Sacred Values and You

How to intimidate with holiness.

Posted Jul 11, 2017

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden -- beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. ~ Emile Durkheim (see here)

I am not Charlie Hebdo. Charlie got into trouble with religious self-righteousness when satirizing a sacred figure. Many Parisians died for the freedom to question and satirize. Charlie pointedly and aggressively threw darts at religious sentiment, exposing its intolerance. Many will feel that such kind of satire is ‘in poor taste,’ and some will be outraged to the point of feeling justified to use homicide ‘to set things right.’ Homicidal aggression after having one’s religion insulted does not fit the concept of vengeance or retaliation, because vengeance and retaliation observe the law of reciprocity and proportionality. When Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra for killing his father Agamemnon, he is exacting vengeance – much like Clytemnestra did when killing her husband because he killed their daughter Iphigenia. The story of the House of Atreus is the story of the cycle of vengeance. Charlie Hebdo was different. The insult was a symbolic one and the victims of the response were ‘guilty’ only by the most tenuous of associations with an outgroup. And they hadn’t done nothing!

The Charlie Hebdo tragedy is rather Ungreek. There is no Aischylos struggling with dysfunctional traditional morality, trying to find a higher, gentler definition. For all its teaching of morality, and claim to be “the” arbiter of morality, religion is fantastically intolerant and of desiccated compassion. How do they (the agents of religion) do it? Psychologists have part of the answer, and it turns on the idea of sacred values.  How are sacred values different from garden-variety (profane!) values? They are sacred like the ideas they describe to those who believe in them. If you believe there is a supernatural god who gets angry if you think about seducing your neighbor’s wife, and that He who gets so angry created everything including you, the neighbor, and his appealing spouse, then it is a small step to think that this is a big deal, and that this set of ideas must not be questioned. When believers in sacred values take it upon themselves to get angry on behalf of a god who could very well take care of his own administration of reward and punishment, they undercut His presumed omniscience and omnipotence. They may rationalize that they are acting mad and vengeful on behalf of Him who hath been insulted – perhaps adding the flourish that they are commanded to act thus lest they themselves become the objects of His wrath.

It is all very strange and irrational. It is even stranger and irrationaller that social psychology has become complicit with the sacred value team. Some of this complicity is, I am sure, unintended. One of the historical pillars of social psychology is the study of Anti-Semitism (the others are the study of racism and the study of social facilitation). The trauma of the Anti-Semitic genocide of the 20th Century demanded a scientific response. In time, social psychology developed theories and research on outgroup bias, which, to be ‘safe,’ erred on the side of declaring even small or unintended expressions of outgroup negativity as racist and condemning them in moral terms. If you need proof, take a look at the rhetoric of the “implicit bias” industry. Social psychologists and their audiences have learned to be careful not to express anything that might suggest outgroup insensitivity. This self-censorship plays into the paradigm of sacred values whose goal it is to insulate itself from inquisitiveness and satire.

You’d think that every idea should be open to discussion. During the Enlightenment, such openness seemed worthwhile and attainable. Today, the notion seems quaint because sacred values have survived so well; if anything, they seem to be multiplying. The story of the PC culture on campus is an example of the sanctification of certain default perceptions and beliefs, which must not be questioned or even described as somewhat arbitrary cultural productions.

I feel these taboos acutely. When traveling in Spain, a country that has historically staked its identity on being Catholic, that is, not Muslim and not Jewish, I studied the pertinent iconography. Some of the archetypal catholic positions are on display in their most unadorned and raw ‘incarnation.’ In the beautiful Andalusian town of Málaga, I found a depiction of the Virgen Mary, the Dolorosa, floating above the body of the dead Jesus. I wrote in my diary (shared with friends) that this iconography expresses two cults the catholic church has perfected: The cult of motherhood and the cult of death. When writing these words, I felt the sting of trepidation. Can I do this? Will some of my friends fault me for insensitivity or anti-catholic bias? Am I bound by social-psychological ethic to avoid saying anything critical about a segment of society? If so, we can pack it in.

I am in good company though: Feuerbach, Marx, Durkheim, Freud, Dawkins, the Dalai Lama, and, last but not least, Monty Python, who deserves the last word:

Brian: There's no pleasing some people.
Ex-leper: That's just what Jesus said, sir.