Of sacred cows and sacred unicorns

Meet Paisley, my pet unicorn

Ophelia Benson wrote a post yesterday about sacred cows. In it she asks readers what their cows are, and the responses are fairly typical of what one would expect from skeptical rationalists: democracy, the “golden rule*”, equality, etc…of course no reader of B&W holds actual cows to be sacred, or Jesuses or golden calfs (or is it “calves”?). That’s what you get when you ask a question like that to a gaggle of atheists.

My understanding of the term “sacred cow” is something beyond question, a thing we know is probably undeserving of intellectual protection yet which is protected, shielded from inquiry. It’s not necessarily something which we have fairly good reasons for holding dear, such as basic human rights or hygiene. Those make sense under even the most severe scrutiny (unless you are a sociopath or a pope.)

“David” – perhaps the one who sparked Ophelia’s post – posted a comment along these same lines:

I have a friend for instance who is a skeptic in almost all things but she wants so bad to believe in life after death so that she can think her mother is still somewhere that [sic] she believes in ghosts. She wont discuss it with anyone she does not go ghost hunting or anything but she simply will not consider any evidence against it.

Which is kind of funny because I’ve been thinking about ghosts lately; so I mentioned on Facebook that I have a sacred unicorn.

Here’s a little background:

Last week I had the opportunity to meet a ghostbuster at a 4th of July barbecue in Virginia. After a while of patiently listening to her tales of ectoplasm on walls, angels, spirits and other dimensions (she spoke of an imperceptible “third” dimension…spooky!) I mentioned that maybe what she thought were ghosts were really invisible unicorns. She let slip a telling smile, as if to say, “Nonsense!” I thought, “Gotcha!” Why are unicorns, invisible or not, any less plausible than what she believed were the real causes of unexplained noises in an old wooden house?

This woman was not a skeptic in any sense. In fact, she told me straight out that, when given the choice between a rational, materialistic explanation and a paranormal one, one should always choose the latter. “Why close oneself to the possibilities?” she said. Then why chuckle at unicorns?

So that’s how my sacred unicorn came into this world. She grazes imperceptibly with all those cows in a field of golden wheat somewhere beyong the horizon. If you see her, do me a favor: shoot.

* The “golden rule” is appropriately ridiculed in the comments section of the original post.

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