Posts Tagged ‘sanctity’

As sanctity declines, the sanctimonious proliferate

July 6, 2020

Sacred and sanctity originated with gods and religions but nowadays are applied regularly in non-religious contexts. Sanctity – in the meanings of inviolability, or deserving of respect – is claimed for many things but no claim for sanctity (religious or otherwise) is actually anything more than wishful thinking for a desired state. From sacred also come sanctimony and the sanctimonious. Once upon a time, sanctimony was a quality displayed by saints, but it is now always about a claim, or a display, of a pretended, self-proclaimed, moral superiority. I observe that sanctimony is invariably called upon by the sanctimonious when rational argument fails.


Sacreddedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity; devoted exclusively to one service or use; worthy of religious veneration; entitled to reverence and respect; of or relating to religion; not secular or profane; unassailable; inviolable; highly valued and important

Sanctity: godliness; holiness of life and character; the quality or state of being holy or sacred; inviolability; deserving of veneration or respect

Sanctimony: pretended or hypocritical moral superiority; (archaic) the quality of holiness or godliness

Sanctimonious: hypocritically pious or devout; falsely claiming moral superiority


Sacrosanct: having extreme sanctity (extreme inviolability, sort of like the most best)


A search for sanctity reveals that over 90% of secular usage is in the context of human life. The next most common occurrences are with reference to the sanctity of marriage or of law. In the context of religious associations it is still used, though less dogmatically, for, among other things, the sanctity of the Church; of priests; of temples; of holy places. Whereas the original religious usage implied something inherently extraordinary, out of this world, the word has been debased by its use to try and impart a sense of importance to concepts or situations, where there is, in fact, nothing very special. In a secular context, the word is now used widely to imply that something should be inviolable and deserving of extraordinary veneration or respect (for example with the sanctity of nature, or of the scientific method, or of natural forces, or of government, or of institutions).

As a philosophical concept the sanctity of life derives from religious or ethical schools of thought.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: According to this ‘sanctity of life’ view, human life is inherently valuable and precious, demanding respect from others and reverence for oneself. 

WikipediaIn religion and ethics, the inviolability or sanctity of life is a principle of implied protection regarding aspects of sentient life that are said to be holy, sacred, or otherwise of such value that they are not to be violated. This can be applied to both animals and humans or micro-organisms, ….

But even in philosophy and logic the sanctity of life is just an assertion. It does not flow logically from, and is not inherent in, existence or in life. References to the sanctity of life  – which overwhelmingly dominates usage of the word – are so far from reality that the word sanctity has become just a parody of meaning inviolable. Using the phrase itself has become little more than virtue signalling. The association of inviolability with sanctity has been fatally diluted by the indiscriminate use of the word. Sanctity of life has even become a politically charged term in the abortion debate (with abortion supporters denying sanctity of life, while abortion opponents are in favour of such sanctity). But they both miss the point and lose track of the real issue of when life can be said to begin. The word is further debased in its meaning of inviolability when those supporting abortion oppose capital punishment and vice versa. Where sanctity was once used to denote the fact of inviolability, it has now come to mean an invocation of, or a desire for inviolability. The sanctity of the law is another phrase which has little to do with any inherent quality of law. Laws are merely man-made rules and regulations and they vary across space and change all the time. There is nothing sacred about law – only pragmatism for the functioning of societies. However, those charged with maintaining compliance, (the prevailing power, governments, police, courts, judges, lawyers, …..), have a strong desire that The Law, and laws, be considered inviolable. When they extol the sanctity of the law it is partly wishful thinking and partly a desire to protect themselves from criticism for failing to ensure compliance. Similarly the sanctity of marriage stems from religious and social desires for stability, rather than from any inherent inviolability of the married state. A claim to sanctity of the scientific process is used far too often to smother dissenting thought, even though the essence of the scientific process is to dissent and to question. Sanctity, as used, no longer means inviolability; it now means a presumption of, and a desire for, inviolability. Sanctity is on the decline and it is difficult to find any use of the word where inviolability is any more than a  desire (sometimes virtuous, sometimes not). The sanctity of religious institutions and places and people has been utterly debased by the all too many examples of inviolability being used to protect bad behaviour. Sanctuary derives from sanctity of place and this notion has been so abused as to be anti-social in itself. The sanctity of life or law or marriage or scientific method are empty claims and, again, usually invoked to protect errant behaviour. False claims of sanctity end up as sanctimony.

Sanctimony and the sanctimonious, though, are thriving. From sanctimony being used to describe the quality of being holy or virtuous, by the late 16th century (Shakespeare), it was also being used in the meaning of a hypocritical piousness. By the 19th century, the word was almost exclusively used to mean a hypocritical and pretended claim of moral superiority. Through the 1800s, the use grew of sanctimonious as a derogatory term for hypocritical and righteous do-gooders. In the present day, a dearth of saints and the saintly has all but killed off the original meaning.

The variety of platforms now available for public “debate” (including for proselytizing, preaching, bullying and haranguing) is unprecedented. In these “debates”, when arguments fail, the final defense is to claim moral superiority. As a last resort, bringing in Hitler or the Nazis makes it easy to claim moral superiority (Godwin’s Law). The nice thing about moral superiority is that it is “righteous” and makes it “ethical” to ignore rational argument. Sanctimony is especially useful when there is no time for exercise of mind. Social media provide little space, and less time, for developing arguments. It provides the fertile ground for sanctimony to flourish. Debate is by way of competing assertions. The weight of an assertion is determined by the number of “likes” it attracts, which in turn, is influenced by the perceptions of righteousness, political correctness and perceived virtue. The greater the level of sanctimony that an assertion can bring to bear, the greater the chance of winning more likes (and never mind the argument). The weaker the argument for a position, the greater the need for sanctimony. The sanctimonious are those with the greatest need, and some skill, to demonstrate sanctimony. (It can be quite amusing when the sanctimonious lose elections. As with an indignant Jeremy Corbyn who, after his resounding election defeat, claimed to have won the argument but lost the election). A reference to a sanctimonious moron could be taken as tautology.

It used to be the plebeians. Then in the 1830s, they became the “Great Unwashed”. Their natural successors today are the sanctimonious.

There is probably a connection between the decline of sanctity and the rise of the sanctimonious. When there is no real sanctity, false claims of purported sanctity lead to sanctimony. I have no doubt that investigating the connection could soon provide a suitable subject for a PhD in Social Sanctimony.


 


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