There is a God–shaped vacuum in the heart of each man, which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ. Blaise Pascal. (more)
In my recent efforts to study the sacred, I framed the question in this usual social science way:
We seem to see a “sacred” pattern of behavior that different people apply to different things at different times and places. What exactly is this pattern, and how can it be robustly explained in terms of the usual sorts of social forces and mechanisms?
I didn’t quite realize, however, that most who talk a lot about the sacred dislike this framing. To them, there is a single special thing that, due to its particular unusual features, deserves to be treated in this special sacred way. The reason that so many treat other things in similar ways is due to their intuitively feeling a lack of this unusual thing, and awkwardly trying to find it in other things. Such efforts remain sloppy, unstable, and dissatisfying until people discover the one true sacred thing, after which they become satisfied.
For example, to many religious folks God is the one sacred thing. Other things are only sacred due to God making them so, and to their being ways to connect to that one special sacred God. Aside from miracles and the social proof that others believe in God, it seems to me that in fact the main personal evidence usually offered to believe in God is this hole. Supposedly, you can see that you want something sacred-like, can see that the other things tried haven’t satisfyingly filled this hole, and if you try it in the right way you will see that God does fill this hole, satisfying you, and that objective features of God well explain the many distinctive correlates of treating things as sacred.
Others give similar stories, except they have a different one true sacred thing, like art, love, community, nature, or space.
Note that this situation creates an opportunity to collect concrete evidence directly relevant to these claims. And to do so relatively quickly and cheaply. If we collected enough data on how different people treat different things in various sacred-like ways, and how satisfied they are with such treatments, then we could directly test theories of this form: one sacred thing is the true sacred thing giving true stable satisfaction, while our treatment of other things as sacred are awkward unstable unsatisfying poorly-matched to find this true sacred thing, whose objective properties explain why it makes sense to treat that one true thing in the many ways that correlate with treating something as “sacred”.
However, I see little interest in pursuing this research agenda. Advocates of each particular one-true-sacred candidate seem content to just claim that evidence would support them, while sacredness skeptics seem content to just claim that no such candidate would be so supported. This seems to me analogous to cases where prediction markets could reveal what thoughtful neutral spectators think on a key question (e.g., global warming), but neither side seems much motivated to create such markets.
Thank you, Robin.
I have long observed this same phenomenon, which makes sense because it really does exist. In a very unscientific and cursory way, I decided that it is an artifact of the “city state” era of human development, and the impact it had on our biological and social evolution.
City states were hard and cruel and difficult. The people who lived that way faced death constantly, and the only reason that this way of life persisted for thousands of years is, all the alternatives were even worse until better ways of living became available.
Most city states had similar social structures. Ruling class. Scribe class. Priest class. Military class. (With many variations on a common theme.) This way of life, along with a very small population sample yielded an almost eugenic effect.
The scribes kept track of crops, yields, water, what was necessary to survive. They reported to the ruling class. The priests, after conferring with the ruling class, informed the populace at large how “god” wanted them to act and address the problem. The people then obediently complied with gods will —- and those who didn’t do so we’re unceremoniously (or ceremoniously) introduced to the military caste, with the end result being that these persons were removed from the gene pool, by death or banishment.
Repeat this process for thousand of years, and you end up with a species descended from beings who are predisposed to submission to gods will — and who need that gods will in their life to feel fulfilled and happy. Those who did not have this disposition were bred out of the gene pool millennia ago.
Fast forward thousands of years, and enter the current cultural, largely secular, era where —at least to many people- God has been killed. (See Nietzsche). They have intellectually removed god from their identity and their value system… but they still have a god shaped hole in their brain, and a need to fill it. They fill it with various things. How fulfilled people are by what they fill this hole with (including if they fill it with the traditional god of their ancestors) is entirely dependent on their own unique combination of intellectual, emotional, environmental, and experiential traits.
You mentioned the extreme view of “the one thing” as sacred and the view of “nothing is sacred” but did not mention the other view that “everything is sacred,” which is not a holefilling exercise but rather a recognition of the miraculous and unlikely nature of life and the universe in an if itself.
Most native peoples had some version of this view which was not naive but well developed and experienced for thousands of years before city states and up to the present. Before organized religions or the idea of organized religions .
From the psychological perspective, the hole is caused by the lack of healthy attachment and the insecurity caused by that lack, so that we are always seeking what we missed in infancy.
In many spiritual (not religious) traditions, the hole is seen as the initial separation from God/Oneness when we incarnate into a body and experience amnesia about who we actually are, and our long painful journey to that original oneness. Which parallels the original biological/psychological wound of separation from the Mother.