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Sacred places and times

August 9, 2011

After reading a Feministe post entitled Why be religious? (and, painstakingly, all of the comments to the article), I learned a lot of things about…

  1. Judaism as a religion of praxis and as an identity.
  2. The fact that atheists, like many ex-Mormons, ruin everything and this is why we can’t have nice things.
  3. I’m not excepted from item 2.
  4. I must be some kind of freaking robot/alien because so much of this stuff is incomprehensible to me.

But let’s stick to point 3. For the most part, when I read stuff like this, I want to get it. I want to want it, as well. But many times, I either don’t get what the people are talking about, or I don’t get the appeal. One such moment was when reading Athenia’s comment on Sacred Time and Sacred Places:

I think there are two important concepts for religion–Sacred Places and Sacred Time.

I can see how even if one does not describe themselves as of a certain religion, they still do because they cannot give up Sacred Time and the Sacred Places. For example, I will not give up Christmas even though I don’t go to church a lot anymore. It is too much tied into my family, it’s too much tied into my life—which sacred time and places tend to do.

Of course, one can make their own sacred places and sacred time, so I suppose that doesn’t really answer your question. I’m probably not the best person to comment on this matter actually.

The second paragraph is what make me wonder if I’m an alien/robot (beep boop!)Athenia’s assertion is that even those who don’t describe themselves as religious actually do have certain religious traits — such as the preservation of “Sacred Time” and “Sacred Places.”

But for me, I don’t really regard myself as having “sacred time” or “sacred places.” Maybe I do and I’m just not being contemplative enough about it. Maybe introversion in general can be considered as needing more sacred time? Regardless, when I think about things in my life that could plausibly be considered either of these things, I feel like it cheapens the words to use them as labels.

I think holidays are a good example. I really don’t want to dump on my family or anything (any day now, my mom or dad will read these entries and chastise me for writing these things [but I really want to express that to me, this doesn’t seem like dumping at all. IMO, nothing is missing. I’m not whining. I’m just surprised whenever I talk to people about stuff like this that they assume that my family must be terrible.]), but for the most part, holidays are like every other day. This doesn’t mean that we don’t celebrate holidays, per se. But when I listen to others talk about the rituals they go through for holidays, those rituals just seem like a whole lot of work to me.

Occasionally, we might visit relatives for Thanksgiving or Christmas. But it’s not a prerogative and it’s not something that we do regularly. But if we are at our own house, then we aren’t going to invite relatives to our house. Or, for that matter, anyone else.

I know people who make Thanksgiving an affair of cooking all day with all the family members playing their parts. We don’t do that. (I really shouldn’t write this next part, but many people I talk to consider it blasphemy to have the Thankgiving meal catered.)

And Christmas is even more low-key. Sure, there are presents and toys and the fake-Christmas tree (usually…sometimes the tree just never comes out.) But opening the presents is a pretty low-key affair, and then everyone scatters to their own devices (literally…although I’ll probably have to run around to everyone else’s devices to help them set them up.)

I could say that we have some traditions. Advent calendars, whose chocolates are more often than not eaten in groups because we’ve forgotten to keep up with them day-by-day (and whose religious significance we have no clue of anyway.) Christmas day brings plastic candy canes filled with Reese’s miniatures, or M&Ms, or other candies. When people worry about Christmas becoming too consumerist, I fear that they will sneak a video camera into our home and use our family as evidence.

Again, I don’t think there is anything missing. I don’t “pine” for a more “traditional” experience. I really like being left to my own devices (and I do like helping people set up their tech gadgets…although I don’t like it nearly as much when I go home for Spring Break, and I have to fix all their tech gadgets.) So does that count as sacred time or place?

There’s another story, I guess. One day, my brother and all of his friends stayed up all night so they could hike to a mountain (OK, not a real mountain…one of those several-thousand-year-old-eroded-by-wind-and-water hills) to watch a sunrise. (This was actually kinda smart…they knew they couldn’t trust themselves to wake up that early so they approached it from a different route.)

It wasn’t my cup of tea (then again, real tea isn’t my cup of tea either), but I just couldn’t imagine finding any kind of joy from that. It was absolutely inconceivable. I can reason that there are plenty of people who love nature and the outdoors, but phenomenologically, I can’t imagine.

All in all, I was kinda interested in religion as community. I mean people say things like, “You can find community elsewhere; you don’t need religion for it,” (and also that many religious communities aren’t that good at being religious communities…or that even when they are good at being religious communities, that can sometimes lead to an insularity that is problematic elsewhere), but there was another comment that intrigued me:

Re: community, while I agree that it is not strictly to be found in “religious” worlds (esp. when the term “religion” bumps up awkwardly given its western connotations), I would venture to say that religious communities are ones in which there is a certain … thickness lacking in the secular world (again, these terms are hopelessly problematic).
Contra Bob Bellah’s work on “Bowling Alone,” a true community is not just a group of people one does things with but is rather a mimni-cosmos that structures one’s very sociality. If (G?d forbid) a loved one passes, the community is there to support one. If one gets married, the community are the ones to whom one announced and the ones with whom one celebrates. One shares in a sacred history with a community (indeed, in the Jewish calendar, it is almost tisha be-av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples; and in the Muslim calendar, it is Ramadan).

So I guess I’d be interested to know…for atheists who say they do have good secular alternatives for religious communities…is, say, a UU group something that “structures your very sociality”? Is a freethinker or skeptic group such? What does this even mean? Is it even desirable (because that question is separate from whether any secular group actually accomplishes it)?

And there pokes that sacred word again. Sacred history.

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  1. It’s an intriquing question.

    What about substituting the word sacred for special or peaceful? Are there truly no places that are either adjective for you? For me, I found the college library to be an incredibly peaceful place. I wouldn’t necessarily call it sacred, but I would be very upset if someone burned it down or ruined it somehow.

    I also found civil war battlefields to be peaceful, but also worthy of pause. There’s something different about a location where a large number of people died.

    Secondly, is it worthwhile to respect that other people might find a location sacred and therefore observe the rules they have?

    I’ve visited a handful of religious sites and locations, and I can respect that other people find those sites special, important or sacred, even though I may not. An example, I saw the Comm. of Christ temple in Missouri (formerly RLDS) and there was a sign about weapons (not to carry them on that location). I don’t have any qualms with respecting that ban, or not visiting the site.

  2. “Special times”/”special places” sounds like a dirty euphemism.

    “Peaceful times”/”peaceful places” don’t sound like anything specific or preserved, but something altogether contingent. (E.g., normal life is “peaceful,” but then a huge pile of work hits my desk. It doesn’t seem all that great to delineate the periods of time when all the work is done as something special.)

    I would say that college libraries are to an extent quiet, sterile, and somber. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that means they are “special” or “peaceful.” Obviously, mileage varies, so we can see things differently.

    Not knocking civil war battlefields in specific (since I haven’t visited too many), but I really don’t find historical landmarks all that big of a deal. I visited Pearl Harbor once, the Alamo another time, OKC Bombing Memorial, etc., They just don’t really strike me that much.

    As for your second point, I’m guessing it’s worthwhile to respect that other people might find a location sacred and make a reasonable effort to accommodate the rules they have, if only because not to do so is kind of jerk behavior, IMO.

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