Is Nothing Sacred?

This old cliché is meant to be answered with a hearty “Yes!” and is usually thrown out there when something obviously IS sacred to the questioner. I had a memory that Ed Muskie said this in 1972 when he was running for president and the newspaper in Manchester, NH attacked his wife. That would have been a good moment to crank out this rhetorical device, but apparently he never did, at least I can’t find a record of it. But most of us would, I think, answer yes to this question unquestionably. I say “I think” because I was surprised to learn that some people are allergic to this word.

I joined an atheist discussion group recently and sent in an announcement that my book Seven Sacraments for Everyone had been published. The purpose, I explained, was to find common ground–areas of human experience that could bring atheists and theists together—something we desperately need to do. Apparently this was like asking all sides to bring a picnic lunch to the grounds of the Chernobyl nuclear reactors. There was an immediate reaction that the words “sacrament” and “sacred” were dooming my book from the start because they were too tied in to traditional religion. I tried to counter that, of course they began in religious contexts, but the meanings of all words can change and these have now added a metaphoric meaning, divorced from religion, but they would have none of it. I tried to give examples of non-religious sacred moments, like the birth of a child or the funeral of a relative. That’s why we don’t want the Westboro Baptist Church showing up at funerals—they’re sacred times of grieving and communion (another religious word!), and I would have thought “argument over,” but no. One person wrote me back saying that she would never describe a funeral as sacred. The word is just too religious.
So there we have it. Atheists accuse fundamentalist Christians of taking the words of the Bible too literally, but isn’t this the same thing in reverse? A kind of metaphor-myopia? If we can’t use “sacred” or “holy” or “sacrament” or “sacrosanct”, what’s the option? How about: “More-special-than-anything-else-in-the-world, something-demanding-respect,-and-awe,-something-that-should-not-be-treated lightly-or-ignored-and-neglected.” But that’s too long. Sacred and its brethren capture it all so elegantly and in an age where more and more people are abandoning their traditional religions, we still need those words to help us carve out moments in our lives that are….um, sacred.


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