Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

Sacred Values Today

2017 (39) Issue 1


Religion captures our attention nearly every day, even if more often now in the form of religious terrorism. Christians are struck by the difference in belief and attitudes manifested in Islamic cultures and politics. Observers also are speechless how the Jewish religion is used to instigate and justify, within a democratic society, the aggressive occupation of foreign land. And even among the core countries of ’Western secularist enlightenment’ in Europe and the US, religion seems to undergo change and produce new attractions. Among social scientists, the ’secularization thesis’ of a linear development towards largely secular societies is meanwhile almost universally held as being unacceptable.

These developments raise a multitude of new questions and topics for the social sciences, the most important being to find explanations for the seemingly renewed need for religion on a global scale. Partly because of widening the view on religion to this extent, partly because of the inner change religions themselves are undergoing, clarification of what is meant by ’religion’ has become of paramount importance. Also there is the added concern that religion holds serious challenges for non-believers too. Now ’secular people’ need to be clear about how they should deal with religious attitudes and practices in private and public when confronted with entirely different mind-sets. Monotheistic religions always had a strong link to, or affinity with, morality. To emphasize what is religiously dependent on morality and how morality changes when divested of its religious basis, is a newly contested issue too.

Whether there are ’sacred values’, and if so, in which form and variants they come, summarises these concerns. Even if there clearly seem to be religious roots behind the word ’sacred’, akin to ’holy’, it is not clear that the concept as such needs to be religiously connoted. For many, a sense of the sacred in different contexts seems to exist, even without a clear-cut religious background. Contexts range wide, but human life, precious pieces of art and nature, national symbols and social values are typical examples. ’Sacred’ then stands for being strongly valued, priceless, sacrosanct, inviolable or mysterious, or beyond human control, but nevertheless influencing human fate. Philosophical ethics and meta-ethics are the proper fora for discourse on whether these uses are still genuinely religious ones, are dependent on religion, are ’post’-religious, or flatly irrational.

The list of possible explanations of ’sacred’ already demonstrates that part of what might be meant can be understood within a secular frame of reference. This goes for the assumption, implicit in ’sacred’, that some extraordinary things are highly valued or inviolable, something that can be shared within a secular kind of ethics. Most often, however, the predicate is meant to point to a quality or status of the object which at the same time gives a reason for acting in a specific way. Fundamentalist attitudes and terrorism easily come to mind here, and the defender of ’sacred objects’ has to explain how the tradition of sacredness can stop short of these dangerous extremes.

Richard Norman follows what he calls an ’experiential approach’ to the meaning of the predicate ’sacred’. He draws on the experience people seem to have of being linked to a conscious perspective on life which is also seen as being individually irreplaceable. According to Norman this experience provides the basis for a strong moral protection of persons, even if not a limitless one. With this criterion of ’individual irreplaceability’ in hand Norman tries to show that some works of art (such as the Mona Lisa) have ’sacred’ value, different to most natural things, including animal life. Also, even though sharing the experiential approach with Roger Scruton, Norman thinks the latter’s thesis over-dramatized of finding in the face of social others also the ’face of God’, and thereby rejects a constructive route to religion through this sort of experience.

Sam Fleischacker starts by contrasting David Hume’s rule-utilitarian reason for justice norms with Adam Smith’s psychological defence of the sacred, and opts to follow Smith in an attempt to make ’secular sense’ of the sacred. Similar to Scruton (as referred to by Norman), Fleischacker sees the sacred wedded to an ’element of mystery’ in the sense of not being fully explainable even if highly important for human life. Drawing on Kant’s transcendental concepts of freedom and reason he sketches a form of moral respect which requires and also provides an attitude of sacredness in social others.

One of the standard claims of ’modern’, ’enlighted’ or ’liberal’ morality is that it reaches universality by abstracting from particular ways of life. David McPherson offers the contrasting thesis that ’traditional’ moralities, even if arising within different cultures, converge at one universal point. He sketches the contents of traditional morality centred once again around sacred values (found foremost in topics of human life and sexuality) and gives as a reason for the presumptive convergence the ’tried and true’ quality of traditional values - different, admittedly, from modern ones. Against the ’deflationary’ (meant negatively) accounts of Bernard Williams and David Wiggins, McPherson seeks to defend the truth dimension in common morality by drawing on the realist morality of John McDowell.

In a way Hans Julius Schneider deals with the problem of convergence as well, but offers a different solution to that of McPherson. He thinks that sacredness provides a barrier for interreligious dialogue, and he develops with reference to Wittgenstein a deflationary (this time meant positively) conception of religion which promises to overcome the fundamentalism inherent in sacred beliefs.

Whereas philosophers put sacred values to the test of internal rationality, a social psychologist like Jonathan Baron looks at the consequences for social behaviour. Working with a wider concept of ’protected’ or ’absolute’ values (’sacred’ values being a subclass in these) and based on a series of empirical research, Baron asks how the attitudes corresponding to these values are influenced by critical reflection, but also how they lead to intolerant ’moralistic’ behaviour, like the discrimination of homosexuals.

Steven Lukes expands on the role of sacred values within politics, which is also dealt with at the end of Baron’s article. He first sketches the Durkheimian and Neo-Durkheimian theory of civil religion which, in contrast to ’political religion’, builds on the sacredness of the individual instead of a sacralisation of systems. In the second part of his article, Lukes analyses a current democratic crisis which results from massive cognitive biases and group prejudices, in blatant contrast to the alleged ’rational powers’ hoped for in classical liberalism. Attitudes of sacredness play a crucial role in this anti-democratic development, as sacredness shields sacred objects from rational scrutiny. Drawing on the present political climate in the US especially, Lukes sketches how together with the truth-orientation within the new media the classical democratic ideals erode in the ordinary citizen and are substituted by self-interest and sacred group identities.

As these contributions show, it is as difficult as it is necessary to distinguish what is important from what is problematic in the various meanings attributed to the sacred, both from a secular and a religious point of view. To be against blind obedience and banality should be in the interest of both.

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Table of Contents

Title: Ethics and the Sacred: Can Secular Morality Dispense with Religious Values?
Author: Richard Norman
Page: 5-24

In this paper I explore the role that the concept of the sacred can play in our moral thinking. I accept that the assertion that ’human life is sacred’ can be one way of articulating the special value of individual human lives as in some sense inviolable. I cautiously allow that the idea of ’sacred value’ might also apply to other things such as certain kinds of human commitments, uniquely precious art-works, and some other kinds of living things. In conclusion I offer reasons for resisting the claim, made especially by Roger Scruton, that the experience of the sacred, when properly understood, draws us ineluctably into a religious view of the world.

Title: Making Secular Sense of the Sacred
Author: Sam Fleischacker
Page: 25-29

From the earliest days of social science, in the writings of David Hume and Adam Smith, it has been difficult to make secular sense of the notion of sacredness in terms that believers in that notion can recognize as what they mean by it - social scientists instead tend almost universally to treat it as the consequence of an illusion of some kind. This paper explores the sources of that difficulty, arguing that it is built into the assumptions that make social science a science at all. It also argues that treating a category so central to the moral thinking of millions of people as resulting from an illusion breeds attitudes of condescension that are morally problematic. Using themes to be found especially in Kant, the paper proposes a way for social scientists to treat the category of sacredness with respect for moral purposes even while maintaining the presuppositions, for the purposes of their scientific work, that lead them to try to explain it away.

Title: Traditional Morality and Sacred Values
Author: David McPherson
Page: 41-62

This essay gives an account of how traditional morality is best understood and also why it is worth defending (even if some reform is needed) and how this might be done. Traditional morality is first contrasted with supposedly more enlightened forms of morality, such as utilitarianism and liberal Kantianism (i.e., autonomy-centered ethics). The focus here is on certain sacred values that are central to traditional morality and which highlight this contrast and bring out the attractions of traditional morality. Next, this essay explores and offers support for the convergence thesis to which traditional morality, understood as common morality, is committed. This thesis states that although there are diverse moral traditions, insofar as they are in good order we should expect them to converge upon a common or universal morality, even if there remain some differences in the details. The defense of this thesis provides justification for the validity of traditional morality as it suggests an objective basis.

Title: Sacred Values and Interreligious Dialogue
Author: Hans Julius Schneider
Page: 63-83

The paper develops a perspective on religion that is inspired by William James’ concept of religious experience and by the philosophy of language of the later Ludwig Wittgenstein. It proceeds by naming basic steps leading to the proposed conception and by showing that none of them must be a hindrance for a substantial understanding of religion. Among the steps discussed are the acceptance of non-theistic religions, an existential version of functionalism, and the acceptance of the possibility of non-literal truths about the human condition. Furthermore, it proposes a way to interpret the expression ’the sacred’ in the given framework. Finally it points out two contradictory necessities that make interreligious dialogue difficult: In the beginning one has to use an abstract vocabulary in order not to exclude any positions, but on the other hand one has to avoid robbing the participants of the means for articulating their specific religious views.

Title: Protected Values and Other Types of Values
Author: Jonathan Baron
Page: 85-99

Protected values (PVs) are values protected from trade-offs with other values. They are absolute in this sense. People hold these values even when they do not necessarily abide by them in their behavior. I suggest that most of these values are a subset of deontological rules, defined by their absoluteness. Their origin may be understood by looking at the origin of deontological rules more generally, which includes religious (hence sacred) values among others. But PVs are usually maintained by lack of reflection of the sort that would see counterexamples to their absoluteness. PVs often have other characteristics that would lead to classification into other types of values: they are often moralistic (imposed on others
regardless of the willingness of others to accept them); they are about morality rather than convention and thus independent of authority or social consensus; and they often concern second-order preferences (values for values). Especially in combination with these other properties, PVs can be harmful in the domain of politics. Education in the sort of reflection that would lead people to question them could improve the political situation around the world.

Title: Sacred Values in Secular Politics
Author: Steven Lukes
Page: 101-117

What role does sacredness play in the secular politics of the liberal democracies of the United States and Europe today? One approach, focusing on the sources of political unity, suggests that they are integrated by a kind of civil religion, however flawed. This suggestion is criticized empirically as ever less plausible and as blind to the currently feasible limits of social solidarity. A second approach, focusing on the growing democratic crisis of liberal democracies due to ever-deepening social divisions, leads to the suggestion that sacredness is increasingly at work in secular politics. As attachment to organized religion declines so does the public deliberation and negotiation of conflicting interests - the arguing and the bargaining that democracy requires.

Title: Religion beyond Communicative Reason
Author: Lars Albinus
Page: 119-143

The development in Habermas’ political philosophy towards a greater appreciation of religion in the public sphere is already a much discussed issue. In this article, however, I argue first of all for the sustained significance of his theory of communicative action and its structural implications for a religious discourse in a modern, multicultural society. Habermas’ theory is remarkable for its double commitment to social theory and philosophical self-reflection. Thus, it claims to offer a 2nd person perspective of communicative reason for which there is no alternative but discursive particularism. Though the endorsement of rational commitment to engage in a free dialogical discourse stands as a well-argued precondition for a democratic constitution, the theory of communicative action nevertheless seems negligent of some of the problematic ramifications it may have for religious believers. For one thing, the theory tends to trivialize various forms of religion by associating them collectively with the validity criterion of subjective authenticity, thus putting them in a black box of particularism. Moreover, it undermines religious holism by its distinction between form and content, thus enacting a form of discursive power that contradicts its own pretention.

Title: An Empirical Critique of Re-Sacralisation
Author: Steve Bruce
Page: 145-161

This article examines the evidence that largely secular societies are experiencing a process of re-sacralisation. It first dismisses four diversions: taking examples from societies that have never been secular; exaggerating the demographics and religiosity of migrant minorities; missing the fact that religious institutions can only hope to have public influence if they can make a secular case for their preferences; and mistaking notoriety for popularity. It then shows that adherence to Christianity continues to decline apace as does specifically Christian belief. None of the candidates for replacement - non-Christian religions, new religious movements and alternative spirituality - has come at all close to filling the gap left by the Christian churches. Furthermore there is no evidence that governments wish to reverse the standard accommodation to religious diversity and secularity: anything in private; little or nothing in the public sphere. There is no evidence that the population at large wishes it were otherwise. On the contrary. As religion has become more controversial, religion enjoying public influence has, like religion itself, become less, not more popular. Finally, the article argues that the current scarcity of religious people, and the unusual characteristics of those who remain religious, make it ever less likely that there will be a religious revival. So that sufficient detail can be presented, the argument concentrates on the United Kingdom.

Title: Comment on Steve Bruce. An Empirical Critique of Re-Sacralisation
Author: Melanie Reddig
Page: 163-169

In his paper Bruce gives the impression that all proponents of the re-sacralisation thesis expect the comeback of religion in Western Europe. But this is not the case. The re-sacralisation thesis concentrates on religious developments beyond the West. Bruce rejects approaches that discuss the classical secularisation thesis with regard to worldwide developments. However, the examination of worldwide developments reveals that religion and modernity can be intertwined in multiple ways. All in all, Bruce’s argumentation could be extended to the discussion of factors that can explain the decline as well as the rise of religion in different regions of the world. Moreover, the way in which modern individuals believe and express their faith could be discussed.

Title: The Requirements of Justice and Liberal Socialism
Author: Justin P. Holt
Page: 171-194

Recent scholarship has considered the requirements of justice and economic regimes in the work of John Rawls. This work has not delved into the requirements of justice and liberal socialism as deeply as the work done on property-owning democracy. A thorough treatment of liberal socialism and the requirements of justice is needed. This paper seeks to begin to fill this gap. It will be argued that liberal socialism does significantly better in realizing the two principles of justice. In this paper, first an overview of Rawls\' position on economic regimes, capitalism, and the requirements of justice will be given. In particular it will be considered, how the two principles work in tandem to meet the demands of distributive justice. Secondly, property-owning democracy will be reviewed. Finally, liberal socialism will be examined and discussed as an economic regime that answers the requirements of justice more fully.