Sexuality as Secularly Sacred

Alexander R. Prass

The concept of the sacred is generally thought to be a religious concept and hence not an acceptable part of secular discourse. I will begin by arguing that the sacred and the secular are not opposed and the sacred can substantively figure in secular discourse, as well as sketching some central features of the sacred. Second, I will turn to sexuality and argue that it can reasonably be seen as sacred, and that this can explain a number of our puzzling intuitions about sex, such as the strength of consent requirements and the puzzling connection between sex and privacy. When taken together with some of the earlier general observations on the sacred, this will in turn suggest an ethical attitude of caution towards sex, one on which the usual ethical presumption of permissibility is replaced by a presumption of impermissibility which becomes more pressing the further we depart from the central case of reproductive coitus.

This paper does not constitute a detailed moral account of sexuality. It will not definitively settle many specific questions of what is and what is not permissible. But it will suggest an underexplored direction for further investigation.

I The Secular and the Sacred

The sacred is central to all religions. It is tempting to conclude from this that anyone claiming that something is sacred has departed from secular discourse. But that would be a mistake. After all, the concept of the human is also central to most if not all religions. But to claim that, say, Biden and Trump are human is a part of secular discourse. There need be nothing religious about attributing humanity to Biden and Trump, whether in speech or in thought. The mere fact that a concept is central to a religion, or even to most religions, does not preclude that concept from playing an important role in secular thought.

One way, however, in which the attribution of a concept to some item (say, object, activity, or institution) is religious rather than secular in nature is when the reasons for the attribution are religious in nature. In fact, the attribution of the same concept to the same item can be religious in one case and secular in another, simply depending on the reasons for the attribution. If Alice thinks that Biden and Trump are human because she subscribes to a religion whose sacred texts imply that all verbally skilled bipeds are human, then her attribution of humanity to Biden and Trump is religious in nature. But someone else—and even Alice herself in another context—could attribute humanity to Biden and Trump on purely scientific grounds. So, we can talk of epistemically secular and religious attribution of the same concept.

There is also a pragmatic distinction between secular and religious attributions of a concept. Attribution of a concept is a speech act, and speech acts have a pragmatic dimension. One can do different things with an attribution. For instance, saying “There are millions of oppressed people around the world” can attribute oppression religiously when it is done as part of a prayer (presumably for the relief of the oppression) and secularly when it is a remark by a public school geography teacher.

Admittedly, there might be some concepts that can only be appropriately religiously attributed, either in the epistemic or the pragmatic sense. For instance, a major strand in the Christian tradition holds that it is only by divine revelation that one can know that God is a Trinity, and so attribution of the concept of the Trinity will not be epistemically appropriate apart from revelation. And maybe a religious person could think that some concept—say, the concept corresponding to the Tetra-grammaton, the unspeakable name of God in Judaism—ought only to be employed in religious contexts, so that there is a pragmatic inappropriateness in secular attribution of it.

But is the concept of the sacred essentially religious in one of these ways? Let me begin with a story about how we could acquire the concept of the sacred, paralleling Rudolf Otto’s famous discussion of the closely related concept of the holy (the distinction between the sacred and the holy is a good question for future investigation).1

We have pairs of concepts like these: the strange and the uncanny, the beautiful and the sublime, the scary and the awe-ful, the puzzling and the mysterious, the bad and the accursed. Note how in many of these cases emotions can be used to help pick out one or both concepts in the pair, but the concept is not simply of that which evokes the emotion; the beautiful is not simply what evokes a certain aesthetic pleasure (a direct stimulation of a brain center can presumably evoke that) but what is the appropriate object of that pleasure.

Next observe that in the case of each pair, the second item in the pair is not just an intensification of the first. Indeed, while the second item in each pair tends to be intense, it need not always be. One might reasonably prefer a minor curse to a head injury, and the platypus might be stranger than a slightly uncanny gargoyle.

When we reflect on these paired concepts, we become able to grasp a concept that can be paired with the concept of the good: this concept stands

Sexuality as Secularly Sacred 21 to the good as the accursed stands to the bad and the mysterious to the puzzling. This is, I suggest, is the concept of the sacred. And one need not be religious to acquire the concept of the sacred in the above way, just as one need not be religious to have the concepts of the sublime or the uncanny.

Another path to the concept uses religion, but does not require one’s acceptance of a religion. We all know religious people, and even if we are not religious ourselves, it should be possible for us to imaginatively put ourselves in their shoes and see what it is that they are saying when they proclaim that, say, a temple or a text is sacred. We may not, of course, agree with them in the judgment that the temple or text is sacred, but we know what it is that they are doing when they attribute sacredness to it.

Thus, the concept of the sacred is at least secular in a third sense, besides the epistemic and pragmatic appropriateness senses: one can acquire the concept without subscribing to a religion.

But we can also epistemically appropriately apply the concept of the sacred without subscribing to a religion. Non-religious people sometimes have a sense of the sacred when they look at a beautiful landscape or the night sky. This sense coheres with other judgments: a polluting factory in the middle of the beautiful clearing in the forest is not simply bad, but a defilement or even a curse. Our intuitions and senses yield defeasible epistemic reasons. But there do not seem to be sufficiently strong defeaters against such judgments of sacredness. So, we have a secular reason to believe that aspects of our ecosystem or universe really are sacred.

Furthermore, it is plausible that human life is sacred. Deontological intuitions provide one marker of a qualitative difference between the kind of value that human life has and many other kinds of value. Human life is much more valuable2 than the life of a tree, and so it would typically be one’s moral duty to cut down a dozen trees if that is what it takes to save one human life. But, more interestingly, there is something about humans which forbids intentional killing of one innocent even to save many others, while it is morally unproblematic to cut down a single tree to save two trees. Some religions express the specialness of human beings by saying that humans are in the image of the infinitely holy God. But we do not need to be religious to have the sense of the sacredness of human life, an understanding that murder is not just a wrong, but also a defilement or a sin. And it is not just killing humans that constitutes such a defilement or sin: there is a respect we owe to them that goes far beyond abstinence from killing. Secular thinkers often use the term “dignity” here, but the emotion that the term responds to is that of awe before the sacredness of the human being, and so “sacredness” is quite appropriate.

Objection 1: As admitted above, intuitions and senses are defeasible. A sacred thing has to either be supernatural or appropriately connected with something supernatural. Thus, if naturalism is true, there is nothingsacred, and hence the arguments for naturalism provide a defeater for the intuitions of the sacred.

Responses: It is deeply controversial whether normative properties, like those of ethics and epistemology, have to be taken to be non-natural or supernatural. A defense of the sacred as yet another normative property compatible with naturalism—say, a functional property that can be instantiated by natural things as well as by non-natural things—could be conducted along similar lines.

Nonetheless, it is plausible that the property of being sacred is not a natural property. But it is also not clear that naturalism is committed to all instantiated properties being natural. For instance, abstract objects like numbers are not natural and have non-natural properties, and yet a naturalist need not reject abstract objects. Probably all that a naturalist has to reject is non-natural causation-, i.e., causation by a non-natural entity or by virtue of the possession of a non-natural property. But a naturalist does not have to reject causally inert non-natural properties and entities, such as abstracta, and it is not at all clear that the sacred requires something supernatural that is causally efficacious.

On the other hand, if naturalism is taken broadly enough to exclude causally inert supernatural entities and properties while the sacred is admitted to require the supernatural, then it is not clear that there is any good reason to accept such a strong naturalism beyond Ockham’s razor. But Ockham’s razor does not seem to be by itself a sufficient defeater for perceptual or quasi-perceptual states like the apparent perception of human life as sacred. After all, we certainly wouldn’t want to use Ockham’s razor to defeat our sensory perception, cut away physical reality, and leave us with idealism. On the contrary, if it is shown that the sacred requires the supernatural, then one should take the appearance of the sacredness of the ecosystem or of human life to be evidence against such a strong naturalism.

Finally, even if naturalism in fact rules out the sacred and there are in fact very good arguments for naturalism, nonetheless not all secular thinkers need accept these arguments. There are secular non-naturalists, like Thomas Nagel.3 That they are irrational is far from clear.

Objection 2: Unless we know that the sacred can be given a correct analysis that does not involve God or other supernatural things, the sacred is not a secularly acceptable concept.

Response: A historically prominent account of the philosophy of mathematics is St. Augustine’s theory in De Libero Arbitrio that mathematical objects are ideas in the mind of God. Suppose that somehow we find ourselves in a philosophical position where no account of mathematical objects other than Augustine’s looks satisfactory. Despite being in this philosophical position, mathematics and the science based on it would surely be secularly acceptable. For even if the fact that there are infinitely many primes is actually grounded in the mind of God, this

Sexuality as Secularly Sacred 23 mathematical fact can be secularly known by someone who does not know that the fact is divinely grounded. Thus, being convinced that the mathematical truths are grounded in the mind of God should not preclude us from using mathematics in secular contexts, for our knowledge of these truths is not dependent on our knowledge of God.

Similarly, philosophers have offered theistic accounts of other concepts besides mathematical ones that are also clearly secularly acceptable, such as moral obligation4 or laws of nature.5 Again, even if the theistic account of these concepts should happen to be the best one possible, and even if it should be true, that does not mean that these concepts are themselves secularly unacceptable.

Finally, it is worth noting—admittedly much more controversially— that it is not clear that even a concept involving God cannot be in principle secularly acceptable. For there are non-religious philosophical arguments for the existence of God—say, the Cosmological Argument6 or the Fine-Tuning Argument7—and it is not clear why some metaphysical theses that can be argued for on secular grounds, say that mathematics is objectively true, would be secularly acceptable but others, say that God exists, would not be. If this is right, then even if the concept of the sacred were to make overt reference to God, it could still be secularly acceptable. On this picture, discourse about God is not the sole province of religious thought: there can be secular discourse about God, but it has to be based solely on reason without revelation. But this may be too much of a stretch for many readers.

Objection 3: The line of thought about human life being sacred is a form of romanticism, and romanticism is really a religion.

Response: A notion of religion that is broad enough to include romanticism is an objectionable redefining of too many non-religious people as religious. The alleged romanticism in seeing human life as sacred does not need to include any kind of transaction with the supernatural or any kind of worship of the sort that religion involves. Our secular romantic could well hold to a naturalist theory of the sacred, or at least be open to one.

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