Sacredness pt. 2

Jonathan Morgan  


Last time I wrote about how we reason differently for those things that we consider sacred compared to profane things.  For most of our daily lives, we make decisions using instrumental or utilitarian processing– “is the benefit worth the cost?” But when we’re dealing with sacred objects or values, we switch into a decision-making process that is concerned with right and wrong instead of cost. That’s pretty interesting in and of itself, but it leaves one big question: how do certain things become sacred? Could the banana on my desk become a sacred object? In this post we’ll look at two different strands of research that give us clues into this question.

Not only do we know that people switch out of utilitarian reasoning when they’re thinking about sacred values, we also know that not everyone does this to the same degree. Some folks are more likely than others to consider values as sacred. That may seem obvious– of course religious people will regard more values as sacred than non-religious folks. But, this difference extends beyond the religious values that you might expect. For example, what may seem to be a matter of preference, “do you like Macs or PCs?” can become charged with a sense of right and wrong. For some people, it’s no longer a matter of simply liking Macs more, the preference becomes imbued with the feeling that Macs are just better. In the context of this research: these are preferences that you wouldn’t switch for any amount of money.

Obviously we’re out past the terrain of typical religion, unless you consider the cult of Mac a religion… but that’s an issue for another time. Given this difference between people, it raises the question: why? Why are some people more likely than others to switch into this right/wrong mode of reasoning?

The same guy we talked about last time, the anthropologist Scott Atran, has been working with a team exploring this question. There are some good guesses out there for who might be prone to make things sacred: one would be people who have a high need for closure. Need for closure is a psychological trait describing someone’s preference for structure and their tolerance of ambiguity. As an example, Burning Man would be deeply uncomfortable for someone with a high need for closure. Lots of theorists (such as the wonderful Mary Douglas) have suggested that one of the main functions of ritual and sacredness is to provide structure and order to our inherently ambiguous existence. So it’d make sense that need for closure would correspond with a tendency towards sacralizing values.

Another good guess for what drives this tendency is the trait of disgust sensitivity. Disgust sensitivity is just what it sounds like– how easily you feel grossed out. There’s a developing line of research in moral psychology that suggests we culturally link our disgust reflex with moral judgments. For example, think about the revulsion you feel about certain injustices or crimes. Isn’t revulsion just a synonym of disgust? Some people are more likely than others to feel this disgust, and it turns out that those with higher disgust sensitivity also make stricter moral judgments. So, that’s our second good guess– it seems likely that people with a high sensitivity to disgust, may also be more like to turn preferences into sacred values.

But, when Atran and his team, led by the psychologist Hammad Sheikh, ran their analysis neither of these psychological traits corresponded with the tendency to turn preferences into sacred values. In other words, how well you handle ambiguity and disgust had no relationship to how likely you were to turn simple preferences into sacred issues of right and wrong. That’s one of those exciting moments in social science when all your expectations are turned upside down. But it doesn’t end there.

The one variable that did predict this tendency to sacralize was how often someone performed religious rituals. This could be attending mosque, meditating quietly alone, or taking communion. Those people who performed more rituals were also more likely to transform values into matters of right and wrong. Of course this would make sense if we were only talking about religious preferences, but this tendency held for non-religious preferences too. So even those preferences like “Mac versus PC” or “Coffee versus Tea” were more often sacralized among those who did some sort of religious ritual.

A couple of things are worth mentioning. First– this is a correlational study, so we can’t tell for sure whether religious practice drives the tendency to sacralize or vice versa. Second– they didn’t separate out religious practices, from affiliation or belief. Of those three, actually practicing your religion is probably the best indicator of your religiosity, so kudos to Sheikh, Atran, and colleagues for choosing that one to measure. But, it’d be nice to have a wider picture of these people’s religious profile.

With those caveats in place, we can think about this relationship between practice and sacredness in a couple of different ways. One guess is that there’s a third factor influencing both the tendency to sacralize and the tendency to do religious things. That seems like a good guess, but the primary contenders for such a third variable would be Need for Closure and Disgust Sensitivity. Even if it wasn’t one of those two exactly, by our best theories you’d expect the third variable to at least show up through those two. This, tentatively, weakens the case for a third variable.

Another possibility is that the tendency to sacralize stands alone as a personality trait. If that was the case, then people with this trait could also be drawn to do religious things. This guess describes the causal influence running in one direction. But there are certain conditions, like feeling threatened or experiencing empathy, that can change people’s tendency to sacralize. In other words, the tendency to sacralize is malleable, it changes depending on the situation. Malleability isn’t what you want for a personality trait, which suggests this probably isn’t the characteristic driving the relationship.

The third possibility is that performing rituals actually leads to this tendency to turn preferences into sacred values. You can probably guess from the last two paragraphs that if I had to bet, this is where I’d put my money. My reasons will have to wait for next time, but suffice it to say that I believe that what we do changes what we think, what we believe, and ultimately what we experience. So it could be that performing religious rituals actually changes how you see the world and turns it into a place infused with sacredness. This could transform seemingly normal decisions into issues with moral weight beyond preference. But, that argument will have to wait for next time.


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