Sanctity doesn’t work anymore.
By sanctity, and the sacred, I mean the belief that some acts are right or wrong aside from their consequences, and that some people (living or dead), objects and places have a value derived from their place in a supernatural or ideological belief system. I mean both religious sanctity and nationalistic or cultural sanctity, where history and cultural identity substitute for holy writ.
Sanctity and taboo worked as a substitute for science in the pre-scientific history of humanity. Culturally evolved food restrictions, behavioral rules, and far reaching taboos against the marriage of close relatives did the job before we knew about bacteria, psychology or genetics. But now we do know about bacteria, psychology and genetics.
The concept of the sacred poses a number of problems for us. First, it is non-negotiable. The value of an action based on scientific understanding can be weighed against other actions and their consequences. If it’s sacred, well, that’s it. End of discussion. Of course, one group’s definition of sacred inevitably conflicts with another group, and mayhem results. There’s a sliver of sacred land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that has been giving humanity trouble for the past 1300 years on just this basis.
Second, being non-consequentialist and non-scientific, the pursuit of sanctity leads people off in directions that are at best pointless and at worst destructive. Billions of people waste valuable energy and resources, risk disease, and cripple their societies while trying to follow rules that haven’t made practical sense for generations. That is, if they ever did.
Third, sanctity being absolute, it is an excuse for whatever barbarity the human mind can invent. If God said so and eternal damnation or paradise is on the line, then what’s a massacre here or there? The recent shootings in Paris and the Boko Haram killings in Nigeria inspired this essay, but these are actually small events compared to the holy wars of history. As an example, the 30 Years War (~1618-1648) killed off a quarter of the population of Germany, with some unfortunate areas losing two-thirds of their populations. Although there were a number of economic and cultural factors in that war, the dividing lines were based on religious authority.
Religious leaders have used the term “moral relativism” as an insult. I would counter that moral absolutism has killed hundreds of millions of people. I also notice that the most conservative and absolute religionists seem least concerned with human death and suffering and most concerned with relativism in the field of consensual sexual behavior.
Is nothing sacred? No, nothing is sacred. However, there are many things with value, for real, pragmatic reasons.
People have value. I mean living people, the ones right in front of you and far away from you. People, with all our needs and desires, full of imagination, rejoicing in companionship, sensing our environment, held together by a delicate layer of skin. We need to value each other for the very practical reason that we need to live together. To consider a person sacred is to base human value on a shadow.
Our planet has value. Again, this has nothing to do with a gift from a god or the responsibilities of a supernatural belief system. We need this place to be functional in order to survive. Theologians cannot debate us into or out of this understanding.
Books, artifacts, and places have value only in their utility. Utility sounds like a gray, joyless word, but the happiness we feel in the presence of beauty is as necessary to our species as air and water.
Campaigning against the sacred is a hard battle. The cultures and religions that promote the idea of the sacred evolved into resilient institutions. Sanctity is emotionally rewarding to the believer and interwoven with a coherent (if not logical) set of beliefs that is difficult to pick apart. Like any house of cards, removing one piece brings down the whole structure. Believers react violently to that.
Difficult though it is, people of good will must engage in this conflict. The Koran, the American flag, Jerusalem, the Field of the Blackbirds; these are just things and places. Jesus and Mohammed are dead and beyond our profane reach, whatever your belief about their divinity or place in an afterlife. The Pope, the Dalai Lama, and all such priests, monks, ministers, shamans and other religious types are just people. They have as much value as the rest of us but no more.
We can’t attack the sacred directly. That would engender resistance rather than wisdom. We can, however, encourage critical thinking, including the teaching of critical thinking skills in our schools. Conservative religionists have attacked just such courses in public schools, which makes me think that they are working. We can also encourage those who advocate for the sacred (secular or religious) to follow the path of their own ideas to their conclusion. Most people don’t go past an initial emotional reaction. When people actually try to reason their way through such a belief it dissolves into nonsense in front of them. This doesn’t always make a difference. The ability of humans to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time is universal. Nevertheless, we should try. Sanctity just isn’t working out for us.