Monday, 26 March 2012

Taxing the Sacred

On the night of George Osbourne’s budget, James Purnell said that the government would ‘need to raise taxes a lot more than they’re doing’ in order to pay for the things that many people feel ought to be done: universal welfare provision, NHS, foreign aid and carbon reduction targets (Purnell 2012). This raises an interesting question: do people care enough to pay? Adam Dinham, Director of the Faiths & Civil Society Unit, recently said to me in an email that he felt welfare had become ‘a sacred totem’ (Dinham 2012).  In this short piece I reflect on how and whether these ideas and institutions could become sacred, and what the implications for policy.

Let’s begin by putting some parameters around the sacred. In my piece entitled What Counts as Sacred?,  I introduced Scott Atran’s notion of the sacred as ‘that which is believed in for non-instrumental reasons’ (Stacey 2012). What I did not mention there, but which is most poignant here, is that according to Atran a sacred belief is reinforced, indeed rendered more trenchant, if the beholder is asked to give up that belief in the face of a material cost or benefit (Atran 2010). While he does not explore exactly why this is the case, it is implicit that the very idea of something’s being sacred demands that one pay heed to it by enduring any cost and forgoing any reward. Of course also implicit is the idea that if something is not sacred, not much cost or benefit will be endured or desisted

The idea of extending what counts as sacred to areas of public policy is not unprecedented. Atran himself suggests that in Iran the right to attaining a nuclear bomb may have become sacred. But one complication is that all of the above ideas provide people with material benefits: universal welfare was designed deliberately to appeal to the self-interest of the middle class whilst serving the working class. The NHS ensures that people are treated according to need – not ability to pay. As for aid and carbon reduction targets, while they actually increase cost in the short-term, and while most of their benefits seem to go to other countries or future generations, they have often been sold on the premise that they will create long-term benefits: in terms of aid, preventing violent extremism and increasing trade; in terms of carbon reduction, increased health, resource independence, and job-creation. It is therefore difficult to know why people “believe” in aid and carbon reduction.

Another complication is that the world of policy is never as simple as that of research. Atran works out what ideas count as sacred simply by asking people whether they would give those ideas up in the face of any benefit or cost. But people are never presented with a simple choice such as “would you give up your belief in the NHS for an increase in your earnings of 20% a year”; or “would you maintain your belief in the NHS at a possible decrease in your earnings of 20% a year”. Although some polling and focus groups take place before most policies are decided, for the most part taxes are introduced to us not as questions but as statements. But this limitation itself brings about a new possibility for gauging whether or not beliefs are sacred.

For Durkheim sacred beliefs are totems by which societies understand themselves. When those totems come under threat, society erupts into protests or riots (Cladis 2001). We can therefore gauge whether ideas are sacred according to whether their coming under threat induces protest or riot. But Durkheim had in mind concepts rather than ideas with tangible benefits. So again, because the ideas we are looking at seem to provide material benefits, the reasons for rioting appear instrumental. If we look at the protests across Europe in response to cuts, it seemed to be for the most part people affected by those cuts out on the street. Common sense would suggest that people do not riot over reductions in foreign aid either because foreign aid is of no tangible advantage to those at home or because the victims are not present at hand. On the other hand, people do undertake (often violent) protest on account of the environment at great cost to and with few tangible advantages for the protestors. Perhaps then, we require this double qualification: that to count as sacred, ideas must be both non-instrumental and capable of inducing large, collective reactions.

From what has been discussed so far though, football seems to be sacred. As any football fan knows, the police have long regulated exits from games so as to avoid groups of fans fighting over something completely non-instrumental. Roger Caillois and George Bataille think the sacred must more deeply reflect the way a society understands itself (Caillois 2001; Bataille 1985). A football team adequately represents the way that the football fans understand themselves, and its appeal can be quantitatively impressive; many who have travelled to parts of the Middle East and Africa will have met locals as fanatic about Manchester United as Mancunians themselves. But football is qualitatively limited in its ability to represent the way we understand ourselves as a society.

If Adam Dinham’s previous work is anything to go by, his reasoning for welfare’s being a sacred totem might rely on something similar to Caillois and Bataille’s understanding of the sacred. In his Faiths, Public Policy and Civil Society, Dinham offers an extensive account of how government came to take on public service and welfare provision from the church over the course of the 20th century (2009). Now given this process on its own it is conceivable that government welfare provision might slowly become a sacred totem by which UK society understood itself and its covenant with government. But coinciding as this process did with shifts towards secular belief, the idea that the government - and specifically not the church - provided welfare may have reinforced this totem. This story would seem to give a much more nuanced and therefore convincing account of how just one idea might become sacred. It seems to rely on something similar to Caillois and Bataille’s approach because it implies that an idea must broadly represent the way that a society perceives itself in order to be sacred for that society.

This nuanced approach is useful for two reasons: it gives us an idea of when and how something becomes sacred; and it gives us insight into how complicated the process is. Dinham considers the NHS in the same history of how government came to take on public services. But can we consider foreign aid or carbon reduction in a similar way? As with public services, government has displaced the church as the major provide of foreign aid. Yet for the reasons already suggested foreign aid is less emotive.

Since carbon reduction has proved to be non-instrumental and collective and has always been led by business or government, it remains the special case. We must therefore interrogate where its sacred elements might have come from if we are to agree it has such elements. The obvious place to turn is the green movement.  In his Green Politics is Eutopian, Paul Gillk explains how the green movement arose as a spiritual response to ideas of civilization (2008).

In order to explain how this response was spiritual, it is worth leaning on Nietzsche’s reflections concerning how to cultivate a sense of the sacred in human activities. Nietzsche was particularly interested in how religions engage the whole person: diet, ritual, thought (1990). Picking up on how these reflections might be relevant for ostensibly nonreligious activities, Bataille thought of how the military and avante-garde groups similarly looked to engage the whole person (Bataille 1985). With this in mind, it is worth reflecting that the green movement was not just about government reform but also about collective self-reform. I bring about a change in the way I live my life in the hope that others will do their bit and follow my lead.

So perhaps what makes all of these ideas special is that they are underpinned in some way by ideas that are non-instrumental and collective. The trajectory of how each idea came to be sacred differs. This might explain why some ideas seem more sacred than others. While some ideas, like the NHS, seem almost indestructible, we are told that people’s interest in the environment is proportionate to the health of the economy.  Perhaps then, the sacred is a spectrum, and how sacred an idea is will tell us something about how much of a burden people are willing to carry in its name.


Timothy Stacey

Works Cited

Atran, Scott, Talking to the Enemy, HarperCollins, London, 2010

Bataille, George, Visions of Excess (trans. Allan Stoekl), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985

Caillois, Roger, Man and the Sacred (trans. Meyer Barash), University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2001

Cladis, Mark, ‘Introduction’ to Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Oxford UP, Oxford, 2001

Dinham, Adam, Faiths, Public Policy and Civil Society, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009

  (a . d i n h a m [at] g o l d. a c . u k), (14 March 2012), RE: Sorry new copy, [online]. Email to Timothy Stacey (t I m o t h y j s t a c e y [at] g m a i l . c o m).

Gillk, Paul, Green Politics is Eutopian, Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, 2008

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil (trans. R.J. Hollingdale), Penguin, London, 1990

Purnell, James, interviewed by: Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight, BBC2, 21st March 2012, 22:30

Stacey, Timothy, (2012) What Counts as Sacred? College of Sociology, [online], Available from: <> [Accessed 26 March 2012].


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