The Hidden Values of Religion

“Where there is the tree of knowledge, there is always Paradise”: so say the most ancient and the most modern serpents.”

“Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, aphorisms 152 and 156.

I find it fascinating that there is such a publicly hostile relationship between scientific atheism and vocal proponents of popular religion (primarily Christian religion). The commonality between both groups’ arguments is what fascinates me. At their core, both groups want to know what the Truth is about the world. Both believe that “the Truth is out there” in a Realist sense, and we have to somehow uncover it. Their disagreements seem to stem from  differing interpretations of what that truth is and how we can know it: atheists found their epistemology on scientific ontology, and the religious group founds theirs on their particular religious ontology. Religious proponents generally believe that knowledge can come through some empirical experience of faith in addition to using “man-made” epistemic processes such as those developed in the sciences, while scientific atheists deny that method of knowing and only allow the various empirical and a priori scientific methods developed in the various sciences. Whether faith, or mystical revelation, is a valid way of gaining knowledge seems to be the root of the disagreement between these groups, since mystical revelation is what founds the difference in epistemology and ontology between religious and atheist groups. Because these ontological and epistemological interpretations of the world are contradictory in many ways, conflict arises.

I think there are problems and benefits with the epistemological and ontological models used by both groups in this disagreement, and I hope to discuss that in future posts. In this post, I want to explore the “hidden” values offered by religion, those values that have nothing to do with what one’s spiritual, ontological, eschatological, or other religious tenets are.

There are some beneficial social practices that arise from group religious practice that are hard to replicate outside of a religious group. The shared experience that religious practice offers to people, regardless of creed, creates a tendency — even a necessity — for those people to help each other in many ways: financially, emotionally, socially, etc. People who go to the same church, synagogue, or temple cook for each other, entertain each other, and help care for each others children, among other shared experiences. Without this shared religious experience, atheists need to replicate this social support group through other means, which can be difficult because atheists don’t have the inherent shared religious experience to draw on, although it can certainly be done.

However, it seems to me that the Materialist, non-spiritual worldview that attends an scientific atheist’s epistemology lends itself more to an individual relationship with others, rather than a cooperative relationship with others. In other words, it seems to me that an atheist is more likely to purchase social services rather than rely on their social support group to provide those services, and there is generally an increase in businesses that provide social services in countries with declining religious attendance. Child care, elder care, many types of insurance, and meal delivery are some examples of this change. I want to emphasize that both systems can be useful and successful for the people who use them: purchasing the services you need is not worse or better than having your church congregation provide those to you. However, purchasing services is generally more expensive than getting those services from a social support group, and that is a difference I find interesting.

What I’d like to see is a collaboration between religious groups and atheists to learn how to build social support groups that can help people, rather than debating about epistemological and ontological differences. I think the latter is devisive and trite. The former can actually help people who need it, while saving people money and introducing us to people in our communities, and I think that is a social benefit  we can all agree on.

If shared religious experience is the foundation of a congregation’s social support group, what shared experience can atheists draw upon to create similar social support groups?


8 thoughts on “The Hidden Values of Religion

  1. SkepticMeditations

    @My Other Feet: You bring up numerous quandaries about religion vs science

    Here’s my reply to two points —
    1) You wrote: ‘Both believe that “the Truth is out there”’. You don’t quote the source of the “scientists” who write “Truth” with a capital “T”. Some scientists may call data about the how the universe operates truth, but using a capital “T” implies or equates that truth with Absolutes or Gods. I think the religious have the upper hand on claims theirs is “Truth” with a capital T. My understanding of scientific method is that, when practiced as intended, the conclusions (truths with lower case) may be revised when new evidence is presented.

    2) Religious, church going, people may have an advantage in the U.S. with community services. I’m curious if you have studied the data from countries outside the U.S. Sweden, Denmark, and Japan come to mind as secular and pro-social societies with much community infrastructures.


    1. My Other Feet Post author

      @ Scott — You raise good points that I didn’t cover in my post. Let me respond to them.

      1) You’re correct: I don’t quote a source for a couple reasons. First, science isn’t generally in the business of examining its assumptions about what it studies; a branch of scientific research is out to understand the part of the world rather than think about the value and possible non-existence of its object of study. That abstracted, second-order thinking is generally left to the philosophy of science. Second, most activities of scientific research presuppose a Realist view of the world. I’m confident that most scientists would claim that the object of study for their field is a real thing that exists in the world — sub-atomic particles, species, elements, microbes, states of mind, neurons, etc. The language of scientific papers belies scientists’ Realist assumption about the world. The wave theory of light and color is a good example of this scientific realism because it presupposes the existence of external objects that emit and absorb light, which the eye perceives. Moreover, an Epiphenomenalist or Solipsist view of scientific research would be a bit absurd as it’s hard to talk about causation beyond of one’s mind without resorting to some form of Realism.

      To be clear, I’m not making a value judgement about Realism in this case, I’m simply noting that it exists and it is similar to the kind of Realist statements that religious believers make about the ontological tenets of their faith, e.g. “God exists”, “Faith produces knowledge of God”, etc.

      There’s an interesting book that gets at the question of how scientists view their research, called Laboratory Life, by Latour and Woolgar. It’s an ethnography of a neurobiology laboratory done by two anthropologists. It’s interesting to see how anthropologists describe the activities of these scientists without assuming any knowledge of their field of study: they make neuroscientific research sound a bit like a religious ceremony or witchcraft.

      2) I haven’t looked much into the data of Northern European or East Asian countries that have a social support system that is better supported at the governmental level. I’m interested to find a functional model of a social support system that doesn’t require decades of legislation to implement in my (our) home country, the U.S.A., which entails developing a model of social support that works at a community level, rather than a national level. A national support system, like the ACA or Social Security is ideal in some ways, as it ensures coverage for everyone, but it also assumes that a government can responsibly manage and financially support that system, which is a dubious assumption to make. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t useful information to gain from studying countries with a national support system — thanks for the suggestion.

      1. SkepticMeditations

        @My Other Feet,
        Yes, funny how we humans can make a religion out of almost anything. Scientism, included.

        There is research on the psychosocial systems and religiosity in various countries. Doesn’t mean other countries don’t have weird beliefs in supernatural and superstitions. The U.S. is an anomaly with religion for a developed country. Heck, look at U.S. and guns! We often claim to be highly civilized and many ‘Mericans pull out weapons if anyone threatens to “touch” their bible or pistol.

  2. Researcher

    Hello Greg, (I have met you in a discussion of Scott´s blog, I´m researcher), I found very interesting this particular post. In all the ways what is most important is to serve the world, making it a better place, discussions are not all useful. We could stay in Logos all lifetime!!!!

    I would like to ask you something, you know East and West philosophies, have you ever seen those teachings alive in some religious person?
    The living examples are very important.

    Thank you very much.

    1. My Other Feet Post author

      Hi Researcher, good to hear from you again! You ask a very interesting question, but to give you an answer, it’d help me to better understand what aspects of Eastern and Western philosophies that you view as important or noteworthy, since there are so many conflicting or inconsistent views discussed in these traditions.

      I agree that living examples are very important. I also think that there are often so many rules in an established philosophical or religious system that it’s difficult to find a person who embodies all the aspects of a particular philosophy. That being said, there are people who are stereotypically “good”, but I don’t think that listing those people are an answer to your question.

      What particular philosophies or religious traditions interest you most? What aspects of those systems are most important to you? These questions might be a good place to start in answering your question.


      1. Researcher

        Hello Greg, thank you for replying! I thought that my message did not reach to you.
        The problem I´ve found in philosophy was its excessive use of logos in deterioration of experience. Philosophical schools where these teachings were practiced were all closed so long time ago. Modern philosophy is discursive and removed self domain work. It´s different theories and controversies have no end.

        Philosopher life is lonely, dedicating so much time to study. Religious life is companionable but it´s not easy to find healthy groups; you have seen it in Indian ashrams where dependence is kept in extreme.

        What can we do in modern life to make spiritual progress?

        Kind regards.

      2. My Other Feet Post author

        Hi Researcher, it sounds like you’re searching for a group of like-mined people to spend time with. That can be a challenge when it comes to finding folks who are interested in philosophy. I wish you luck in your search: maybe you can find a philosophy club that is associated with a local college or university, or perhaps you can start a book club.

        As for the way to make spiritual progress in modern life, I’m not sure I’m qualified to advise anyone on that matter: that’s a big question to answer in the comments section of a little blog!

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