The title refers to two things: 1) that which people mistake for sacred truth and fortify against any critical analysis or countervailing evidence; and 2) that which is critical analysis, or, more broadly, proven procedures and disciplines in service to the immutable and inarticulable underlying coherence of our existence. I’ll distinguish between them by putting the first (but not the second) in quotation marks.
The first consists of sacred scrolls (religious documents and philosophical tomes that state or legitimate the preferred dogma) and secular sages (those pundits or scholars who give voice to the preferred dogma). The quality of the substance of the dogma is not the defining characteristic, but rather the mere fact that it is an inflexible false certainty, an opinion held not via any real analysis on the part of the holder, but rather accepted as given truth. It is an error found across the political and religious spectrum, and is more prevalent than its absence. Humans are defined more by adherence to false “sacred truths” than to true ones.
The second meaning consists of processes forged in skepticism, in service to wonder, informed by humility, unclouded by malice. It is not comprised of articulable conclusions, but rather of processes and disciplines by which to arrive at them, and by the most basic premises which give those processes and disciplines meaning.
Even so, there are “true” sacred truths that can be put into words, though, paradoxically, the first one is that there aren’t: “The Tao of which we speak is not the eternal Tao.” We don’t know as much as we think we do or pretend to, and that which we reduce to words is something less than the absolute truth.
A second sacred truth is that we are parts of a whole, that “no man is an island entire of itself,” that we are comprised of smaller systems and comprise larger ones. This is one of the few substantive sacred truths, a recognition of coherence and systemicness to ourselves and our context, because without it, the disciplines which provide windows onto that coherence have no meaning. It is basically the realization that there is a coherent and comprehensible reality within which we are working, even if none of our understandings of it are ever complete and final.
Not all sacred truths belong to the left hemisphere of the brain; not all are based on reason and the procedures derived from it. Empathy, for instance, a sense of interconnectedness, is a sacred truth, an emotional rather than rational understanding of the systemicness and coherence described above.
But emotionally based factual certainties are false “sacred truths,” not true ones. People who bend facts to their preferences, or select from legitimately disputed facts or theories according to their emotional predilictions (imbuing their preferred conclusion with a degree of certainty incommensurate with its actual conclusiveness), are engaging in the folly of adhering to “sacred truths,” rather than the wisdom of being guided by sacred truths.
This is one of the fundamental challenges we face as humanity, as a people, as individuals: To admit to the degree of uncertainty that wise humility demands, and adhere to the disciplines and emotional foundations that well serve a wise and compassionate people.
(This is the most recent in a series of essays on this topic that can be found in the fifth box, titled “Dogmatic Ideology and its Avoidance,” at Catalogue of Selected Posts.)