I wonder how many people have asked themselves the question: is life sacred? and why. The basic premise of the sanctity of life is that life is God given. The question why is as revealing as the original question. In other words, why does someone having grown up with the notion that life is sacred, change the position of the word ‘is’. The notion aspires to be universal, yet one’s questioning of it is inevitably personal. For me the notion harks back to my childhood recollection of religious instruction and observance and, once encountered, was something I wanted to believe in. It is a question predicated on a potentially inexhaustible sequence of compelling questions.

In those far off, pre dictionary-consulting days, I associated the word sacred insofar as it was known to me, with the ineffable aura of religious virtue and divine dispensation which I sensed in the services I occasionally attended. The word represented a reality both private and secret.  In western culture the proposition that life is sacred is intimately linked to the 6th commandment: you shall not murder.  I was probably quite young when I first heard it and young when I first understood the horror of the word murder. I do not recall when I first encountered the proposition that life is sacred, which, at the time, struck me as self-evident, but it must have been long after those initial religious stirrings. Nor can I say if I felt that the sanctity of life referred to all life or just human life; one of those aforementioned compelling questions.

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary has five definitions of sacred, including accursed, which it reassuringly describes as rare or obsolete. The other four are:

  1. Consecrated to or considered especially dear to a god or supernatural being.
  2. Set apart for or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration or
    respect; consecrated, hallowed.
  3. Regarded with or deserving veneration or respect as of something holy especially as an
    epithet of royalty.
  4. Protected (as) by religious sanction or reverence from violation, interference,
    incursion etc. sacrosanct, inviolable.

The 4th definition is the one which I consider most closely bound up with the notion of life being sacred.

In asking my question, I really have human life in mind, which, based on its wording, I believe is also true of the 6th commandment. My reasons for doing so foreshadow my answer to the question, which I ask free of religious precepts, but with a profound feeling that human life is beyond price. During the last 30 to 40 years, the sanctity of life issue has increasingly been associated with abortion, but this is not my concern here.

In evolutionary time human life is a very recent manifestation of the processes which gave rise to life on earth. The advent of what we call civilisation is far more recent. Broadly speaking I see civilisation as an invention by Homo sapiens to mitigate the law of the jungle – the purposeless, amoral and random working of the universe – in human affairs. And central to the civilising urge are religion and ethics – the requirement to behave morally. The invention is integral to the survival strategy of our species. For how long it continues as a successful strategy remains to be seen.

Those, like Richard Dawkins, who downplay a sense of awe and wonder at creation, overlook the reality that the propensity of our species to recognise a coherent creation which gives purpose to the life of an individual being, is as much a part of the seemingly purposeless, amoral and random whole as any other manifestation. Thus, thanks to our species, notions of purpose, coherence, morality and wonder have a place in the universe. Not only do they help to give meaning to events, they also enable us to acquire self-knowledge, a capacity which Dawkins overlooks to his peril in his quest to understand life on earth. His curiosity does not apparently extend to the man he is, although everything he feels, thinks and does depends on it.

Unfortunately the advent of civilisation has not obliterated the law of the jungle as a determinant in human affairs. The presence of our species on the planet has had many appalling consequences for other species. Our survival now depends on the rivers of blood flowing from the thousands of millions of animals slaughtered each year on land or sea, to feed us. What is worse; the industrial farming of animals for the dining table, the ritual sacrifice of animals for religious feasting or the plunder of wild animals for the bush meat trade? But the carnage we inflict is not confined to our need for food. Animals are also slaughtered for recreation, to clothe people, enhance their sex lives, decorate their homes, and in the name of scientific and medical knowledge.

Homo sapiens wreaks equal havoc on the earth’s flora. The wanton destruction of rainforest reduces plant diversity and animal habitat, as does the removal of hedge-rows. Global mining and industrial operations pollute ground, air and water, threatening species extinction on a large scale. This is but a cursory look at the record of destruction we have inflicted on other species in our time on earth through our bloodlust and rapacity. That natural events can be catastrophic for species survival in no way diminishes our responsibility and guilt. The Hobbseian observation of nature “red in tooth and claw” would seem to apply to our species above all, because it is hard to imagine that there is another species more destructive than ours. The record of destruction is partly off-set by the patchy record of conservation and preservation, due to our awe of and wonder at creation, our studying life on earth and a belated realisation that our wellbeing may depend on it.

The sway of the 6th commandment has probably always been precarious, although ironically, it may be more widely accepted now than at any other time in human history. It is part of an early attempt in the near east (the ten commandments), and at a time when human sacrifice was practised in places as far apart as Britain and China, to establish a moral basis for behaviour which has stood the test of time and overcome the limits of geography. The notion that life is sacred is an ideal, which I link to the elusive idea of a common humanity, and my sense that it is self-evident held good as long as I accepted the ideal. But in time the weight of evidence about the senseless slaying of untold millions of unarmed men, women and children, the civilian victims of conflict and conquest through the ages and throughout the inhabited world, forced me to question the sanctity of life.  Granted that they represent a flagrant abuse of power, such deaths defy our understanding. They seem even more appalling than the tens of millions of deaths of military combatants and are a more telling indictment of our species than the crime of murder. Together with the capricious murders of pizza delivery boys, taxi drivers, party goers one hears about, they suggest that life cannot be sacred if it can be so arbitrarily taken. Part of the universal horror of violent death is the awareness that a life which may have taken years to achieve can be cut short in an instant, like the felling of a majestic and ancient tree or the destruction of a historic monument. The horror is all the more disturbing if the loss is by design rather than accident.

It is a short step from asking the question to concluding that life is not sacred even if it is beyond price. If life were sacred, meaning sacrosanct, inviolable, then this reality must be lived by our entire species, which of course it is not. The underlying assumption about the sanctity of life is that every human being would rather live than die. But that assumption is undermined by those who commit suicide or seek the right to assisted death because of their unbearable physical suffering. To sanction the latter on compassionate grounds, which I support, would require a radical change to the traditional meaning of the sanctity of life.

If only we could arrive at an understanding of what constitutes common humanity, I feel that the ideal of the sanctity of life could be closer to becoming a reality.  In some ways what constitutes common humanity is a more pertinent and challenging question. The human body with its great variety of size, shape and seemingly infinite capabilities is, paradoxically, the main reason why the search for a common humanity is so elusive; one person’s meat is another person’s poison.  Shared emotions can unite people across racial and cultural divides, but shared emotions can be violent as well as benign. Similarly, a shared plight or fate, even on a massive scale and evoking a massive response, may still leave a significant portion of the planet’s people indifferent to what is going on.  The world’s people come closest to being fleetingly united by watching live sport or entertainment, such as the football world cup, the Olympic Games opening ceremony or a mammoth charity concert. I conclude that life is not sacred with a sense of resignation and sorrow. I would so like it to be otherwise.