The HPedia: Sacred

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From Merriam-Webster:

  1. a : dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity <a tree sacred to the gods> b : devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) <a fund sacred to charity>
  2. a : worthy of religious veneration : holy b : entitled to reverence and respect
  3. : of or relating to religion : not secular or profane <sacred music>
  4. archaic : accursed
  5. a : unassailable, inviolable b : highly valued and important <a sacred responsibility>

Brendan Myers’ describes it in The Other Side of Virtue:

“Sacredness” can be understood broadly here, as that hard-to-define quality which renders something important, significant, out of the ordinary.  It might be attached to special customs or traditions, or even apparently irrational taboos.  It will certainly be attached to various special responses like a reverent manner, a serious tone, a requirement to give thanks.

The definitions above all seem to have in common the designation of special status or value, as apart from other things.  To be sacred is thus to be set apart.

The sacredness of things is often made palpable by taboos, restricted access, and special means of approach.  Cognitive psychologist Robert McCauley thinks it relies on our brain’s intuitive module for dealing with contaminants.  The instinctive message is “hands off” or “approach with care, or risk contagion.”  However, a reversal takes place: rather than the divine contaminating the individual, the individual risks contaminating the divine.  This necessitates ritual purification measures.

Some of the definitions above readily invite naturalistic readings.  It is not hard to imagine things naturalists might consider worthy of veneration, entitled to reverence and respect, set apart from the mundane, or highly valued and important.

At the same time, the concept of the sacred presents an important challenge to Religious Naturalism.  For example, nature is an obvious candidate for sacredness, but at the same time it cannot be sacred in the sense of being unquestionable or unavailable to investigation – else there could be no science.  Religious Naturalism must develop a concept of the sacred that does not place ideas about nature beyond the scope of critique or revision.

One possibility may be to develop sacredness as a special quality of mystery.  The mystery cult secrets into which ancient Greeks were initiated could be aporrheton (“forbidden”) and/or arrheton (“unutterable, unspeakable, ineffable”).  The kind of sacredness described above includes the aporrheton, but the kind of sacredness that may energize Religious Naturalism may be better off as pure arrheton.  No matter how much we learn about nature, there is always so much more we don’t know – it remains infinitely beyond us.  Mystery in this sense is no longer “hands off” so much as it is “impossible to lay hands on.”  When we perceive that quality in nature, we tend to fall silent and move with measured care, much as we instinctively do when we enter a temple.

A common Neopagan notion asserts that “all things are sacred.”  For example, Gus diZerega says:

…everything in the world has a spiritual dimension if approached appropriately.

If the mark of sacredness is being set apart and treated in a special way, then obviously not everything can be sacred.  However, the key point may be that everything is at least potentially sacred, i.e. highly valued and worthy of veneration, such that we may perceive its sacredness in special moments if not at all times.  As diZerega suggests, it may take a special approach to achieve such perception.

See also “Modularity of mind” and “Mystery.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

2 Comments on “The HPedia: Sacred

  1. I encountered an idea about this topic a couple years ago on the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo Group which really stuck with me: Sacredness is an experience. It’s like meaning or morality or certainty. Some people reify these concepts, treating them as if they have an independent existence. But it seems more naturalistic to acknowledge them as (emotional?) responses to the world.

    Jonathan Blake gave the following example: “I say that I love my wife; I don’t say that my wife is love (though I do think she’s lovely). In the same way, I think it’s inaccurate to say that nature is sacred. I think it would be better to say that I experience nature as sacred.”

    And I agree. Acknowledging the role of experience in this definition is consonant with naturalism and may be even be necessary from the standpoint of consistency.

  2. Also I still have the idea knocking around in my head that naturalistic magic might consist of strategies for connecting to the sacred.

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