Sacredness As Practiced by Religious Entrepreneurs: Rape, Riots, and Economic Efficiency

The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.

Jonathan Haidt

Sacredness is an epistemic phenomenon in human groups; it limits what we can say and even what we can think. This is true even among groups which explicitly identify as non-religious.

Sacred beliefs are supported both by rituals and by stories; the sacred stories are the ones that cannot be challenged. The folklorist Linda Dégh describes these as “legend-like narratives that enforce belief and that deny the right of disbelief or doubt, narratives that express majority opinion and are safeguarded by moral taboos from negation and, what is more, from deviation” (“Tape-Recording Miracles for Everyday Living,” in American Folklore and the Mass Media, Indiana University Press, 1994; emphasis mine). Dégh’s examples are “religious (Christian, hagiographic, or saint’s) legends,” and the “patriotic (heroic) legends dispensed through school education by governments, confirming citizens in civil religiosity.” Ostensibly secular societies still form moral communities that insulate certain beliefs from scrutiny. We may not really question the harmfulness of tobacco or the benefits of breastfeeding, for example, and remain truly polite.

One of the most important sacred stories is the subversion myth – the story about a bad group of people doing bad things and thereby causing all of our problems. The folklorist Bill Ellis describes some features of subversion myths in his book Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, which I will quote at length in graphic form. I invite you to consider the dueling sacredness stories about the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson when thinking about subversion myths and how they work:


Sacredness is serious business. In a time like our own, in which religious practices and beliefs are nebulous and in flux, competition for holiness and piety can be lucrative, in terms of social status and mating opportunities as well as material benefits. People and institutions that compete to define sacredness, and to judge which speech and actions are compatible with sacredness, may be thought of as religious entrepreneurs, using terminology from Seth Abrutyn’s Religious Autonomy and Religious Entrepreneurship: An Evolutionary Institutionalist’s Take on the Axial Age. While Arbrutyn is concerned with religious movements thousands of years in the past, the model is surprisingly applicable today. Religious evolution, says Abrutyn,

is a product of religious entrepreneurs creating, combining, articulating, and struggling to impose new cultural assemblages on other strata of society in ways that can reconfigure the broader societal frameworks for (inter) action, exchange, and communication.

A religious entrepreneur can only be successful when existing power structures permit his activities or are too weak to oppose them, and when a surplus of material production makes his work possible, even though it is not productive in the material sense. These were true of the Axial Age, and are true of our own age as well.

A major religious entrepreneurial activity of our time is journalism. Writers and organizations attempt to establish themselves, in Abrutyn’s terms, as having “a legitimate claim to sole, or dominant, authority over the production and distribution of resources associated with sacredness, truth, and knowledge.” Gawker and its associated websites (including Valleywag and Kotaku) are a particularly shrill example of entrepreneurship of the new religion. A few months ago, Sam Biddle of Valleywag took up a sacredness crusade to argue that my friend Justine Tunney should lose her job at Google because her tweets violated the new sacredness that Gawker and its associates endorse.

Journalists-cum-religious-entrepreneurs argue for much worse things than firing women in technology, though. Today’s clickbait (presented to you in an epistemic condom, don’t worry) argues for the surprising conclusion that riots, are, in fact, good, from a dispassionate economic perspective:

Thus far, the rioting question has been focused on whether it’s good or bad, as if those are the only two answers. From an economic perspective, surely the question is whether the level of rioting is optimal: Do the potential benefits of Ferguson rioting as a police sanctioning tool outweigh its immediate wealth destruction? I suspect it does and, in fact, that the current rioting level is likely economically suboptimal.

Matt Bruenig’s diction earlier in the piece indicates that he does not intend the piece to be interpreted as a dispassionate analysis. However, he interprets the question through the framework of economic efficiency, indicating aspirations toward that field’s inherently dispassionate framework. In a sense, he attempts to desacralize the harm of rioting, comparing it to the harm of police killings (both translated into dollars by means that I am sure are completely free from sacredness bias, as of course jury awards of damages are). Bruenig also assumes that rioting is an effective method of preventing these other harms, pointing to the Boston Tea Party (via a link) as an example of a riot that got results. In recent years, the pattern in the wake of riots has been that of demographic replacement; in both South Central Los Angeles and Watts, local black populations declined in favor of immigrant populations. If harm to black people were really the deepest concern of these religious entrepreneurs, the stark reality of the aftermath of riots would be relevant to the analysis. Since it violates the sacredness narrative, it is elided.

But most importantly, a genuinely sacredness-blind analysis would include many items that Bruenig does not mention. What, for example, are the economic benefits of police killings? Such a question obviously violates sacredness rules, and the fact that it is not asked indicates that there is unexamined sacredness underlying Bruenig’s article.

Bruenig cites Gary Becker in particular in favor of an economic efficiency analysis of social phenomena. Becker, along with his frequent collaborator Richard Posner, have performed some of the most interesting economic analyses of social phenomena of our time. I think that their ability to stand back from ambient sacredness is what makes their work so surprising and fascinating. Their desacralized economic approach to suicide, for example, would not be possible by thinkers clinging to cultural suicide taboos. Ian Ayres and John Donahue compared Posner’s genius to that of the “erratic” work of composer Franz Liszt; Posner, they say, “does not always manifest a proper appreciation of…limits on economic analysis” – the limits imposed by sacredness, as with his famous “rape license” hypothetical. This is precisely the root of his and Becker’s genius – seeing through some of the illusions that sacredness maintains, including impolitely noticing the existence of the ring of motivated ignorance itself.

I wrote about the sacralization of rape in Rape, Humor, Liberals, and the Sacred back in 2011 (when I still considered myself a liberal, albeit a crappy one), identifying Posner’s “rape license” hypothetical (discussed by Ayres and Donehue, linked above) as an insightful sacredness violation. In a recent piece of religious entrepreneurship, economist Noah Smith latches onto a similar violation by Robin Hanson, and attempts to connect it to the (sacralized) harm of women being underrepresented in economics.

Rape functions as a sacred taboo, its harm spreading to infect even words associated with it and discussion of the topic itself. In fact, Hanson’s argument is very similar to Bruenig’s, seeking to compare two kinds of harm that are differently sacralized. Posner’s infamous rape license example is explicitly an analysis of economic efficiency. The only reason Smith would forbid them in this context is the sacred nature of rape.

What motivated me to take graduate-level economics classes in college and to study law and economics in law school was precisely what Noah Smith seeks to prevent: scholars like Becker and Posner offering a domain in which secret knowledge might still be had, in which the veil of sacredness was lifted so that the naked processes of peopling might be gazed upon. It never occurred to me to feel excluded from economics because mysteries sacred to my sex were dispassionately analyzed: quite the opposite. It was the audacity of thinkers like Becker and Posner that made me feel free to write a book that is basically a series of sacredness violations wrapped in sacredness analysis wrapped in a Jack Kevorkian painting.

But I don’t think religious entrepreneurs like Noah Smith and Matt Bruenig are actually especially concerned with the harm of women being underrepresented in economics, or the harm of dead young black people, any more than Sam Biddle is concerned with the harm of people’s feelings being hurt by tweets (he personally tweeted that “nerds” deserve to be bullied and shamed).


Rather, they are concerned with establishing themselves as priests of the new religion, with “sole, or dominant, authority over the production and distribution of resources associated with sacredness, truth, and knowledge” (Abrutyn). Who are these would-be priests? Why are they so effective as religious entrepreneurs? What can be done to limit the damage they do while respecting traditional notions of free speech?

One of my favorite trolls (and that is high praise), Pax Dickinson, was actually fired from Business Insider for tweets that, in the opinion of the new priesthood, reflected insufficient respect for the new sacredness. His new venture, currently in fundraising stages, would investigate the new priesthood and attempt to answer some of the questions posed in the previous paragraph. A recent article by J. Arthur Bloom provides more case studies of sacredness in action in relation to the project, which I fully support and encourage you to support, too.

But that I encourage the challenging of this new, insidious sacredness does not mean that I think society can function without any sacredness at all. As I have written, this is a complex inquiry; we need sacredness, but it should be designed to help us flourish, rather than impeding thought, fun, beauty, and safety. The question of sacredness is too important to be left up to journalists.


18 thoughts on “Sacredness As Practiced by Religious Entrepreneurs: Rape, Riots, and Economic Efficiency

  1. Regarding your conclusion, it is my view that the precariously sacralized language of American libertarian/constitutionalist/freespeech rhetoric needs to be dusted off and amplified obnoxiously in counterpoint to the strange illiberal momentum that presently unfolds. Mr Jones may not know what’s going on, but maybe he can be reminded that he “has rights!” Freedom has enough sacred residue to work with, and it’s a better proxy for such terminal values that are threatened by the ascendant sacredness. And it’s more fun for a girl and a boy.

    Let’s have a war.

  2. One of the most gold-bedecked shrines of western thought is that of efficiency, whereby we struggle to do things faster and better without knowing what those things are. E.g., existing sacredness can interfere with some things that we do, ergo it should be eliminated in order that we can establish new sacrednesses that will not so interfere.

    Why do we not want to be interfered with? What is the end goal toward which maximum non-sacral-encumbrance takes us? Would not delineating such an end goal be engaging in a preemptive sacral act?

      • This one hopes those premises are not sacred to you, as we consider:

        The goals you ascribe to industrialization are the goals of what we might call western industrialization. They’re erroneous, broken, and sick. For example, do we need autonomous, depersonalized labor to produce more durable, more effective technology? Is it inevitable that we give up craftsmanship in the pursuit of mass quantity?

        No. In fact, we see that adopting such behaviors results in a sickened, self-destructive society. We see that products which are more pleasing, more functional, safer, more ingenuitive, and longer lasting, tend to have more human involvement. A well-maintained Mercedes outlasts a cheaper, more machinated Kia. Steel with a higher degree of human oversight and adjustment is more durable and longer lasting. Food prepared by hand is tastier and healthier, providing a more pleasing experience, fewer diseases, and longer lives. Eating together makes people happier; eating alone makes people dependent on mass-produced anti-depressants.

        By the same token, the course that industrialization followed wasn’t inevitable. It was resisted by the majority of people at every step, and it took a comparatively small coterie of hideous scum, lying and bribing and cheating and murdering, etc., in order to establish the memetic viruses that allowed the process to occur.

        For tens of thousands of years prior, humans lived in comparative equilibrium with their environment; they may later develop more advanced tools than we have now, and demonstrate both that (1) their amazement at their current industrial progress is amusingly arrogant, and (2) the amount of time during which the current form of industrialism dominated human generations was tiny compared to the total time period that humanity, and life, has existed.

        The assumption you made is exactly the point this one made in her original response–that our path has been inevitable. It’s a way of shunning responsibility for our choices, and blaming it on some inevitable historical process.

        Which, in itself, is perhaps the most sacred argument we could make. Also ironically, it requires Free Will to make such an argument, thereby indicating that said sacred argument must be incorrect, because we could have made different choices.

  3. Sacred stories, beliefs, and objects arise because sacredness exists independent of the humans observing it. Sacredness becomes deranged when the entities considered sacred are not, in fact, sacred.
    For example… beliefs are not sacred. True beliefs are sacred. But true beliefs are all but immune to being questioned, as the evidence comes out in their favour. (Absent fraud.) Making hobbits treat lies as sacred is foul profanity. Adding the ‘unquestionable’ clause on top is bad, truth neither wanting nor needing it.

  4. I wonder why we can’t discard the old WASP priesthood without replacing it with an equally shrill PC priesthood? I wish I had could believe this new priesthood would be different, but as the old slogan goes: “We can’t tolerate intolerance.” I suppose a world where everyone got heard out would be full of chaos and insanity anyway. I say the PC priesthood is the lesser of the two evils. Who knows, though, maybe a nightmare is on the horizon.

    Oh, and btw, if you don’t call yourself a liberal then what? I’m curious.

    • >if you don’t call yourself a liberal then what? I’m curious.

      Nuclear fascism gets a lot of bad press but they have the most forward-thinking solutions.

  5. I’m curious, this post seems to take an entirely negative view of the sacred as something imposed from without for the purposes of social control. Surely that’s a partial picture. I’m still grappling with my own conflicting views of the sacred, but my intuition is that it is such an essential part of the built-in human cognitive/social machinery that there is no way on earth to dispense with it. Even if we wanted to, and I am not sure why we would want to, despite its potential for abuse. What is left of values without something to ground them to? Mere utility is not going to cut it.

    Is your quarrel with sacrality itself or the poor uses to which it is sometimes put?

    • I don’t at all mean to suggest that we can live without sacredness, anymore than we can live without vitamins. I do think the new sacredness is especially destructive, in part for being so far-reaching and all-encompassing (hindering science and clear thinking more than old religious sacredness, and changing faster), and in part for being untried and an inversion of past sacrednesses demonstrated to be effective at solving coordination problems.

      Still, I’m always interested in new sacred rituals (twitter) and I don’t think they automatically suck because they are new.

  6. Ah OK, I surmised as much.

    Whatever the excesses of modern political correctness, or the thought patterns underlying it that you are trying to delineate, I really have a tough time seeing how it hinders science and clear thinking more than traditional religious order. Seriously?

    And given that you acknowledge the necessity of sacrality, I’m not sure exactly what you are critiquing. Yes, in the absence of some stable social notion of the sacred, it makes sense that there should be “entrepreneurs” who try to define it. What’s wrong with that? From the social perspective, what choice is there but to do this kind of work?

    Or is it their specific strategies that you object to? Or that it is being done by journalists as opposed to somebody else?

      • No, not particularly. While it is useful and interesting to trace one՚s own thoughts (or that of others) back to their roots in some particular flavor of sacrality, I don՚t think doing so is a requirement for engaging in journalism or politics.

        Indeed, it՚s almost a requirement not to do so, given that one of the characteristics of the sacred is its resistance to rational questioning – the “motivated ignorance” you started this post with. So most of the time people are not going to be questioning or articulating their sacredness assumptions. I don՚t find that creepy, it՚s just what people do. Of course it may be that it is because my politics are closer to the authors you are unhappy with that they don՚t trouble me as much.

        I have read the other post you linked and some of your other stuff, which in general I find very interesting and well thought out. Here are a couple of my posts on related topics, not sure how interesting they are because you’ve clearly given this subject more attention than I have.

  7. As probably the most unwarrantedly smug intellectual hipster there, I find all of this very played out and profoundly uninteresting.

    Sister, I think that a good example of actually good and productive sacredness trolling would be something like Lana Del Rey and her whole image/perception/media-centered artistic project. I confess that her actual music does nothing for me. But as a (heterodox) feminist, I can’t help but admire how she really masterfully trolls the mainstream feminist media with its mandatory pseudo-analysis and hackneyed tropes – and it actually produces a good interesting result, a learning experience.

    Attempting to summarize (none of the observations are mine, just compiled):

    LDR: he le hit me and it [le]terally felt like a le kiss~ omfg unf (✿ ♥‿♥)

    Feminist blogger: [this kind of promotes violence towards women maybe! unhealthy attachment models! she’s a bad influence! has sex/kink positivity gone too far?] x 100000

    LDR: lol I don’t really care about feminism, for or against. smh I’m a feminist cuz I do whatever I want, and I’d rather talk about, like, space exploration. I’m such a nerd lol. And I’m kinky.

    Savvy feminist blogger: oh crap, maybe all these repetitive words words words and obsession with “analysis” and digging for a “proper” interpretation are just voyeuristic at this point, and wouldn’t have been written, had a hyperfeminine pretty celebrity singer not been involved! Are we trying to take her persona from her and make it stand for some correct, virtuous message about the wages of self-destruction and being properly feminist at all times? And demand that she be chastised and shamed for her expression if we cannot find political worth here? Has feminism been saying that she… had been asking for it?

    Result: the media-feminist gaze has been exposed as, basically, more obsessed with pornographic content and sexualized misogyny than its ostensible object of criticism. People are slut-shaming LDR but she’s all like, whatever, why do you guys still care about this stuff? :trollface:

    This is what *intelligent* media trolling looks like, IMO.

    • (example of voyeurism / pornographic “analysis” )

      “The film has been locked away for a couple of years because of how disturbing it is, and it was, perhaps, never intended for release. But its existence doesn’t change anything about Del Rey’s problematic sexual politics: They’ve always been this shocking and destructive.”

      top lel. this is some master b8ing by LDR and her team right there. and the media takes the obvious, conspicious bait hook line and sinker.

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