Russell Sandberg on Religion, Law and Society

Cambridge University Press has just published Religion, Law and Society by our friend and colleague Russell Sandberg, Senior Lecturer in Law at Cardiff University where he researches at the Centre for Law and Religion, increasingly in the area where law, religion and sociology intersect. In what follows he reflects on an unexpected problem for authors: what on earth do you put on the cover of a book about law and religion? (We had a similar problem finding a gravatar for the blog: in the end, we stuck to L&RUK.)


The Time of Angels

It is strange how sayings often cancel each other out. It is often exclaimed that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Yet we are also warned ‘not to judge a book by its cover’. Where does that leave the illustrations found on book covers? Presumably, they are the equivalent to a thousand words worth of text which has nothing actually to do with the book.

JacketI’ve been giving these matters some thought over recent months while choosing the cover illustration for my new monograph Religion, Law and Society. Choosing pictures for law and religion books is difficult since you don’t want to give would-be readers the false impression that the book focuses on a particular topic or a specific faith. For my last book, Law and Religion (CUP 2011) I eventually decided on a collection of candles. Not only was this a religious symbol common to many traditions but it also signified the way in which I intended to shed light upon a subject where there had been a great deal of heat.

The cover of Religion, Law and Society shows a decaying stone angel against an overcast cloudy backdrop. Again it’s a religious symbol not necessarily associated with a specific faith. It is meant to represent one of the main themes of the book: the current relationship between religion, law and society in Great Britain today. Do the angels in Britain’s graveyards show that we are a Christian country or does their perishing state mean that they are they merely historical relics? This theme has proved topical in recent weeks with the Prime Minister’s assertion that Britain is still a Christian country. The book examines whether Britain remains a Christian country legally and sociologically.

The decaying stone angel therefore represents the legal and sociological imprints of Christianity that still exist – such as the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, the establishment of the Church of England and census statistics where the majority claim to be Christian. These imprints are still with us but show signs of decay. Which of those two facts are the most important? Is it more significant that they are still there or that they are crumbling?  And to what extent are they now seen as ‘religious’? The way in which stone angels have been re-imagined as characters in popular culture as the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who underscores the extent to which religious images and ideas are interwoven with our culture as a whole.

The overcast cloudy backdrop of the image represents the current uncertainty and confusion surrounding the relationship between religion, law and society. The twenty-first century has seen many assumptions about the role of religion questioned, not least by the events of 11 September. While previously it was widely thought that religion was becoming irrelevant, a number of moral panics across the Western world about religious symbols, free speech and religious courts have led many commentators to abandon what sociologists refer to as the secularisation thesis. Indeed, there is now a considerable debate about whether talk of the death of religion was overstated and whether it is now time to talk of the death of secularisation. Given these references to deaths, the stone angel seems to be a suitable cover star.

The image, of course, does not give you the full story. The decaying stone angel only gives you a hint of what you can expect from Religion, Law and Society. While it is true that the book casts a new light upon secularisation theories and explores the sociological place of religion in Britain today, it also continues the story I began in Law and Religion. It examines the effect of the significant increase in laws affecting religion (what I call the ‘juridification of religion’) including the debate as to whether religious believers are disadvantaged under new human rights and discrimination laws. And it features case studies on controversial developments including the definition of religion and belief, the employment status of ministers of religion and the European Court of Human Rights’ decision in Eweida and Others v United Kingdom (2013) 57 EHRR 8. So there’s plenty to interest lawyers as well as sociologists.

The key purpose of the book is to bring together legal and sociological materials in order to see what lawyers and sociologists can learn from one another about religion. The book examines the development of law and religion and the sociology of religion as academic sub-disciplines, the distinct contributions that law and sociology provide and the benefits and risks of interdisciplinary approaches. It seeks to set an agenda for future interdisciplinary work. But, appropriately enough given its haunting cover star, it all begins with a death.


Religion, Law and Society can be purchased at a 20% discount using the code Sandberg2014 if ordered from CUP before 31 July 2014.

2 thoughts on “Russell Sandberg on Religion, Law and Society

  1. That depends of whether you are offering your own opinion based on experience or whether you are considering the question from a socio-legal perspective. Russell is doing the latter.

    Whether or not the UK should be in any respect a “Christian” country at the beginning of the 21st century is a matter for discussion and argument; but the fact that the Constitution and (to a decreasing extent) the law in all three jurisdictions still have a fairly strong Christian element is pretty well undeniable.

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