What is Holy to Non-Religious People?

Using dialogue from Inherit the Wind, the movie about the Scopes Monkey Trial, Fibbs1701 made this powerful video answering the question “What is Holy?” (from an atheist’s perspective):

The scene features lawyer Henry Drummond (played by Spencer Tracy) questioning Bible expert Matthew Harrison Brady (played by Fredric March). Here’s the transcript:

Brady: “Is it possible that something is holy to the celebrated agnostic!?”

Drummond: “Yes! the individual human mind!… In a child’s power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than in all your shouted amens and holy-holies and hossana’s, an idea is a greater monument than a cathedral and the advance of man’s knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turnt to snakes for the parting of the waters. But now, are we to forgo all this progress because Mr. Brady now frightens us with a fable?

Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain, you have to pay for it, sometimes I thinks there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says… Alright you can have the telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam you may vote, but at a price, you lose the right to retreat behind the powderpuff or your petticoat. Mister! you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.

Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came, but for this insight and for this knowledge we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis”

Brady: “We must not abandon Faith! Faith is a most important thing!”

Drummond: “Then why did God plague us with the power to think Mr.Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the Earth, the power of his brain to reason? what other merit have we? the Elephant is larger, the Horse is swifter and stronger, the Butterfly is far more beautiful, the Mosquito is more prolific, even the simple Sponge is more durable! what does a Sponge think?”

Brady: “I dont know, I’m a Man not a Sponge!”

(Court laughs)

Drummond: “What do you think a Sponge thinks?”

Brady: “If the Lord wishes a Sponge to think, it thinks.”

Drummond: “Do you think a Man should have the same privileges of a Sponge?”

Brady: “Of course!”

Drummond: “This man wishes to accorded the same privileges of a Sponge! He wishes to think!”

(Thanks to Brian for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://eyeblister.blogspot.com DavidDvorkin

    It’s a meaningless question without a definition of “holy”.

    I suspect that any definition would either be in religious terms, and hence irrelevant to an atheist, or so vague and fuzzy as to be meaningless.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=773692362 Jansen Waddell

      I tend to agree with you David; ‘holy’ to me is one of those empty words like ‘soul.’

      • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

        For me, too. “Holy,” “soul,” “spiritual,” “sacred,” etc. are words that have no relevance to my life.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Nothing is holy. The very concept of holy (at least, as the term is most often used) is dangerous. The implication of “holy” is that there are things that have value beyond that which we choose to assign to them. IMO, such a view is deeply misguided.

    That does not mean, of course, that we can’t place a high value on many things- like the human mind. But holy? Never! Holy is as foul a concept as “sacred” and “faith”.

    • Formercorvguy

      OT but reminds me of a sound by the Duhks Fast Paced World

      “We’ve forgotten what is sacred,
      We’ve forgotten what is sacred,
      Not love, not culture, not family or nature

      Everybody follow me, I will show you the way,I know all the ins and outs, Of how this world should be turningWith God as my leader, I’ll feed you all kinds of lies,And you’ll believe me, ‘Cause even God has lost his name with time …..”

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gl9XvJ7rO7k 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    Faith is the most important thing – to get rid of

  • DeepEddy

    Rhetorically powerful speech.

    I think it’s clear that for this discussion “holy” means that which is unquestioned and held above all else.

    So…do non-believers hold the thought process unquestioned and above all else? That’s our question.

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

    It’s a good speech, but frankly I don’t think the words “holy” or “sacred” do much credit to anything to which they are applied.

  • george.w

    So why should religionists have a monopoly on the word “holy”? The dictionary lists several meanings for it as for many words; it’s time to add one more. One that counters the shivering fear of superstition in response to lightning or Earthquakes.

    This bit moves me to tears every time and I’ll tell you why: it elevates sentience to a place in accord with its rarity in an indifferent and insensible universe.

    One little quibble I’ve always had though: the birds are not less wonderful for our knowledge of them or our artificially acquired power of flight. Quite the opposite.

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      The problem with making the word mean something else is that it adds confusion. As a rule, it’s best not to do that. Leave “holy” for the religious, and then we’ll all have a pretty good idea of what it means when it’s used. There are already plenty of fine words that do a great job of conveying the sense of awe and wonder experienced by atheists when they encounter the awesome.

      • Uzza

        Really?  What are they?

        • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

          What does “holy” convey (besides religious confusion) that “awesome”, “beautiful”,  “wonderful”, “inspiring”, and many similar words, in proper context, do not?

        • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

          I would use “wondrous” or “awe-inspiring.”

          • Skwiver

            Just saw this:
            “that (military cemetery) is sacred ground to my family…”
            None of your suggestions seem quite to work.

            • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

              Well, “sacred ground” is a compound noun, not really a case where “sacred” is being used as a normal adjective. “Sacred ground” has a cultural meaning all it’s own, independent of “sacred”.

              Your example is out of context, so I don’t know the rest of the story. My first thought in seeing it, however, is that the speaker means it in a religious sense.

              If I were talking about a plot of land where my relatives were buried, I might say something like “that cemetery is deeply significant to my family”. I almost certainly would not say sacred ground, because I would not want my comment to be interpreted as a religious one.

  • Don Gwinn

    That audio is fascinating.  I’ve been meaning to watch *Inherit the Wind* lately, but I haven’t gotten to it.  I’ve been reading *Summer of the Gods*, though, a history of the real Scopes trial on which *Inherit the Wind* was very loosely based, and one of the points made is that most Americans have been taught to see the Scopes trial more or less in terms of the play and the movie, even though they have more in common with *Flashdance* than they do the actual Scopes trial (deliberately s0, it should be pointed out–it was never the intention of the writers to try to create a historical account of the trial–it was simply taken and used that way in many history classes afterward.)

    By the way, Hemant, I teach middle school math in Springfield, and I just had a great time at the “College of Curiosities” conference at the City Museum in St. Louis.  There was talk of doing it in Chicago next year; if they do that, it would be cool to meet you there.  Brian Dunning did a great lecture on anomalous sounds and another one on video editing tricks, for instance.  I don’t know that Chicago has a place to rival the City Museum, but in some ways that might be better–it was a lot of fun, but it was a little like having your conference at Six Flags.

  • Bob

    holy means that it has a bunch of holes in it.  swiss cheese is holy.

  • Kodie

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