When I was 8 or 9 years old, my family took a holiday to Wells, a beautiful seaside town on the coast of Norfolk. It’s a town surrounded by nature. The sea and the sand are everywhere – in the air, the salted walls, the people. On one of our walks along the sea wall we stopped at a surf shop, where a necklace of wooden beads caught my eye. I left with it; the path of my life and the path of this bracelet crossed for the first time.
A decade later, thrown about by the forces of anxiety and the densest intrusive thoughts imaginable, I was looking for cures. I searched through my memory and recalled the old saying “knock on wood” – a simple little ritual to bring luck and ward off disaster. In the state I was in I locked onto it a bit too much. I’d scramble around the warehouse at my old supermarket job looking for wooden loading palettes so that I could feel my hand press onto the material; to offload my overgrown fears through touch. Sometime around then, I found the necklace again – though by now it fit more like a bracelet. Those wooden beads I’d picked up in childish admiration were soon imbued with a power that could not have felt more real. To this day, it’s the key to memories of family, nature, and escape. I’d go on to wind the beads around my wrist on tough days. I believed in this shortcut to safety. The bracelet became a talisman, the crucial piece of an imaginary ritual; deeply and personally important. It had become something sacred.
All my life, I had thought of knowledge and faith as two separate spheres. Knowledge was out there, ready to be collected and used. Faith, on the other hand, was a touch more complex. I’d mostly thought of it as intertwined with religion, a system of contracts and promises one chooses as the way to live. Now though, I’m not so sure. If all we did was all we know, how would we ever learn? We navigate through life by the grace of waypoints and touchstones that are themselves always on the move; even the most static of resting places is barrelling through space at 67,000 miles per hour. Yet across the globe and across history we’ve given some of this jumble special status, creating anchors and purpose from the noise. We are curious, learning creatures obsessed with knowledge, but across the globe, across history, superstition, myth, and religion prosper. And on a much more intimate scale, how do we decide what’s sacred?
Whether you’re religious or not, faith is a part of our shared human history. A 2011 article, from the Association for Psychological Science, presents the idea that belief in the supernatural came about to reinforce some essential human needs as the size of societies grew. As human in-groups changed from small tribes with inherent trust to “large agrarian cultures” that required “cooperation and tolerance among relative strangers”, there came a need for collective vision. Large scale systems of faith gave people a buy-in to society. It might be argued that in modern secular countries, democracy fulfils that role. It offers a neutral and irreligious way to participate, but is voting really different to believing in the supernatural? The conditions that originally necessitated society-wide faith systems have only gotten stronger in the last few thousand years. Imagine the scale of Indian society, with over a billion people and 4,000 cities – it’s much harder than imagining the few thousand inhabitants of the ancient city of Jericho. We can’t all see how democracy works first hand in societies this large – it takes belief.
The impact of faith on the accumulation of knowledge is also not to be underestimated. Scientific American reported in 2006 that 70,000 year old offerings to a stone snake idol had been discovered in Botswana, perhaps the earliest evidence of religion in a place locals knew as the ‘Mountain of the Gods’. The archetypes of modern European storytelling come from Greece and Rome thousands of years ago, myths and legends of gods on high podiums and fantastical places that shaped the way we imagine for millennia. That’s not to mention the holy books. The Bible is so intertwined with the history of the English Language that a 2018 paper for the Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine in Japan recommended that any study of English also include study of the Bible. Our world is covered in wondrous feats of willpower and engineering dedicated to the things we believe in; Stonehenge, Rapa Nui, the Leshan Giant Buddha. So much of our world, what we know and what we have, was powered by what I understand as immaterial belief.
So, the way we get along, think, and create, has seemingly always had a relationship with faith. Even though this seems like a tight and permanent relationship, I still believe that the things we hold truly sacred are a choice. It has, however, become increasingly obvious to me that this is an outsider’s natural view; it is quite simple for me to take a passing interest in scripture, prayer, and ritual. For those born or called into religion, these things can be tantamount to empirical knowledge. There’s also those who must adhere to a culture or ideology under fear of punishment, who’s awful unfreedom requires its own discussion and reminds us that ideological flexibility is a privilege. For others, the rules do sometimes bend. Belief systems that last for more than half a century are bound to be full of anachronisms – for example, the traditional Abrahamic view of homosexuality is considered outdated. When the material world comes into play, with its changes and challenges, things become malleable. People choose what is sacred, and what they may be better off without – a choice that should be free of outside judgement.
I touched on democracy as a modern-day surrogate for religion and example of widespread belief in the immaterial, but there are much more intimate examples that highlight just how pervasive faith is in the way we all interact. Conversation can never be fully based in knowledge. I can make promises to someone I trust, but as I speak these promises into existence both of us will recognise that there’s no such thing as a total guarantee. The people we choose to form meaningful relationships with are the ones we trust not to abuse the faith that results from not being able to see inside another person’s mind. It’s that mutual understanding of our humanity, of uncertainty, of fallibility, that gives people an unspoken and sustained faith in each other. Whenever we make a promise, we say not what we know, but what we believe.
What our love of promises shows is that people love the idea of certainty – I say ‘the idea’ because certainty does not exist anywhere. As in, universally! Everything that has ever happened did so because it was the most likely of thousands of probabilities – not great for a species as needy as ours. Our desire to make things sacred, to have the personal power to give objects, people, and ideas a higher status in our own view of the world, must be tied to our desire to make things certain. I often think about how I’d go about building a shrine, a place to meditate and reflect on everything happening. Every time I imagine my shrine, I see it as a completely unchanging place, not even the air moving around. It wouldn’t be still, though. It’d be travelling through space at 67,000 miles per hour. And that’s fine. Certainty and uncertainty aren’t always a duality. They can be complimentary expressions of the same idea; perhaps the same is true of faith and knowledge, or even belief and disbelief. I could build a beautiful shrine, sit there, believe I am entirely still and know I am in the most rapid motion possible. Sure, only one is true, but both are useful, so both are absorbed. This is the type of acceptance that doesn’t do well in politics, the arena of divisive promises. Maybe one day I’ll run for president of something – until then, I’m not stressing it!
What’s sacred is chosen. Things in this world are abundant to a point of practical infinity – allowing that feeling of sanctity into life is a compassionate and ultimately human thing to do. It’s possible we deal with life’s uncertainty by taking command, creating sanctity, employing our human nature to make this life make sense. Or, something totally different – these answers I have aren’t the most scientific, and like I’ve said, what we decide to make sacred is a deeply personal choice. It just depends on what you choose to believe.
I’ve still got the bracelet. I reckon it’ll be with me for the rest of my life. I can’t find it right now, but I’m not worried. I know it’ll be around somewhere.