Values and the Definition of Religion

In relation to my last post, a friend of mine on Facebook was not clear on my definition of religion in relation to values, so this is how I replied.

Sure, Ed, the word “values” is tricky because when I talk about values, I’m not always rigorous about separating foundational values that can’t be reduced, from a system that builds on those foundational values. Also, I talk about our evolved moral equipment as being “values,” but that’s pretty loose of me, because though we evolved selfishness and altruism among other “values,” really they’re only values when they enter our thoughts mediated by language, at which point it becomes negotiable how we apply them to the real world. Our evolved tendencies that support values in this sense might be better described as instincts.

So I think you hit the weak point in my language, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to explain.

Language is a tool for grasping at the real world, but it never really touches it — an old idea, of course. Language creates many difficulties that intuition resolves for us; unfortunately, intuition is limited. It reflects the parochial environment we evolved in — the earth is flat according to naïve intuition — and is applied from a very personal viewpoint. Just as you probably can’t intuit calculus, you probably can’t intuit a system of values and reliably apply it without a creed and constant practice. That’s what religion is, the formal practice of values. We evolved the capacity for religion, an ordered system and practice of values, because we evolved intuition of fundamental values, but we did not evolve religion. Religion takes work. What gives religion force over our behavior is mythology (and laws with temporal consequences, but that function can largely be shunted off to the state). Mythology stems, again, from evolved cognitive biases. When incorporated into a religion, people interpret myths, like those of an afterlife, literally or figuratively depending on their ability to do so and still hold the road of moral progress. Generally we only see the most simplistic, literal face of a religion’s mythology because that’s the one most easily presented through language, but a given faith community will include members representing a range of literalism and moral talent. To get a community to form and cohere, you have to appeal to the lowest understanding among its members, so this is understandable.

Some but not all religious mythologies are compatible with secular humanism and a pluralistic society. Christianity has a lot of baggage, but its strengths as I see them are Jesus’ refusal to be pinned down on moral law and his assertion of the Golden Rule (along with the mandate to love God above all things, but that’s certainly open to interpretation). Jesus stated that suffering ridicule for his sake without retaliating was a virtue, and he practiced what he preached there. Again, you don’t have to be religious to see the far-reaching implications of this for Western society.


About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. President of
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One Response to Values and the Definition of Religion

  1. In answer to another friend who pointed out that certain Christian groups were dogmatic and uncompromising, I said basically this:

    In the West, we adhere to an exclusionary intersection of Christian values, or strive to, that omit fringe, dogmatic values. It’s an ongoing project. Not all religions are ultimately as flexible as the disparate strains of Christianity considered as a set, and some interpretations of Christianity will not stand in the West, if our civilization is to stand at all.

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