4.2.2 Religious Foundations for Moral Values

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/422.htm)

The lives of human beings are profoundly affected by the forces of nature, which enable us to survive and prosper but which also constrain us.  These forces constitute a power over us, a form of authority which has to be respected – or worshipped.  People imagined what such a power might look like or, in religious language, were said to have received divine inspiration.

The resulting pictures varied across the world:

  • The Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – emerged in the Middle East, believing in one God.
  • The Greeks, Romans and Scandinavians saw the conflicting forces of nature as being controlled by a family of gods.
  • In other parts of the world, the authority was imagined in different ways – such as ancestor worship, for example.

The term ‘religion’ is used to refer to all of these visualisations of the external forces which affect humanity.

Religions offer ways of understanding the world.  A religion doesn’t necessarily conflict with a scientific description of the universe – it offers a different way of thinking about it.  The term ‘God’, if taken literally to depict a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” as quoted in A Summary of The God Delusion, was ridiculed as unscientific by Richard Dawkins – but he failed to recognise the value of a humanising narrative that anyone can relate to and which clarifies moral issues.

Religions can provide a comprehensive basis for belief about the world and how to live in it.  They have organisational structures to promulgate their teaching, and to support (and control) their adherents.  All religious organisations can exert moral influence over their followers, as described later (4.3.3.3), so they have political influence (4.3.4.3).

Although many thinkers have assumed that religious adherence would inevitably decline as a result of discoveries in science and post-Enlightenment thinking, the opposite is actually the case.  A Pew Research report on The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 indicates that demographic trends will lead to an overall growth in religious adherence whilst “Europe is the only region where the total population is projected to decline.”  Religion still plays a major role in society, notably continuing in America where The Economist reports that Young Americans believe in a vengeful God.

As described in the following sub-sections, the major religions have each divided into multiple sects (4.2.2.1), whilst retaining a lot of commonality.  They all support the Golden Rule (4.2.2.2), which is a force for peaceful coexistence, but strong assertion of religious identity can be a problem (4.2.2.3).  Religious beliefs affect many patterns of power (4.2.2.4).

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