The Case for Reverence Has Little to Do With Religion

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What is reverence? What does it mean to truly revere something? Is it really in our best interest to be reverent? And if so, when?

The word reverence is often associated with religion. We even confer the title “reverend” on religious leaders. But reverent attitudes are not inherently religious. Being reverent is about possessing a sentiment akin to “awe.” It’s seeing the greatness, magnificence or pure wonder in something and being inspired to hold it in appropriately high regard. It’s trying to appreciate at the deepest level what we know to be of great value, even if we can barely understand it or comprehend its true worth.

Having reverence can inspire us. And it should always humble us. A reverent attitude can make us want to understand more. It can also make us want to care more. A reverent heart feels duty bound in some way to preserve and protect the things which we’ve come to learn are very much worth cherishing.

In his book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue , Paul Woodruff argues that the reverent soul actually embraces three sentiments at the same time: respect, awe, and a potential sense of shame (not toxic but rather healthy shame) for not holding the supremely valuable in high enough regard and for not fully recognizing our shortcomings and limitations. He argues that reverence has much more to do with our social politics than it does religion. The ultimate objective of being reverent, according to Woodruff, is the elevation of humanity. It’s about preserving what’s good and making better those things that need improving. It’s about becoming better, and in the process, becoming more united.

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In my years as a therapist, I’ve seen firsthand how irreverent attitudes can wreak havoc in a life and set the cause of building a better world back a few steps. Ours is largely an irreverent age. We live in a “throwaway” society: everything is disposable. But I’ve come to believe that there are things worth preserving. I’ve also come to believe that some things are particularly worth revering. And I’ve learned that having a proper reverence for certain things can have a profound impact on a person’s character development. It behooves us, for example, to have reverence for our home planet, which sustains all life. We are paying an ever increasing price for our lack of regard for this precious gift. We also do well to have reverence for the miracle of life itself and to do our best to cherish and preserve it. Many of our social ills stem from the lack of regard we have for one another and for life in general. All lives matter.

When it comes to forging a healthy, decent character, perhaps nothing is as important as holding a deep reverence for the truth. Having worked for so many years with disturbed and disordered characters, I’ve witnessed how irreverence for the truth has led to problems. For some people, the truth is a barrier. Sometimes they see it as standing in the way of something they want. Other times, they see it as an obstacle to something they need to believe — not only about others and the circumstances in their lives but also about themselves. Disturbed characters are famous for playing fast and loose with the truth. Some have such blatant disregard for it that they habitually lie and deceive, sometimes even coming to believe their own fictions. If they had a proper sense of awe and respect for the truth, and appreciated its power not only to heal them but to truly set them free, their lives might not be such a shipwreck.

I can’t imagine effective therapy that isn’t rooted in a profound reverence for life, for all that sustains it, and, most especially, for the truth. Carl Rogers suggested good therapists need to have “unconditional positive regard” for their clients. The more I reflect on what he was advocating, the more I think he was really advocating something akin to reverence. I’m in awe every day of this miracle we call existence. And my awe is what inspires me to help heal the wounded, and to the best of my ability, to avoid doing harm.

Sometimes, the healing process calls for confrontation. When you’re dealing with character disturbance, that means confrontation of negative attitudes and destructive behaviors. But just being willing to confront the truth is only half the battle. You have to confront in a way that’s “palatable” enough for a client to even consider what you’ve put before them, and then be of a frame of mind to accept it. That’s the key. It’s not enough just to be willing to admit the truth. That’s relatively easy, especially when someone has been caught red-handed in wrongdoing. What’s more important is a person’s willingness to actively embrace the truth and then humbly learn from it. And that willingness, of course, requires reverence.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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