Sensing the sacred

Margaret Somerville
25 May 2012
Reproduced with Permission

As the saying goes, "You could have knocked me down with a feather!" On two consecutive days recently, the concept of the sacred was featured (not merely mentioned) in one of Canada's leading newspapers, the Globe and Mail. What's going on?

First, columnist Neil Reynolds (Why the 'sacred' still matters to voters) commented on psychologist Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Professor Haidt, a University of Virginia psychologist and a liberal, has come to the conclusion that conservatives possess "a broader set of moral tastes" than liberals and, reports Reynolds, "are able, in appealing to the public, to tap a richer moral lexicon [which includes the sacred]."

In contrast, Haidt found that many liberals are embarrassed by talk of sacred things. In this regard, Reynolds notes the Opposition's outrage and panic "a couple of weeks ago when the government permitted a … House of Commons debate on the sacred nature of life itself." That was connected with MP Stephen Woodworth's private member's motion to set up a parliamentary committee to examine whether an unborn child is a human being.

According to Haidt, tribal responses are what politics is all about. "The key to understanding tribal behaviour is not money, it's sacredness." As Reynolds writes, Haidt believes that humanity's "'great trick' is its ability to gather round a tree, a rock, an ancestor, a flag, a book or a god, and then to treat that thing as sacred".

We might or might not agree with this definition of sacredness, but the important point here is the recognition of the role of the sacred.

Next, Lynn Crosbie employed the concept of sacredness in reviewing the forthcoming film What to Expect When You're Expecting (Who Needs Moms When You've Got Babies A pregnancy flick where the moms are incidental), which follows five couples expecting a child "and their journey towards 'the miracle' and 'the glow' " (words with strong religious connotations).

Crosbie tells us that the film's focus - "and this constitutes a true dramatic shift" - is on the babies. "Then the men [the fathers], and finally, the women." Expecting is an important film, she says. "Moving the notion of the sacred, glowing miracle to the child itself, and out of, and away from the formerly sacred mother/vessel is a quantum leap in pop culture. As Simone de Beauvoir argued long ago, we do not make babies. They make themselves inside of us - a radiant feat indeed. Bringing the fathers on deck is huge as well."

So where might this resurrection from the dead of the "sacred" lead, and what questions does it raise?

I suggest a shared concept of the sacred allows us to bond to each other, as is evident in the origin of the word religion, which comes from the Latin religare, to rebind.

The sacred has long been associated with religion. But, I propose, we need a broader concept of the sacred in our multicultural, multi-religious, secular, democratic societies - a sense of the sacred that we can all share, whether or not we are religious and, if we are religious, no matter which religion we espouse. I call this concept the secular sacred.

What I'm contemplating as the secular sacred could be linked to Jurgen Habermas's "ethics of the human species", which, he postulates, is innate to us. In guiding us to distinguish right from wrong, that can give us a sense of what we must hold in trust and not desecrate or lay waste, that is, treat as sacred, even if we are not religious.

Along the same line of argument that an innate sense of the sacred is integral to being human, I have written elsewhere about my concept of the human spirit (The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit, 2000) which I believe we all share, identifying it as "that deeply intuitive sense of relatedness or connectedness to all life, especially other people, to the world and the universe in which we live, the metaphysical reality which we need to experience to fully live fully human lives and to find meaning in life." Most recently, and with the same purpose in mind of showing that an innate sense of the sacred is integral to being human, I've been looking at humans' instinctive capacity for amazement, wonder and awe, their inherent sense of the numinous, which is characteristic only of humans. (Margaret Somerville, Open yourself to the ineffable, MercatorNet 19 March 2012).

Recognizing and implementing the secular sacred could allow far more of us to bind together, to experience transcendence - the feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves - and in doing so, help us to find more shared ethics. And in this regard, it merits keeping in mind that transcendence precedes transformation, which many of us, our institutions and societies would benefit from at present. The secular sacred could also help to balance the intense individualism that has dominated our values and contemporary societies, but which many people, especially young people, are seeking to moderate with stronger feelings of responsibility to a community of which they are a part.

My idea of the secular sacred has met with opposition from both sides. Those who are religious have accused me of profaning the sacred, indeed destroying it, because the concept doesn't require a belief in the supernatural or adherence to a religion, which they see as essential attributes of the sacred. But I'm not, in any way, meaning to diminish the importance of the religious sacred to those who hold such beliefs. Indeed, accepting the secular sacred may lead to greater respect for the religious sacred, in that non-religious people will have some experiential knowledge of a sacred.

Those who are not religious have attacked the concept on the basis that it's quasi-religious and its acceptance amounts to imposing religion on them. As one of my students said, "You might be onto something important when both sides disagree with you."

Treating something as sacred means it deserves deep respect. The natural and nature, and life, are among the things we regard as sacred, as our concern about the environment shows. We don't exchange sacred elements for money; they are priceless, and so we don't sell human organs, for example.

Those whose source of ethics is God or God-Nature (God and His creation, including humans) have a concept of the religious-spiritual sacred and accept that certain moral and ethical principles flow from that as to how they should act toward God and God's creation - other humans, other animals, all forms of life, the natural world.

Those whose source of ethics is innate human morality have a concept of the secular sacred, and certain moral and ethical principles that should be respected and should govern our conduct flow from that. For instance, they will accept that certain aspects of life are sacrosanct and that not everything that can be done to life, in particular, human life, may ethically be done to it.

Where we can find more consensus on values and ethics than we presently have is where the religious sacred and the secular sacred overlap.

For both groups, as I indicate above, the authentically sacred might often be experienced, and as a result identified, in a sense of wonder and awe. What we regard as sacred is often associated with that which elicits feelings of awe and wonder, that "primordial sense of amazement."

Finally, we should all ponder the question novelist Carol Shields puts into the mouth of one of her famous characters, Larry, a middle-aged Canadian: "What will happen to a world that's lost its connection with the sacred? We long for ecstasy, to stand outside of the self in order to transcend that self, but how do we get there?"

My answer to Larry's first question is that we run a very serious risk of ending up with a world in which no reasonable person would want to live. Perhaps the reason young people - and The Globe and Mail - are resurrecting the sacred is that they have sensed that. Hope springs eternal.