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:
“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
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?
Another way to 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 Its 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.
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 Whom that ultimate is). So asking what good is it is a sort of mistake. It would be like asking a computer programmer what good is debugging. The good of it is built in to the definition of it.
In certain religious frameworks, of course, piety is also rewarded (and impiety punished) in the afterlife. Those sorts of rewards and punishments are notoriously difficult to verify or test from within the mortal, mundane world, however.
But there are also ways in which religiosity has been found to be instrumentally valuable (religiosity is not quite the same as piety, but is easier to measure). There are a variety of secular, scientifically-testable benefits that have been claimed for religiosity, such as that it:
(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. 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.
Advice on how to become more reverent/pious differs in its details from religion to religion, but frequently includes things like the following:
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. It claims that this intervention increased measures of psychological and subjective well-being.
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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.