion for regarding bodies with reverence and for recognizing the health of bodies as embedded within larger systems of meaning. “To be in accord with the larger spiritual order, then, is to be healthy,” they write (77). Religion is also crucial for McCann and Bechsgaard in its capacity to alleviate isolation and loneliness. Religion situates people within broader relational contexts, they suggest in chapter 6, thereby drawing other people, creatures, and nature into one’s sphere of concern. In the penultimate chapter the authors identify a restorative quality in an enchanted way of life. In chapter 7 they suggest reclaiming dreams, mystical experiences, and shared mythic narratives. To recover “the vast spectrum of human consciousness … requires an engagement with an expanded idea of human potential,” they write. “The annals of the world’s religious traditions teach us that the expanded modes of thought are both psychologically and physically healing. They are also repositories of deeper wisdom and insight” (125). 

Throughout the text McCann and Bechsgaard write about religion in broad strokes, with the frequent use of phrases like “the Buddhist tradition,” “South Asian traditions,” or “from a religious perspective.” A sense of universalism pervades the text, with the consistent use of expressions like “all religions.” The authors use specific examples, like stories from the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, in a comparative religions mode. Yet the specificity never contradicts the overall argument that religions are essentially alike in their value and wisdom. For McCann and Bechsgaard religion exists as a “form of public knowledge” or as a toolkit for dealing with the challenges of contemporary life. This approach portrays religious difference as mere variance in knowledge or in tool type, not as a potential site of conflict. 

The authors appear to be advocating for the adherence to religion in general, rather than a specific religious tradition. Yet their embrace of all religions overlooks the possibility of religious conflict. If religion—any religion—can be a source of psychological and social healing, then what happens when religious methods, aims, and principles collide? How are they to coexist, if that is even the aim? If citizens are to more fully integrate religion into the public sphere, as the authors suggest, then which religions gain recognition as valid sources of knowledge, and which remain suppressed? McCann and Bechsgaard do not remark upon the topics of pluralism or the racialized politics of religious recognition. However, one can imagine their readers being led to these subjects by the conversations introduced in the book. Nonetheless, if in the end people are publically talking, listening, and debating about religion, then McCann and Bechsgaard have accomplished their stated goal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cody Musselman is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gillian McCann is an associate professor in the Religions and Cultures department at Nipissing University, North Bay, Canada.

Gitte Bechsgaard is a registered psychotherapist and the founding director of Vidya Institute, Toronto, Canada.

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