Sustainability and the Sacred

medicine pipe

Jonathan Haidt writing in today’s New York Times tells an interesting story about sacredness. Haidt is attempting to explain the vehemence of the “culture” war that the current Republican primary appears to be fighting. Haidt’s thesis is that ideologies, although that’s my word, can become sacred objects, held by “political” tribes engaged in a war to see their side capture the system and put their notions into play. I find it clearer talk about tribal conflicts than culture wars. Those who argue for and against large government, or the causes and remedies for inequality.

Sacred objects are things and ideas that are held in great respect and should not be violated. Haidt connects sacred objects to tribes. It is certainly true that tribes are often constituted around the objects they hold sacred, but sacred objects can exist without tribes. The analogy makes much sense, however, is building an understanding of the schisms in and among political factions today.

The column offers a concise and clear view of the political paradox that people often seem to act and vote in opposition to their best interests. These interests are usually considered to be economic, but Haidt and others argue that people act not as utility maximizers but, rather, in ways to protect the integrity of their sacred objects. This idea of the sacred as being the drivers of people’s actions is completely consistent with the notion that rationality is a process designed to win arguments, not as commonly held, a process to arrive at the truth. (See my earlier post on this.) In indigenous cultures where structures of scientific knowledge were relatively undeveloped, sacred objects were created and invoked as the highest forms of truths, and were used by the powerful in those tribal cultures to dominate and control the behavior of others. This historical explanation supports the idea of reason as a process designed to prevail in linguistic contests.

One myth of modernity is that tribes and their have disappeared from our societies and that our arguments are resolved by some form of logical rationality. Rationality or reasonableness, in this context, means that the ultimate truth of a statement or assertion is determined by a set of logical relationships, based on objective, scientifically determined data. But that is only a myth. The idea of sacred, especially in a modern culture, is primarily associated with religions. Haidt uses the term in its most basic form without an allusion to religion.

I teach a class called, “Seeing sustainability through a spiritual lens,” and begin the course with a definition of sacred that I think is useful here.

This condition meets one of the dictionary definitions of sacred — sacred things are held in reverence. Another dictionary definition of sacred is ‘properly immune from violence, interference, etc.’ A sacrilege is the violation or profanation of anything sacred or held sacred. If one accepts these definitions of sacred, then the goals and conditions for a sustainable world become sacred. (John Cairns, Jr., "Sustainability and sacred values," Ethics in Science and Environmental Policy, 2002:15-27.)

To those holding something sacred, no explanation is necessary; they simply are objects demanding reverence as Cairns defines it. The sacred objects emerging in early indigenous cultures were the results of experiences that could not be explained by facts that were already understood through reason. These experiences were inherently transcendental simply because they could not be explained. Many sacred objects of earlier cultures lost their special characteristics as the experiences out of which they emerged could be explained through reason. Eclipses were held in awe for a long time until their natural explanations were developed.

In early times, it is reasonable to assume that sacred objects may have dominated the discourses in those cultures. The objective facts by which our culture explains almost everything were few and far between. Since the Enlightenment and the refinement of the scientific method, facts derived through empirical and theoretical processes far outweigh sacred objects as determinants of the truth. Reasonable argumentation has become normal in our modern societies. One of the most common pejorative statements we can make is that someone is acting unreasonably.

When faced with an argument based on a sacred object, those opposed will almost always adopt the normal path and attempt to counter the argument with a reasoned counterargument presenting their side. Haight argues differently and suggests that in these situations the opposing sides will look more as if they were at war with one another.

When sacred objects are threatened, we can expect a ferocious tribal response. The right perceives a “war on Christianity” and gears up for a holy war. The left perceives a “war on women” and gears up for, well, a holy war.

I agree with his treatment. In agreeing, I find myself worrying a great deal about both the process and outcome of the upcoming election. At the extreme, tribes win their most important inter-tribe arguments by real wars, largely zero-sum games or winner take all conflagrations. Haidt points out the obvious danger to our country from this situation. The Enlightenment trust in reason that was so critical in the establishment of the American governmental system disappears in these cases with very uncertain consequences.

As usual, I look for a connection to sustainability. Sacred objects always have a story attached. The story explains their importance and lays out the expected respectful behavior that members of the tribe should exhibit. Any culture can be illuminated through the stories that establish its fundamental beliefs and norms.The New York Times article is about a cultural war embedded in a larger society. In normal times, that which is sacred in the larger society keeps the actions of those who hold opposing views within some set of acceptable limits. We are now facing a situation where this process of self-control no longer appears to be effective.

As I argue, sustainability as flourishing can emerge only from a culture with fundamentally different beliefs and norms than those of our current one. Metaphorically this means the transformation of the present modern culture with its many sacred objects that underlie our behavior with an entirely new culture. New sacred objects must replace the old. I won’t go into the details here as I have written about these in previous blogs and in my book. But the important ones are an entirely different story about how the world works (complexity) and what it is to be human (Being not having).

If the culture wars being observed today appear to be intractable and dangerous, just imagine the war over a new sustainability culture that is almost certain to be fought in the same way that we are fighting over conceptual sacred objects today. Cairns's last sentence argues that sustainability itself is a sacred object. Thomas Kuhn spoke of revolutions in science as a replacement of one paradigm with another. Paradigms, in essence, are nothing but a story and a collection of sacred objects central to the story. Kuhn observed that any such shifts in paradigms would be fiercely contested within the discipline (metaphorically equivalent to a “tribe”) involved. Science has developed over the course of such shifts by applying a process of change which has proven effective in avoiding the kind of wars we see today.

If we cannot find a way to peaceably resolve differences over the sacred positions of factions in the political system, it is certainly going to be more difficult to deal with our differences as we move from one set of sacred objects called modernity to an entirely new paradigm. I believe that the sacred objects that constitute this new paradigm are quite clear. We do not, however, have much of a clue as to how to avoid wars among those who will cling to their old and outmoded sacred objects and those for whom sustainability is such a powerful image that they are willing to give up the old ones and live their lives in reverence to the new. Haidt’s work focuses on the political system; there are many lessons here that are highly relevant for those aiming to transform the current culture to one enabling sustainability to emerge. I believe we have no choice but to move along, but, hopefully, the inevitable revolution with be relatively peaceful.

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1 Comments

David M Carter said:

I've been pondering this essay for the past few days. I'm a fan of Jon Haidt, and have followed his work fairly closely. He's known as a "positive psychologist", studying the ins and ots of human well-being.

One of the things that has bothered me about the science of psychology is its strict adherence to being descriptive rather than prescriptive, and its avoidance of moral considerations, except in terms of academic value. By way of this indoctrination, it's easy to present and diagnose something like the "holy" war between conservatives (Christianity) and progressives (women) as if both sides have equal value. What the psychological perspective leaves out, in this case, is the moral of the story.

Christianity (like any religion) is a belief system, which has no real basis in reality. There can be no suffering for that which does not exist. What is at stake for those who hold Christianity as sacred is the loss of a belief system, which has significance from an existential perspective, but is really not putting anything of material value at risk. Women, on the other hand, are real, and support of their suffering is a real moral consideration. By Haidt positioning these two sides and calling them both sacred, he misses that point that one side has a basis in reality that affects the real lives of millions of women, while the other side has no "skin in the game". They are not morally equal.