Meditations on the Politics of Limited Knowledge

On Piety Part 1 of 2

In Epistemology & Theory of Knowledge, Philosophy, Religion, Theology & Metaphysics on July 19, 2010 at 2:29 pm

This is a blog called “Humble Piety.” So what does “piety” mean anyway? In sketching out the range of some of the meanings that have attached and can attach to this term, we might gain better understanding of the project here. Following on this historical/etymological/theoretical overture, I will, in subsequent posts, lay out a notion of democratic piety and pursue more concrete investigations into creative expression of piety such as in wedding ceremonies I have recently had the pleasure to witness.

The word piety likely brings to mind religious images: pious acts of devotion to a religious faith. This was certainly in mind when I semi-ironically appropriated the term for a blog which is a project of devotion without necessarily being devoted to a project – at least not a fixed, predetermined project. I sought to devote myself to understanding with greater nuance the challenge of acting on knowledge that is inherently limited and of committing oneself to action without a free-standing criterion to validate one’s ends. Under the watch cry of “epistemic humility,” my hope was and is to articulate values that can serve a better democratic future by leaving behind their theistic analogues. I am hostile to elements of religious traditions and of secular institutions. Likewise, I am convinced that there is tremendous social wisdom to be harnessed from religious traditions. A proper understanding of piety may have much to offer democratic moral faith.

Here are the basic definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. = PITY n. (in various senses); mercy, compassion. Now only in Our Lady Piety n.

2. Reverence and obedience to God (or to the gods); devotion to religious duties and observances; godliness, devoutness.

3. Faithfulness to the duties naturally owed to one’s relatives, superiors, etc.; affectionate loyalty and respect, esp. to parents; faithfulness, dutifulness.

4. An instance of reverence or faithful devotion; a pious act, observance, or characteristic; (also) a sanctimonious statement, a commonplace.

So we have an antiquated link to pity and notions of religious piety and filial piety as well as acts and instantiations of those qualities. This is a useful starting point, particularly for understanding the many valences of the term as it is used in contemporary English. But to understand the depth of what this term has and can mean, we need to dig a bit deeper into its history and into its projection onto a range of cultures.

Piety is traditionally understood as a virtue, the articulation of which dates back in the West to Greco-Roman roots (which usually have their own deeper roots). It’s etymology according to the ever-trustworthy Wikipedia:

The word piety comes from the Latin word pietas, the noun form of the adjective pius (which means “devout” or “good”). Pietas in traditional Latin usage expressed a complex, highly valued Roman virtue; a man with pietas respected his responsibilities to other people, gods and entities (such as the state), and understood his place in society with respect to others. That doesn’t mean others will understand it. Iits (sic: “In its”) strictest sense it was the sort of love a son ought to have for his father.

The Latin term in turn may derive from “Piodasses”, an ancient Greek transliteration of the Indic Prakrit term “Piyadasi”, meaning “beloved of the Gods”, a term by which the Indian Maurya Emperor Ashoka the Great referred to himself in the Edicts of Ashoka (3rd century BC).

We should note the patriarchal model for piety: a son’s devotion to father. While, taken literally, this remains an important strand of the concept, it also forms the metaphorical template for other forms of piety, including devotion to the gods: a just relation to the sources of our creation and welfare. More generally the term “virtue” actually comes from notions of manliness, the same root as “virile.” This patriarchal baggage must be attended to as we update virtue ethics for (post)modern democracy. Nonetheless it seems to provide a useful frame for articulating restorative and progressive values like epistemic humility. The term “virtue” has a relevant and rich significance in both philosophical discourse and popular consciousness.


In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates interrogates the complex, indeterminate demands of piety when happening upon the eponymous dialoguer. Socrates has been charged with impiety by the arrogant, young, unknown Meletus: “For he says I am a maker of gods; and because I make new gods and do not believe in the old ones, he indicted me for the sake of these old ones, as he says.” Meanwhile, Euthyphro is on his way to court to prosecute his own father for the murder of a servant who slayed another worker. (All citations are from English translation on Perseus brought to you by Tufts University.)

Heracles! Surely, Euthyphro, most people do not know where the right lies; for I fancy it is not everyone who can rightly do what you are doing, but only one who is already very far advanced in wisdom.

Very far, indeed, Socrates, by Zeus.

Is the one who was killed by your father a relative? But of course he was; for you would not bring a charge of murder against him on a stranger’s account.

It is ridiculous, Socrates, that you think it matters whether the man who was killed was a stranger or a relative, and do not see that the only thing to consider is whether the action of the slayer was justified or not, and that if it was justified one ought to let him alone, and if not, one ought to proceed against him, even if he share one’s hearth and eat at one’s table. For the pollution is the same if you associate knowingly with such a man and do not purify yourself and him by proceeding against him….

But, in the name of Zeus, Euthyphro, do you think your knowledge about divine laws and holiness and unholiness is so exact that, when the facts are as you say, you are not afraid of doing something unholy yourself in prosecuting your father for murder?

I should be of no use, Socrates, and Euthyphro would be in no way different from other men, if I did not have exact knowledge about all such things.

So right from the bat we have two notions of piety at odds: Euthyphro’s lack of filial piety in the name of justice demanded by piety to the gods: “Men believe that Zeus is the best and most just of the gods, and they acknowledge that he put his father in bonds because he wickedly devoured his children, and he in turn had mutilated his father for similar reasons…” Meanwhile, Socrates has been charged with impiety for exploring a philosophy that departs from the mythology of polytheistic justice. His impiety is toward both the putative gods themselves, and toward the tradition of his people that uphold them. We can understand the former in terms of the hierarchical authority modeled by father over son and the latter in terms of the generational precedent of father begetting son.

Then in Socratic fashion, the philosopher interrogates his interlocutor on the matter at hand, about which the other is initially confident. He asks after the meaning of holiness, as Euthyphro understands it, and its relation to the attitudes of the gods. Given his admission that he frankly knows nothing of the gods, Socrates is essentially driving at an objective and perspicuous criterion for right and wrong acts. But such knowledge becomes particularly fraught within a polytheistic framework:

Then, my noble Euthyphro, according to what you say, some of the gods too think some things are right or wrong and noble or disgraceful, and good or bad, and others disagree; for they would not quarrel with each other if they did not disagree about these matters.

Moreover, Socrates draws out the difficult circularity of whether the gods love holy things because they are holy, or whether such things are holy because the gods love them. Some semantic quibbling leads to further contradiction and further calls for dialectical clarity. Socrates establishes that holiness is part of the right. That is, all things holy are right, but not all things right are holy. Euthyphro is convinced:

This then is my opinion, Socrates, that the part of the right which has to do with attention to the gods constitutes piety and holiness, and that the remaining part of the right is that which has to do with the service of men.

What then of this “attending” to the gods? Are our acts of piety for their betterment? If so, how could we possibly better the gods?

Then holiness, since it is the art of attending to the gods, is a benefit to the gods, and makes them better? And you would agree that when you do a holy or pious act you are making one of the gods better?

No, by Zeus, not I.

Nor do I, Euthyphro, think that is what you meant. Far from it. But I asked what you meant by “attention to the gods” just because I did not think you meant anything like that.

You are right, Socrates; that is not what I mean.

Well, what kind of attention to the gods is holiness?

The kind, Socrates, that servants pay to their masters.

I understand. It is, you mean, a kind of service to the gods?


Then by eliciting the statement that all of this honor, praise and gratitude is precious to the gods, Socrates leads Euthyphro back into contradiction with respect to the source and essence of holiness. Ultimately it is simply philosophically unsatisfying to appeal to the gods for determination of right action.

Then we must begin again at the beginning and ask what holiness is. Since I shall not willingly give up until I learn. And do not scorn me, but by all means apply your mind now to the utmost and tell me the truth; for you know, if anyone does, and like Proteus, you must be held until you speak. For if you had not clear knowledge of holiness and unholiness, you would surely not have undertaken to prosecute your aged father for murder for the sake of a servant. You would have been afraid to risk the anger of the gods, in case your conduct should be wrong, and would have been ashamed in the sight of men. But now I am sure you think you know what is holy and what is not. So tell me, most excellent Euthyphro, and do not conceal your thought.

Some other time, Socrates. Now I am in a hurry and it is time for me to go.

Oh my friend, what are you doing? You go away and leave me cast down from the high hope I had that I should learn from you what is holy, and what is not, and should get rid of Meletus’s indictment by showing him that I have been made wise by Euthyphro about divine matters and am no longer through ignorance acting carelessly and making innovations in respect to them, and that I shall live a better life henceforth.

Socrates is left without satisfaction. Euthyphro is unable to offer a coherent and compelling account of piety toward (poly)theistic sources of normativity. We are left doubting the plausibility of determinately knowing the right set of values according to which one should be pious. But we nonetheless have some sense of what piety entails: how to “live a better life,” “holiness,” “the part of the right which has to do with attention to the gods,” believing in the old gods and not making new ones, deferring to family over perceived imperatives of justice, deferring to the will of the gods over felt loyalty to family, and so on.

It is crucial to note that there is an element of humility built into the very notion of piety – to which we shall of course return! The deference to a higher power is a humble stance. But Socrates throws the complication of epistemic humility into the mix: “in the name of Zeus, Euthyphro, do you think your knowledge about divine laws and holiness and unholiness is so exact that, when the facts are as you say, you are not afraid of doing something unholy yourself in prosecuting your father for murder?” By what criterion can one know that one is acting piously? This is the fundamental problem we confront here. The dialogue leaves us without a foundation for determining what is holy and hence what religious, particularly theistic, piety requires. Cultural piety (we shall call it) as an extension of filial piety, brings tradition to the fore as one humbly looks for received wisdom for how to live a better life. But when we take epistemic humility seriously together with a strong notion of democratic sovereignty, one’s relationship to tradition becomes complicated fast. By what right does tradition have authority over us? What makes father right? And yet, on what basis shall we rebel against the past as Euthyphro prosecutes his father in the name of holy justice? Plato’s dialogue leaves us in a state of confusion, thanks to Socrates’ rhetorical confusion. He stands charged with impious philosophical innovation, an affront to his tradition. Yet in a sense he is piously devoted to dialogical reason, submitting himself to the destination of the philosophical path even if this means a departure from tradition.


Humble Piety is an attempt to elucidate the condition of charting new paths, based on the best of our knowledge, understanding that the best of our knowledge is often a gift from the past waiting to be reformed and rejuvenated. This sort of “religious” piety of attending to our condition and our ethical bearing makes use of cultural piety not as a duty but as a humble act of openness to received wisdom and ultimately appropriation from the past to build the future.

In an act of metapiety, we are now looking back on what piety has meant to generations past.

Let us turn back to the Oxford English Dictionary for a hint of etymological development and a sprinkling of historical uses of the term:

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman pieté and Middle French piété pity (late 10th cent. in Old French as pieted), godliness (mid 13th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman), fervent attachment to the service of God and to the duties and practices of religion (1541 in Calvin), respect and devotion for parents, the dead, etc. (a1628) and its etymon classical Latin piets dutifulness, piety, in post-classical Latin also the mercy of God, mercy, compassion shown by people (Vetus Latina) < pius dutiful, pious.

1. = PITY n. (in various senses); mercy, compassion. Now only in Our Lady Piety n.

e.g. 1606 P. HOLLAND tr. Suetonius Hist. Twelve Caesars 266 Of your gracious Piety (which I know I shall hardly obtaine).

2. Reverence and obedience to God (or to the gods); devotion to religious duties and observances; godliness, devoutness.

c1500 Thewis Gud Women (Cambr.) 13 in R. Girvan Ratis Raving & Other Early Sc. Poems (1939) 80 A woman suld..Ful of piete and humylitee..bee.

1742 E. YOUNG Complaint VIII. 691 ‘Is virtue, then, and piety the same?’No; piety is more; ’tis virtue’s source.

1877 E. R. CONDER Basis of Faith i. 19 ‘Piety’, says Cicero, ‘is justice towards the gods’.

1938 Burlington Mag. Jan. 44/1 Pseudo-religious artists..who substituted prettiness for piety.

3. Faithfulness to the duties naturally owed to one’s relatives, superiors, etc.; affectionate loyalty and respect, esp. to parents; faithfulness, dutifulness.

1534 tr. Erasmus Enchiridion Militis Christiani (rev. ed.) xii. sig. Hii, Piety is the reuerent love and honour which the inferiors haue towarde theyr superiors.

1578 J. LYLY Euphues f. 36v, Ah Lucilla thou knowest not the care of a father, nor the duetie of a childe, and as farre art thou from pietie, as I from crueltie.

1611 Bible (A.V.) 1 Tim. v. 4 Let them learne first to shew pietie at home, and to requite their parents.

1839 DICKENS Nicholas Nickleby vi. 53 What a pleasant thing filial piety is to contemplate!

1875 H. E. MANNING Internal Mission of Holy Ghost ix. 230 The word piety in its original meaning signifies the natural affection which parents have for their children and children for their parents.

1930 Sat. Rev. Lit. 2 Aug. 21/2 It is a kind of piety for even the least and humblest of Holmes-lovers to pay what tribute he may to this great encyclopædia of romance.

1997 H. H. TAN Foreign Bodies (1998) xix. 174 Show some filial piety. You have to do something to repay his love.

4. An instance of reverence or faithful devotion; a pious act, observance, or characteristic; (also) a sanctimonious statement, a commonplace.

1590 T. WATSON Eglogue F. Walsingham sig. C3v, For in hir minde so manie vertues dwell, as eurie moment breed new pieties.

1666 E. SPARKE Θυσιαστηριον (ed. 4) 539 The Pieties of the Church, and Lawes of the Land.

1820 KEATS Ode to Psyche in Lamia & Other Poems 119 Yet even in these days so far retir’d From happy pieties.

1860 N. HAWTHORNE Marble Faun (U.S. ed.) I. xiii. 152 This great burden of stony memories, which the ages have deemed it a piety to heap upon its back.

916 J. JOYCE Portrait of Artist iv. 173 His soul took up again her burden of pieties, masses and prayers.

1995 Times Lit. Suppl. 3 Feb. 32/4 Perhaps even now it is easier to inveigh against the canon and to preach the theoretical pieties of popular culture.

Clearly piety has been an operant concept in its various forms throughout Western history. Piety was taken up from Greco-Roman virtue ethics by the Christian tradition. Apparently it got fused with a notion of pity along the way. But the devotion remained in tact as the core meaning, but within a monotheistic paradigm that held up a unified and universal source of normativity. No more quarreling gods to confuse the would-be pious. Hence Nietzsche deemed Christianity, “Platonism for the people.” (Preface of Beyond Good and Evil)

Once attached to a personal God, (mono)theistic piety lends itself to the mockery of Ambroce Bierce who offered the following definition in his infamous Devil’s Dictionary (immediately preceding alphabetically the entry for pig):

Piety — n. Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.

The pig is taught by sermons and epistles

To think the God of Swine has snout and bristles.


[Note: Judibras is Ambrose’s conglomeration of Judas Iscariot and Hudibras, the satiric epic by Samuel Butler.]

The great monotheistic religions have quite the anthropomorphic God indeed. And hence piety will always take a form inflected with an anthropomorphic relationship with a personal, willful, engaged deity… who may just happen to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.

Christian reverence for a Supreme Being may have found expression and ethical articulation in a Greco-Roman framework of virtues, but the content of its piety traces back to Jerusalem rather than to Athens. Christianity, of course, arose out of Judaism, inherited its One God and adopted its scripture as the back story, the Old Testament, if you will. As Mike Huckabee piously told the New Yorker in a recent profile: “I have a lot of Jewish friends, and they’re kind of, like, ‘You evangelicals love Israel more than we do.’ I’m, like, ‘Do you not get it? If there weren’t a Jewish faith, there wouldn’t be a Christian faith!’ ”

The structure of Hebrew scripture is built upon filial piety by way of its account of ancestral begattings and formative travails. But the pivotal points (Eden, Abraham, Parted Sea, Burning Bush, etc.) turn on the direct relationship between humans and God. In Exodus, we find the imperatives of piety written in stone. The first tablet of the Ten Commandments is basically devoted to the terms of Jewish piety. Working backwards (while noting that different faith traditions have different ways of parsing out the Big Ten from unenumerated proclamations in Exodus 20) we have:

5. Honor your father and your mother

Filial piety par excellence.

4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy

Cultural piety as an extension of filial piety: deference to tradition.

1-3. I am the Lord your God; You shall have no other gods before me; You shall not make for yourself an idol; You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God

Theistic piety as devotion to the divine, commitment to the unity of God, and injunction against the innovation of new Gods in the form of false idols.

Encyclopedia of Judaism has this to say about piety:

Term generally referring to reverence for God, with the emphasis in Judaism on the performance of the Commandments and the devout fulfillment of those duties required by God. Various Hebrew words describe the pious man, such as Ḥasid, yeré shamayim (lit. “one who fears heaven”), or Tsaddik, but there is no clear line differentiating one from the other. The criterion for proper behavior is often stated in terms of trying, as far as is possible, to emulate God’s behavior (Imitation of God). Thus, when Jeremiah quotes God as stating “I am pious” (or “holy”; i.e (ḥasid) the implication is that man must emulate God in this as well. At the same time, the Bible cautions against the danger of irrational and excessive piety, and warns “not to be over-pious” (Eccl. 7:16).

Given the strands of filial, cultural and theistic piety and the acknowledged challenge for humans in embodying and commensurating these commandments, we can see why a set of Judeo-Christian religious ethics mapped neatly onto a Greek concept captured in the Latin word that gave us “piety.”

As Judaism has developed in parallel with Christianity, piety has remained a crucial value particularly with respect to tradition. Cue Fiddler on the Roof. According to the Blackwell Companion to Judaism, “Piety means acting in one’s personal life primarily in accord with religious principles and values.” By this definition it is a sort of religious integrity.

Ideally, piety fills the life of every practicing Jew and endows it with transcendent meaning. In all forms of Rabbinic Judaism, ancient and modern, piety of action overshadows philosophical faith at the central defining core of the religion… the daily, weekly, and annual routines of the pious Jew, the regular elements of life-cycle events and the transcendent meanings ascribed to these within the system of religion.

Such Rabbinic piety is most prevalent in Orthodox and Hasidic, less so in Conservative and only selectively in Reform and Reconstructionist systems of Judaism. “Some scholars theorize that the rabbis chose to prescribe [distinctive groups of practices] as a means of maintaining spirituality after the loss of the Temple.” (Blackwell)

As the Encyclopedia of Judaism adds:

The nature of piety is a matter of dispute. Rashi (on Lev. 19:1) states that a person who does not violate the commandments is considered pious. Naḥmanides differed, arguing that one may adhere totally to the law of the Torah and yet still be a despicable person. According to him, piety goes beyond following the letter of the law.

The sages offer a prescription for piety based on action rather than on belief when they quote God as saying: “Would that they [i.e., the Jewish people] forget Me but observe My Torah, for the light within it will bring them back to the proper path” (Yad. Shimoni to Jer., 282). They also say that a person should engage in studying (or in performing other commandments) even without the proper intention, because “from these deeds not for their own sake will come deeds for their own sake” (Pes. 50b).

Contemporary adherents of Hasidic Judaism – who share my ritual subway commute from Brooklyn – follow in the foot steps of the ḥasidim Ha-Rishonim discussed in the Talmud as an early pious bunch (see Biblical term Hasid above) “whose level of piety cannot be duplicated in later generations”(Ber. 32b). And yet from the 18th century the movement of hasidism “preached that every person, however humble, can attain the greatest of heights through proper devotion and piety when performing the commandments and during prayer, and not only through study.” (Encyclopedia of Judaism)

A final and crucial strand of Jewish Piety to note is what N.L. Tidwell calls “Holy Argument” – a tradition in which I was steeped at Harvard. Tidwell writes:

In the philosophical field rational argument conducted according to the established rules of logic is the fundamental tool in the pursuit of truth and understanding or for the clarification of problems, ideas and concepts; in Judaism, rational, legal argument pursued according to recognized principles and processes is the most highly commended path to encounter and engagement with God. Moreover, within this same religious tradition, ‘holy argument’ embraces not only argument about God, about His nature (theology), His ways (theodicy) and His will (halakhah), but also argument with God, putting God on trial and taking Him to task as One who is Himself bound and judged by that same Torah that Israel is obligated to obey. The high value placed upon study and exercise of the intellect in the Jewish tradition is well known; it is not only a mitzvah and an act of worship but a form of imitatio Dei, for God Himself engages in the study of Torah. But the mode of study in Judaism and the form in which the intellect is exercised is characteristically that of argument and debate, the quintessential activity of philosophy and philosophers.

Jewish piety is downright Socratic. This understanding replaces the prescribed, fixed and determinate with the engaged, processual and controversial. It is a never ending process of revelation. Piety inheres in commitment to the process including devout participation and recognition of its sacredness. What distinguishes it from other philosophical pursuits is the specifically Jewish content of the tradition one identifies with and draws on as the source material for holy argument. Such is the chosen premise of piety. Yet for a religion rooted in Commandments that front load theistic piety, cultural and filial piety have been so prioritized that the Jewish tradition displays a dynamic robustness that could persist even in the wake of theism.


Just as the term piety was mapped onto Judaism by way of European history, it is used in the English language today to refer to devotional ethics in many religious traditions. For example, filial piety aptly labels the virtue at the core of Confucianism and Chinese culture.

For Confucius, xiào was not merely blind loyalty to one’s parents. More important than the norms of xiào were the norms of rén (仁) (benevolence) and yì (義) (righteousness). In fact, for Confucius and Mencius, xiào was a display of rén which was ideally applied in one’s dealings with all elders, thus making it a general norm of intergenerational relations. In reality, however, xiào was usually reserved for one’s own parents and grandparents, and was often elevated above the notions of rén and yì.

In contrast, early Indian Buddhism did not have a strong notion of filial piety. Rather, pious devotion to the Eightfold Path and other teachings of the Buddha’s discipline trumps attachment to worldly things and relationships.

Buddhism in India involved many men leaving or abandoning their families, parents, wives, and children to become monks (Buddha himself was said to have done so). The true Buddhist had to reject all family ties, just as they had to reject social and class ties if they were to pursue Nirvana. Family was viewed as just another encumbrance of mortal life that had to be dealt with. Sorrow and grief were said to be “born of those who are dear.” Buddhist monks were obligated to sever all ties with their family and to forget their ancestors. Theravada Buddhism stressed individual salvation, and had little room for the interdependent society that Confucianism had created in China, which stressed the good of the community more than the good of the individual. In India, Buddhism also advocated celibacy among its monks which was unacceptable in the Confucian world view, given that it was viewed as the child’s duty to continue the parental line.

However, piety is malleable in the course of cultural diffusion.

When Buddhism was introduced to China, it was redefined to support filial piety. The Mouzi Lihuolun (牟子理惑論), a work defending Buddhism to the Chinese, presented arguments for Buddhist monks’ seemingly poor treatment of their parents, by closely reading the works of Confucius himself.

The Mouzi Lihuolun compares the Buddhist monk to a son who saves his father from drowning by grabbing him and lifting him upside down back into the boat. Grabbing and holding one’s parents upside down is certainly not standard conduct, but because it is for the greater good of the parent, it should be allowed; if he had not violated rules of respectfulness, his father would have drowned. Confucius allowed for these “emergencies” by insisting that filial piety must adapt to existing circumstances. The behavior of a Buddhist monk is similar. While on the surface the Buddhist seems to reject and abandon his parents, the pious Buddhist is actually aiding his parents as well as himself on their path towards salvation.

[Furthermore] To more directly give Buddhism filial nature, passages and parables that were of minor importance in Indian and Central Asian Buddhism became very prominent in Chinese Buddhism.

As Buddhism developed over time it incorporated many aspects of piety. Buddhas and bodhisattvas are objects of devotion for many practitioners. In some strands they take on a sort of divine quality. In other strands they are simply exemplary bearers of the tradition, teachers.

Kinsley and Narayanan write in the Encyclopedia of Religion that, “In some traditions, sects, or cults, devotion is the central religious concern or is almost synonymous with religion itself.”

This is the case, for example, in some versions of Chinese and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, several Hindu devotional movements, and some Christian movements, such as Pietism. The centrality of devotion seems to be more common in religious traditions in which theistic tendencies are central, although its importance in Pure Land Buddhism is sufficient evidence to caution against equating devotion with theism. Religious devotion frequently exists in a theological context of hierarchy where there is at least functional if not ontological theism and divine being(s) are considered to be superior to and have power over a human devotee.…

The devotee of a deity often expresses total dependence upon the god by feelings, attitudes, gestures, or acts of submission…. The style of submission may depend upon the type of relationship envisioned by the devotee. The submission of a child to its mother, for example, might be quite different from the submission of a slave to his owner. In many traditions the devotee is affirmed to be greatly inferior to the deity; men and women are often described as morally weak, sinful, corrupt, and insignificant, and the deity as overwhelmingly superior. In this relationship the proper attitude of the devotee is abasement and submission.

We will revisit religious forms of devotion at a later date. But a few crucial things to note here that piety is most commonly understood under the rubric of theism, but that it can find full expression outside of and apart from belief in God or gods, apart from any sense of divine intention and authority. The spiritual recognition of dependence upon something outside oneself can be meaningful and coherent without total submission and without theistic understanding of being.


We should note that devotional life in Islam is rooted in the same monotheistic structure rising out of Judaism and running through Christianity. “The three primary fundamentals of [the] religion (usul al-din) are tawhid (belief in the unity of God), nubuwah (belief in prophets), and qiyamah (belief in the Day of Judgment).” (Vernon J. Schubel, Enc. of Rel.)

The sovereignty of a monotheistic God, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and simultaneously transcendent and immanent, is Islam’s definitive tenet. For Muslims there is one and only one true God, who is identical with the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. The necessity of obedience to God’s will is thus the foundation for all devotion in Islam. Every human being should aspire to live as a servant (‘abd) of God. For this reason, the required ritual acts of worship are referred to collectively as ‘ibadah, which can be translated as either “worship” or “service.” According to the concept of nubuwah, God communicates through prophets (nabis) and messengers (rasuls). Thus, human agency is essential to the process of revelation. The centrality of this concept can be seen in the fact that the first human being, Adam, is also the first prophet, as humanity should never be without divine guidance. It is through the prophets in their roles as messengers and models of behavior, especially the final prophet, Muhammad, that humanity learns how to live in obedience to God’s will. Devotional life in Islam rests simultaneously upon the worship of and obedience to God, and allegiance to and veneration of the Prophet Muhammad, who serves both as a teacher and an exemplar.

The doctrine of qiyamah asserts that there will come a time when all human beings will be judged according to their beliefs and actions. Thus, whether interpreted literally or fig- uratively, qiyamah asserts that human beings are fully responsible before God for their actions….

Within this theological context, acts of devotion and worship serve two interrelated purposes. The first is as the fulfillment of God’s commandments. As such, they are evidence of obedience to God in preparation for the Day of Judgment. But devotional actions also serve to transform the worshipper, bringing him or her into greater conformity with the divine will. Devotion in Islam is not simply an end in itself; it is also a means for facilitating proper ethical behavior… simultaneously evidence of obedience to God and mechanisms for the spiritual education of believers.…

The person of the Prophet is as important as the Quran in Islamic piety. As one Shi’i scholar has pointed out, when the earliest Muslims accepted Islam there were only a few verses of the Qur’an. At that time the fundamental action of accepting Islam was to give allegiance to the Prophet. This is the root of the piety of devotional allegiance… [which for] many Muslims… extends beyond the person of the Prophet Muhammad to include those who are identified as his legitimate representatives and successors. Once again, if one is to love the Prophet, should one not express that love by loving those whom he loved?

Islam has a strong notion of piety deeply anchored in its theological understanding of the relation between humans and God. In post-9-11 America and post-immigration Europe, many people are freaked out about the extremes to which Muslim piety can be taken. Legitimate concerns about terroristic violence have unfairly singled out Islam and ignored Muslim voices that denounce terrorism as the most impious of acts. Christian extremism is a serious problem amidst cultural tensions in the United States. Ethnic conflict in India, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere is marked by opposing pieties and religious identification. And in the name of democratic faith, the United States wages devastating wars abroad. Meanwhile, more benign expressions of Muslim piety such as the hijab (head scarf) have upset the laïc secularism of countries like France as sign of allegiance to a higher power than the French Republic. Again, Islam is singled-out in a pernicious way speaking to xenophobia. But there is nonetheless an important underlying concern that implicates all of us.


A motivation for Humble Piety is the conviction that belief in divinely-inspired righteousness is a dangerous thing, period. At the extreme it can lead to violence and injustice. But for the more level-headed and compassionate amongst us, it can still obstruct our deeply important democratic project by blocking our ability to hear one another and to come together to build ethical and devotional traditions anew. One religion cannot be singled out in this critique. Indeed, religion and theism cannot be singled out if an effective transformation in cultural consciousness is to be possible. A broader awareness of the limits of knowledge and belief, a deep appreciation of epistemic humility, is what is needed.

New forms of piety will be needed more than ever for ethical culture to persist after the death of God. A departure from tradition as fundamental as this signals a need for humility on our part expressed through cultural piety that looks back to faith traditions as human traditions with tremendous resources and wisdom to guide us. We should worry, with Socrates, about the tensions among our pious commitments. We should embrace the Rabbinic wisdom of holy argument as a form of piety. We should appreciate with Muslims that acts of piety can be transformative mechanisms of spiritual education and personal development. We should recognize the insight of Buddhism that piety is most powerful when it lets go of attachment. And we should salvage the core of Christianity that hails love as the most pious and most beautiful expression of humanity.

In the next installment of this reflection on piety, we will consider Protestant Christianity as the root of modern democratic individualism. Then with the help of Princeton Professor Jeffrey Stout, we will consider the notion of democratic piety detached from theism, particularly as expressed in the work of the great American public intellectual, John Dewey. Stout offers a capacious definition of piety that can serve as a bridge between traditional religious conceptions and post-theistic expressions. “For piety, in the sense at issue here, is virtuous acknowledgement of dependence on the sources of one’s existence and progress through life.”


  1. Outstanding and thorough. Much to absorb. Thanks.

    The word ‘piety’ is not heard much anymore. I have most often heard it in the context of contempt for false piety. When I was growing up, piety, when obvious, was never genuine. True piety was almost invisible. The people who were pious were simply sweet souls devoted to something, usually other people. They were serene and purposeful.
    While it is often insincere, piety concerns me most when it is sincere, but misdirected. One of my values is that no idea should be placed over the welfare of humanity. And, being a humanist, I don’t go along with any divine plan or afterlife explanations of why it would be a good idea to blow someone up. Or that the suffering of children makes sense in some transcendent way we can’t understand. If we can’t get the child’s assent, fancy explanations don’t cut it.,535/!/notes/don-severs/any-takers/380459834004

  2. Thanks Don. The best has yet to come… soon.

    You are right about the connotation of piety. In our protestant/post-protestant culture, it is deemed best kept private. Otherwise viewed with suspicion. “Pieties” in particular suggests falseness to our ears.

    I would hope that humble piety is something we could sincerely share: inclusive and dynamic rather than sanctimonious.

    Wow. That Onion article is on point as always. This is something that has fascinated me. The way that epistemic humility is invoked within a theistic framework: “We must not presume to know the mind of our Creator.” And yet we presume to know that the “Creator” is/has a mind and a purpose. There is a fundamental lack of humility in the premise – just as with Euthyphro.

  3. Certain insights, once grasped, change everything. Unless you can drive them back out of your awareness. Some people can do that, some can’t.

    It is natural to want things both ways. We (some of us) would like the universe to be run by a benevolent being. At the same time, we’d like that idea to fit the fact of human suffering. At the same time, we’d like our beliefs about the world to be rational and consistent.

    My view is we can’t have all that. We have to give something up. What we give up depends on our values. I have given up believing in a benevolent deity because I value consistency. Most people I know would much rather give up consistency. Or, they claim they are consistent and torture logic or declare it a mystery so that they can have it all. For me, such a position can only be maintained by willful ignorance. Declaring things ‘mysteries’ is a copout for me. I prefer puzzles. But human suffering isn’t even a puzzle. We know the answer, but most of us don’t like it.

    I had this discussion with a middle-aged woman with 2 degrees who works at Notre Dame last week. She said the needless torture and suffering of children is a mystery. I said it’s only a mystery if you keep the benevolent god hypothesis. When you drop that, there’s no mystery. We are conscious animals subject to all the indifference of nature. She preferred the mystery. Anything can be a mystery if you reject perfectly good resolutions.

  4. >“We must not presume to know the mind of our Creator.” And yet we presume to know that the “Creator” is/has a mind and a purpose.

    This is an example of lack of consistency. They say they don’t know the mind of God, but they know just enough to know he’s surpassingly wonderful and loving, the facts be damned. The belief in a benevolent deity falls apart on investigation and can only be maintained by ad hoc, slipshod sleight of hand.

    Grown-ups get offended at this kind of talk, but it’s important that they feel the pinch of their convictions. When it comes to human suffering, believing in a loving god is the moral equivalent of “Let them eat cake”. It says, “I have a loving God who finds me jobs and parking places. The fact that you were just beaten to death is a mystery, but my God loves you just as much. Take heart.”

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