The sacredness of God

One of the difficulties I run into in expounding Pascal Boyer's theory of the minimal counterintuitiveness of religious concepts ("MCI theory") is that many people feel that the critical feature of god concepts—the gods’ sacredness or ultimacy—is not explained by the theory. Here I propose a sort of solution to this problem, or at least a response to the objection.

Sacredness, holiness, awesomeness, ultimacy, greatness—these terms (at least in their religious uses) denote a quality that seems to elude definition. Let us denote the quality to which these terms refer as A. A may be a simple quality, or some compound of qualities—I do not know and it does not matter for this discussion.

In my own experience, there was a time when I used these terms because they were used by other people in my religious tradition, and early on I discerned that they were used primarily in reference to God, but occasionally and partially in reference to other things as well. They were part of church language, to be used in religious contexts but not, at least in the same sense, elsewhere. They were abstract and theoretical, unconnected to any perceptible quality, and emotionally sterile. Nonetheless, I knew how to use them in socially appropriate ways. Later, after I had a set of experiences, these terms came to life for me…



they became uniquely apt for describing something that was otherwise indescribable, and connected with a kind of powerful joy. I still use the terms in the same semantic sense, but I use them more often than I used to. And there are times when, in conversation, I can tell that they resonate for someone else the way they do for me, and that this recognition is mutually known, and then this shared experience introduces a new quality to our relationship.



Looking back, I would say that I learned the lexical rules surrounding terms like holy and holy first, and then later experienced A. (I am sure that there is some proper linguistic terminology for this distinction, and I would appreciate it if some commentator would let us all know what it is.) I think this process is in most respects similar to what happens anytime people learn vocabulary associated with a particular kind of experience, and then later have the experience come along and incomparably enrich their understanding of the vocabulary.

If this account is correct, then it suggests an answer to the objection to MCI theory that it does not capture the gods’ sacredness or ultimacy: it suggests that A is an experiential rather than conceptual quality. MCI theory does not address what sorts of experiences people might have with the entities to which MCI concepts refer. There is often—perhaps always—a distinction between experiences and concepts: this distinction underlies the philosophical problem of qualia, the fact that any plausible cognitive description of red or salty or soft seems far removed from the experiences of these things that our cognitive systems deliver. So it is with religious terms like sacred and holy and awesome: they correspond to experiences that are not well captured by any sort of conceptual description. The “solution,” then, is to recognize the generality of the problem.

A final remark: The problem of qualia, as it is usually construed, seems to me illusory. It arises from the expectation that a description will have the same qualities as the thing described—that the only representational strategy is replication. I don’t see any reason to expect this. But I think it is a much bigger issue, one that cuts to the core of psychology, that qualia are considered a problem at all. A science that so marginalizes the thing we know best and care most about—our own lived experience—has seriously lost its way.


  • John Wilkins 28 June 2010 (15:25)

    It seems to me that as primates we have an inbuilt disposition to treat dominant individuals with awe, and God/s is/are the ultimate dominant individuals. That the experience is overwhelming is undeniable, but it is really little more, I believe, than the rush of endorphins and other neurotransmitters that are expressed in submission behaviours among primates. Now, that is possibly a denigrative comment to a believer, in that it implies a “nothing but” explanation, but whatever process it is that humans engage in when submitting to gods and superiors, it must at least be neurological in character. So MCI requires that we defer and submit to superiors as primates, and in fact I think that it depends on that for its purchase. The reason why minimal counterintuitivity has any significance is that we tend to treat those who are more competent than we are with a degree of awe because that is why they have high status. It’s something of a cliche to call gods alpha individuals, but we should perhaps take it seriously.

  • Nicolas Baumard 28 June 2010 (20:48)

    Brian raises here a very interesting question. And I agree with him that sacredness may not be very intuitive. My solution to the problem would be that this is so because sacredness and similar terms like holiness are reflective concepts, not intuitive ones. If I am right, sacredness and holiness are theoretical concept believers have invented while theorizing about the religious practices. For instance, believers may have observed that there is an intuitive contrast between religious things (a church, a mosque, a cemetery, a marriage) and non religious things. When they deal with religious things, they behave in a certain way: they do not wear hat inside a church, they take their shoes off when they enter a mosque, they remain quite in a cemetery, they cannot break a marriage (while they can break ordinary contract). These behaviours may be culturally stabilized by a variety of intuitions (hierarchy as John Wilkins suggests, morality, disgust, etc.) but people may reflect that since all these behaviours are culturally linked to religion, they have something in common. For want of anything better, they reflect that ‘sacredness” is what makes these behaviours depart from others. ‘Sacredness’ does not have to be really specified. It is possible though. For instance, people may use their intuitive physics or their intuitive disgust to represent ‘sacredness’ as a kind of substance incorporated in religious things or as a kind of state that comes from the contact with God and can be transmitted like contagion. There are many other examples of reflective concepts. Take ‘taboo’ for instance. [Here, a ‘Read more’ button would be useful as the following analysis may be a bit long for a comment…] In many culture, people use a particular term to refer to all mystic prohibitions. These prohibitions may exist for a variety of reasons. In a very instretsing [url=]article[/url], Rita Astuti has studied Vezo’s taboos in Southern Madagascar. Lots of behaviours are called ‘taboo’ or ‘faly’ among the Vezo. Here are some examples: 1. Do not kill and do not eat dolphins 2. Do not keep sheep and do not eat their meat 3. Do not point to whales with your finger 4. Do not sell sea turtle meat 5. Do not speak Merina dialect in certain areas at sea 6. Do not throw away crab shells after dark 7. Do not laugh when eating honey 8. Do not have intimate contact with siblings of the opposite sex 9. Do not eat chicken 10. Do not eat lovo (a kind of “bearded” fish) 11. Do not keep lemurs as pets 12. Do not wash a corpse after sunset 13. Do not slaughter living animals 14. Do not pull out facial hair (on the chin, not eyebrows) 15. Do not eat ray-fish liver 16. Do not cut down the farafatse tree to make a canoe 17. Do not wear clothes with red and black colours 18. Do not raise pigs and do not eat pork 19. Do not attend funerals Given the great variety of faly, one can hypothesized that these norms have been culturally stabilized by a great variety of cognitive and ecological factors. However, they are all non intuitive. For instance, the Vezo agree that they are neither right or wrong: [i] “Is eating lovo or sheep meat inherently wrong? And what about throwing away crab shells after dark? Or speaking Merina dialect in certain locations at sea? Vezo adults would agree that none of these actions are in themselves right (mety) or wrong (tsy mety).”[/i] In other words, they are not morally intuitive. But since they call depart from intuitions (Brian would say that they are minimally counter-intuitive), they can all be conceptualized with the same label, faly. ‘Faly’, here, is a reflective concept that help Vezo to think about their various non intuitive norms. For instance, the Vezo entertain the theory that faly is what makes people humans. First, Vezo adults define the difference between human beings and other animals in terms of the unique human capacity to “know taboos” (mahay faly), so that not having taboos is deemed equivalent to not being human (Astuti, 2000). Second, there is a category of people – people of slave descent (andevo) – who are denied full personhood and moral agency. Third, children do not know and cannot understand faly (tsy mahay faly, tsy misy faly). Finally, having a unique category for all non intuitive norms may lead to the emergence of others folk theories. Indeed, the Vezo do not know where the faly come from. Is eating lovo or sheep meat inherently wrong? And what about throwing away crab shells after dark? Or speaking Merina dialect in certain locations at sea? People can make ad hoc explanation but most of the time they do not have a good explanation. However, their folk theory is that all faly come from ancestors: [i]“whether or not Vezo adults have a story to tell about the origin of their faly, they all seem to share the understanding that it is the will of the “big people” of the past that prevents them from engaging in a certain activity, from moving through a certain location, from consuming a certain animal, from uttering a certain word, and so on.”[/i] In its turn, this reflective theory may lead to others reflective beliefs such as the one according to witch faly can be lifted by ancestors. But this is another story.