Willem Buiter: Sanctity as Idolatry

As readers may infer, this blog is not big on religion as a topic; it is way too fraught. Merely talking about money gets some people riled up.

But whether you are religious, “spiritual” as Americans like to say, or a firm atheist, Willem Buiter’s post on sanctity (really, sanctimoniousness) is instructive. Buiter is Anglican, and he points out, in high church tones, that claiming that certain practices have “sanctity” is a form of idolatry. It’s a very good line of argument to have ready if someone seeks to trump you by invoking religion.

From Buiter:

The coming and going of Good Friday and the imminence of Easter has prompted some musings about sanctity. Sanctity is the quality or state of being holy or sacred. I run into a lot of sanctity when engaged in political debate with serious-minded people. For free-market economists there is the sanctity of contracts and of property rights. For right-to-lifers there is the sanctity of life. We hear of the sacred bond of matrimony. We all know of the Holy Land. Holy cities are a dime a dozen: for Muslims it includes Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. For Christians and Jews, Jerusalem. For Hindus Varanasi – Benares – Kaasi. There are holy rivers, from the river Jordan to the Ganges. Roman Catholics used to have holy water (I don’t know whether they still do). There are, God forbid, holy wars. There are reputed to be holy men and women, although I have never encountered any. There are sacred oaths and sacred honour.

Permit me this spontaneous outburst of self-righteousness, delivered from a simplistic protestant perspective: a pox, pest and plague on all those who claim holiness, sacredness or sanctity for any cause, anyone, any being or anything other than the One God. All other claims to sanctity and holiness are blasphemous. Nothing is sacred, except the One God.

If some benighted Cardinal speaks of the sanctity of life in support of his crusade against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill before the UK Parliament, he is guilty of idolatry. Life is not sacred. Treating life as divine is heathen behaviour – paganism. In all Abrahamic religions, and in many of the interpretations of Hinduism, only the One God is sacred. The Christian faith teaches (straight from the Tanakh) that the two great commandments are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind …and … Love your neighbour as yourself. All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

All the rest is interpretation and rationalisation. Whenever church dogma, creed, doctrine or cathecism conflict with these two great commandments, the dogma, dogma, creed, doctrine or cathecism are void and should be ignored. There obviously are circumstances where the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself conflict with the sanctity of life.

Assisted voluntary euthanasia (suicide) for the terminally ill and suffering is a prime example of the strangely anti-Christian nature of current doctrine in the Roman Catholic church and in quite a number of other allegedly Christian churches. To me, the commandment that we love our neighbour as ourselves, falls into this category. Therefore it is a Christian duty to assist a terminally ill, mentally competent person who wishes to die, in achieving a gentle death. The same Christian ethics dictates that, under certain circumstances, it is one’s duty as a Christian to assist women seeking an abortion. The same again applies, under certain circumstances, to medical research involving experimenting on embryos. This does not mean that anything goes or that life is cheap. It means that the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself may lead to agonising dilemmas and heart-rending choices.

None of these issues are ever straightforward. The best that can be achieved may be very bad. In any specific set of circumstances, one may conclude that, as far as one is able to judge, a specific planned suicide, abortion or medical experiment involving embryos is wrong. But any attempt to deny people the right to make these agonising choices by appealing to the sanctity of life, is evil and un-Christian. Belief in the sanctity of life is, from a Christian perspective, idolatry. After all, Christ gave his life for our salvation. If He had believed in the sanctity of life, He would have cut a deal with Pontius Pilate.

The same holds for the Holy Land and Holy Cities that Islam, Christianity and Judaism have been fighting for since the early Middle Ages. No land or city is holy or sacred. Only God is holy. So please stop hiding behind the God of the Tanakh, the Bible and the Koran, and recognise the argument is about real estate.

Holy wars are a contradiction in terms. Sacred cows should be sacrificed and eaten in a communal feast. Love, of God and one’s neighbour, are the only absolutes. And the meaning of those absolutes in any concrete situation is often far from clear. What surprises me is how often representatives of established religions, be it the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Church of England luminaries, assorted Chief Rabbis and countless Mullahs and Ayatollahs, are happy to blaspheme and engage in idolatry by claiming sanctity, holiness and sacredness not for the One God, but for their pet cause, crusade or jihad of the moment. A plague on all their houses.

Happy Easter!

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  1. Anonymous

    “One God. All other claims to sanctity and holiness are blasphemous. Nothing is sacred, except the One God.”

    Kind of sanctimonious, no? I mean, who the hell knows. That’s what bothers me about atheism, it’s just as sanctimonious as religion. Can’t anyone be happy just not knowing everything? Happy equinox.

  2. Yves Smith

    One of Buiter’s less than endearing tendencies is that his writing style tends towards the pompous.

  3. Anonymous

    I find his pompousness less offensive when it is directed toward religion.

    Given the photograph he as chosen to “represent” him on his website I suspect there is more to his pomposity than mere writing style.

    His little “One God” ditty is interesting because, underneath it all, the message is simple – life’s a free for all hung on two very nebulous ideas completely open to interpretation.

    How very Protestant of him!

    Those with quick minds are happy to embrace the doctrine of the “fools and the knaves.” It is no accident this man is an economist. That’s where the money is.

  4. dearieme

    Is this chap in any way related to the Adolf Buiter who was lately calling for the extirpation of small countries like Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Liechtenstein and so on, in the sacred name of suppressing tax avoidance?

  5. Anonymous

    “For I so loved the world that I sacrificed myself to myself to appease my anger at my own creation” – God, Paraphrased.

    Personally I think belief in an after life PERIOD is what devalues THIS world and had folks doing idiocy like flying airplanes into buildings.

    Religions come and go, beer and wine remain. Good luck with your particular brand of superstition stud!

  6. R. Manhammer

    I rather enjoyed Buiter’s point, that sactimonious asshats appear to be responsible for much of what’s wrong with the world currently, and those self-same sanctimonious asshats are not from one single tribe. We have our charismatic evangelical xtian asshats, our Islamofascistfeminazi asshats, our pro-authoritarian America-hating asshats, our military worshipping asshats, and many others.

    I also rather enjoyed reading that more than one sanctimonious asshat here felt his toes stepped upon and felt obligated to diss the writer as snarkily as their native wit allows

    Myself, I find it opens up a rather interesting conversation around the question, “What do I hold to be sacred?” It most assuredly isn’t cheap gas, low taxes, or the police state, which I’m morally certain makes me different. I’m also equally certain that there will be no ongoing conversation about the things we ourselves hold to be sacred. Clearly, that would be dangerous.

    Personally, I’m an atheist, and like Buiter, I’ve never met an actual holy person. Every human being I’ve ever met has been flawed in some way, some profoundly flawed. Generally, those who are incapable of empathizing with other people I categorize as profoundly flawed. I found a lot of those in b-school.

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