Authority

Welcome to the next post in this little series of one-word-wrongness in religion.

To scientifically minded thinkers, authority is a shortcut for time and convenience. If I want to know the answer to a physics question, I can ask a physicist with appropriate letters after his name and published peer-reviewed articles attached to his name. A doctorate degree and peer-reviewed publications generally indicate that the person has done the hard work needed to understand physics and has demonstrated that understanding to the scientific community. So there is a basis for trusting in the accuracy of his answers if I want to save time and effort researching it. If I want to investigate deeper, instead of relying on the physicist’s authority, I can choose to read the accumulated literature to find a consensus or even perform the experiments myself if I’ve got the resources. If the physicist abuses his authority to push unproven or disproved hypotheses as if they were proven, he will be criticized by his peers, hopefully making people more hesitant to just trust his credentials.

To people with secular morality and politics, authority is generally given by social consensus. We vote for our leaders, and in theory, they are obligated to serve our interests. If they fail in that task, we can vote for a different leader next term. If a leader abuses his authority and works against the public’s interests, we can feel justified in resisting in various ways, whether it’s public criticism to sway voters and lower his chances of being reelected, mobilize other officials as checks against the abuses, or, in the most extreme cases, openly rebel against their authority.

In both these cases, authority is provisional and circumstantial instead of absolute, and the possibility of abuse is acknowledged. In religion, however, this often isn’t the case. Gods are often given absolute authority, and the “Big Three” Abrahamic religions are well-known for it. Being an American, and particularly a Texan, I’m pretty familiar with Christianity’s take on it, and there are a lot of recurring themes in attempts to justify it that are equally applicable in other religions.

“Might makes right”: Their god’s authority is based on raw power and the threat to use it. This model has no consideration for our interests. I find it a bit of an ironic or paradoxical mixture of anarchy and authoritarianism. One powerful, capricious being, bound by no laws, is made the head of a hierarchy that exists for the sole purpose of serving this one being above all because he’s deemed the authority. It’s exactly backwards.

“He made us, so we’re his property.”: In one sense, this is a variation of Might Makes Right, since it’s an assertion of the god’s physical power over us. In another, it’s drawing an arbitrary line, where a creator is allowed absolute control over his creations, whether or not those creations consented to that control. It removes sapience, sentience, consciousness, and so forth as a basis for civil rights. It’s similar to a theme in science fiction dystopias: Robots, no matter how clearly “human” they are, are deemed inherently unworthy of equal rights because they were manufactured by humans and thus they’re the property of those humans. The robots’ desires simply do not matter to the dystopian authorities.

“Because!”: This is a surprisingly common one in my experience. Their god is inherently and arbitrarily endowed with authority. There is no basis, no source, no rationale, no purpose, and no reciprocal obligation justifying this authority. This is the sort of authority human despots crave. It removes any pretense of responsibility or purpose from the concept of authority. “By definition” will sometimes come up, which should raise the question of where the definition came from, why it is that way, or how such a definition can be known to be true. Don’t hold your breath for an answer. This way lies madness.

“God knows best!”: In principle, an omniscient, prescient being would be capable of devising a system of laws that would optimize everyone’s benefits in a fair and just manner. There are two immediate problems I see with this in practice. First, these gods typically have a lot of laws that are inherently unjust and bigoted. They commonly discriminate against women, non-heterosexuals, foreigners, races, people who believe in other religions, non-believers, the sick, the less fortunate, and so on. The anti-morality of the Just World Hypothesis tends to use circular logic to punish these people for being punished: If they’re less fortunate, it must be because they did something worthy of being punished, therefore we should punish them in a manner that makes them less fortunate. The second problem is that these gods subvert the whole process of optimizing happiness by producing afterlives for arbitrary reward and punishment. Heaven and Hell effectively negate any rational analysis of an action by placing a god’s arbitrary whims for “good” and “bad” above the actual moral value of the action. There’s no real harm in wearing mixed fabrics, so we would rationally consider it to be morally neutral. But a god can manufacture harm by declaring it to be a sin and manufacture Hell specifically to make the harmless action harmful. The end result of this moral metagaming is the production of a “Because!” authority with a superficial facade of a rationale in an effort to appease critics. Unsurprisingly, many followers of such gods go so far as to try to sever their god from accountability for setting up these afterlives and the rules for entry to cover up the metagaming.

All in all, I think religion subverts the meaning of authority and makes its followers more vulnerable to manipulation by authoritarian politics. Authorities should be questioned. Religion discourages such questioning with intimidation, scare tactics, and twisted sophistry. Religious concepts of authority lower the standards and expectations we should have in our human leaders by keeping our expectations of an alleged perfect leader god even lower.

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