Is Religion Inherently Authoritarian?

Adam Lee, AlterNet

Compared to secular reasoning, the religious establishment has been slow to act when it comes to moral progress.

Human history is a story of gradual moral enlightenment. Over the ages, we’ve become less violent, less xenophobic, more tolerant, more committed to the ideals of democracy and equality under the law. Of course, moral progress is painfully slow, with many holdouts and local reversals, and we have a very long way left to go. But it’s hard to deny that the world we live in today is less prejudiced and more peaceful than the world 500 years ago, or even just 100.

Religion is a noteworthy exception to this trend of progress. Secular moral reasoning, founded on considerations of fairness and human good, allows for continual self-questioning and improvement as less-privileged groups speak out to demand justice and call our attention to evils that we’d been overlooking. In sharp contrast to this, the immutable doctrines of religion are supposed to be elevated above skepticism. Even if we know more or see farther than the clerics who once came up with them, many religious authorities tell us we should submit our wills and believe without questioning.

The result is that, in most cases, moral progress has left the churches behind. Like the tide going out and leaving once-submerged rocks high and dry on the shore, the archaic doctrines of conservative religion are increasingly isolated and exposed as the immoral and vicious absurdities they are. This has led to more conflict and dissension within the ranks, as believers who grew up in the modern era see the contradictions between what they’re taught and know to be right, and inevitably come into conflict with religious authorities who are determined to enforce the old rules at any cost.

A case in point is the Mormon church’s excommunication of Kate Kelly, a lawyer and human-rights activist who founded a movement called Ordain Women. Kelly’s crime was calling for the all-male priesthood of the Mormon church to be opened to people of all genders, and doing so loudly and publicly enough to embarrass the church leaders. (Although the LDS church calls it a “priesthood,” it’s not a clerical or ministerial position; it’s a rite of initiation, like a Jewish bar mitzvah or a Catholic confirmation.)

Kelly wasn’t a firebrand atheist. She considers herself a faithful Mormon; she was married in the Salt Lake City Temple and went on an overseas mission trip as Mormonism requires. Yet she refused several orders to take her website down and stop speaking out, and just before her excommunication, she was defiant:

“I am not an apostate, unless every single person who has questions to ask out loud is an apostate,” Ms. Kelly said in a telephone interview on Sunday , just before her disciplinary council met.

While she may have meant this comment as a reductio ad absurdum, I think it hits closer to the truth than she realizes. Almost every religion, throughout the ages, has looked unfavorably on people who have inconvenient questions and who insist on asking them out loud. What Kelly has yet to grasp is that religion is a fundamentally conservative force (unlike, say, science, where those who overturn conventional wisdom are rewarded). To claim that the tenets of some existing religion are wrong is to implicitly claim that you understand the will of God better than the authorities of that religion. Naturally, the people who’ve gained status and power within the existing strictures of the church will always look with extreme disfavor on this.

It’s for this reason that religion is not only fundamentally conservative, but anti-democratic. Aside from a few rare exceptions, religion claims that God’s will is delivered through special revelation: it was given to certain people, at certain times and places, and not others. If that were true—if there were people in possession of special, important truths that no one else could ever discover—then it  would be the case that those people would be uniquely qualified to tell the rest of us how to live.

But that expectation bumps up against the modern world, where divine-right monarchy is a discredited theory and democracy is a nearly universal idea (so much so that even rulers of autocratic states often feel the need to hold sham elections). The clash between these principles is most visible in the religious people who believe their leaders have a specially privileged understanding of God, but who also apparently believe the doctrines of their church should be put to a vote. The lay Mormons petitioning on Kate Kelly’s behalf are an excellent example:

More than a thousand Mormons sent letters of support for Ms. Kelly to the bishop and two of his counselors considering her case in Oakton, Va. Hundreds turned out for a vigil in Salt Lake City while the hearing was underway, and smaller groups of supporters gathered at 50 sites in 17 countries, according to Ordain Women.

Mormonism isn’t the only authoritarian religion whose members incorrectly believe they’re participating in a democracy rather than an oligarchy. Roman Catholicism has the same affliction: for example, when Pope Francis was being selected, the author Anne Rice and others asked Catholics to tell the Vatican what they wanted to see in a new pope, as if such feedback would be welcomed or even acknowledged.

The sharp divide between lay Catholics and hierarchy is perhaps best illustrated by the issue of women as priests. As recently as 2013, 70% of Catholics believe women should be allowed to be ordained even though Pope John Paul II announced that the exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood was an infallible article of dogma and could never be changed. Kindly, progressive Pope Francis has said the same, stating that the “church has spoken and says no… that door is closed” with regard to women’s ordination.

It happens in Judaism as well, even though that religion has no single central authority. In Israel, Jewish women fought for years for the right to pray at the Western Wall, braving routine threats, abuse and harassment by ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews who believe the holy site should only be open to men. Finally, the reformers won a ruling in Israel’s courts, opening up a designated prayer section at the wall for women. The ultra-Orthodox responded by ordering their own wives and daughters to show up en masse and pack the women’s section, so that the women who actually want to pray there and who fought for the right to do so couldn’t get in.

Granted, there are some cases where churches have joined the modern world without being forced to. For example, the Presbyterian church now allows its ministers to perform same-sex weddings, joining some other mainline Protestant denominations that have already taken this step. But this is the exception that proves the rule, since most of the tolerant and progressive mainline churches are in the midst of a demographic plummet. (The more conservative and evangelical denominations are also shrinking, just not quite as quickly.)

And on the rare occasions that churches recognize their past errors, they steadfastly refuse to draw any general lessons from the fact. Earlier this year, the Mormon church formally repudiated the racism of its past rules which barred black men from the priesthood until 1978. This would be a laudable step, except that the church is determined to learn absolutely nothing from it. In its ongoing fight against women in the priesthood, not to mention its fervent and continued opposition to same-sex marriage, it is falling into the same mistake all over again, refusing to recognize that its leadership is fallible, and that any rule treating human beings unequally is morally wrong. This will no doubt be viewed as another stain on the Mormon church’s record, just as its history of racism now is.

Ethically speaking, there’s no doubt that reformers like Kate Kelly and the Women of the Wall have their hearts in the right place, but it’s legitimate to question their strategy. As the ex-nun Mary Johnson has said, at some point you have to ask yourself where your energies are best spent.

Is it worth the effort trying to change religion from within, beating your head against the metaphorical brick wall of a church that’s run by an oligarchy of old conservative men who choose their own successors and who are determined never to change anything? Or does it make more sense to leave that frozen and fossilized cathedral, to renounce religion and step out into the wild garden of the wider world, where anyone can speak their mind and no one can cite the will of God as a trump card?

About the Author

Adam Lee is a writer and atheist activist living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his blog, Daylight Atheism.



15 thoughts on “Is Religion Inherently Authoritarian?

  1. If you stay obedient and keep your mouth shut that suits ‘the dictators’ just fine; question and challenge and you’re not just in the bad books but possibly in danger.
    Thank you, David, for putting this out there and i hope all is well with you and yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pseudo intellectual? Zero spirituality? lmao – WHAT? This wasn’t about Frank Zappa, which you obviously know nothing about him or HIS personal spirituality. WTF? Don’t base reality on a bumper sticker.This is only another hipmonkey attack on the stupidity of religious BELIEF. Nothing has caused mankind more harm than religion. Nothing!!! It’s 100% unadulterated bullshit, gobbled up by minions of self hatred and self destruction. Defenders of war and pro division of humanity. When/If the ”savior” arrives it will be in the form of science, rather than disguised as a male symbol of the sun.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave,
    If you compare the best quotes from Alan Watts, Terence McKenna, or any number of men and women you’ve posted on and compare to Zappa’s quote, there’s no comparison regarding spiritual/intellectual depth. You are correct in saying I know nothing about the life/spirituality of Frank Zappa. The chances for misunderstanding/misinterpreting are higher when discussing abstract thoughts, and this is simply one of those instances. Didn’t mean to get you excited, bro. :) My apology.
    I agree with you on “defenders of war”, as certain religious leaders (perhaps with the exception of Desmond Tutu) have been silent; not speaking out against the violence and killing.


    • Jerry, Zappa is an artist, not a philosopher or intellectual. His art touched a nerve within you, this is the sign of a brilliant artist. Art is supposed to make you think, or react in such a way as to examine your own reaction to said art. His words speak volumes to me or I wouldn’t have used it. I will continue to attack religion in the same manner in which religion attacked Hypatia (and mankind) using various quotes and words that strike each reader differently. I am pro reason and anti religious beliefs, preferring gnosis and truth. Lennon’s song Imagine is awesome, and though he’s not in the same category as Alan Watts, he certainly deserves to have his message heard. I’ve always liked Zappa’s music and lyrics, and understand him to be sarcastic, funny and socially relevant in the style of George Carlin. I know the word ‘fuck’ offends some people, which is why I love that word so much. But all that being said, the quote accurately describes Judeo / Christian logic.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave,
    Thanks for the reasoned explanation. You are correct in pointing out the quote struck a nerve, and with just a small amount of self-analysis, the quote came across as kind of destructive or negative, so this led to the initial, certainly knee-jerk, comment. The first thought which came to mind after reading your last reply was of the surrealist/artist Salvador Dali.
    The thought of a discussion between us over email to become the content of a post came up. Perhaps a general discussion starting with each of our earliest contacts with spiritual information up until today, generating the discussion with a free flow and questions posed to each other, without any concern for structure but simply a stream-of-consciousness sharing of ideas. Think Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson around the campfire. :) More or less a comparison of our individual journeys on these topics. If interested Gravatar contains my email. If interested, fine. If not, fine. Thanks again for taking the time to explain your views.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m having real problems with this paragraph:

    “Human history is a story of gradual moral enlightenment. Over the ages, we’ve become less violent, less xenophobic, more tolerant, more committed to the ideals of democracy and equality under the law. Of course, moral progress is painfully slow, with many holdouts and local reversals, and we have a very long way left to go. But it’s hard to deny that the world we live in today is less prejudiced and more peaceful than the world 500 years ago, or even just 100.”

    I can see no evidence whatsoever that humankind has become less violent, less xenophobic, more tolerant or more committed to the ideals of democracy under the law. Nor that the world is less prejudiced and more peaceful.

    If anything both the first and third world are heading headlong into an extremely intolerant fascism that denies people basic rights according to their skin color, sex and ideological beliefs.

    So either this guy swallows all the bullshit the mainstream media tries to shove down our throat. Or he’s one of those journalists who collects a monthly check from the CIA.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL – Painfully s.l.o.w. / I suppose if you think of the mass genocide of women as “wiches”, regular burning and torture during the Inquisition, along with boiling alive, drowning, and other brutally unspeakable acts committed against humans during the Dark Ages, you might just catch a small glimpse of progress, keeping in mind how slow evolution is. If we are at the end of these times and we start over again, I would hope we’ve learned something and do things very differently. I too see little reason to dance in the street about how great things are.

      Liked by 1 person

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