This post examines the virtue of reverence (a.k.a. “holiness”, “piety”, “sanctity”). I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

I am an atheist, and am addressing an audience in which, if I’m not mistaken, respect for the tenets of established religion is fairly low. But I want to explore reverence — in the spirit of Chesterton’s Fence — because it is common to many virtue systems across cultures and across time. Among the questions that concern me:

  • Are there aspects of reverence that are valuable that rationalists can preserve and nurture in their own ways in their own traditions?[1]
  • Is reverence perhaps so valuable that it is worth taking a “leap of faith” beyond the limits of rationalism in order to practice it?

What is reverence?

“Watch the stars in their courses and imagine yourself running alongside them. Think constantly on the changes of the elements into each other, for such thoughts wash away the dust of earthly life.” ―Marcus Aurelius[2]

My first temptation is to ask whether reverence/piety is just a religiously-decorated variety of awe, elevation, or wonder, and to ask whether it can be replaced entirely by these secular alternatives.

Contemplation of the vastness of everything we know about, of the tremendous unplumbed chasm of the unknown, of the vertigo-inducing forever of infinity, of the mystery of why there is anything at all or any subjectivity with which to try to confront it… any of these things can induce a shudder of humble awe in the most dyed-in-the-wool atheist. Is that sufficient as the basis for reverence/piety?

One way I might think of reverence is as attention to ultimate values. You instrumentally value something if it helps you effect something else you value. But why do you value that thing? Maybe it too is instrumental, helping you to do or obtain something else. But if there are no ultimate values to terminate this chain, ones that you value for themselves and not instrumentally, this whole process becomes a comical tail-chasing.

To have an ultimate value means to take sides in a universe of flux and change (though I hear the Taoists reminding me that you can always take the side of flux and change).

Piety might in this view be considered those practices that bring our ultimate values to the forefront so that we can contemplate them and double-check that our instrumental values are in alignment with them.

Ultimate values are difficult to arrive at rationally. If there is any irrefutable way to say of any particular ultimate value “and this is how I can prove it is ultimate” I don’t know what it is.

Maybe “God” in His various forms was invented in part to be a sort of ultimate value by-definition to serve for this purpose. If you are seeking an ultimate value, you might have criteria of wanting to choose the best thing that there is, the most important thing that there is, the most far-seeing perspective that can be had, the most influential thing that can be and so forth. If you do not have any idea what if anything satisfies those criteria, “God” seems a reasonable name for the placeholder. God, in this view, is the shape of the outline that the best ultimate values would have, even if we do not know what occupies that outline. By revering God we can devote ourselves to the best approximation of the ultimate values we can discover, while we continue to strive to discern what those values are more clearly.

I sense that I’ve gone out on a limb here. I’ve also been bending over backwards to accommodate piety without having to acknowledge faith in an actual, real, honest-to-God God.

I don’t think a subjunctive God like the one I contemplated would satisfy most of the traditions that have given a place of importance to piety/reverence in their virtue systems. When I see people stress reverence and piety, typically they seem to have a pretty good idea of what occupies the space where God belongs, and it’s a particular deity or pantheon from human mythology, whose characteristics and concerns are specified in uncanny detail. Maybe the human mind abhors a vacuum; the idolatrous temptation to fill-in-the-blanks is just too great to resist.

Aside from awe, elevation, or wonder, which I mentioned earlier, other virtues closely related to piety/reverence include devotion and faith.

What good is it?

In one sense, piety is just the name for whatever attitude it is appropriate for a person to have toward the ultimate (abstracted away from questions of what that attitude consists of and what or Who that ultimate is). So asking what good is it is kind of odd. It would be like asking a computer programmer what good is debugging, really. The good of it is built in to the definition of it.

But there are also ways in which religiosity may be instrumentally valuable. In certain religious frameworks, of course, piety is rewarded and impiety punished according to the terms of the religion. Those sorts of rewards and punishments are notoriously difficult to verify or test from within the mortal, mundane world, however.

There are also a variety of secular, potentially-testable benefits that have been claimed for religiosity, such that it:

  • correlates suggestively with virtues like altruism,[3] compassion,[4] forgiveness,[5] kindness,[6] gratitude,[7] and with prosocial values in general,[8] and provides a framework in which people cooperate for community benefit[9]
  • is linked to optimism, hope, and happiness,[10] and to physical and psychological well-being,[11] and helps people cope with life’s curveballs[12]
  • shields children from engaging in various harmful behaviors[13]
  • improves the quality of marriages[14]

(I pulled these references from Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification by Peterson & Seligman, and from Applied Positive Psychology by Lomas, Hefferon, & Ivtzan.)

It can be difficult to tease out which aspect of religiosity may cause which benefit. Is it the belief, the attitude of reverence, the strictures, the congregation of peers, the institutional structures?

One group of researchers tried to investigate this.[15] They divided people into four quadrants based on their having high or low religiosity (institutional religious involvement), and high or low spirituality (earnest search for the sacred). The groups of people who had the highest spirituality had the highest well-being scores (on measures of “self-actualisation, meaning in life, and personal growth initiative”); the worst-off were those with high religiosity but low spirituality. This suggests that sincere piety, rather than some incidental social/institutional artifact of religion, is what leads to at least some of religion’s benefits.

How to become more pious

Advice on how to become more reverent/pious differs in its details from religion to religion, but frequently includes things like the following:

  • Prayer or contemplation that brings God / the object of reverence / your ultimate values to mind and prompts you to orient yourself appropriately in relation to it.
  • Recitation / reading / listening to other pious people or to traditional scripture / prayers / chants that have a track record of inducing piety / reverence.
  • Rituals, symbols, fasting, particular clothing or dietary choices, etc. that serve to periodically remind you of the ultimate value, whatever it is.
  • Acts done in conformance with your highest values and with a consciousness that this is why you are doing them.
  • Renunciation of instrumental values that do not serve the ultimate value, or of other ultimate values that on reflection aren’t worth the candle.

I’m aware of one study that attempted to induce piety via a series of exercises designed to psychologically implant “sanctification” on some object and thereafter use that object as a focus for sacred contemplation.[16] It claims that this intervention increased measures of psychological and subjective well-being.

  1. ^

    A. de Botton Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012)

  2. ^

    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.47

  3. ^

    R. Wuthnow, & V.A. Hodgkinson, Faith and philanthropy in America: Exploring the role of religion in America’s voluntary sector (1990)

    M.D. Regnerus, C. Smith, & D. Sikkink, “Who Gives to the Poor? The Influence of Religious Tradition and Political Location on the Personal Generosity of Americans toward the Poor” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1998), 37(3)

    H. Lovell Smith, Anthony Fabricatore, & Mark Peyrot, “Religiosity and Altruism Among African American Males: The Catholic Experience” Journal of Black Studies (1999)

  4. ^

    Robert Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves (2012)

    P. Steffen & K. Masters “Does compassion mediate the intrinsic religion-health relationship?” Annals of Behavioral Medicine (2005)

  5. ^

    M.S. Rye, K.I. Pargament, M.A. Ali, G.L. Beck, E.N. Dorff, C. Hallisey, V. Narayanan, & J.G. Williams, “Religious perspectives on forgiveness,” in Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice (2000)

    M.E. McCullough & J.E.L. Worthington “Religion and the forgiving personality” Journal of Personality (1999)

  6. ^

    Christopher G. Ellison, “Are Religious People Nice People? Evidence from the National Survey of Black Americans” Social Forces (December 1992)

  7. ^

    N. Krause “Religious involvement, gratitude and change in depressive symptoms over time” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion (2009)

  8. ^

    Jacqueline S. Mattis, Robert J. Jagers, Carrie A. Hatcher, G. Dawn Lawhon, Eleanor J. Murphy, & Yohance F. Murray, “Religiosity, volunteerism, and community involvement among African American men: An exploratory analysis” Journal of Community Psychology (19 June 2000)

  9. ^

    Kenneth I. Maton & Kenneth I. Pargament, “The Roles of Religion in Prevention and Promotion” Prevention in Human Services (1987)

    K.I. Maton, & E.A. Wells, “Religion as a Community Resource for Well-Being: Prevention, Healing, and Empowerment Pathways” Journal of Social Issues (1995)

    Andrew Billingsley, Mighty Like a River: The Black Church and Social Reform (1999)

    Andrew Billingsley, & Cleopatra Howard Caldwell, “The Church, the Family, and the School in the African American Community” The Journal of Negro Education (1991)

    C. Eric Lincoln & Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (1990)

  10. ^

    Sheena Sethi & Martin E. P. Seligman, “Optimism and Fundamentalism” Psychological Science (1993)

    Sarah French & Stephen Joseph, “Religiosity and its association with happiness, purpose in life, and self-actualisation” Mental Health, Religion & Culture (1999)

    Jeffrey S. Levin & Robert Joseph Taylor, “Panel Analyses of Religious Involvement and Well-Being in African Americans: Contemporaneous vs. Longitudinal Effects” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1998)

    A. Moadel, et al. “Seeking meaning and hope: Self-reported spiritual and existential needs among an ethnically-diverse cancer patient population” Psycho-Oncology (1999)

  11. ^

    Neal Krause, “Religion, Aging, and Health: Current Status and Future Prospects” The Journals of Gerontology Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (1997)

    Jeffrey S. Levin “Religious Research in Gerontology, 1980–1994: A Systematic Review” Journal of Religious Gerontology (1998)

  12. ^

    Paul J. Handal, Wandamarie Black-Lopez, & Stephanie Moergen, “Preliminary Investigation of the Relationship between Religion and Psychological Distress in Black Women” Psychological Reports (1989)

    Kenneth I. Pargament, The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice (1997)

    David R. Williams, David B. Larson, Robert E. Buckler, Richard C. Heckmann, & Caroline M. Pyle, “Religion and psychological distress in a community sample” Social Science & Medicine (1991)

  13. ^

    Byron Johnson, David Larson, Spencer Li, & Sung Joon Jang, “Escaping from the Crime of Inner Cities: Church Attendance and Religious Salience among Disadvantaged Youth” Justice Quarterly (2000)

    Michael Donahue & Peter Benson, “Religion and the Well‐Being of Adolescents” Journal of Social Issues (2010)

    Kenneth I. Maton & Elizabeth A. Wells, “Religion as a Community Resource for Well‐Being: Prevention, Healing, and Empowerment Pathways” Journal of Social Issues (1995)

    H. C. Stevenson, “Managing anger: Protective, proactive, or adaptive racial socialization identity profiles and African-American manhood development” Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community (1997)

  14. ^

    G. H. Brody, Z. Stoneman, D. Flor, & C. McCrary, “Religion’s role in organizing family relationships: Family process in rural, two-parent African American families” Journal of Marriage and the Family (1994)

    A. Mahoney, K.I. Pargament, T. Jewell, A.B. Swank, E. Scott, E. Emery, & M. Rye, “Marriage and the spiritual realm: The role of proximal and distal religious constructs in marital functioning” Journal of Family Psychology (1999)

  15. ^
  16. ^

    E.D. Goldstein “Sacred moments: Implications on well-being and stress” Journal of Clinical Psychology (2007)

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I think the focus on ultimate values comes from the Christian mindset. It's worth contrasting with the Greek mindset, where piety is more about actions that show respect to your gods, rulers, or parents, with an expectation of good treatment in return.

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