Sacred? To Whom?

I’ll admit right off the top that I have a problem with the concept that “life is sacred,” not that I don’t feel that my life, and that of my wife and children and grandchildren aren’t sacred to me.  But various religions justify various positions on social issues on the grounds that human life is “sacred.”  I have to ask the question why human life, as opposed to other kinds of life, is particularly special – except to us.

Once upon a time, scientists and others claimed that Homo sapiens were qualitatively different and superior to other forms of life.  No other form of life made tools, it was said.  No other form of life could plan logically, or think rationally.  No other form of life could communicate.  And, based on these assertions, most people agreed that humans were special and their life was “sacred.”

The only problem is that, the more we learn about life on our planet, the more every one of these assertions has proved to be wrong.  Certain primates use tools; even Caledonian crows do.  A number of species do think and plan ahead, if not in the depth and variety that human beings do.  And research has shown and is continuing to show that other species do communicate, from primates to gray parrots.  Research also shows that some species have a “theory of mind,” again a capability once thought to be restricted to human beings. But even if one considers just Homo sapiens, the most recent genetic research shows that a small but significant fraction of our DNA actually comes from Neandertal ancestors, and that genetic research also indicates that Neandertals had the capability for abstract thought and speech.  That same research shows that, on average, both Neandertals and earlier Homo sapiens had slightly larger brains than do people today.  Does that make us less “sacred”?

One of the basic economic principles is that goods that are scarce are more valuable, and we as human beings follow that principle, one might say, religiously – except in the case of religion.  Human beings are the most common large species on the planet earth, six billion plus and growing.  Tigers and pandas number in the thousands, if that.  By the very principles we follow every day, shouldn’t a tiger or a panda be more valuable than a human?  Yet most people put their convenience above the survival of an endangered species, even while they value scarce goods, such as gems and gold, more than common goods.

Is there somehow a dividing line between species – between those that might be considered “sacred” and those that are not?  Perhaps… but where might one draw that line?  A human infant possesses none of the characteristics of a mature grown adult.  Does that make the infant less sacred?  A two year old chimpanzee has more cognitive ability than does a human child of the same age, and far more than a human infant.  Does that make the chimp more sacred?  Even if we limit the assessment of species to fully functioning adults, is an impaired adult less sacred than one who is not?  And why is a primate who can think, feel, and plan less sacred than a human being?  Just because we have power… and say so?

Then, there’s another small problem.  Nothing on the earth that is living can survive without eating in some form or another something else that is or was living.  Human beings do have a singular distinction there – we’re the species that has managed to get eaten less by other species than any other species.  Yes… that’s our primary distinction… but is that adequate grounds for claiming that our lives, compared to the lives of other thinking and feeling species, are particularly special and “sacred”?

Or is a theological dictum that human life is sacred a convenient way of avoiding the questions raised above, and elsewhere?

15 Responses to “Sacred? To Whom?”

  1. Shawn says:

    It’s fairly obvious that you aren’t a great supporter of religion. However, to answer your question I think we need to look at your understanding of the word “sacred.” It does not merely mean valuable. It connotes a relationship to holy. The inherent worth of the human person is conveyed by the possession of the soul. That spark of the infinite (which you may or may not acknowledge). That’s the thing that both the human infant and the mature human share in equal measure. It’s not a convenient way to avoid the questions raised above. It’s just that those questions don’t have any bearing on the fundamental connection of human to the divine.

    Now, it seems that what you really want to say is that humans aren’t special because there is no God who made them so.

  2. Lee, I ponder these questions sometimes, and for lack of a better answer, I have to conclude that I am just a good old fashioned homo sapiens chauvanist pig. I agree that it’s important to manage other life forms — as resources, as components of a healthy ecology, as scientific subjects, as beautiful in their own way — but when we get right down to it, yes, the reason humans are “special” and other animals are not, is that we can kill/eat far more of them, than they can of us.

    Not a very elegant or philosophically refined argument, I know. But sometimes the simplest answers wind up being the best answers.

    If or when some other life form — terrestrial or alien — comes along that can “knock us of,” well then it’s going to be up to the human species to prove if it really is Top Dog on Earth, or just another food animal.

    As for all human life being sacred, I personally believe that humans in the womb and at birth are precious — as unformed, blank people with tantalizing and unknown potential which has not yet been tapped. But once a human being reaches adulthood — even young adulthood — that human being’s ‘value’ to the species can be negated through any number of acts on the part of that person.

    Just recently we saw in the news the wife and her husband who brutally savaged and murdered the woman’s young son. Regardless of what reasons those two had for committing that kind of brutal act, I’d argue that such human beings as these have largely forfeited their value to the human society.

  3. While I’m a believer in evolution rather than the Biblical creation, even if God — or another deity — created humans, that still doesn’t answer the questions I’ve posed (because that deity then had to create everything else) unless that deity is either irrational or arbitrary… and neither characteristic strikes me as particularly appropriate or desirable for a deity.

  4. David Sims says:

    That kind of “value” is called “human dignity,” and it is a social construct. It’s a social fiction having no existence, except insofar as people agree to recognize it. In dealings with people who do not agree, or with wild animals, or with the forces of nature, someone depending on this “value” would find out quickly enough that it serves him not at all.

    Imagine that you’re in an overcrowded lifeboat. The boat is riding so low that it’s barely above the water level. A little more weight, or a large wave, will sink the boat, and everyone will die.

    Now, on the horizon, a storm is coming. The boat will surely sink unless it is made lighter, which means that some people must be pitched out of the boat, in order that not everyone will die. Naturally, you’d want to minimize the number of people eliminated and maximize the number of people spared.

    But where do you begin? Well, on the theory that the value of each person is equal, the value density of each person is inversely proportional to his weight. So you’d start by pitching the fatties overboard, since for each fat person you toss, you can spare two normal adults, or four children.

    On the other hand, does each person really have equal value? No, of course not. Some are more valuable than others. The one person who you must NOT toss out of the overcrowded lifeboat is the navigator, the fellow who knows where the boat is relative to the nearest seaports and shipping lanes. If you lose him, the odds for survival of everyone else goes way down.

    Human dignity is a lousy way of determining human value.

  5. Michael says:

    For me, the idea that human life is sacred comes down to a religious belief that I am created in the image of God. I do not presume to know the method in which God created me, nor the timeline, so the idea that I was created through the means of evolution is not entirely implausible.

    Based on that premise, I believe that while God values all life on earth, humans are his premier creation, and as such, are given precendence over the other creations.

    However, this also bestows a responsibility for humans to use that precedence wisely, which has not always been the case.

    On the flip side, if one looks at the nature of Darwinism, does not each species attempt to survive, and even thrive, using whatever advantages it has gained via evolution or adaptation.

    I would argue that each species values its own life above all others which means that each species considers its species’ lives to be “sacred.”

  6. Aaron says:

    I think the average atheist, agnostic, and theist would all agree in the basic, overriding value of human life. Because of that I disagree with the assertion that “theological dictums” states human life is sacred.

    An atheist/agnostic may not be able to specifically state why they feel this way, because your points are completely valid. There is certainly more scientific/biological value in saving the theoretical 1,000 tigers from extinction vs. saving 1,000 humans from death. Absent the ability to believe in some sort of absolute truth/value, logic would dictate we as a species should practice complete moral relativism, not saving excess, worthless human flesh unless needed for the survival of the human species.

    Even countries and societies that completely deny any sort of higher power still have broadly similar laws in regard to human life as the religious society. Not sure how such is even possible without a vast majority of humans having an innate understanding of right and wrong based on “religious” precepts.

    Maybe it is purely evolutionary survival mechanisms, or maybe people do have some sort of conscience. Of course the post merely asks the question…for each of us to decide for ourselves. You know what grandpa said about opinions…

  7. christoph says:

    This is a great thread. I agree with almost everything you say, Mr. Modesitt, but as usual in very different ways and for different reasons.

    My problem is not with humanism, but the the unfortunate human tendency to “sacramentalize”, if you will. The moment we view any object (whether formed of matter or mind) as “sacred” we have inherently prohibited ourselves from simply being aware of what appears. Instead, we have to mold our perception of the appearance of whatever material or mental object we are viewing as “sacred” so that we can hold onto that view.

    Of course, since I am a tantric Buddhist, I am of the opinion that human birth is amazingly precious because the freedom from the near-constant animal fear of becoming prey allows us to consciously speed our evolution by deciding to practice well-informed meditation.

  8. Tim says:

    Religion is a poor yardstick by which to measure the value of life. There is no gold standard by which to compare adequately.

    If you think of the situation in terms of science, one cannot adequately observe the situation when one is actually part of the hypothesis. Am I part of the control group? Are there positive and negative controls? Who defines the experimental group?

    The only real answer is to maintain strong mutual respect and trust… until there is a reason to withdraw it – and not before. And then there should be consequences if you are the one who broke the trust or showed the disrespect.

    But that won’t happen without a radical change in society since the people with the power are the ones who are more likely to define their group as the ‘more worthy’ within society and therefore getting the better resources… if they do not maintain the proper respect towards those who do not have their advantages.

  9. hockey fan says:

    Humans are just another type of animal. We are superior mentally to all other creatures, although maybe not in all facets of our intelligence. What makes us special is our understanding of science and technology, our ability to make machines, our ability to improve ecosystems for other life (being great stewards of the land), and the possibility that we may someday find a way to spread life over the stars and get it farther spread than just this weak defenseless planet.
    Of course our bad points are that are species as a whole cares very little for life in general, we are willing to kill ourselves long term for short term gain, and we are willing to let things get worse as long as they don’t appear to hurt us immediately.
    We should care far more about other life than we do. However, it is completely instinctual that we care about our own species more than any other and I think that it is right that we do.

    You’re right though about the human life is sacred arguement, either all life is sacred or no life is as it was all created by God. The idea that human life is somehow worth more is pure arrogance according to that logic. Yet these same people who argue human life is sacred have nothing against hunting for fun, or destroying forests for momentary profits.

  10. hob says:

    One’s offspring and their continual survival and happiness are sacred and from those values we derive all other seemingly non connected values.

  11. Rob says:

    The thing that strikes me the most while reading this post and its widely varying responses is how each treats their own concept of reality and those of others as something that is best called a “figment.” Some potentially real but unsubstantiated thought process not worth more than any other, regardless of its reflection of actual Reality.

    In my head, a comparable example is a scenario where I set a red cup on a table and ask a dozen people what they see. Some say obviously its a red cup. Others due to biological differences can’t see red so call it a brown cup. Others don’t have any concept of Red in their language/culture so call it yellow.
    Without getting into the social derivations of object/concept definition:
    My Perception: This is a red cup. 100%, undoubted, absolute fact. Red Cup.
    Other Perceptions: In my brain are not reflections of reality but will cause alterations in my associations with your perception and subsequent reactions.

    A perfect example of this is in Adiamantite. The protagonist had a view of reality that conflicted with the antagonist’s enough to induce violence. The problem is that the antagonist group held rock-solid to a view of reality that refused to absorb previously unknown or ignored facts (facts, not views) and the protagonist was unable due to his concept of reality to adjust his interaction enough to deal with them.

    Now, I put before you a Red Cup. You may treat it like a urinal because of bad history or social deviance or a holy-water dispenser due to some divine blessing upon specific material objects. But, it remains 100% a red cup.

    Like this cup holds value only as long as it continues to serve its purpose, so doesn’t the value of everything else in this reality.

    Given that I respect your views greatly Mr. Modesitt and have read your books since I was a wee kiddo and subsequently your views have made a drastic impact on me and my family and our world-view. I can completely and with full faith that in some areas you are most definately not seeing the Red Cup. Or at the least are writing with the presumption that the Red Cup is a figment.

    The Truth. (remember, 100% certain, 100% perfect, -50% understood).
    1) God Created everything.
    2) Everything has a purpose and specific design
    3) The Soul, contrary to another poster, is originally defined as a combination of the Dust from which mankind was created and the breath of God. Religious evolution has redefined it as a portion of God that returns to him on death of the host. Jesus is God, Jesus is the Word, the Word created mankind, the Word defines the aspect of Creation. The Soul is described as ceasing at demise with the breath of God returning and the dust decaying with the original occupant “knowing not any thing nor glorifying God.”
    4) Mankind was given dominance of the Earth to be a caretaker. Would anyone like their Mom & Dad to provide care like humans do to the Earth? How about the healthcare providers with our sick and dying?
    5) Everything was created by God, nothing should be wasted or destroyed without … I can’t think of a reasonable word that can’t be combated at every turn. Just cause… Absolute need……. Reference the mentality found in Adiamantite.

    I’d combat most of your post Mr. Modesitt by arguing that “sacredness” is in human terms is simply lip-service for an alterior motive akin to manifest destiny. If people truly thought humanity was sacred above everything else… why then do they dump waste near schools to cause astronomical increases in asthma or any other number of examples where behavior and world-view don’t match expressed intentions. aka Politics.

    -Rob
    Again, thank you Mr. Modesitt for thinking, someone has to do it.

  12. Except that… if I see your red cup as a crutch… and you assert that I fail to see it as a cup, and red, you are asserting, de facto, that your view of that object is the “truth.” I don’t deny that the concept of “sacred” exists. The concept is no figment, but I question its basis. As for pollution, waste dumping, and all the other human activities contrary to healthy lives, or to life itself, the question remains, “sacred to whom?”

  13. Rob says:

    Well sir, as an adherent to the ultimate creator of all things. I’d have to say of course, God himself.

    You don’t question the existence of the “red cup,” simply to whom it is of value and for what reasons?

    It must be of some value to the maker, no?

    All derivations of Judeo-christian religions that ascribe sacredness to one thing or another rather than the whole are erroneous interpretations of sinful men.

    Any other definition of sacredness, defined by anything other than the God of the Bible who is the author of all things, would fall far short of the mark.

    I should break here and say that the thoughts that go through my head both seem to fall far short of the intended elloquence as well as seem far more logical and reasonable while they remain in my own head. Someday sir, I’d love to achieve even a fraction of your writing ability.

    Now, given that this is my Red Cup, this isn’t an attempt by some ignorant christian prick to push his beliefs off onto you. Nor will I ever attempt to create laws requiring you to pay homage to said Red Cup, nor teach people in schools to be silent before said Cup :P

    What I will do however is pay the taxes to the government so that they can insult the red cup, pay for schools that teach the children that said Cup was create a long time ago from nothing by nobody and thus holds no value to anyone except what each person defines.

    Then, I’ll pick these kids, the evergrowing percentage that drops of out school, and show them a way of life that is profitable to the heart due to its understanding that the cup is infact Red. Understanding that the Cup is Red and is infact a Cup, not a crutch, will cascade an understanding of the value of all things and their place and value in the whole scheme of life and why the Potter was right and just in creating the Red Cup exactly as he did and why one day, he’ll shatter it and remake it whole and perfect and we’ll understand why.

    So you see Sir, people (generalization) don’t view anything as sacred. Not their own bodies, those of others, the world they live in, no concept, no ideal, nothing. If they themselves are worth nothing, why then should anything else be. Let everyone then seek to do what is right in his own eye. That is, until the Potter comes back blender is infact a blender and chastises us for attempting to use it as a hammer. Especially when he left strict instructions to “not use for the other use” (reference to comical instructions placed on common objects, look up the Husqvarna Chainsaw one, it’ll cause quite a giggle).

  14. Sorwen says:

    First, I want to say that I’ve always been of the opinion that God doesn’t disprove evolution and evolution doesn’t disprove God. If you take it from the God point of view and for whatever reason it was need to explain the universe and your a being that knows everything wouldn’t you have to speak down to your audience? Wouldn’t you need to coach everything in simple terms to begin with and work up to the difficult ones? Wouldn’t it be easier for instance to say “I create you in my own image” rather than say “I created a single cell organism and found him really boring so I create evolution so over time he would change. Every few millennium I kinked life a bit so that it would say on track and in another 20 billion years you will finally get were I wanted you. That is supposing you don’t destroy yourselves first”.

    It is like pork. Maybe God did say one shouldn’t eat pork. Maybe he meant just not right now. At the time it was often improperly prepared and people would die from food poisoning. Still I’m open to the possibility god didn’t say anything. For instance maybe God never said pork is bad. The rabbi seeing his flock die because they are eating improperly prepared pork realizes the idiots are not going to stop. So he sneaks in God said no pork for you!

    So now about sacred. I feel it is used only ever used in arrogance or greed. Man is the center of the universe so surely their life is more sacred than any other. Sacred comes down to nothing more than a justification for an action or thought that someone wants in spite of anything else. It is like some of those people against abortion that killed a doctor. If all life is “sacred” what can be the justification for doing something like that. And if human life is truly sacred on its own how can some leave a baby in a dumpster. If we were truly sacred wouldn’t something at least move the individual to place the child were it could be found?

    We are a being like any other on this world (whether plant or animal) and our place should be no higher or lower than anothers. There should be a compromise between it all and if anyone says there are situations were you can’t compromise they simply haven’t thought about it long enough. How much of our own fate have we sealed by destroying things like plants in the rain forest because our lives or lively hood was more sacred?

    Sorry, I think at some point I started preaching.

  15. Caitlin says:

    I think the average atheist, agnostic, and theist would all agree in the basic, overriding value of human life. Because of that I disagree with the assertion that “theological dictums” states human life is sacred.

    An atheist/agnostic may not be able to specifically state why they feel this way, because your points are completely valid. There is certainly more scientific/biological value in saving the theoretical 1,000 tigers from extinction vs. saving 1,000 humans from death. Absent the ability to believe in some sort of absolute truth/value, logic would dictate we as a species should practice complete moral relativism, not saving excess, worthless human flesh unless needed for the survival of the human species.

    Even countries and societies that completely deny any sort of higher power still have broadly similar laws in regard to human life as the religious society. Not sure how such is even possible without a vast majority of humans having an innate understanding of right and wrong based on “religious” precepts.

    Maybe it is purely evolutionary survival mechanisms, or maybe people do have some sort of conscience. Of course the post merely asks the question…for each of us to decide for ourselves. You know what grandpa said about opinions…

Leave a Reply

You must enable javascript to see captcha here!