Sunday, 8 January 2012

Is Nothing Sacred?

This is a recording of my broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Friday 9th December 2011. This is what I originally wrote but I cut it down to fit within the 1 minute 30 seconds allowed:

Good morning. Is nothing sacred? The dictionary definitions of the word sacred include such ideas as “dedicated to a deity” and “religious respect”. A less dogmatic meaning of the word sacred is something especially worthy of awe and reverence. Can an atheist like me find anything to arouse this sense of the sacred in the world around them? We often read about pressing environmental concerns such as pollution. Would it help to view the natural world as something sacred? This is certainly how our pagan ancestors viewed nature but I don’t think that in our modern industrialised world it is helpful to see nature as in some way inviolable or something on which we should not intrude. I think a better approach is to use our scientific rationality to understand the causal relationships active in the natural world so that we can mitigate the negative consequences of our way of life. What else might people think of as sacred? What about a famous painting, or the fossilised remains of an early human ancestor, or even a football stadium or sports trophy? How about ideas such as freedom and liberty or even life itself? I think the value of human life is to some extent contingent on the quality of life experienced by the person living it and there are some circumstances where voluntary death can ease suffering. For me, the idea of liberty comes close to an idea I might think sacred which means that a just society is one in which basic liberties are available to everyone, but of course, even that idea comes with some caveats. Humanism is unjustly derided by the religious as representing a crassly materialistic attitude to life, but if it is about anything it is about thinking deeply about what gives value to human existence. Aside from the obvious religious associations, phrases such as “sacred cow” suggest ideas unreasonably held to be above questioning and beyond criticism. Perhaps contemplating what might be considered sacred in an open-minded and sceptical way is more fruitful than concluding that anything actually is.