Yesterday I quoted Christopher Hitchens as saying that nothing is sacred. I now ask what it means to say that nothing is sacred. I think it means something like the following. Nothing, nothing at all, is holy, venerable, worthy of worship; nothing is an appropriate object of reverence. (One cannot appropriately revere one's spouse, 'worship the ground she walks on,' etc.) If nothing is sacred, then nothing is so far above us in reality and value as to require our submission and obedience as the only adequate responses to it.
If nothing is sacred, then man is the measure of all things; he is not measured by a standard external to him. Man is autonomous: he gives the law to himself. Human autonomy is absolute, the absolute. There is nothing beyond the human horizon except matter brute and blind. There is nothing that transcends the human scale. If so, then it makes sense for Hitchens to maintain that the right to free expression is absolute, subject to no restrictions or limitations: "the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression."
The right to mock and deride religious figures such as Muhammad follows. For if nothing is sacred, then there is no God, no Allah, and hence no prophets of God. And of course no Son of God. If nothing is sacred and there is no God, then there is no revelation of God in any form, not in nature, not in a human person such as Jesus of Nazareth, and not in any scripture. If there is no God, then the Koran and the Bible are not the word of God; they are books like any other books, wholly human artifacts, and subject to criticism like any other books. And the same goes for physical objects and places. There are no holy relics and holy sites. Mecca and Jerusalem are not holy because, again, nothing is sacred. If there is nothing that is originally sacred, then there is nothing that is derivatively sacred either.
One obvious problem with Hitchens' position is that it is by no means obvious that there is nothing sacred. I should think that something is originally sacred if and only if God or a suitably similar transcendent Absolute exists. No God, then nothing originally sacred. Atheism rules out the sacred. And if nothing is originally sacred, then nothing is derivatively sacred either. If there is no God, then there are no prophets or saints or holy relics or holy places or holy books. And of course no church of God either: no institution can claim to have a divine charter.
I reject the position of Hitchens. I reject it because I reject his naturalism and atheism. They are reasonably rejected . But I also reject the position of those -- call them fundamentalists -- who think that there are people and books and institutions to which we must unconditionally submit. Here is where things get interesting.
I do not deny the possibility of divine revelation or that the book we call the Bible contains divine revelation; but I insist that it is in large part a human artifact. As such, it is open to rational criticism. While man cannot and must not place himself above God, he can and must evaluate what passes for the revelation of God -- for the latter is in part a human product.
God reveals himself, but he reveals himself to man. If the transmitter is perfect, but the receiver imperfect, then one can expect noise with the signal. Rational critique aims to separate the signal from the noise. To criticize is to separate: the true from the false, the reasonable from the unreasonable, the genuine from the specious.
I insist that religion must submit to rational critique. Religion is our affair, not God's. God has no religion. He doesn't need one. He needs religion as little as he needs philosophy: he is the truth in its paradigm instance; he has no need to seek it. Since religion is our affair, our response to the Transcendent, it is a human product in part and as such limited and defective and a legitimate object of philosophical examination and critique.
It is reasonable to maintain, though it cannot be proven, that there is a transcendent Absolute and that therefore there is something sacred. But this is not to say that what people take to be embodiments of the sacred are sacred. Is Muhammad a divine messenger? That is a legitimate question and the right to pose it and answer it negatively must be upheld. To answer it negatively, however, is consistent with holding that something is sacred. Is Jesus God? That is a legitimate question and the right to pose it and answer it negatively must be upheld. To answer it negatively, however, is consistent with holding that something is sacred.
My position is a balanced one. I reject the New Atheist extremism of Hitchens & Co. These people are contemptible in a way in which many old atheists were not: their lack of respect for religion, their militant hostility to any and every form of religion, shows a lack of respect for the unquenchable human desire for Transcendence. Religion is one form of our quest for the Absolute. This quest is part of what makes a human. This quest, which will surely outlast the New Atheists and their cyberpunk acolytes, must not be denigrated just because many of the concrete manifestations of the religious impulse are fanatical, absurd, and harmful.
One ought not mock religion, and not just for the prudential reason that one doesnot want to become the target of murderous Muslim fanatics. One ought not mock religion because religion testifies to man's dignity as a metaphysical animal, as Schopenhauer so well understood. Even Islam, the sorriest and poorest of the great religions, so testifies.
But while I reject the extremism of Hitchens and Co., an extremism that makes an idol of free expression, I agree that what passes for religion, the concrete embodiments of same, must submit to being hauled before the bench of Reason, there to be interrogated, often rudely. Reason, in its turn, must be open to what lies beyond it. It must be open to revelation.