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Value, Religious

Value, Religious


Value functions in religion in at least three ways: as the ground of obligation, as the framing values orienting culture and thinking, and as specific moral traditions.


Value as the ground of obligation

One of the chief functions of religion is to explain why people should be moral or spiritual at all, and to cultivate a fundamental human constitution of living under obligation. Religions define people as responsible. Even in vaguely antireligious secular societies such as those of the North Atlantic nations at the beginning of the twenty-first century, this obligation-making function is recognized as "civil religion." When religions fail to function even as civil religions, serious relativism gains currency, as has been analyzed by Robert Bellah (b. 1927) and his collaborators.

Religions represent fundamental human obligatoriness to rest on what they take to be ultimate, as examined by the Comparative Religious Ideas Project in The Human Condition and Ultimate Realities, as well as by Ninian Smart (19272001). Roughly speaking, the religions of East Asia, Confucianism and Daoism, take the ultimate or Dao to be intrinsically good with powers by which human beings can become great. Obligation in the East Asian context has connotations of attunement and participation in cosmic and social orders, and as such is friendly to science in the form of practical technology, ranging from ancient practices of medicine and dietary regulation to modern scientific technology. The main religions of South Asia, including the many forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, consider the ultimate to involve some version of a contrast between what is apparently real in daily life and what is really real. The notion of living under obligation in these religions has connotations of coming to enlightenment about this distinction, observing culture-building obligations regarding daily life on the one hand and religious fulfillment or actualization obligations regarding what is really real on the other. Because science is regarded as studying the daily world of appearances, South Asian religions can encourage both theoretical and practical science with great enthusiasm: Science is detached from concerns for what is really real, and can stand in little conflict with theological interests.

The West Asian monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam symbolize the ultimate as a God who creates the world and to whom people are responsible in freedom. In the ancient metaphors, God is like a king who issues decrees that obligate people; to be a person is to stand before God as before a judge. Science often is prized in West Asian religions as a way of understanding God, creation, and the divine norms. This was particularly so in medieval Islam and in European science in the modern world. Nevertheless, the imperatives associated with the moral traditions of these religions can be in conflict with those that seem to arise from scientific understanding. West Asian religions engender conflicts between "conservative" religious values and "modern" scientific ones, conflicts that are more difficult to engender in some other Asian religious traditions.

The common distinction in modern European science between facts and values is of utmost importance regarding the religious function of defining obligation. Early modern science modeled itself on mathematical systems and sought to characterize the world as a set of explainable facts and value-neutral laws. By implication, value was supposed to be derived from human interest or projection, not from the nature of things. Although there have been attempts to define human obligation within a scientific system, as for instance in the modern social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes (15881679) or John Locke (16321704), the cultural upshot of the modern scientific distinction between fact and value is to say that the ground of obligation cannot be known and is a matter of personal or subjective preference. Hence the existential cultural importance of the question, Why be moral? If a person can choose not to be moral, there seems to be nothing in the nature of things to indicate that this would be a mistake. So long as modern science has a "factual, non-value" philosophy of nature, it tends to undermine the religious grounding of obligation, regardless of which religious conception of ultimacy is operative.


Value as cultural orientation

The function of religions to provide framing or orienting values for cultures has already been mentioned. The East Asian orientation to the ultimate as attunement and participation is associated with positive assessments of the value of life, nature, and human social affiliations. Disease, moral failings, and spiritual perversity are interpreted as misattunements, not invincible ignorance or sin. Whereas Confucianism emphasizes positive cultural work to attain attunement, Daoism emphasizes coordination with nature. The South Asian emphasis on a contrast between the world of appearances and the really real produces a divided and balanced kind of orientation: attention to the everyday and a search for release from ignorance (at least on the part of those ready for it). The common belief in the West that South Asian religions do not have strong ethical or scientific traditions is false; those religions just do not associate ethics or science with the religious quest except as preliminaries or supports. The West Asian religions, by contrast, strongly prize freedom and responsibility, and take the issues of justice and righteousness to have an ultimate, divine dimension; human moral failure is a religious offence against God. These religions orient people to the world as a positive expression of divine creation, but also sometimes treat nature as providing temptations to sin because people have a direct relation to God (namely, obligation) setting them apart from nature.

The great religious traditions have evolved through centuries, and the shape of their framing value orientations has shifted accordingly. The East Asian religions were deeply impacted for centuries by Buddhism from India. The South Asian religions have interacted with Islam and Christianity. The West Asian religions have exhibited both world-denying forms (as in early Christian asceticism) and world-celebrating forms. The contemporary interactions of the great world religious traditions reflect both their long histories and the fact that each has become a global religion, with cultural embodiments in each of the world's cultures.

Precisely because religions are culturally embodied, the values otherwise resident in their various cultures are powerful within the thinking of the religions themselves. National interests, for instance, can define different expressions of a religion against one another. The wars between Iran and Iraq in the twentieth century, or between the Christian nations of Europe, have involved calling upon the same religious tradition to justify each side against the other, reinforcing different interpretations of what the religion means.

As orientations to science, the framing values of the different religions have the effects already suggested. East Asian religions value science for its practical benefits. South Asian religions promote an objective detachment about science because it is not concerned with ultimate matters in the form of the really real or ultimate religious quests. West Asian religions can promote science as a kind of piety inquiring into the mind and work of God, on the one hand, and fear it as the source of norms different from those of the tradition, especially the norm of objectivity that treats the world as a mere fact without value.


Value as traditions of morality

The great religions have long traditions of moral interpretation reflecting their historical and cultural locations and changes. Within each tradition are often to be found arguments representing many sides of basic issues treating war and peace, patterns of family and social life, proper respect for people in conditions of birth and death, life transitions, and suffering. For instance, most religions have both pacifist and just-war moral traditions.

The development of modern science has affected religious moral traditions in many ways, two of which are the following. Most moral problems are framed by conceptions of natural conditions. For instance, the ancient Greek belief that the homunculus or complete human being is contained in the male sperm made it plausible to condemn as murder any male sexual activity, including masturbation, not reasonably intended for impregnation. This argument, though perhaps not the sentiment, falls away completely when it is realized that a human being requires genes from the mother's egg as well as from the father's sperm. Or to mention an example from the social sciences, distributive justice could not be taken to have a global scope so long as international economics was not understood in systematic ways. For example, during the Middle Ages, the Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) could consider distributive justice as limited to a king's domain. But with the advent of empirical global economic theory, the problem of developing theories of global distributive justice is suddenly a forced option for religious moral thinkers.

In addition to the impact of science on moral theory, the development of scientific technologies has led to moral problems that did not exist before. The invention of large bombs makes the old just-war theories, which are based on restraint, obsolete. Biological technologies of cloning, organ transplantation, and genetic manipulation lead to dilemmas that were not previously imagined. Insofar as moral responses to new problems raised by technological advances are to come from developments of the religious moral traditions, the religious values themselves are in process of evolution.


See also Natural Law Theory


Bibliography

bellah, robert. the broken covenant: american civil religion in time of trial. new york: seabury/crossroad, 1925.

bellah, robert; madsen, richard; sullivan, william m.; swidler, ann; and tipton, steven m. habits of the heart: individualism and commitment in american life. berkeley: university of california press, 1985.


bellah, robert; madsen, richard; sullivan, william m.; et al. the good society. new york: knopf, 1991.

neville, robert cummings, ed. ultimate realities. a volume in the comparative religious ideas project. albany: state university of new york press, 2001.

neville, robert cummings, ed. the human condition. a volume in the comparative religious ideas project. albany: state university of new york press, 2001.

richardson, w. mark, and wildman, wesley j., eds. religion and science: history, method, dialogue. new york: routledge, 1996.

smart, ninian. dimensions of the sacred: an anatomy of the world's beliefs. berkeley: university of california press, 1996.

whitehead, alfred north. science and the modern world. new york: macmillan, 1925.


robert cummings neville

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