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?
  • 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, Meditations 7.47

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.

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.

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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.