More Or Less Sacred

Children were almost twice as likely to be willing to share their most treasured belonging after winning the game than after losing. … Only people in the first group—primed to consider the unreliability of their close friends or romantic partners—reported greater uncertainty that they could count on others and an increased attachment to objects. (more)

Many adults own a ‘favorite dress’ or a ‘lucky sweatshirt’ to which they feel emotionally attached, whether for aesthetic (‘I like how I look when I wear it’), sentimental (‘My mother gave me this necklace’), or superstitious purposes (‘If I wear this on gameday, my football team will win’). … For example, an older woman who possesses an art project her child made in elementary school may find that, over time, her attachment to the art project increases the more that she uses it as a cue to reminisce about her time as a young mother. (more)

We like to see sacred things as pure, lasting, clearly distinguished from profane things, and not in conflict with each other. Thus in our view things aren’t more or less sacred, there is just the mutually-supporting package of sacred things clearly distinguished from everything else, and such sacred things were always this way. We did not choose or make the sacred.

But in fact, we do choose and cause some things to be sacred, things are sacred to varying degrees, and these degrees often change gradually over time as a direct result of our choices. And I think the clearest way to see all this, and to see in detail how the sacred works, is to look at the slow personal processes by which get deeply attached to ordinary people, places, events, and things. (Children and the elderly both do this more, just as tend they both tend to be more religious.) Looking at some concrete examples, I can see how this works in me, and I think if you try you will be able to see it it you as well.

For example, when shopping for shirts, we are quite willing to consider many details and tradeoffs. But then once we buy a shirt and wear it for many years, we become much less willing to sell or trade it for other shirts. And we come to like it less for its particular features, or for particular aspects of how it fits or looks. Its details matter less; it matters more as a symbol.

Our shirt has become identified with us, and we have become identified with it. By embracing this shirt, we bond with all the other people we have been in the past, and all the people will be in the future, at least all wearing this shirt. The identify-affirming property of our shirt feels especially important to us when our identity is threatened; for example, you seem especially likely to wear your favorite shirt after a romantic breakup.

In this state, we seem quite eager to embrace implausible claims about how our favorite shirt expresses or embodies high ideals. We might see it as using our favorite color, see the words on it as the motto of our life, or see its design as the perfect quintessence of shirt design. We often similarly idealize our favorite amusement park, restaurant, person, TV show, or holiday; we are eager to find ways to see them as embodying widely accepted high ideals. And we are reluctant to see any of our favorite things as in conflict with each other; why of course I could wear my favorite shirt to my favorite restaurant on my favorite holiday.

In fact, the things we chose will vary in how easily they are in fact idealized. For example, compared to history or the arts, we find it harder to idealize sports, due to the higher salience in sports of selfishness, competition, bragging, numbers, and money. Science is easier to idealize than sports, but still harder than the arts, due to its emphasis on numbers, objective evaluation criteria, and skepticism regarding mysticism.

As another example, I grew up going to Disneyland annually, so I often long to return there regularly, and I find myself eager to frame the place as achieving high ideals, even though many other academics hate it. While no particular view or activity there seems especially appealing to me in my imagination, the abstract idea of going back to be a kid again in the place I loved as a kid seems quite appealing. That abstract appeal doesn’t depend much on when I go there, or what I do there, and I feel a bit ashamed to wonder if the price is too high to make it a good deal.

Our homes and families may not seem especially idealized when we see them up close during a holiday meal. After a few hours, we may even look to escape them. But months or years beforehand, and when far away, it seems very important to join them for that meal. There is little that inspires troops to fight for their country more than seeing themselves as defending their sacred homes and families, see abstractly from afar. And medicine inherits much of its sacred appeal from the way it is said to have helped some preserve their sacred families against the threat of death.

All of this helps us to see how the sacred works. Whatever we get attached to, we come to value. And then we naturally look for ways to idealize those things and value them more by seeing them more abstractly, as if seeing them from a distance. This distance method helps us to see and value such things the same across our lives, as our perspectives change. And it helps us to see and value such things the same across diverse communities.

While we have rules regarding appropriate beliefs and attitudes toward sacred things, we actually accept compromises quite often there. Yes we try to treat things as more sacred, but in fact that’s just one of our many relevant considerations. I think this is the answer to most questions of the form “how to we actually manage to enforce all these sacred rules?”. Such as: how do priests of sacred things avoid getting profane views from seeing sacred things up close so much? They just do, and we put up with it.

Even so, we are sometimes willing to “go to war” to express outrage when others treat sacred things in less than perfectly sacred ways. I suspect there’s a lot of opportunism in such choices.

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