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Religion is often associated with values. We use the word “values” as though it is an absolute, as if people all over the world value the same attributes, and as if the word “value” implies “good.” But take violence as an example. Violence here appears to be a value, something glorified, as evidenced by the Global Peace Index for 2021, which was published last week. On a scale of 1 to 163 from least (Iceland) to most (Afghanistan) violent countries, the United States ranked 122, just above South Africa. Yet in general, religion does not glorify violence.

If religion is associated with values, is religion needed to have them? This week, sociologist Philip Schwadel and psychologist Sam Hardy published an article in which they examine what happens when people lose their religious faith. They start with the observation that “In a 2019 survey, 44% of Americans – along with 45% of people across 34 nations – said that belief in God is necessary “to be moral and have good values.”

This is a fascinating starting place because many religious adherents and several religions don’t believe in God at all. Further, even amongst those who believe in God, there is no one idea about God. For example, the believer in the Authoritarian God is likely to have a different set of beliefs and values than the believer in the Unknowable God. I know stories of individuals who believed that their suffering was punishment from the Authoritarian God, who hated even their thoughts. I know of people who believe in no such God; instead, they believe that all the good that manifests in their lives and the lives of others is the gift of a Miracle Worker God.

Given this diversity of beliefs, what is it to be moral and have “good values”? Schwadel and Hardy focused their study on “the five moral foundations commonly examined by psychologists: care/harm, fairness/cheating, ingroup loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and purity/degradation.” As part of their findings, they note that religious Americans are likely to abhor and take a stand against what they find disgusting. But what is “disgusting?” For example, is gay sex disgusting, or is persecution of gay people disgusting? Are religious beliefs other than one’s own disgusting, or are acts of religious hatred disgusting? Is it disgusting for a woman to obtain an abortion, or is it disgusting to restrict the woman’s ability to receive an abortion?

It’s true that religion can build our values. It can also change our values, for better --people find peace and compassion — or worse: people join extreme religious or religious-like cults and become “brainwashed,” often destroying their relationships with family and friends.

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On the other hand, religion is not the only thing that can change our values. Social psychology can. Research and anecdotal evidence indicate that people’s prejudices and biases can change. Education can change them. So can contact with groups other than our own. Dialogue can work: just a few years back, NPR ran an article about a Black man, Daryl Davis, who managed to become friends with KKK members and persuaded over 200 of them to change their values – from prejudice to at least tolerance – and leave the group.

For their part, Schwadel and Hardy argue that those who leave a religion are still influenced by the religion’s values. They conclude that “One thing that seems clear, though, is that those who leave religion are not the same as those who have never been religious. “

Well, of course. As I’ve written here before, religion is a group identity. For example, I am a Buddhist. My religion values compassion and loving kindness. That’s what my group of believers believes. When I wish that my former place of employment could be obliterated from the earth, I know that I am dealing with what Buddhism calls “afflictive emotions.” I feel remorse because my feelings and emotions are not aligning with my group’s values. I work to change those feelings.

That is a very different outlook on life than the views of a father who feels justified in murdering his daughter on the basis of religion (honor killings), or the views of people who perpetrate many other kinds of violence on each other based on what they believe their religion or God is “telling them.”

Having religion does not in itself make a person good or bad. Leaving a religion does not make a person good or bad. And never having had a religion, never having participated in that group identity, does not make a person good or bad, nor does it mean that a person must be devoid of socially beneficial values. Such values – generosity, forgiveness, truthfulness, humility, and more – can be cultivated. For humans to live together successfully, societies and individuals must work to cultivate those kinds of values, no matter whether we believe in God or not, or have religion or not.

Nancy Thompson teaches comparative religion at CCV and NVU. She is author of Touching the Elephant.


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