Coating a neutral component of our external world, be it an idea, person or thing, in a clouded incoherence seeks to trap the light of knowledge. This lantern is then shone on to the shadows in-between the context of our confusion: we use this trapped light to speak of the shadows. The contained light we call “sanctity” and the dancing shadows it creates we call “sacred”. The danger of saying that anything is sacred, of turning the little lantern on to a cloister of shadows, is to prescribe some assortment of preconfigured ideas, thus rendering discussion null. It backhands conversation and criticism into a fist which snuffs out what little knowledge burns in the lantern.
In order to cross the chasm created by other minds, we must dismiss sanctity once and for all. Instead, what begins is something unique: a critical discussion of sanctity itself. Indeed, what we discover are better reasons for saying why we regard something as “sacred”. People defer to sanctity when the cards are down. It is unhelpful, arbitrary and at most bizarre. Instead of criticising various convolutions of religious expenditure, which are too easily dismissed for religious as opposed to sacred reasons, we should focus on a universal sacred theme: the sanctity of human life.
Human life is not sacred, since it seems nothing should be labelled sacred if we are to progress in dialogue. We must be consistent, even to the point where we say human life is not sacred. This does not mean that we think human life meaningless – this would be a false dichotomy – but simply that we are operating in a consistent way. Human life is not sacred because sanctity, as has been said, is simply an unhelpful, arbitrary term imposed on to the external world due to various often religious reasons. What might be sacred to one group could be blasphemous or horrifying to another.
One is reminded of the example of Darius and the eating of the dead. Herodotus accounts a great moral discussion in his Histories, when King Darius encounters the Callatians, a group of Indians. Darius asked a group of Greeks “at what price” would they eat the bodies of their dead fathers; the Greeks replied that no sum would account for it. He asked the Callatians at what price would they burn the bodies of their dead fathers and they replied that no sum would account.
To the Callatians it was a sign of respect to consume the bodies of one’s kin. To the Greeks it was cremation. Both revere life enough that death is not a full stop to its sanctity. But if we are to assess which is a better decision, we can not indulge in sanctity. For example, when kuru was killing off the Fore tribe, who lived in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea, it was discovered their endocannibalism was the cause. Kuru is an incurable degenerative neurological disorder – or brain disease. It mostly affected women and children rather than men, since the men got the choice of the best parts of the body – whilst the rest of the tribe were restricted to other parts, including the brain. The brain was the main source of kuru. When cannibalism stopped, so did the spread of the disease (though the incubation period is 14 years, thus there were still incidents years after the ritual was restricted). What is important here is that the notion of sanctity of the ritual was dismissed in order to identify the source of the disease. This is an important example to consider when looking at sanctity.
If we indulged all forms of sanctity, simply because they were sacred, we would get no where. With sanctity, people can easily die, as seen with the Fore people; or with blood transfusions and the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We can see here that saying something is “sacred” is meaningless, since it does not automatically mean good or beneficial. People can die and often do from ideas or things which are sacred. We need to constantly be open to the possibility that we are wrong, mistaken or deluded about our ideas. Sanctity traps that thought in the lantern.
Getting back to human life, we can see something arising. In modern terms, sanctity of human life gives rise to emotional responses in critical debates. Emotional responses are often not on the stilts of thoughts. Thus, people are automatically against abortion, are automatically against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS). But if we got rid of the sanctity of human life, if we diminished the notion of sanctity in all areas, we can start having grown-up decisions. Instead sanctity allows for folded arms and backward pointing as a justification. Too many automatically bow-down before anything sacred – or something said to be sacred.
We need to dismiss the sacred in order to progress with our conversations about the world. Human life is not sacred, in keeping with the consistency of the argument, but it certainly is precious. It is not sacred but it is worth saving, protecting and helping or at least allowing to flourish. (I do not think that human life is worth creating, since people who are not born do not lose out anything, thus avoiding all possible harms to future people.)
Sanctity has allowed people to limit free-speech, as was seen with the Rushdie affair. Sanctity undermines women’s desire to allow themselves to be free. The horrid “sanctity of marriage” from the theist’s perspective prevents happy homosexual couples from expressing their love for each other. Instead of deferring to sanctity, we need to shut off the lantern, grasp it from the hands of the faithful and toss it away. From the fire that rises, more grown up ideas can rise. These Phoenix ideas can take flight and allow us to be more understanding and critical, more grown up, and thus better people. To do this, we must rid our world of sanctity. Nothing is sacred but there are many things that are precious. The question as to why they are precious – to me – is a question I can answer without simply saying “by their intrinsic nature, they are precious for being what they are”. This is unhelpful. In the same way I am willing to discuss why, critically and objectively, a certain thing is precious, people must be able to at least say why something is sacred removing the arbitrary religious junction in place.
Some might say the move from sacred to precious is just in a name. True, but it is amazing what a word-change can do for a mindset. Let us rid ourselves of sanctity to grasp the world in its full reality, its sharp corners and jagged edges, so that if we cut ourselves on our mistakes, at least we know it is not through limitation via sanctity.