4.2.2 Religious Foundations for Moral Values

Religious foundations for moral values depend on faith in a higher absolute authority; religions differ but all support the Golden Rule.

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 to be respected – and, in the case of religions, worshipped.  People imagined what such a power might look like.  In religious language, they said that they had 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 these visualisations of the external forces which affect humanity.  Despite their differences, though, they converge on the primacy of the Golden Rule.  They all agree that it is their most important commandment.  They express it a variety of ways, but a simple and undemanding form of it is as follows:

Don’t treat others in ways that you wouldn’t want to be treated.

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’ can be taken literally to depict a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”.[1]  That literal understanding 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 can clarify moral issues.

The survey Giving up on God reveals that “[s]ince 2007, there has been a remarkably sharp trend away from religion” (with some exceptions).  Its authors argue that this is the result of increasing prosperity:

“Religion provided assurance that the world was in the hands of an infallible higher power (or powers) who promised that, if one followed the rules, things would ultimately work out for the best. In a world
where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress. But as economic and technological development took place, people became …less dependent on religion”

Religious foundations for moral values continue to be very important to many people, though.  They remain potent.  People want to feel that they are complying with God’s instructions – so scholars and priests, who interpret religious texts for specific situations, become powerful.  Religious organisations support (and control) their followers.

As described in the following sub-sections, religious authority affects moral governance in complex ways:

●  The major religions have each divided into multiple sects (, whilst retaining a lot of commonality. Some of the schisms are the results of leadership struggles, seizing on a detail to differentiate themselves.

●  All the religions support the Golden Rule (, which permits peaceful coexistence when they acknowledge its primacy. Many share the same texts, whilst differing in their interpretation of them, and they have different rituals.

●  Strong assertion of religious identity can lead to open conflict, as leaders engage in power struggles (

●  Religious beliefs affect many patterns of power (, in the framing of laws and in support for political parties for example.



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/422b.htm

[1] Richard Dawkins ridiculed religions in his book The God Delusion.  The quoted definition, of the God who is the object of his derision, is given early in chapter 2 of the book.  James R. Martin made a short summary of the book, which was available in April 2020 at https://maaw.info/ArticleSummaries/ArtSumDawkins2008.htm.