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why the sacred is not sacred to me

'when the light gets in' philosophy festival, the globe at hay, 31 may 2009

A lack of faith, the outgoing Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said, earlier this month, at the installation ceremony for his successor, Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, is 'the greatest of evils.' Detachment from the sacred, he claimed, has been responsible for war and destruction, and atheism was more troubling than sin itself.

In this view a belief in God, and the acceptance of the sacred, is indispensible for the creation of a moral framework and for the injection of meaning and purpose into life. Without a conception of the sacred, so the argument goes, there can be no boundaries to human behaviour, no anchor for our ethical beliefs, no meaning to our existence.

As an atheist, I do not see myself as lacking a moral compass. I am quite aware of human boundaries. And my lack of belief in the sacred does not burden me with a sense that my life lacks purpose. Nor am I alone in feeling this way. Millions are able to act according to their moral conscience without first having to check with God. Indeed, empirical studies have revealed no relationship between religious faith and ethical behaviour. You don’t have to possess a concept of the sacred, in other words, either to establish moral norms or to pursue ethically-fulfilled lives.

This is as true of religious believers as it is of atheists. By this I do not mean just that were believers to lose their faith, they would still remain moral beings, but also, more profoundly, that despite their religious belief and their attachment to the conception of the sacred, believers still have to define for themselves the content of their ethics and the meaning of their lives, exactly as atheists do.

The existence of the sacred does not tell us what is good or evil. After all, in the eighteenth century, the Christian God believed slavery to be a moral necessity. Three centuries on, He regards it as an abomination. Today it is a sacred duty, for some, not to cause violence to others. For others, blowing themselves up on tube trains is a holy act. The sacred, in other words, does not tell you what to do, or not to do. Believers do that which that which they imagine to be sanctioned by God and don’t do that which they believe to be sacrilegious.

Philosophers have long recognised that ethics must be independent of God. Plato’s famous question – ‘Do the gods choose that  which is good because it is good, or is the good good because the gods chose it?’ - remains as pertinent today as it was two and a half thousand years ago. If the good is good because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If on the other hand, God chooses the good because it is good, then the good is independent of God (or gods in Plato’s time). Most of us would agree that torture is wrong whatever God’s views on the matter. A believer might say that God would never choose torture as a good. But to say that God would never choose torture as a good is implicitly to accept that torture is an evil independently of God.

Choice is at the heart of morality, whether or not one believes in the sacred. Take the story of Abraham, in which he is commanded by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Kierkegaard points out that even though this is a divine command, Abraham still has to make choices. First, he has to decide whether the command he has received is authentic. And, second, he has to decide whether to follow the command or not. Abraham cannot evade his own moral responsibility simply by following orders.

I am not making an argument here against religion as such – that is for a different debate. What I am suggesting is that the acceptance of the sacred does not provide an anchorage denied to atheists because that which is anchored has itself got to be defined. Neither the believer nor the atheist can avoid having to make choices about the moral values to follow and, having made those choices, to take responsibility for the consequences. Moral choices are forced upon simply because we are human, and we don’t stop being human just because we are able to imagine the sacred.

The idea that we need the sacred to provide us with ethical norms confuses morality and law. It is a view of morality as the adherence to a set of rules and norms. The sacred is, in part, an embodiment of such rules and norms. But morality cannot be constituted by such rules and norms, because it is the measure against which such rules and norms have to be judged. This takes us back to the problem that, whether or not you believe in the sacred, morality can only be a matter of human choice.

Religion has attempted to give meaning and dignity to our mundane existence through creating a relationship between the profane and the sacred. It has played a vital role in the development of civilised life because it made possible the belief that there is more to life than mere animal existence. But the price of transcendence has been enslavement to the scared. Religion, Leszek Kolokowski, the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, acknowledges, ‘is man’s way of accepting life as inevitable defeat’. ‘To reject the sacred’, he adds, ‘is to reject our own limits'. In this Tragic view of the human condition, the sacred exists to protect Man from the flaws of his own nature. ‘The sacred order’, as Kolokowski observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’

The sacred, in this sense, is less about the transcendent than it is about the taboo. The sacred sphere, as Emile Durkheim pointed out, constitutes a social space that is set apart and protected from being defiled: a set of rules and practices that cannot be challenged. It provides a means of protecting not the kingdom of heaven but the citadels of earthly power. The sacred, Kolakowski observes, ‘simply reaffirms and stabilizes the structure of society – its forms and its systems of divisions, and also its injustices, its privileges and its institutionalized instruments of oppression.’

This is why radical critics from the Enlightenment onwards have rejected the idea of the sacred: the recognition that possibilities of social transformation would be constrained so long as belief in the sacred places certain institutions, practices and beliefs beyond reason’s gaze. The creation of the sacred also prevents us from adequately facing up to our moral choices and responsibilities, by alienating such choice and responsibility to an external being, and in so doing undermines the agency necessary for social change.

Perhaps no one has better expressed this sentiment than Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, his meditation on faith and fate. Written in the embers of the Second World War, Camus confronts in it both the tragedy of recent history and what he sees as the absurdity of the human condition. There is, he observes, a chasm between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. Religion is a means of bridging that chasm, but a dishonest one. ‘I don’t know if the world has any meaning that transcends it’, he writes. ‘But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.’

Camus does not know that God does not exist. But he is determined to believe it, because that is the only way to make sense of being human. Humans have to make their own meaning. And that meaning can come only through struggle, even if that struggle appears as meaningless as that of Sisyphus, who, having scorned the gods, was condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld forever rolling a rock to the top of a mountain.

The certainties of the sacred provides false hope and in so doing undermine our humanity by denying human choice. For Camus, religious faith must be replaced not with faithlessness but with a different kind of faith: faith in our ability to live with the predicament of being human. It was a courageous argument, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust. It is also an argument that remains as important today as it was then.