“The Romans called the Christians atheists. Why? Well, the Christians had a god of sorts, but it wasn’t a real god. They didn’t believe in the divinity of apotheosized emperors or Olympian gods. They had a peculiar, different kind of god. So it was very easy to call people who believed in a different kind of god atheists. And that general sense that an atheist is anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do prevails in our own time” (Sagan, 2006, p. 148)
It is likely that you have been irreverent. I have been. We have disparaged or joked about others’ beliefs or practices, or been disrespectful in larger or smaller ways. Even when we have had the best of intentions, there are times we have unintentionally disregarded or broken the rules of church (certainly churches other than our own), society, culture, or scientific inquiry. We are all sinners in that sense, and none of us can say we’ve kept all the Ten Commandments, the requirements of the Koran or the Torah, none can say we have not broken a law or overstepped a cultural expectation. We haven’t always conformed to what church or society expects of us. We have tried to be good, but we have acted with disrespect toward the rules, sometimes because we felt it was important to do, sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes we’ve simply enjoyed it, been weak, or perhaps mean-spirited, even when we’ve felt guilty about it later.
I expect you have been reverent in your lifetime. I know that I have been and that I often am, but perhaps not all people have felt much reverence in their lives. Most people, I suspect, have been in awe of something greater than they, most have experienced wonder, and have felt connected to a larger world than they thought they could or that they think they will ever be able to imagine. Most have tried to stay connected to that larger world by travel, nature, prayer, meditation, or ritual. But I cannot say for certain that you have experienced reverence.
We live in an age of irreverence. We sit in a time when a musical poking fun at a religion practiced by millions can be a Broadway hit. When satiric TV shows and internet videos and memes skewer Democrats and Republicans alike. Where dress codes are a la carte, etiquette is ignored, and social values are being revolutionized. But then, every era has been an age with irreverence, even when totalitarian regimes have forced the irreverents either underground or to be clever or subtle in their expression.
We live in an age of reverence. We sit in a time when rock media stars like Oprah Winfrey host shows like Super Soul Sunday, featuring writers who help us understand how to bring the spiritual into our lives as we seek something more than a quotidian existence. When tens of thousands annually walk the Camino de Santiago in pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James in northwestern Spain. When millions camp, hike, climb, and bike to immerse themselves in unearned gifts surrounding them, reveling reverentially in the beauty and magnificence of the natural world. But then, every era has been an age with reverence.
I argue that reverence and irreverence are two different concepts, but that they are not mutually exclusive. Both at their best seek deeper meanings and understandings of the world by self or others. Both at their best seek to remove anything that might be an obstacle to deeper truths. Where they differ is in their practice, and it is a big difference. Reverence is developed by immersing oneself in experiences that induce awe and wonder, and through rituals and day-to-day living that include activities like meditation, contemplation, community worship, or prayer. Irreverence occurs when one acts in ways that confront conventional thinking or behavior not by force, but most often through humor or satire. Irreverent actions can upend beliefs. A ritual or practice conducted reverently by one or more people might run counter to the rules/beliefs/practices of others and thus be considered disrespectfully irreverent (or blasphemous or heretical) by them. Thus, rituals or practices may be both reverent and irreverent simultaneously.
The effect of reverence is to humble oneself in relationship to an “other”—a person, a god, an idea, infinity—in the service of bringing about deeper, more resonant, more authentic and open understandings about meaning or truth. A reverent attitude is one of great respect and wonder. The effect of irreverence is to humble another – a person, a god, a belief, an idea – in the service of bringing about deeper, more authentic and open understandings about meaning or truth. An irreverent attitude is one of testing or bringing to light unquestioned or unquestionable assumptions, hypocrisy, and the taken-for-granted (power structure, way-we-do-things-around-here).
These two qualities, reverence and irreverence, are part of our societies, our religions, our experiences, and are at the heart of who we are as human beings. Both can be transformational. They appear to be at odds with each other, and may be at times, but often are part of a holistic process leading to depth of understanding and wisdom.
Sagan, C. (2006). The varieties of scientific experience: a personal view of the search for God (A. Druyan Ed.). New York: Penguin Press.