Religion Can Divert Sacred Energy
FYI, this working paper summarizes my new account of the sacred.
By making X sacred, a group can bind together around their shared view of X, motivate their members, and divert more energy toward X. But this comes at the cost of inducing costly signals of sacrifice for X, and inducing the distortions of setting apart, idealizing, and discouraging deliberative thought about X. Making X sacred can also discourage changes to X; treating X as sacred tends to induce hypocrisies, ones which changes tend to expose.
Due to such distortions, we shouldn’t want to treat too many topics X as sacred. We instead want a more minimal sacred package, with just enough X to bind us well. And we want that package to contain topics X where we either a) naturally value greatly them, b) we want more energy devoted to them, or c) those areas are not much distorted via setting apart, idealization, or feeling not thinking them.
In centuries past, most of our sacred energies were organized around religion. Religions told us that they and their gods were the most sacred topics of all, and then they told us which other topics X were how sacred. But recently, as religions have waned in influence, our sacred energies have lost their religious focus, and have instead become more widely spread across more topics X. We eagerly seek more sacred causes to add to our list of moral crusades.
In the west at least, I think this has resulted in more ways that the sacred distorts our behaviors, and blocks good changes. For example, newly strengthened sacred energies have blocked nuclear power, medical challenge trials, idea futures, and many better institutions that use money more and the nation-state less. “Ethics” often blocks innovation, in the name of the sacred. And in part I blame all this on the declining influence of Christianity.
Christianity once pulled more sacred energy to itself, and it explicitly approved many kinds of competition and market freedoms. Policies that expanded the strength and influence of Christian societies were often praised, even when questionable in other ways. The U.S. two centuries ago was a very religious nation, and allowed quite rapid growth and disruptive changes, more than most other nations would have allowed. And I credit that in part to religion diverting sacred energies away from opposing such changes.
Of course religions also have the potential to encourage sacred energies to apply to too many areas, and add their religious strength to them, to distort behavior and cut innovation even more than might have happened without them. So it is not that religion intrinsically diverges the sacred from causing problems. But religion does seem to have an important potential to do so.
Cultural selection of societies on the basis of their winning economic or military contests may well encourage the less distorting sorts of religions. And that may well have caused the rise of the good sort of Christianity. But as today such cultural selection seems a much weaker force in the world, we can’t count on it so much to get us out of our current sacred-gone-wild problems.
This is a really good post! Now that Christianity is weak you may be underestimating how much it held back progress in earlier times (who opposed "test tube babies"?) but this doesn't undermine the point that a safely Christian society kept in check the proliferation of other "idols" of worship and largely prevented today's "my sacred" vs "your sacred" conflicts, like Tolkien fanatics vs. inclusivity fanatics. Maybe the sort of sacred we need would look like Churchill-at-war-style martial nationalism, which is strong enough to unite us across many differences but doesn't get in the way of innovation. I'm not suggesting that martial nationalism is benign, but neither is Christianity, nor is any other serviceable sacred alternative.
One data point that I would add to your list of 48: it's usually in bad taste to call sacred things "sacred" because it makes explicit the irrationality that accompanies sacred things. Exceptions to this are fully established religions that have embraced and explicitly doubled down on certain irrationalities. Star Wars fans can get livid at the poor treatment of their favorite characters by the new movies, but they don't want to say that Luke Skywalker is sacred and should not be desecrated, even though that's how they feel.