David Brooks and his weakness for the sacred

September 6, 2014 • 8:59 am

David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, is one of the less noxious conservatives on their staff (think of Ross Douthat, for instance). Although he was in favor of our invasion of Iraq, and supported John McCain, he’s also not nearly as anti-Obama as are other right-wing columnists.  I still think, however, that the Times could produce a better stable of conservative columnists—unless good ones simply aren’t out there.

Brooks’s column on Thursday,”The body and the spirit,” looks as if were phoned it; an idea he had—a bad one—that he expanded into the Procrustean bed of his column.  His topic is why Americans are so revolted at the beheading of others, including the two journalists recently beheaded on video by ISIS.  His answer is because the human body is imbued with spirituality—he calls it “sacred”—and beheading degrades that sacredness. But what he’s doing is simply trying to inject religion (in the guise of “spirituality”) into a phenomenon that has other explanations. It’s not irrevelvant, I think, that Brooks is a believer: a Jew.

A few excerpts:

But the revulsion aroused by beheading is mostly a moral revulsion. A beheading feels like a defilement. It’s not just an injury or a crime. It is an indignity. A beheading is more like rape, castration or cannibalism. It is a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.

But what is this sacred thing that is being violated?

Well, the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.

We’re repulsed by a beheading because the body has a spiritual essence. The human head and body don’t just live and pass along genes. They paint, make ethical judgments, savor the beauty of a sunset and experience the transcendent. The body is material but surpasses the material. It’s spiritualized matter.

It’s not clear what Brooks means by “spiritual”, but clearly the word “sacred” has religious connotations, as if we had a soul.  In fact, he directly appeals to humans’ metaphysical dualism as a reason for this beheading.

Most of us, religious or secular, have some instinctive sense that there is a ghost infused in the machine. And because the human body is a transcendent temple it is worthy of respect. It is offensive to treat it the way you would treat an inanimate object. Even after a person is dead, the body still carries the residue of this presence and deserves dignified handling.

Where does he get the idea that nonbelievrs think there is a ghost infused in the machine? Has he done a survey? Does he not realize that we secular folks are just as revolted as religious people at seeing this, even though we have no truck with souls or God or sacredness. Perhaps that should tell Brooks that there is an explanation for our revulsion that is more general—one that doesn’t involve the numinous.

My alternative explanation is that beheading is a particularly gruesome and brutal way of killing someone, it is not instantaneous, and there’s a lot of suffering and blood. We have an instinctive revulsion for that kind of killing, perhaps from our evolutionary history. (I do note, though, that in medieval times people loved gruesome public torture and execution, so perhaps some of that revulsion is, as Steven Pinker maintains, a cultural change in morality.) If the state murders someone, we now prefer it to be quick, clean and bloodless. And Americans are much more willing to accept killing if it involves remote drones rather than a bullet in the head by a sniper.  We want to remove ourselves from the gruesomeness of death, but beheading puts us right there with the sawing knives, spurting blood, and gurgling as the victim tries to scream. Further, the severing of the head—the body’s command module and repository of personality and memory—is particularly upsetting because we know that only a few moments before that head was thinking and feeling.

But perhaps Brooks sees the “ghost” only as the memory of humans who once were alive, whose loss we mourn. We secularists treat the dead with respect not, I think, because we see them as having been sacred, but because there were humans: fellow species with which we could once communicate, or whom we liked or love. And now they are gone and all we can do to show our affection or affirm our common humanity is treat their remains with respect.

Brooks goes on to accuse the zealots of having no respect for the sacredness of the body because “physical reality is not important”:

Our revulsion makes us different from the religious zealots who are prone to commit or celebrate acts like beheadings. The zealots often hew to a fringe of their faith that holds that the spirit and the body are at war with each other. They have a tendency to extreme asceticism, to seek to deny themselves pleasures of the living world, to celebrate the next world at the expense of this world, to oscillate between masochistic self-flagellation, when they think they have been sensual, and bouts of arrogant spiritual pride, when they convince themselves they have risen above the senses. It doesn’t matter to them what they do to their enemy’s body, because this physical reality is not important.

Well, maybe he’s partly right here; I think that Islamic martyrs or jihadis might value their earthly existence less than other people, simply because they are so sure that they’ll get Virgins in Paradise. But I’m dubious about Brooks’s take beyond that. There are many Christian sects that do indeed see the body at war with the spirit (Catholicism is one, for instance, as it repeatedly tells people that their corporeal desires are sinful, and so is fundamentalist Protestantism that decries all the pleasures of the flesh). Further, Christian Scientists see the physical world as an illusion.  But none of these sects come close to the kind of brutality of fundamentalists Islam instantiated in ISIS. My view is that they degrade the body of their enemies not because his physical reality is not important, but because they know it will have a particularly horrible effect on their enemies, perhaps terrorizing them into submission and, in the case of the beheaded journalists, forcing America to make concessions. (That doesn’t work.)

In the end—and I’m spending too much time on a column I consider trivial—Brooks goes off the rails completely, taking it upon himself to tell us what “true” religions really are. And, in passing, he admits, without sensing the irony, that ISIS is “spiritual”:

If ISIS is to be stopped, there will probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition. But, ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam.

The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.

I love these people who think that they know what the “truest version” of faith is. In reality, I’d say the truest version of, say, Judaism would be the most brutal and misogynistic version, one adhering strictly to the strictures of the Old Testament. Indeed, Christians also take the Old Testament as scripture, too. Have you read Deuteronomy lately? And why is liberal Christianity, which embraces the material world, “truer” than fundamentalist forms of Christianity that abjure dancing, drink, premarital sex, and even coffee? Those “lows” don’t yearn for the highs. As for “every human body having some piece of the eternal,” I have no idea what Brooks means here, unless he thinks we have souls or afterlives. Perhaps he’s speaking metaphorically, but if so is he’s also speaking obscurely.

No, there are no “truer” versions of faith than others. There are versions that are “truer” to their scripture than others, but that’s not how Brooks is construing “truth.” If adherence to scripture were the criterion, the truest versions of Islam and Christianity would be the most brutal. What he means by the “truest” faith is “the faith that I, David Brooks, find most congenial.”

In the end, faith is faith, all of it is based on revelation and wish-thinking, and it’s all a delusion.  Are some delusions truer than others? I doubt it.


45 thoughts on “David Brooks and his weakness for the sacred

  1. Another compelling post. I’m reminded of Judge Alex Kozinksi’s recent remarks that, if we’re going to have the death penalty, it shouldn’t be neat and bloodless; that we should kill people by firing squad.

    Kozinski: “Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”

  2. As an Amystic, my revulsion to this brutality is to the cruelty of its methods,
    -the unfathomable lack of empathy that it requires,
    -the level of hatred that it suggests
    -its perverse use of religion to cloak sociopathy

    and the danger of my own heart hardening to the fate of those who would do these things.

    1. “the danger of my own heart hardening”

      I think I know what you mean by this. What a pity to be forced to fight tyranny. No one wants to be placed in the position of a warrior. Yet, it would be a greater danger if nobody would be willing to defend civilization.

      1. Here’s a recent quote from Victor Davis Hanson:
        “It is hard for democratic voters to give up a bit of affluence in peace to ensure that they do not lose it all in war. It is even harder for sophisticated liberal thinkers to admit that after centuries of civilized life, we still have no better way of preventing Neanderthal wars than by reminding Neanderthals that we have the far bigger club — and will use it if provoked.”

        It’s a difficult thing to admit but the only thing these groups like ISIS understand is violence. We have to be willing to beat them at their own game.

        1. Christopher Hitchens pointed out that Christianity had it wrong to say ‘love thy enemy’. Self defense and defense of ones family is a moral duty.

      2. Unfortunately true. A lot of the time, I see suggestions in skeptic world, that just because Satan is a myth, true evil doesn’t exist.

  3. The best part of David Brooks’ columns is the comments section. All of his readers have more intelligent things to say than he does.

  4. If you listen closely, the voice of David Brooks sounds a lot like James Woods. Just pretend you’re listening to edited excerpts from “Salvador” on NPR and it will make Brooks tolerably amusing.

  5. I find Pinker’s discussion of Morality and Taboo, from the ninth chapter of his book Better Angels, provides the most consistent and realistic frameworks for understanding moral emotions. Although he places the emphasis on Fiske’s classification, Pinker also discusses Haidt’s five-way classification, which I think best balances the need for a detailed framework and the need to summarize the thought processes into a not-too-complicated system.

    The one relevant here would be the “Purity/Sanctity” model in Haidt’s framework, or the “Communal Sharing” model in Fiske’s framework. The ability to feel profaned or to sense someone else being profaned comes out of the logic of those social models because it violates a strongly held taboo that promotes deep respect for another’s body and mind. It is, in effect, disgust and visceral horror applied to people’s actions rather than to literal contaminants.

    It’s a better explanation than invoking the spiritual hand-me-downs that traditionally “explained” such phenomena, if by “explained” they really mean “reinforce an intuition with made-up claptrap”.

    It’s certainly more hard-nosed than Brooks’ romantic drivel about the “genuine goodness of creation” and how reconciling the spiritual and the material will stop the “obsessively” spiritual ISIS.

    And it’s actually kind of boring, even embarrassingly predictable, how they keep trotting out art, ethics, and feelings of awe and wonder every single time to prove their points. It’s as if they care less about learning anything and more about preaching and showing their moral and doctrinal credentials.

  6. Decapitatons are the preferred mode of death to infidels according to Islamic scripture. ISIS is following instructions of the only book they ever read. Literacy is not good thing when the only thing you can and do read incites violence.

  7. I guess BoBo (Brooks) has less revulsion for desecration of the body when it is blown to bits by an artillery shell or cut in half by 50 cal machine gun fire, probably because you don’t get to see it up close, but the result is just as gruesome, especially when the victim is a child, as we have recently seen in Gaza

    1. You are referring, I hope, to the many children killed by the many misfired rockets that Hamas attempted to launch from civilian areas in Gaza. Utterly needless deaths, a consequence of attempting to randomly kill civilians in a different geographical location — targets of no direct military or strategic value.

        1. I realized after hitting “post” that I should have written “assume” instead of “hope”. Then the intended irony might have been clearer (if it wasn’t).

          I don’t know why it’s come about that the words “children killed in Gaza” will automatically be taken to refer to Israel, rather than children killed digging tunnels (designed to kidnap and kill other other children) or mis-directed or misfiring rockets (intended to kill other children)….

  8. “The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body” Few people would care to see what goes on in a slaughterhouse, but not because cows can paint or experience the transcendent.

  9. Brooks: “If ISIS is to be stopped, there will probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition.”

    Well at least that part is logically unassailable.

  10. “Brooks’s column … looks as if were phoned it” [sic]

    brooks has been phoning it in for years, even decades. like deepak chopra, he’s made his millions, which by itself is proof enough of his brilliance in all things.

    the short answer to brooks? we’re an empathetic species. ’nuff said.

  11. As Nilou above wrote: “Decapitations are the preferred mode of death to infidels according to Islamic scripture.”
    I would tend to think it is based in a method of terrorism as Jerry pointed out. Instilling fear and repulsion in one’s enemy. Humans have been doing it before biblical times. I know it’s fiction, but think of Achilles dragging Hector’s dead body behind his chariot at the walls of Troy. Or a more recent (and real) example was when SSG William D. Cleveland was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu during Black Hawk Down.
    Different method than beheading, but it’s a similar act of decimating the body and trying to illicit fear and revulsion in the enemy. Trying to break the enemy’s morale as it were.

  12. I have been unable to watch the beheadings apparently available on Youtube. If there was a video of a dog being beheaded in a similar fashion using a serrated knife, I would also be unable to watch it. So I guess dogs must be sacred as well.

    1. Yeah, I don’t want to watch those beheadings either. I consider myself privileged to live in a society where I don’t have to witness such things and I am pampering myself thusly. Kudos to those who are willing to sit through it.

      And yes, I would not want to watch any of that with an animal either.

      1. I agree with the sentiments of both BillyJoe and Diana. The only exception might be if one of those ISIS bastards were beheaded on camera. I might be able to bring myself to watch that, although, likely, not even then. It would have to happen first before I could tell for sure. But that would be easier to watch than a dog being beheaded. Maybe that could be construed by the right pundit that I think dogs are more sacred than Islamofacist terrorists? They’d be wrong, but they might still have a point.

  13. Catholic France had no compunction about beheading their internecine enemies during their revolutions. We have become less barbaric, however not due to anything religious – perhaps think of the Enlightenment writers as a better foundation. Islam needs a reformation and then enlightenment, however I can’t see that happening any time soon.

    1. Indeed, as I remember from somewhere, one idea was that the guillotine meant near instantaneous death and would be more humane than hanging. Score one for the enlightenment. But the executioners supposedly assumed the head would still be conscious for 10 seconds or so and believed the victim could be further humiliated by being hoisted up to view the gearing crowd. Thus images from the time show executioners holding up the heads for ridicule.

      1. Yes, that’s right. Poor Dr. Guillotin was an animal lover, and invented his eponymous instrument to provide a humane way to slaughter animals. He little knew the uses the instrument would be extended to.

        And, again corret, it was adopted in later centuries as a less cruel alternative to hanging.

        You know the story about Lavoisier, probably: he, a scientist to the end, promised a friend that when he was guillotined, he would blink as long as he could, so the friend could determine how long a guillotined person remained conscious. The friend counted 13 blinks.

        1. Thanks. I know I’d heard that somewhere. The story of Lavoisier sounds apocryphal. I would think once the neck is severed the blood pressure in the brain would drop almost instantaneously making it unfit for blinking or anything else.

  14. Admittedly I cannot feel any sympathy when someone who without any reasonable doubt committed horrible, violent crimes is put to death by the state. On the other hand, there have been so many cases that have been brought to light in which an individual convicted of a horrific crime and sentenced to death turned out to be entirely innocent and was indeed the victim of what should be treated as criminal intent by a prosecutor more eager to get a conviction than to see that the genuine murderer be caught and brought to justice, that I would not be sorry to see the death penalty done away with.
    And I am entirely revolted by any murders, whether committed by drug-crazed louts, or religious zealots, or whoever for whatever reason. What the Islamic State maniacs have done this year is as revolting as what the Manson Family did a little over 45 years ago, and as what followers of Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler and other dogmatic lunatics did on far more massive scales over the last century. It boggles my mind that people once looked upon executions or even the mass slaughter of other people and large beasts, as in ancient Rome, as great entertainment. Maybe it’s an improvement that now the masses in most modern socieities get such macabre jollies from horror films rather than genuine slaughters.

  15. Most of us, religious or secular, have some instinctive sense that there is a ghost infused in the machine.

    Somewhat ironic…the phrase “ghost in the machine” was originally coined by a skeptic who was pointing out the absurdity of mind-body dualism (Gilbert Ryle), and has been regularly used since then mostly by skeptics in movies and literature to (repeatedly) point out the same absurdity.

    This is kinda like quoting an abolitionist phrase about freedom to try and support slavery.

  16. We’re repulsed by a beheading because the body has a spiritual essence.

    No, we’re repulsed by beheadings (and other brutal executions) because the human body has a brain which has a psychological component which involves thinking and feeling on a very complex level.

    It’s as if the religious have absolutely no capacity to think in layers or nuances or complex forms and emergent properties or capacities. They’re reductionist fundamentalists who think everyone else has to be a reductionist fundamentalist too because it’s just so obvious. If the mind emerges from meat then the mind must BE meat and nothing but meat. Clunk. Wheel in spiritual essences to save the day!

    1. Also, I would add that we are especially upset when things happen to the face or head of a fellow human because that is the part we connect with most when we socialize; it’s the face the provides the emotions we carefully judge & respond to.

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