The sacred and the secular

It is important to remember also that Laughlin explores the role of secular values in society. He did this long before secularism became a hot topic in modern political and social theory. He uses Habermas’s method to explore contexts and how language emerges. It is interesting also to observe that Laughlin explored these questions long before recent exchanges between Habermas (2011) and Taylor (2011). Recent work by Habermas and Taylor has involved uncovering the contours of our present cultural and social predicaments by examining the role of processes of secularisation.

Indeed, it is fascinating to find in Laughlin’s early work his examination of accounting systems in the Church of England. This research examined how accounting systems emphasised certain processes and not others. Laughlin (1987) reflected:

Laughlin (1984, 1986) traces the reasons for the rudimentary nature of accounting systems in the Church of England to central cultural factors concerned with the significance of the sacred and the downgrading of all that is deemed to be secular (e.g. money, accounting etc.).

(Laughlin, 1987, p. 492)

The issue boils down to whether accounting merely reflects a secular ideal or moves in the logical space of reasons. Recent philosophical work detailing the contours of the relationship between sacred and secular asked us how we are to account, explore and understand these values that shape our being-in-the-world. The research issue involves whether Habermas’s approach encompasses such method, and the extent to which Laughlin has taken it in broader interpretivist directions.

The research considers the extent to which Habermasian inspired middlerange connects with Habermas’s recent work on the secular (2011). It might be argued that Laughlin’s work on the sacred takes him in a direction different from Habermas’s abstract and procedural work on democratic structures. This leads to arguments concerning how Laughlin has taken a more interpretivist direction to disclose how accounting systems relate to religious and other organisational settings. Moreover, in his work on the Church of England, he uncovered additional accountability issues concerning the alleged divide between rhe spheres of the sacred and secular. He did not, however, posit any simplistic correlation. (Laughlin, 1990).

Laughlin attempts to avoid simplistic correlations by taking language in a more interpretivist direction. This is the challenge he presents for organisational theorists concerned with tracing the impacts of organisational procedure on culture, difference and identity. Jacobs and Walker (2004) explain that Laughlin’s (1988, 1990) study of the accounting systems of the Church of England has proved a significant contribution to this accountability literature. They point out that he explains how accounting does indeed play an important role in the life of the church: but also note that accounting and budgeting are not irrelevant to the ‘ongoing life of the parish but are ‘an unhealthy intrusion’ (p. 23) to spiritual values. For example, Jacobs and Walker then review Laughlin’s reflections on Durkheim (1976) and Eliade (1959) to explore how accounting practices were associated with the profane or secular as opposed to the sacred. Jacobs and Walker (2004) observe:

In the Church of England considerable effort was taken to keep the secular aspects of accounting separate from, and subservient to, the sacred centres and activities of the Church. Booth (1993) explored similar themes in his study of the Australian Uniting Church. Booth’s (1993) work reinforced the distinction between the sacred activity of the Church and the secular functions of accounting and administration. The work of Laughlin (1988, 1990) and Booth (1993) and the resulting concept of the sacred-secular divide has set the context for much of the subsequent research into the role of accounting in religious organisations.

(Jacobs & Walker, 2004, p. 362)

Critics claim that Laughlin has constructed a sacred-secular divide (Hardy & Ballis, 2003; Irvine, 2002; Jacobs, 2003). This research has tended to preclude the possibility that accounting can play a role in the spiritual practices, spirituality and theology of religious organisations. These authors have suggested that there are problems with a strict structuralist sacred/secular divide and that accounting can play important roles in areas, organisations and practices which have been seen as sacred. For example, Booth perpetuates this view when he argues that Laughlin (1987, 1990) created a

Critical and radical accounting 183 bifurcation between the sacred and secular. Booth then argues that all accounting is secular and ignores important identity-forming factors. Laughlin’s analysis, however, is not merely about accounting as a secular process because language is used to discover the impacts of accounting systems in organisations.

Again, these insights involve exploring whether accounting perpetuates processes of secularisation. What are the effects on society and how can accounting contribute? Arguably, the distinctions between the sacred and secular exhibit important similarities with those between Kantians and Heideggerians. The first point to remember is that both sets of theorists explain the role of belief in understanding the sacred. For Heideggerians, it is the Habermasian/Kantian approach, which is too abstract, ahistorical and asocial. Arguably, their arguments detach the background that shapes our being and it is these social forces that perpetuate processes of disenchantment and secularisation. While Kantian/ Habermasian theorists are concerned that Heideggerian and Taylorian approaches justify cultural belonging at the expense of individual rights (Habermas, 1987a; 1987b).

Briefly, the key issue for accounting researchers is whether Habermasians and Kantians lose sight of the particular phenomenon under consideration. This is the arena where culture itself becomes of critical concern in a world of half-understood cultural disharmony. This philosophical problem haunts universal approaches such as Habermas’s model. This is how accounting impacts on communities and people’s lives. Yet, the question remains whether the Habermasian approach provides enough space in its vision of the public sphere not to impose value systems on others. A further issue arises concerning recent philosophical debates highlight further problems for the sacred (Habermas, 2011; Taylor, 2011). Taylor asks of Habermas: how does he discriminates and determines the validity of discourse on the basis of such deep psychological background? Can people’s background horizons of value be made explicit in the manner Habermas seems to suggest? For the middle-range researcher, it is problematic whether such an approach reveals the deeper motivations that have created the separation between the sacred and secular.

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