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The Sacred Shaped Hole in Our Hearts
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.