Sacred and Profane Reasons

One way to think about the sacred and profane distinction is in terms of types of reasons. “Do not trespass on the Holy of Holies,” says the Elder, “for it is sacred.” As far as practical reasons go, sacredness suffices. It has to suffice. Otherwise practical rationality enters an infinite regress, leading to decision paralysis in lieu of an epistemic foundation that simply does not exist. Put differently, the whole point of a good reason is that it provides a stopping rule in the game of giving and asking for reasons.

In the context of decision making, sacred reasons are categorical. That is, we feel duty-bound to respect valid claims of sanctity, where validity is a function of its coherence within the body of reasons we already take for granted (i.e. are presupposed) as implicit in existing social practices. Conversely, violations of sacred objects or spaces is socially deviant, even blasphemous.

The sacred, it seems, is the byproduct of an imperative. When questioning the imperative “do not kill,” an appropriate and argument-ending reply is “because life is sacred.” The question naturally arises as to why we do not simply issue the imperative, full-stop?

Well, some do. In the Mayan language of Sakapultek norms of every kind are conveyed with the underlying imperative, their equivalent of “do” and “do not”, or indirectly through irony. As one would expect, this severely constrains the ways a norm can be expressed. For instance, they lack the ability to say “you ought to do x because y.” By having terms like “ought,” “right” and “wrong,” English speakers have a much easier time expressing and univeralizing imperatives across domains.

This view is an up-shot of taking Wittgenstein’s private language argument and meaning as use claim seriously. The alternative, meaning as reference, leads down a host of dead ends outside of the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, thinking of “rightness” outside the context of use (as in doings, social practices, or deontic constraints over a choice set) leads to the search for a referent somewhere in the universe.

In other words, sacredness is not “out there” like some sort of metaphysical substance, but is rather a stand-in part of speech, a general predicate, that aides in the expression of certain types of imperatives. Rather than having to explicitly declare “do not kill __” in every discrete case, saying “killing is wrong” harnesses our existing competency with verbs and predicates to establish the general case.

While “right” and “wrong” are used to modify actions, “sacred” more usually seems to modify objects, like sacred places, items or institutions. It’s immediately obvious how this can expand our expressive capacity that much more. We have the option of expressing identical imperatives against adultery, or example, either by declaring the act to be wrong, or by declaring the indirect object, marriage, to be sacred.

Sacredness so often attaches to rituals like marriage because rituals require us to overcome our self-interest, such as the temptation of infidelity. Likewise, the categorical nature of a sacred imperative is essential for sustaining collective action, or group rituals, and for legitimating sanctions against defectors. Moreover, sacred imperatives (as opposed to more prosaic ones) tend to be accompanied by feelings of sublimity that group practices are uniquely able to elicit.

Consecration Meets Convenience: Sacred or Profane?

In contrast, consider profane reasons. A profane reason to marry someone is in the expectation to save resources through economies of scale. As economists are want to point out, this is undoubtedly among the fortuitous consequences of marriage, and perhaps in some non-teleological way part of the “ultimate” explanation for the ubiquity of marriage practices. But these profane patterns are distinct from the proximate and sacred reasons proffered by the wedded themselves. If instrumental reasons were all their were, a green card marriage would be celebrated with the same enthusiasm as any other.

This is why its nonsense to claim to be (at least without debilitating cognitive dissonance) “religious but not spiritual” — i.e. To adopt ritual and other religious practices, up to and including prayer and congregational attendance, without endorsing the sacred character of one’s own actions. As soon as one takes a purely instrumental stance towards ritual, its power begins to wane.

The notion of “effective” here is what is problematic, as effectiveness is endogenous to the degree of sacredness, while sacredness rests on a cognitive disinterest in being effective!

Thus we may find ourselves subject to the counsels of prudence, climbing a ladder of instrumental reasons that, rung by rung, persuade us that ritual practice is an effective means for reaching our ends, namely well-being, group cohesion, and so on and so forth. Yet one will never reach the highest height until the ladder has been kicked away, and the practice left to stand on its own sacred terms. This is not to embrace the non-rational. On the contrary, it is to recognize instead a higher type of reason, a reason that cannot be circumvented.

That modernity has had a rationalizing tendency is what led Habermas to remark that all traditionalism has become neo-traditionalism. By that he meant that, whereas true traditionalists saw tradition as a valid source of authority as such, neo-traditionalists have revealed themselves to be indirect rationalists, offering up great reasons for obeying tradition that go beyond presupposition: Tradition is stress-tested wisdom, or a product of smarter-than-thou spontaneous order, and so on. To simply accept tradition as a “good reason” in and of itself is, to most moderns, absurd, and rightly so.

So it appears instrumental rationality has a great power to crowd out more communicative and categorical types of reasons over time, as our shared presuppositions are torn asunder by critical self-reflection and re-conceived as anachronistic husks around a fundamentally profane kernel. We are still clearly in the thralls of this rationalization process, which has progressed sporadically and unevenly, and which has never once reversed. Recall, Prisoner’s Dilemmas by design preclude any communicative action. But once strategic maximizing becomes the norm, it’s cooperation that’s heretic. As the only remaining disposition that we may will that it should become a universal law, this destines cynicism to be our last and most endearing mode of communion.

6 thoughts on “Sacred and Profane Reasons

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