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Do we need the sacred?

January 23, 2013

Gordon Lynch in The Guardian:

ray_of_light_texture_by_beckas-d4g3r77By bringing the persistence of the sacred in the modern world more clearly into view, Durkheim’s work leaves us with one final question. Do we really need the sacred? If we think about various horrors of the past century – from mass starvation in Stalin’s Russia, the machinery of death of the Nazi concentration camps or the genocidal killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda – we see acts that were justified by their perpetrators in terms of purifying society from evil. The sacred can form a basis for moral certainty which, when allied with unchecked political power, can lead to all manner of collective violence. Isn’t the persistence of such sacred horrors an affront to the Enlightenment ideal of a society based on the rational pursuit of truth and happiness?

This question becomes redundant, though, if we think that the sacred is an inherent part of human life. This was certainly Durkheim’s view. InThe Elementary Forms, he argued that people experienced a fundamental need to create and experience the sacred because of their innate sense of being part of a greater whole. This sense of something greater was not, argued Durkheim, an intuition of the existence of God or some mystical cosmic unity. It was the experience of being part of the greater whole of society, something that all human beings as inherently social creatures share.

Social origins of the sacred have also been claimed, more recently, by writers like Scott Atran and Jonathan Haidt who argue that the collective experience of the sacred was an important adaptation of the crucial human capacity for co-operative social action. Groups who were able to form a strong moral ethos focused around sacred symbols and sentiments were more able to act collaboratively and thus successfully in vital tasks like hunting or the protection of children. [More]

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