As someone who inhabits the cultural world of the college-aged, I am seldom caught off guard by irreverence. Recently, however, I was surprised by a sticker I noticed on an acquaintance’s car. It was the familiar Christian symbol of the fish, but the icon was superimposed with the word “SATAN”.
My surprise came from the incongruity of the situation. While the parody was almost certainly an expression of humor (as opposed to hostility), this person was too well-mannered, I thought, to take so lightly the religious beliefs of others. I was sure she would not have intentionally risked making an offense. The likeliest explanation for her unexpected disrespect is probably not malice or even mischief, but rather a lack of understanding of what religious symbols can mean to others; an inadequate sense of the sacred (the transcendently valuable).
My generation lives at the intersection of fascinating civilizational movements, including ebbing religiosity, an impersonal, internet-driven mass media, and a flourishing of individualist thinking, to name a few. Each of these shifts in culture has had its way of shrinking the class of symbols our society collectively holds sacred, and each has deadened our sensitivity to the symbols that remain, religious or otherwise.
This phenomenon is not entirely new, as we can see by observing the ebbs and flows of history. However, while religious ridicule in history was most often intentional and polemic, the modern mocker is surprisingly simplistic, and shockingly casual. We see this in its essence on the internet: the medium of choice for the post-adolescent blasphemer is the “meme”, where a simple image is captioned with a one or two-line joke. An image of Mary, for example, with a caption suggesting that Christianity is the result of her lying about an affair. An absurd, belittling depiction of Jesus. An image of someone praying, with sarcastic annotation about the uselessness of prayer. Our societal misfortune is not just that irreverence is pervasive, but that it comes from ignorance. More and more young people do not see why they should respect the sacred symbols that are their cultural heritage. Or even, perhaps, any symbol that others revere, such as the red poppy worn by Canadians in November.
As each generation vulgarizes one formerly sacred cultural practice or object, they leave one fewer for the next generation. These symbols do not easily reappear, because children seldom sanctify what their parents treated as common. Of course, culture has perhaps always evolved in this way. The disappearance of sacred symbols need not necessarily mean anything dire. But if the present slow death of sanctity really is unprecedented, then we would do well to consider the dangers.
Sacredness need not be its own justification; scientists are beginning to suspect that it performs an important anthropological role. Jonathan Haidt, a secular moral psychologist, believes that “we evolved to see sacredness all around us and to join with others into teams that circle around sacred objects, people and ideas.” For a period after the attacks of 9/11, for example, Americans felt more united than they had perhaps felt in years; patriotism swelled and flags flew on more houses than had flown them for decades. The idea that America and its security were sacred seemed to renew the mutual goodwill and unity of Americans. Until recently in the West, there was a common reverence for the Judeo-Christian tradition. Leaving aside commentary on the value of Christianity (or Judaism) itself, it is hard to dispute that this common worship endowed our civilization with a set of symbols that defined our collective identity—in fact, modern definitions of “civilization” often rest on the idea of a common set of symbols.
A second justification for sacredness is revealed by considering what it is that we sanctify. Many of us consider children to be sacred. We place no earthly price on their protection. We value them almost infinitely. Marriage and religion were once seen this way, and many of us continue to see them this way. What these sacred things have in common—children, marriage, religion—is that they are vulnerable, costly, and have an extraordinary practical value that is invisible at first glance. We have collectively learned, over the millennia, to treat them as having transcendent value so that we never make the mistake of losing them, even though their cost is more apparent than their value. The norms and injunctions that surround sacred things serve to protect these things—the vulnerable, costly and valuable. We have begun to feel the effects of losing these norms—the Brookings Institution recently estimated that the US poverty rate would be 25% lower if marriage rates were what they were in the 1960s. Europe is now bearing the costs of plummeting birth rates, as the workforce stops growing while retiree numbers swell.
My last fear about the withering of sacredness in our society is one I have alluded to: that it will make us unsympathetic and callous toward minority groups with sacred beliefs, even if we are normally tolerant and friendly. My secular acquaintance did not seem to take much thought that her sticker might have hurt someone else. It is not that today’s twenty-somethings hold nothing sacred; most would place a near-infinite value on their own lives, the lives of their loved ones, or of their pets. But in these cases there is no conscious acknowledgement of sacredness in itself: the word would be written off as belonging to religion. If my generation, more than its parents, feels at liberty to mock Christianity, what will be the next generation’s attitude toward Islam or Hinduism? Can sympathy toward sacredness persist among those who have never believed in it?
A defense of sacredness is not necessarily a justification of any sacred object in particular, and it is left to our own discretion to worship what we will. But in our pluralistic society it seems essential at least to take seriously that which is holy to our friends and neighbors. If instead we slouch into casual mockery and lose our sense of the sacred, we will have carelessly squandered our civilizational inheritance, trampling as the swine the pearls that were cast our way.