Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?
Sunday, November 13, 2011

What is it

Tribal societies lived in a world of the sacred and profane, ritual and taboo.  Is there anything left of this structure in the modern world?  Is anything really taboo, or are things just inadvisable, problematic, unhealthy, unwise, and less than optimal under the circumstances?  John and Ken consider what, if anything, is still sacred with Cora Diamond from the University of Virginia.  This program was recorded live at Pacific University's 15th annual undergraduate philosophy conference in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Listening Notes

Professor Cora Diamond joins John and Ken to think about what, if anything, could count as sacred anymore. Cora puts forward a working definition of the sacred as the sphere of things that are off limits to human intervention, things towards which we ought to hold an attitude of awe. Actions that interfere with these sacred things are what we call taboo. Ken wants to know what the difference is between taboos based on a recognition of the objectively sacred, and those based on mere ignorance or disgust.

Several audience members take to the microphones to offer their opinions and questions. One offers an evolutionary explanation for our concepts of sacredness and taboos. Another wants to know if asking friends and family to enjoy psychedelic mushrooms grown from his grave would be a violation of the sacred.

In the final segment of the show, our hosts consider the connection between the sacred and nature, and between taboos and arrogance. For example, Professor Diamond suggests that breeding turkeys in a way that prevents them from performing their natural actions—walking, having sex, etc.—is a violation of the sacred. In Hume’s day, many felt that diverting a river was a profane act, because it involved altering God’s plans. A secular person today might not feel this way, but they still might think that it is was arrogant (and dangerous) for the Army Corps of Engineers to think they could control the Mississippi river. Yet is this feeling that to do something would be arrogant enough to hold up to someone as a reason not to do it? Does it carry the normative force that we think a conception of the sacred ought to? And most importantly, what about those psychedelic mushrooms?

  • The 60-Second Philosopher: (seek to 50:04) Ian Shoales ruminates on the sacred in America. His list includes sacred spaces (mostly where a lot of people died), comic book collections stored in hermetically sealed vaults, and cult classics.
  • Roving Philosophical Report: (seek to 6:43) Caitlin Esch takes to the streets of Portland to find out about the substance and science of taboos. She learns about the benefits and difficulties of breaking the taboo against having multiple partners from Brian Bloom, the facilitator of a polyamory group. Also, Allison Burns-Glover, a professor of Psychology at Pacific University, talks about the physiological response to seeing someone break a taboo. 

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Cora Diamond, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Law, University of Virginia

Bonus Content


VIDEO: Watch the complete program

EXTENDED INTERVIEW with Psychology Professor Allison Burns-Glover

READING: Merle Kessler, The Gift

READING: Merle Kessler, The Iconoclast

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