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It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground…

—Philip Larkin, “Church Going”

The “hunger” Philip Larkin talks about is the urge to move beyond the ordinary phenomena of the world, deriving from an often inchoate sense of what William James called an “unseen order” transcending ordinary things. Larkin says that this hunger is what returns people to churches—and surely to temples, mosques and synagogues too—and he suggests that this is why they will not become obsolete. Larkin is surely right that this impulse is responsible for the persistence of religious belief and religious institutions. It seems to be a combination of psychological attitudes: the attempt to understand, a sense of the mystery of the world, the feeling that there must be more to it all than just what we see around us. But why do people who have this urge for the transcendent also tend to participate in social rituals and practices? Why should this impulse, these attitudes, lead to church?

Part of the answer is that the church answers to another deep human need—the need to identify and belong. A church provides a common framework in which these impulses can be engaged together with others, and a common vocabulary and set of ideas in terms of which they can be articulated. A full account of religious belief must, I believe, take account of these two elements: both the religious impulse (the “hunger”) and identification with an existing social group. Of course, these two elements can come apart in the lives of individual religious believers. There can be people who have the religious impulse but do not participate in any practices; and there can be people who participate but lack any sense of the transcendent, or any interest in pursuing it. But in full religious belief and in the major religious traditions, the two elements tend to go together.

The connection between these two elements of religious belief is made by the idea of the sacred. Here I take inspiration from Émile Durkheim, whose Elementary Forms of Religious Life argued that the distinction between sacred things and non-sacred (“profane”) things is central to all religions, so central in fact that we can define a religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.” Durkheim’s discussion of the sacred, over one hundred years old, remains one of the most fertile treatments of religion. Sacred things, Durkheim points out, are not necessarily those things “we call gods or spirits.” Anything at all can be sacred: “a rock, a tree, a spring, a stone, a piece of wood, a house.” Nor do sacred things have to be concrete material objects: words, speeches and formulas, which have been uttered by countless people over the centuries, are among the most familiar sacred objects.

Durkheim said that sacred things are those “set apart and surrounded by prohibitions.” The prohibitions concern the way in which a sacred thing must not be treated “as though it belonged in the ordinary frame of nature,” as Roger Scruton has put it. To do this is profanation; or worse, desecration. But this is not because sacred things are treated as in some way more powerful or magnificent or grand than profane things. As Durkheim notes, believers can feel very comfortable and “at home” with sacred things (amulets, crucifixes, rosaries, etc.). What is essential, though, is that the distinction between the sacred and the profane is exclusive: if an individual thing, or a type of thing, is sacred, then it cannot also be profane, and vice versa. Durkheim says that sacred and profane things have “nothing in common” but this additional claim is unnecessary. If a church building is deconsecrated, it is, in the most important sense, no longer a church, but it has plenty in common with the thing that was (the stones from which it was made, for example). But if something is a church, then that thing itself (as opposed to some of its parts, like the stones) cannot also be profane.

The distinction is also exhaustive in the sense that it covers everything: there is nothing which is neither sacred nor profane. And it is sharp or absolute: there are no borderline cases of the sacred. The sacred does not tail off into the profane: everything is either on one side of this divide or the other.

We can illustrate these points by taking an example from the list Durkheim mentions—a building or a house. The most sacred site (and the most sacred object) in Islam is the Kaaba in Mecca: a small cuboid building thirteen meters tall. The Kaaba predates Muhammad (who lived around 600 ce) and obscurity shrouds its origins. It is variously called the House of Allah, the House of Worship and the Sacred House. Every Muslim must direct themselves toward the Kaaba when they pray; the hajj pilgrimage involves walking around the Kaaba with other pilgrims in a counterclockwise direction.

Considered as a material object, the Kaaba is a fairly ordinary, though beautiful, thing. But its role in Islam makes it utterly unique. Every day hundreds of millions of people think of themselves as directed towards Mecca and therefore this object when they pray. If asked to explain the significance of something like the Kaaba in terms intelligible to the Western atheist tradition, we may be tempted to treat it as a magical object of superstition, capable of bringing about changes in the world which have no possible scientific explanation. Durkheim memorably wrote, however, that a “church of magic does not exist.” He saw that sacred objects like the Kaaba are not the same thing as magical objects in any sense. Think of the most familiar of sacred objects: the sacred text. The “people of the book” (Jews, Christians, Muslims) focus their ritual and religious practice around texts that are revered as sacred: the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an. The words themselves are often regarded as sacred, which is why they play a role in prayer, rites and oaths (not to mention blasphemy and profanity). But individual material copies of the texts are sacred too, as is shown by the fact that they can be desecrated. For a copy of a sacred text to be burned, spat on or otherwise defiled can be a genuinely distressing and offensive thing to a believer.

There is no parallel to desecration in the case of magical objects. And it is no part of genuine religious belief that the sacred text has magical powers. It is no part of any serious Christian doctrine that the sacred significance of the Bible lies in the fact that it can be used to do things which contravene the laws of nature, in the way magical objects are supposed to. We miss something very important about religion if we see its essential feature as what it has in common with magic—“the supernatural.”

What would we be missing? This is how I would like to put it: sacred objects play two roles in religious practice, what I will call their “internal” role and their “external” role. The internal role is to be the bearers of religious meaning. The crucifix, the scrolls of the Torah, the Kaaba itself—these objects are essential to rituals themselves in the sense that it is not possible for the rituals to be what they are without their involvement. They also frequently function as a way of connecting the rest of the believer’s life with the sacred. This is why during prayer, Orthodox Jews wear leather boxes strapped to their arms (known as phylacteries or tefillin) containing parchment with verses from the Torah, and some Christians will wear a crucifix all the time. These objects illustrate what Karen Armstrong has called the religious ambition to “bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred.” They point beyond mere material reality to the transcendent reality beyond. As Scruton puts it:

Sacred objects, words, animals, ceremonies, places all seem to stand at the horizon of our world, looking out to that which is not of this world, because it belongs in the sphere in the divine, and looking also into our world, so as to meet us face-to-face.

My own view is that there is no transcendent reality; my point is simply that this is what the sacred aims at, whether or not it exists. This is where the philosophical concept of intentionality is useful.

“Intentionality” in the philosophical sense, deriving from the work of the philosophers Franz Brentano (1838-1917) and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), is a word for the capacity of things (usually restricted to minds or states of mind) to be directed at other things. Although the terminology of intentionality can seem forbidding and obscure—for one thing, it is not directly related to the ordinary notion of intention—the phenomenon it is trying to describe is one of the most familiar things to us; so familiar, in fact, that we are prone to miss it. The intentionality of thoughts and beliefs is their representational power—the fact that every thought or belief is a thought of something or a belief about something. You cannot think without thinking something, or without thinking about something. This is intentionality. Similarly, the intentionality of desire or hope consists in the fact that a desire or a hope is a desire or a hope for something; and similarly with other states of mind.

One distinctive thing about the intentionality of states of mind is that this “directedness” can be toward something that does not exist. Whereas an arrow cannot be aimed at a target if there is no target there, a thought can be directed on an object even if that object does not exist. A child might fear a monster under the bed, something that is a mere figment of his imagination. The monster does not exist, but the fear certainly does. And when I say it does not exist, I do not mean that the monster exists “in the child’s mind”—there is no monster, neither in the mind nor anywhere else. The child thinks there is a monster, to be sure; but there is no such thing. When people talk about something “existing only in the mind” what they mean is that it is being thought about—that is all. The mind is not another place in which something might exist.

It cannot be, then, that something has to exist in order for you to think about it. To apply this to the case of faith: an atheist should say that believers are thinking about their God, but this does not imply that any such god exists. They should not say that God exists in the minds of believers, since this seems to imply that God exists. So an atheist should be able to coherently describe a believer as thinking about God without thereby committing themselves to theism. This is exactly how things should be: it must be possible to state what other people believe without having to believe it yourself.

The internal role of sacred objects is to point beyond themselves, intentionally, to the transcendental. The crucifix points towards the salvation of humanity that it represents, the sacrifice made by Jesus which believers take to be redeeming humanity from its sins. The Qur’an points in its precepts and commands to the will of Allah, the books of the Torah point towards the special role of the Jewish people as revealed in their history and their law. The internal meaning of these objects is always to indicate something about the transcendent unseen order. Their significance lies in the fact that they are part of the everyday world but point beyond it to something non-everyday, which invests the everyday with significance.

Atheists can also describe sacred objects in terms of their intentionality, their pointing beyond the everyday, even if they don’t believe that there is anything to which these objects point. Indeed, the need for objects to point beyond the everyday is one of the most familiar and intelligible motivations underlying religious practices and ceremonies. In a letter to a friend, the English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper described his dismay in finding himself at a secular funeral:

We stood silently around the coffin in the crematorium. No clergymen, no music, no articulate sound. Then suddenly the floor gaped and hey presto! The coffin sank out of sight. Whereupon we trooped silently away. I hope that my Doctorate of Divinity will at least save my corpse from such an undignified disposal: like waste going down the sink.

The sardonic tone aside, Trevor-Roper is here expressing a need felt by the religious and non-religious alike: the need to mark the important moments in life with something solemn and serious. Nowhere is this more apparent than in funeral rites—unsurprisingly, since the mystery of life emerges most poignantly and forcefully in our encounter with death. And even some atheists will feel the mystery of life at these moments: they were there, and now they are gone, never to be seen again. How can this be?

The second role of sacred things, which I call its external role, is to unify the members of a religion. Durkheim defines a church as “a society whose members are united because they share a common conception of the sacred world and its relation to the profane world, and who translate this common conception into identical practices.” What binds together a church or a religion in this sense may be nothing more than commitment to the same sacred texts. Or it may involve some objects or types of objects (the Kaaba, the sacred cows of the Hindus). Again, the contrast with magic is striking. “The magician has a clientele, not a church,” writes Durkheim: magic “does not bind its followers to one another and unite them in a single group living the same life”—they may well be entirely unaware of each other, and “even their relations with him are generally accidental and transitory, like those of a patient to a doctor.”

The familiar charge that atheism itself is a kind of religion or church is therefore deeply mistaken. Without sacred things, there is no church. But are atheists really excluded from employing some idea of the sacred? While some seem to think that they too are entitled to employ the idea of sacred things, if I am right, they are either mistaken or are using the word in a very different way. The philosopher Simon Blackburn, for example, complains about the “religious appropriation of the sacred” and says that “to regard something as sacred is to see it as marking a boundary to what may be done.” That’s true, but there are many ways of drawing boundaries without marking out the sacred: moral prohibitions and other taboos draw sharp boundaries between things to be done, but these are not necessarily between the sacred and the profane. What atheists mean by calling something sacred, normally, is that it is very precious or has some special kind of significance that goes beyond any pleasure or satisfaction it delivers in a present moment. But the notion of the sacred that I have been using is very different, since it essentially involves religious practice or ritual that “points” towards the transcendent. There can be nothing like this in an atheist’s world picture—and this is why there can be no atheist church.

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