Religion and Values, Origins of

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Religion and Values, Origins of

The word value expresses worth in a broad generic sense, but this usage only dates to about from the mid-nineteenth century. The classical meaning of value was more limited, referring to goods, excellence, riches, benefits, utilities. The word value occurs in the Bible almost always translating Hebrew and Greek economic terms referring to price. The word religion includes the Latin root liga (also in ligament and obligation ), which means binding, here intensified by the prefix re-. Hence, religion is that to which one is most deeply bound. "The essence of religion," claims Harald Höffding, "consists in the conviction that value will be preserved" (p. 14). If one finds a world in which value is given and persists over time, one has a religious assignment. A central function of religion is the conservation of fundamental values. Frederick Ferré defines religion: "One's religion . . . is one's way of valuing most intensively and most comprehensively" (p. 11).

Genesis of value in natural history

A frequent claim is that science deals with causes, religion with values. That is an overstatement: Scientists evaluate better and worse science; theologians ask whether divine agency can be detected in natural history. Nevertheless, natural science is a systematic study of causes in nature; religion is a life-orienting inquiry into meanings of life in the world. But these crisscross.

In the course of natural history, "mere" causes (operating in rocks, winds, waters) generate life, events of deepening significance (DNA molecules coding for adapted fit). Where once there was matter, energy, and where these remain, there appears information, symbolically encoded, and life. Signals emerge. A rock conserves no identity. An oak tree, by contrast, conserves a metabolism and an anatomy over time. Organisms are self-maintaining systems. There is a new state of matter, neither liquid nor gaseous nor solid, but vital.

Speciation generates biodiversity; some species become increasingly animated with neural evolution, evolving felt experience. Homo sapiens develops capacities for religious experience. Out of physical precedents there appear biological, then psychological, then spiritual consequences. Matter gives birth to spirit.

Religion valuing abundant life

Religions arise to rejoice in, wonder over, protect, reform, and regenerate, that is, to save this gift of life, to which humans are intensely bound. The life "information," in contrast to matter and energy, is not inevitably conserved, but rather is inevitably lost in death, unless life is regenerated. If anything is of abiding value on Earth, surely it is the life incarnate in human beings. From the dawn of religious impulses in the only animal capable of such reflection, this vitality has been experienced as sacred. Such experience has often been fragmentary and confused, as has every other form of knowledge that humans have struggled to gain, but at its core the insight developed that religion was about life in its abundance.

Classical monotheism claimsto take the Hebrew form of itthat the divine Spirit or Wind (Greek: pneuma ) breathes the breath of life into earth and animates it to generate swarms of living beings (Gen. 2.7). Eastern forms can be significantly different: maya spun over Brahman, or samsara over sunyata, but they too detect the sacred in, with, and under the profuse phenomena. Some have opposed as seemingly too self-centered the idea that religions are about fertility. But the fertility hypothesis is quite right in this respect: Humans reside on a fertile Earth.

In that sense, the fact that religious conviction cherishes and conserves this fertility is no reason to think religion suspect; to the contrary, it is reason to think it profound. Perhaps the animal in which such faith emerges, Homo sapiens, is coping now because it is detecting that there is a divine will for life to continue. At this point, we pass from supposing that biology can explain religion (as a survival myth) to needing religion to explain biology (how to evaluate this genesis in natural history). Earthen fecundity is hard fact and difficult to explain without some sort of generative principles before which many persons incline to become religious.

Biological value and a value-free nature?

The question of value in biology is paradoxical, both in biological science and in biological phenomena in nature. On the one hand, science thinks of itself as being value-free and as describing a natural world that also is value-free. There is no value without an experiencing valuer, just as there are no thoughts without a thinker, no targets without an aimer. Valuing is "felt preferring" by human choosers. Values can be instrumental or intrinsic; domains of value are economic, moral, legal, aesthetic (including etiquette), cognitive (including science), and religious. Human kinship with the higher animals does extend some of these values to those sentient enough to suffer pains and pleasures. But an event that involves no felt preferences cannot be an event of value or disvalue. Such nature just is, devoid of dimensions of value.

Values are, in the usual psychological account, deeply felt and considered, bringing humans back into the main focus. Milton Rokeach defines value: "I consider a value to be a type of belief, centrally located within one's belief system, about how one ought or ought not to behave, or about some end-state of existence worth or not worth obtaining" (p. 124). Values have to be thought about, chosen from among options, persistently held, and they have to satisfy felt preferences. Such values are at the roots of religion.

But this is not adequate biologically. Indeed, by this account, there are no values present in any plants, nor in most animals, which are incapable of such capacities. The paradox arises now, however, because value of another sort is perfused through biology: survival value. An organism lives successfully on the basis of adaptive traits, even if the organism is not a sentient valuer.

So it seems biology is not value-free at all for it is difficult to dissociate the idea of value from natural selection. Every organism has a good-of-its-kind; it defends its own kind as a good kind. A genome encodes what has been discovered to be of value to that form of life. Despite value-free science, value generated and conserved is the first fact of natural history.

Turning to more systematic trends in evolutionary history, biologists are often divided over whether this generation of diversity and complexity is inevitable, probable, contingent, or mixedly all three. Biologists since Charles Darwin (18091882) generally dislike the idea of progress or teleology in evolutionary history, though most biologists acknowledge that the evolving Earth did result in increases of both diversity and complexity. Many hold that some systemic tendencies best explain this, even if Darwinism is uncertain about such directions of development.

Within this perspective, humans are not so much lighting up value in an otherwise valueless world as they are psychologically joining an ongoing natural history in which there is value wherever there is positive creativity.

Religions and survival value

Humans evolve with unique traits, especially their dispositions to behave ethically and to be religious. Continuing with Darwinian biology, the only readily available explanation is that these traits convey greater survival value. Most biologists favor the idea of selection at the individual level; if they are right, both ethical action and religious practice must increase the reproductive fitness of individuals who embody these values. But individuals live in communitiesintimately in family, where reproductive success is critical, locally in tribes, and regionally in states. Those tribes whose people share religious values usually out-compete other tribes. Religion is reciprocating self-interest, enlarged and enlightened into communities as more fundamental survival units. This account has precedents in the thought of sociologist Émile Durkheim (18581917).

Advocates of religion will welcome the survival value of religious beliefs and ethical practices. Abraham was promised numerous descendants, and they became a great nation; the commandments were given to keep Israel, through love and justice, inhabiting the promised land for many generations. But advocates of religion will also resist the idea that religion is nothing but a coping myth, discounting any truth value. Rather, as noted above, the Earth has been perennially prolific. Religion repeatedly arises to encounter this heritage and to insure life's regeneration. Such regeneration includes not only biological survival but requires redemption, the repair of a brokenness in human life. Such salvation is of everlasting value.

This has involved families, tribes, peoples, and nations. The major world faiths, however, have also become universal, evangelizing unrelated others. This proves difficult to explain under the biological account, since such missionary concern conveys no preferential survival advantage on the proselytizers. Rather others are more altruistically valued, a conviction also recently enshrined in universal human rights.

At the metaphysical level, it will be claimed, science neither describes nor evaluates the full genesis of value adequately. Religion is about the finding, creating, saving, and redeeming of such persisting sacred value in the world. In this sense, whatever the quarrels between religion and biology, there is nothing ungodly about a world in which values persist in the midst of their perpetual perishing, or one in which such values, through religious activity, become widely shared. That is as near as earthlings can come to an ultimate concern; that is where, on Earth, the ultimate might be incarnate.

See also Biological Diversity


ferré, frederick. "the definition of religion." journal of the american academy of religion 38 (1970): 316.

höffding, harald. the philosophy of religion. london: macmillan, 1906.

pugh, george e. the biological origin of human values. new york: basic books, 1977.

reynolds, vernon, and, tanner, ralph. the biology of religion. new york: longman, 1983.

reynolds, vernon, and, tanner, ralph. the social ecology of religion. new york: oxford university press, 1995.

rokeach, milton. beliefs, attitudes, and values: a theory of organization and change. san francisco: jossey-bass, 1968.

rolston, holmes, iii. genes, genesis, and god: values and their origins in natural and human history. new york: cambridge university press, 1999.

wilson, edward o. on human nature. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1978.

holmes rolston, iii

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