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Is Nothing Sacred?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” To deny the concept of sacredness is to condemn all organized religions; no religion can exist without the exclusion from rational inquiry granted by a designation of ‘sacred.’ Emerson was right. To designate something as “sacred” or “holy” is to deprive men of their right to experience each thing for what it is, and not for what it is said to be.

Emerson and the transcendentalists exalted man and nature. The transcendentalists were unabashed romantics, even to the point of mysticism. They took great pleasure in assigning meaning to nature, using illustrations such as a battle of ants or a worn path to draw analogies to the human condition. Emerson and Henry David Thoreau purposefully grounded these images in the mundane. They wanted men to be engaged in the physical world and live a full life on earth. The mundane world claimed their attention. Their genius was that they allowed the natural world to fill the place of religion. The world of the transcendentalists was not a purgatory or pit of temptations to struggle out of. It was itself a kind of heaven, but a ‘do-it-yourself’ version, without instructions and waiting to be assembled. The transcendentalists believed that men would be happier if they went out into the world and found truth themselves.

What, though, did they find wrong with established religion? I think they disliked the pre-established nature of the churches. Truth was received by the modest churchgoer through a long line of people: first the local minister and then the head of the local area, and then a larger area still, and somewhere at the top up there, God. The situation has not substantially changed today. Such a system of inherited dogma does little to stimulate curiosity; curiosity is dead when all questions are answered. Thoreau and Emerson found the boundaries of Puritan religion unbearably restrictive. They were freethinking people and, unlike Hawthorne, they could not surrender themselves to misery. They didn’t believe in original sin. Any good religion should allow its members room for thought. The religion that does not do so does wrong.

Even if organized religion does in some way restrict freedom of thought, one might ask, doesn’t it serve a need for divinity in people’s lives? People need something of the supernatural in their lives to stop themselves from going insane. They need answers to questions of origin and questions of destination. Emerson would certainly have agreed: there is a need for spirituality within all of us. More generally, there is a need for beauty, a need for it all to make sense. This need is served by all popular religions today. A religion that does not attempt to fully make sense of the world is not a religion. It is a university, and a considerably larger number of people are members of religions than are students of universities. It is useful to judge religions on the basis of the answers that they can provide to the eternal questions: “What is life?” “What is truth?” and so on. The answers to such questions need not be literally true; it is ludicrous to think that there are single true answers to questions so broad and abstract. They need merely be satisfactory to a great enough number of people.

The last criterion for evaluation of religion is not in the least spiritual. It deals with mundanity. The relevant question to ask is this: how well does the religion relate to everyday life? Most religions fail miserably on this count. Legion after legion of saints proceed by, garbed in splendor or carved from marble, unattainable. The religions of the world accumulate vast swaths of lore to surround them, obscuring the usually striking drama and purity of the original concepts. There is something universally appealing about the idea of God walking among us, or the chosen of God deigning to consort with mortals, and an analogue to the Jesus figure appears in virtually every religion: Hercules for the ancient Greeks, Moses for the Jews, the Buddha (made nearly divine through great wisdom) for the Buddhists, Muhammad for the Muslims, and so on. Each of these religions, though, has accrued gunk. The Jews have their kabbalah mystics, the Muslims their Holy War crazies, and the Christians have all manner of loons, each group focusing on favorite sections of the Bible and conveniently ignoring the rest.

One has to ask this: what possible purpose, in moral or virtue, is served by the wearing of a red string? By polygamy? By self-combustion? Although the dogmas that lead to these constructs have embedded justifications, any thinking person can see that there is no benefit or use to any of these acts, or to hundreds more that could be added to the list. When religion gives attention to petty trivialities and harmful acts such as those mentioned above, attention is shifted away from the moral instruction, which is what creates a good society. The parables of Jesus are all examples of good, useful moral instruction. The Golden Rule, which exists in every major religion, is an example of useful moral instruction. The more a religion relates to good behaviors in daily life, the more useful it is. Religion should first teach us how to live happily with one another.

By the three criteria I outlined above, virtually every world religion fails to make the grade. An understanding of these shortcomings may have led Emerson to create a system of spirituality which would not fall short. It provides answers to eternal questions by presenting the world and man as suffused with the light of God. “This is how it was meant to be,” transcendentalism says, “and if you know how things are, then you know God.” Finally, transcendentalism is grounded in real life, and lacks any dogma. Each person can create a system or philosophy, which will preserve his integrity. Transcendentalists are free to concentrate their full attention on the problems of Earth, rather than the problems of heaven. It was because of this focus that Emerson was able to write so many useful essays on morals and virtues.

I have struggled with religion, as we all have, and ultimately I have come to the conclusion that it is best to focus on men’s actions. If a man does bad things in the world, and hurts his fellows, then he is a bad man. If he does good things, then he is a good man. It matters little what motivates men to do good or bad. What matters is what they do. Religion is useful when it creates morality, but a morality arrived at independently of religion is just as valid as one arrived at through religion. The same goes for happiness.

The phrase “Is there nothing sacred?” is an American cliché, used to describe anything which is shocking, or which violates a taboo. Rarely is the question meant seriously, and rarely is it seriously answered. But to answer the question, no. Nothing is sacred, or at least nothing should be. Everything must be questioned, and everything will be questioned. In the process of questioning we can change both the world and ourselves.

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  • Nancy

    Excellent thread & good points. Most people are unable to separate pure Religion – belief in God & God’s mandates – from organized religion, which is nothing more than man-made and invariably more interested in questions of power, influence, & money than the welfare of its adherents. Religion per se is a good thing: it inspires some to rise to heights of spiritual nobility, and threatens others with staying on the straight & narrow; organized religion is the curse of the world, & has been from the beginning, no exceptions: nothing but a barefaced sham & power grab by the Haves to control the Have-Nots.

  • Bliffle

    Good article. Reminded me that’s it’s been too long since I last read the transcendentalists. How refreshing to see their hopeful message that a person can discover truth and morality for himself if he but look.

    The major religions seem hopeless by comparison. Their unending lust for more power assures that religion becomes the tool of oppressors. And one of their principle tactics seems to be to arrogate to themselves the role of arbiter of morals: they are entitled to judge moral decisions among even the irreligious.

  • When a few things are singled out and labeled sacred, then the rest, by default, are ripe for plunder. Rather than nothing being sacred, maybe better to view everything as sacred. We might then stop and consider the effects of our actions toward the sacred mundanity of everyday life and the ground beneath our feet.