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Secularism Suffers Sanctity Saturation
On Robin Hanson, David Wolpe, and the Paganism of Postmodernity
I enjoyed listening to Robin Hanson and Rabbi David Wolpe discuss the sacred. Hanson, a social scientist, treats the sacred primarily as a human phenomenon. Rabbi Wolpe, following Rudolf Otto, defends the sacred as a human response to something genuinely other. God is real, not merely a tool for social cohesion or fulfillment. At the ground level, social science misses something that religious insiders claim, because it treats the phenomenon in a more disassociated way.
On the other hand, the plurality of instances of religious life requires social science. You could even argue that monotheism was a kind of critical thinking relative to paganism. The Midrash that figures Abraham as smashing his father’s idols paints the religious hero as a kind of “v1” of Durkheim and Hanson. Abraham is not moved by awe, in the story, but rather by skepticism. Religion isn’t just about defending the sacred, it’s about trying to distinguish the genuine sacred from the fake sacred. To do this, you need some universal categories, and you need to do comparative analysis. The point is that secularism can’t be thought of as anti-sacred. It belongs to the dialectic of the sacred.
Hanson, in my view, agrees. Liberalism is distinguished from pre-liberal religion not by virtue of its rejection of the sacred, but by its ambivalence about it. It holds certain things as sacred but doesn’t always like to admit it. Or if it does, it does so in a way that is bespoke, confusing, and often self-defeating. For example, the pluralist recognizes the potential validity of different claims to the sacred, but must also hold its own non-negotiable view of the sacred against which some fundamentalisms fall short.
This is a minor example, but I recently saw one of those inclusivity street signs that enumerated the groups that are welcome in this house: women, the non-binary, POC, LGBTQ+ and Muslims. Indeed, these are marginalized identity groups outside of major Western cities, where they are rhetorically venerated and tokenized. Missing from the list were Jews. Mind you there are 1.8 billion Muslims and 16 million Jews worldwide. With Hanson’s analysis in mind we’d note that Jews are not sacred in blue America in the way that other minority groups are. Anti-semitism is an edge case when it comes to “hate,” a complicated footnote in the list of intersectional grievances. We shouldn’t be surprised by the bespoke nature of inclusivity lists that ironically serve to signal just who is not included. We should expect it. Social liberals, like everyone else, need the sacred. Love of one’s own is a common sacred principle. But in contrast to 19th century nationalism or classic religious tribalism, American college campus culture, now prominent in every major cultural institution from the NYTimes to Disney, defines as “one’s own” anyone who is perceived as oppressed by function of their identity.
The sharpest point made by Hanson and Wolpe is that some religions have the ability to delimit the sacred. Consider Augustine, who formulated just war theory. Although the Kingdom of God involves peace and ideals like “turning the other cheek,” the Roman Empire is politically justified in doing what it needs to do to protect the interests of the Church. The secular distinction between Church (the sacred) and State (the mundane) is itself a religious concept in origin. Ironically, the collapse of the Church’s authority leads not to more mundaneness, but to more ambiguity around the distinction between sacred and mundane. It’s not simply that fewer things are sacred now, it’s that more things are sacred, with the result that sanctity is diluted, contentious, and often incoherent.
Our modern age is not an atheistic one in which nothing is sacred, but a pagan one in which sanctity is so ubiquitous and plural that we can’t but blaspheme. While the first amendment protects the right to offend as “free speech,” it’s counter-intuitive to count offense itself—the violation of the sacred—as sacred. The alternative, though, is a reversion to tribalism and fractious religious wars in which my sacred and your sacred have no common ground. The allure of this mode, even in a supposedly secular society, suggests the sacred is here to stay. The pre-enlightenment world has some unfinished business.