Sacred and Inviolable

I had a bit of a dispute or anyway discussion with my colleague yesterday, about one paragraph in his article on the Bright idea. On this Durkheimian idea that religion does not necessarily entail a belief in the supernatural, that it can also refer to the sacred, and hence to inviolable unrevisable ideas. I haven’t read Durkheim, and I need to. I think the only reason I resist the idea is that that’s not what people usually mean by religion (a point Richard Dawkins makes in his article ‘The Great Convergence’). Discussions and arguments about religion can become frustratingly evasive and slippery when the parties are not talking about the same entity, and defenders of religion have a way of defining religion one way when talking to skeptics (you know, it’s feelings of awe or wonder, it’s that ‘oceanic’ feeling that Freud was so stonily devoid of) and quite another way when talking to fellow-believers. So I’m dubious about broadened definitions.

But the underlying idea I do think is interesting. I suppose it’s one of the essential background ideas of B and W that no beliefs, opinions, ideologies, theories, ideas, should be inviolable. At least none that amounts to a truth claim about the world. But other commitments or loyalties, on the other hand, ought to be. It would be a fine thing if all six billion plus of us had what we so obviously don’t, an unshakeable conviction that we must not murder, slaughter, ethnically cleanse, torture, rape, beat, injure anyone. It would be a conspicuously better world if that conviction were precisely not revisable by, say, ethnic or religious chauvinists on the radio whipping up hatreds, or mullahs or priests or rabbis or reverends lashing their congregations into frenzies of hatred and rage, or ‘teachers’ in madrassahs teaching boys to hate and despise and punish women.

But alas, no. That’s not how it is. Ideas about decent behavior are all too easily revisable – see Eichmann in Jerusalem, Ordinary Men, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. No, it’s the damn silly, useless, or harmful ideas that become sacred and inviolable, while the most necessary one is tossed out the window all too easily.

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