Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

12 November 2011

Today we're asking the question: Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

Holding something sacred is often associated with religion and God.  Some things are held to be sacred because of their relation to God’s wishes and commands.  I think our question is in part about contemporary mores.  It's also about what sort of convincing rationale there might be for something being sacred, in our more or less secular age. 

For example, we might agree that human life is sacred.  For some people this is explained by God’s wishes, but others might think there's just something about human life itself.  A commandment of God might be one explanation, but not the only one.

And being sacred is connected with taboos.  If something is sacred, there are certain things you simply don’t do to it or with it -- such things are taboo.  Something taboo is not simply wrong on-balance, it's just out of the question.  Not to be considered.  Off-limits.

For example, everyone agrees, more or less, in the abstract about freedom of expression.  But burning a Koran -- even the most civil libertarian of Muslims might think that's just beyond the pale.  Or consider the artwork involving a crucifix in urine.  Whatever idea is being expressed, we're inclined to say, find some other way of expressing it.

Given that, I’d say a lot of things are still sacred, some of which aren’t tied to any particular religion.

I think Necrophilia is taboo pretty much everywhere; there is something sacred about human life and death.  Pedophilia is taboo; so there's also something sacred about children. We don’t think of these things as unwise life-choices, but as simply out of bounds.   Other things ought to be sacred, and there should be taboos about them.  The earth should be held sacred, and despoiling it a serious taboo.

But why?  If we can’t give a religious explanation for sacredness and taboos, what explanation can we give?  Pedophilia is very wrong because of the way it ruins lives. 
But what justifies our horror at necrophilia?  Presumably it doesn't directly cause any pain.  The main ill-effect seem to be disgust, horror, and self-loathing at the act – but aren’t these effects because it is taboo, not explanations for it being taboo?

You know, we're really re-examining one of Plato’s famous problems, in the Euthephro.  Are certain acts impious because the gods say they are, or do the gods say those acts are impious because they are so to begin with?  If it's the latter, then we have some concept of the sacred and the impious independently of the gods, and we can make secular sense of impiety, and some things can be sacred anymore.

To help examine this old question we'll be joined by Cora Diamond, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Law at the University of Virginia.

Comments (46)


Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 13, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Equality is sacred to me.

Equality is sacred to me.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 13, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

It does not matter whether

It does not matter whether anything is sacred now. Because sacred, as an aspect of human consciousness, has taken on an aura of fantasy. It means little in an affluent society, focused on acquisition. At the risk of being post-modern: money is what it is all about, baby.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, November 13, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

TABOO PORK

TABOO PORK
On a sailboat in Turkey, I was discussing barbeque with the Muslim captain, who loved to bbq. I said I was a bbq pro myself, and when he asked me what I liked to bbq best, I gulped. ?Captain, I?m sorry to tell you, but my favorite is pork.? He visibly flinched, then, apologetically said ?I am not a ?strict Muslim,? but I just don?t like the flavor of pork, or the smell of cooking pork.? I know the kind of gamey-verging-on-the-putrid smell some pork can have; and I sympathized. However, whenever the subject of bacon or pork bbq comes up with Muslims I know, they all say, word for word, just what the captain said. Somehow the taboo is working on those not obligated to follow it: more evidence of the interesting ways cultural taboo works, alluded to by Ken in the show.
I hope everyone interested in religion has read ?The Bible Unearthed.? In all 50 of the small distinct settlements making up what historians think of as the very first ?Jewish? people ? in which the archeologists have found no evidence of hierarchy, of ceremony, of ritual, of teaching, of spiritual practice, of administrative order ? the only thing that could be said to be consistent in all the settlements was the absence of pig!
Why the Old Testament (and subsequent Muslim) prohibition against pig? Trichinosis didn?t exist at that time, so that isn?t the often alluded to reason. My possible explanations: Eating fat was a no-no, and it is impossible to separate the fat from all the meat in pork, the fat lusciously permeates.
A better explanation: God of the OT has one obsession, and that is that there be no other gods or idols or over-indulgences on the part of the Jews. God doesn?t want Jews to worship anything but Him. Not idols, money, work, animal wealth, farming wealth. Self-denial of pleasures (and sacrifice of wealth for appeasement or transgressions) shows the worshipper?s willingness to obey God?s even un-understandable prohibitions, and to submit to him. Pork is soooo delicious (bacon is having a real boom among the young today).
Another question on taboos, for all you philosophers: Why shouldn?t parents be able to sell their kids? Really, why?

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Life is sacred to me.

Life is sacred to me.
And the only reason animals are smoked and burnt and drowned in bbq sauce is because the bloody flesh of fellow animals are terrible things to kill and eat.
To the good life,
=
MJA

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

My suspicion, though perhaps

My suspicion, though perhaps simplistic, is that loss of the sacred has something to do with the culture of relativism which so distresses the Pope and probably others of similar cloth. I am not Catholic nor any other similar persuasion, but I do understand theological thinking---to a small degree. The loss of moral compass tends to set ships adrift and souls in conflict. For many of those post-moderns VanPelt alludes to, sacred is anagram for scared, and they do not wish to come to the end of life without having experienced all the wonders the world has to offer. That they may also incur a goodly number of its horrors does not worry them much until those bridges are crossed. The sacred is still relevant. But only to those who choose it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 20, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I think Harold is absolutely

I think Harold is absolutely right, the end of a commonly accepted "sacred" has a great deal to do with moral relativism. If right and wrong are subject to circumstances, or to individual preference, then there really is no such thing as right and wrong. The logical conclusion is a world in which everyone does whatever benefits them the most, regardless of anyone or anything else, and "the end justifies the means." In other words, a world in which life is nasty, brutish, and short, to paraphrase Hobbes. It is simply human nature to excuse ourselves our every action, and not look forward to what we bring upon ourselves. This is why professions come up with codes of ethics - because individuals simply cannot be trusted to police themselves.
As for mirugai's question, "why not sell your kids?" If right and wrong indeed come down to individual preference, then there is no good reason not to do that, or anything else for that matter. Right and wrong is whatever benefits me. As long as we ourselves, either as individuals or as "society," are the highest standard, it will always come to that.
The problem with selling one's kids would be the same with selling anyone. It is also the same as the problem with pornography or prostitution, frankly. All of these activities treat people as mere objects. People are not objects, they are people. Of course, at this point, without reference to something outside our mere selves, we begin to go in circles.
So here is the problem. Once we let go of the idea that there is any standard higher than ourselves, what is to prevent us from losing all the taboos, all the lanes in the road, all the rules? Is there any good reason, from a strictly human or materialistic point of view, not to sell your kids? Or eat them, as some species do? Or do any other "horrible" thing we may feel like doing? I think the answer is no. If we are just another species of animal, there is no good reason not to do any of those things, other than 'it sure seems wrong.'
As for the prohibition against pork, I think it had nothing really to do with sacrifice or self-denial. Pork was only one of a list of things not to be eaten - the foundation of today's Kosher rules that the Jews still follow, as well as the Hallal rules for Muslims. Both people still produce a delicious and varied cuisine. Rather, it was about "setting apart" - these rules set the Jews apart from the people around them. Other religious/ethnic groups have other ways of doing the same thing. Once such rules set in, violating them will indeed feel revolting.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 21, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Every system of values needs

Every system of values needs a cornerstone, a source: one principle not to be discussed. Otherwise you are in a quagmire of total relativism, which maks itself relative too. Since the Enlightment- time this basic principle must be rational, evident, found by autonomus thinking: eg Human Rights.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I'll simply say this about

I'll simply say this about this post and ensuing comments: way cool. Awesome is for pop-culturists and very young people who have not yet experienced awesome. I hope the originators of this blog are pleased with the participation. Agree, disagree or remain neutral, the contributors have left us all much to contemplate.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I'm sorry but I think you

I'm sorry but I think you guys (and gals) missed the big issue. Particularly with necrophiliac. Apply these:
1. Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
2. Social Contract
3. Rights
A person should have the right to control the disposition of the his or her body. Necrophilia would almost always violate the deceased's wishes. Ergo, necrophilia = bad
Incest is a little different because it often violates a fiduciary relationship and is fraught with abuse and undue influence. So there needs to be protection for the victim. (It also has a tendency to produce less fit offspring). Ergo, incest usually bad.
So why do we even need to discuss the subjects in terms of religion when more traditional philosophical discourse will cover it more completely?

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Whether you discuss in terms

Whether you discuss in terms of religion or not, the real issue is on what basis does one call anything right or wrong? The three basic principles that Remo sets up, for example: why those? Why should a person have the right to determine the disposition of their own body? Through most of human history, most people (slaves, serfs, etc) did not enjoy any such right, and you would look long and hard to find anyone who thought that was a problem. Slavery, for example, was not held to be wrong in principle until less than three hundred years ago. So why now?
We can of course debate the issue of right and wrong and taboos without any reference to religion...but why should we? The Golden Rule, for example, is from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12), at least in its positive form (Buddha stated it negatively, as in "do not to to anyone what you would not want them to do to you"). Should we not use it because it has a "religious" origin?
Negue331 states, I think correctly, that any system of values needs a "cornerstone" that is not discussed. Otherwise, one drifts into relativism - it all comes back to personal opinions and desires. The question then is, what should be that cornerstone? "Social contract" is just another way of saying "what society wants" which merely means "what a lot of people like me seem to think is right today." "Rights" are merely a subset of that social contract, if based only on what "society" agrees to provide. And which things are "rights?" Is majority opinion a good enough foundation?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 3, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Your notion is correct in one

Your notion is correct in one sense. I'll elaborate briefly. There was an old cartoon, oh, thirty or more years ago. Two or three human(?) figures gathered around an icon consisting of one word: NOTHING. One said to another, "is nothing sacred?" Art. Limitation. Life?---Sure.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Nice words but urtontunafely

Nice words but urtontunafely it means little in real life application. The only rights' you have are implemented by government as and when it suits them. They can be taken away at any time. Ask any Japanese American citizen who was intered during WW2 what rights to liberty the good ol' USA showed them, or any inmate of Guantanamo bay. Rights are just a made-up concept to keep us happy for the time-being, same as God and Santa Claus.

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