Holiness and purity are arbitrary concepts, which were invented by humankind. There is nothing which actually is holy, or sacred, or pure. Rather, holiness and purity are two of the many falsehoods of religion meant to stop people from questioning. The dogmatic belief that holiness and purity exist and make something better, closer to God, than the unholy and impure is not part of some greater truth, but the indoctrination that allows religion to keep its thralls in check.
I have written about this before, primarily in my article "Love wins battle, war against dogma continues" (July 5, 2015), which is probably my longest article to date and serves as a rebuttal of many ignorant arguments against same-sex marriage—especially appeals to tradition and a higher power, such as with the concepts of purity and holiness. The basis for the article was a conversation I had on Twitter with a conservative theist called Dissent (he responded to the tweet I embedded here), and he provided me with many arguments to counter. About holiness, I had this to say:
[Dissent] prophesized that "the next generation will lose a dangerous amount of connection to basic morals. Matrimony will cease to exist as the holy union that it is." However, nothing is holy. "Holiness" is a human concept, invented to glorify that which should not be glorified. Saying something is holy is not a valid argument for anything other than the fact that humans enjoy giving more meaning to life than there actually exists. "Holy" is meaningless.
I was asked who I am to say a "direct affiliation with God" cannot be holy. I suppose I am just a rational human being who understands that importance is not an inherent quality that defies all logic; what is considered "holy" is arbitrary, like what is written in an ancient book. Also, like I told Dissent: God does not exist, but even if a god did exist, they would not have the moral authority to discriminate against people.
Holiness is an arbitrary and dangerous concept invented by humans, or even God if it does turn out he exists, to keep people from questioning. "Holy" lets conservative theists hold on to archaic values; it is an important part of religion and it is what makes the Abrahamic religions conservative in their very nature. Holiness is a force for conservatism, the adherence to traditional values; it is not something that actually exists as a property of values, places, people, and things. (Love wins battle, war against dogma continues, July 5, 2015)
Indeed, nothing is objectively holy. What one person considers holy, another person will not, like for example the Bible or the Quran. Neither of these books is actually holy, but the way they are regarded is as if they were, while Muslims do not consider the Bible to be holy and Christians do not consider the Quran to be. Both the Bible and the Quran are full of horribly archaic values and disinformation, and yet, the status they have achieved through concepts like "holiness" makes it so these books are still relevant in today's modern society. As I quoted from my earlier article, "holiness" is a human concept, invented to glorify that which should not be glorified; "holiness" is an arbitrary and dangerous concept invented by humans to keep people from questioning and changing, which makes it a force for conservatism.
Combined with the dogma that God is the overlord one must praise, lest one burn in hell, concepts like holiness are very effective. Any value, person, or establishment considered holy will have protection from criticism, perhaps mostly from the most dogmatic and traditional of theists, but certainly also from normal theists whose confidence in themselves has been shattered for fear of not being good enough for God; they dare not criticize God, and thus they dare not criticize that which they are told is associated with him. I have told this story before, but once when I conversed about the Bible with a Christian, she became distant and seemingly sad; when I asked what was wrong, she said she was worried she had criticized too much.
Change is, of course, inevitable, so even theists and religions do change. But they hold on to the most basic dogma of their religion, and rationalize away that which no longer fits in their worldview. The Christian I mentioned above is a very liberal and good person, but she still holds on to the paralyzing fear of not being good enough for God and thus going to hell; she holds on to the dogma that she must blindly obey God and cannot criticize him, and, through association, she is also hesitant to criticize that which is associated with him, like the Bible or the church. Even when theists are forced to change their minds in some way, because they are confronted with conflicting facts, they still maintain their religion's basic dogma, like the blind obedience to God.
I have also written about another closely related concept in the same article: purity. The concept of "purity" is just as destructive as holiness. The slight difference may be that holiness is armor for ideas, people, and establishments, while purity is there purely to push down and imbue shame. "Purity" is a concept invented by humans, or even God, to control people, keep them in line. This is especially true for women, whose value has historically been and still is being measured in terms of purity—virginity. There is thus this stigma against sexual activity, and we are taught to be ashamed of some of our most basic instincts and needs.
While the value of a person as measured in purity only really affects women, the shame of impurity affects both men and women. With the help of the concept of "purity", it is taught that sex is bad and sinful, that sex means one is evil and deserves to burn in hell for all eternity. How this affects people depends on their background: there are fundamentalist groups of Christians who place a very high value on purity, like the Christians who hold "Purity Balls" when fathers marry their own daughters, so as to protect their vaginas until they are married off to someone else.
There are also plenty of perhaps less fundamental, yet still very fundamental groups that teach sex before marriage and even masturbation are wrong. The people who believe this are still people, so they still have normal sexual urges, which may cause them to, indeed, explore their sexuality, on their own or together. However, because they have been taught it is sinful, they feel intense shame and even fear. Those who do not explore their sexuality in the least, not even on their own as any normal person would, will face difficulties later in life when they are faced with their first sexual experience, after a lifetime of being told nothing about sex other than how sinful it is. First times rarely go well, but with the unhealthy relationship toward sex created with the stigma toward sex and the disinformation, it may work even worse and create a wedge between the young married couple, who will then feel even more shame, because they could not consummate their "holy" relationship.
Even moderate and progressive theists, who otherwise live normal lives, may from time to time feel shame because of their sexual activity, worrying whether they are good enough for God. Concepts like holiness and purity thus contribute to the overall self-hatred that is the central part of Christianity: "you are a sinner and you need to be saved."
Impurity stretches further than just masturbation and premarital sex, though; it also encompasses "immoral" sexual activity, like homosexuality or certain acts like sodomy, with homosexuality and sodomy often closely related even though they do not have to be and straight couples practice sodomy, as well. When I argued with Dissent, he explained that there is such a thing as "sexual impurity", which includes anything that God does not intend for us; as this was a discussion about same-sex marriage, he included same-sex relations in this category of "impurity" he has been indoctrinated into accepting. In my article (and basically during the Twitter conversation), I wrote this about (and to) Dissent:
His religion saying homosexuality is "sexual impurity" only makes his faith bigoted, as well; it says nothing about the purity or impurity of anything. And, indeed, like the concept of "holiness", "purity" is also an arbitrary concept invented by humans to make it appear as if one thing is inherently good while another is inherently bad. Virginity is "pure" and homosexuality is "impure", according to certain definitions; however, these are arbitrary definitions which are forces of conservatism that dehumanize people over harmless differences or states of being. The Mormon Church did, at one point, argue that black individuals were cursed with black skin because they were unfavorable to the lord, because they were sinners; this is another arbitrary classification based on harmless differences, which is very similar, if not the same, as the concepts of "purity" and "holiness". (Love wins battle, war against dogma continues, July 5, 2015)
Indeed, when the concept of "purity" is applied to one's view of sexual activity and such, it can be extremely dehumanizing. The worst form of this could be that homosexuals are executed, by being tossed from a building, for example. Or it can be that "God hates fags," as Westboro Baptist Church likes to preach. Or it can be hundreds of thousands of people who believe natural disasters and disease are God's punishment for, amongst other things, homosexuality and that God is justified in doing this, because homosexuality has been defined as "impure" and "sinful" by him and thus also them. Or it can be the opposition to equal rights, such as the right to marry.
Holiness can have the same dehumanizing effect. In America, atheists are the most mistrusted group of people, even less trusted than Muslims, which says a lot as Muslims are foreign and associated with extremism. In other places, atheists can be murdered, thrown in prison, or admitted to an asylum, all because they are ungodly, unholy (as holy can be defined as "connected to a god or a religion" in addition to "religious and morally good").
Theists who oppose LGBT and atheists often like to say that they "hate the sin, not the sinner." Hate the sin, love the sinner is a poor attempt to masquerade their hateful beliefs as loving, as if the important part is that they care about the sinner, not that their bigoted beliefs label them as sinners in the first place. Saying that you love the sinner, hate the sin is basically like saying, "No, I do not hate you; I just hate who you are."
As I wrote in my article "Destructive dogma" (July 30, 2015), Ray Comfort posted on his Facebook that "adultery, fornication, pornography, lying, stealing, homosexuality, cooruption[sic], violence, abortion, hypocrisy, and blasphemy" are to blame for things like natural disasters, disease, and "the heat index [being] off the chart" (rather than climate change, which is the actual culprit). In my article, I argued that what he said is "the same kind of nonsense rhetoric as the suggestion that women who do not dress modestly corrupt men and cause earthquakes. It is not only disingenuous to make up connections where none exist, but it is also morally abhorrent to actually condone God's use of disease and natural disasters [...]"
The belief in sin, purity, and holiness as things that actually exist and define good and bad in an "objective" way, even though it seems arbitrary, is destructive. "For living our lives as we want, without harming anyone, and for finally not only tolerating but embracing differences like sexual orientation, these people believe we deserve to be murdered," I wrote in "Destructive dogma" (July 30, 2015). "For thinking for ourselves and not being blindly devoted to an overlord, they believe we deserve to be tortured for all eternity."
In "Love wins battle, war against dogma continues" (July 5, 2015), I talk about how conservative theists base their arguments on appeals to tradition and God: "They have been indoctrinated into believing there is only one way to be, which is justified by concepts like holiness and purity." Later, I also claimed that "the central idea of the Abrahamic religions, which is basically that God is the rightful dictator of humanity, is extremely sick, downright evil, and it has been sold as something inherently good through indoctrination and concepts like 'holy' and 'pure' and more." In addition to holy and pure, the concept of sin, and especially that human beings have "inherited sin" and thus need saving, contribute to the indoctrination that makes people accept the sick ideology of Christianity.
Concepts like holiness and purity—as well as sin and inherited sin—are dehumanizing and destructive. And yet they are central tenets of most people's religion, the Abrahamic religions. These concepts help justify the hatred and self-hatred of a hateful and totalitarian ideology, and for humanity to truly progress, this dogma must be left behind.