Sources of Religious Authority


If you’ve ever had a discussion about religion with a zealous believer you will invariably be told religious beliefs are supported by some sort of “revelation”. The favorite among Christians is “It’s in the Bible”. For Moslems it’s the Koran. For Mormons it’s the Book of Mormon, and on it goes. Every religion has it’s authority.

In a world where we find different theories about “the meaning of life”, a vast panorama of different religious views, and many distinctly different ideas about how societies should be run and how human life should be lived, ultimately the most basic question is “Who should you believe?”

Another way of saying this is “What is the authority on which we can decide what is true or false, right or wrong?” This is what I call the question of authority.

The Sources of Authority

Many believers think an the appeal to a holy book seals the deal. They’ve been taught this book has been directly handed down by their god through some quasi magical process and therefore cannot be questioned. It is the authority upon which their beliefs are based.

Of course not all religions appeal solely to a book. Most also look to tradition. They appeal to customs that have developed within a specific community and have been handed down through generations. For example, take the use of the burqua by some Islamic communities, or the way some Mennonite communities use horse drawn buggies instead of motorized cars. Both of these practices have developed in certain isolated communities, and neither are mandated in their primary holy book, or even the mainstream interpretations of standard Islamic or Christian doctrine. They are derived from the localized traditions that have grown up in isolated communities.

These unorthodox beliefs (burquas and buggies) demonstrate how tradition can work. Traditional practices like this have developed within specific communities over the years and, for the believers, have taken on the air of necessary parts of these particular ways of life. They become authoritative for a relatively small group of believers and remain aberrations for the majority of adherents to the larger, mainstream body of believers. They serve as a warning to all adherents within the faith that all traditional practices are to some degree the result of local custom and cultural bias.

Formalizing Traditions

Often religious communities feel the need to formalize these traditions, and do so through having a group of elders or religious leaders from within the community give specific practices the seal of approval. The most obvious example is the Roman Catholic Church which has an elaborate structure for this purpose. But the RC church is certainly not alone. Most religious communities have official wise men, gurus or scribes whose job it is to work out the authorized version of customs, rituals and doctrines. And they usually have councils of leaders who promulgate and enforce these authorized versions within the community at large.

So this is both an academic, intellectual process and a political one. It is a matter both of deciding on the content of doctrine for the community, and of imposing and enforcing those doctrines within the community. The academics or scribes sort out the legitimate beliefs, rituals and customs consistent with the approved faith and the sources from which it is drawn. And then the politicians take over – the council of elders endorses the approved doctrines and imposes them upon the community. Of course the scribes and elders may be one and the same group.

How does authority work?

By an “authority” we mean something that bestows trust – some institution, or process that justifies our belief in whatever that authority underwrites or endorses. If you accept that authority is developed within and for communities – and what is authoritative for one community may not be for another – then you must acknowledge that authority has a political component.

A holy book is not authoritative only for what it says (although that is part of it) but also for the fact that the community elders, leaders, priests and preachers accept and impose what it teaches. This is not as sinister a process as it may sound. In many, or perhaps most, cases, the leadership of a community “imposes” the official doctrine simply by teaching it to adherents, regulating the requirements for teachers, and controlling the process through which members are allowed to join the community.

Obviously authority has a content side as well. Doctrines become authoritative both for what they say and for the fact that community leaders have endorsed them. But clearly, content comes first, and it is content that outsiders are interested in.

Take Mormon doctrine for instance. A typical outsider is not usually impressed by the fact that a bunch of elders have approved a specific doctrine or practice – take their endorsing of a specific position on abortion or slavery or polygamy. We know from history that groups of elders in virtually any religious group are capable of endorsing all sorts of outrageous doctrines. What the outsider is (or should be) interested in knowing is what a specific doctrine says, its potential impact on their lives, and the reasons for endorsing it.

The Importance of Reasons

Reasons are important. They provide the substantive justification for accepting or rejecting a doctrine, theory or hypothesis. How this process works in fields other than religion is instructive. Doctrines, theories and hypotheses arise in any specific field of activity or discipline where ideas are important. Take the field of scientific investigation, for example. Scientific hypotheses are developed from experimentation and observation, and are verified by evidence. They are considered authoritative to the extent that they involve a rigorous application of approved procedures, and can be supported by appropriate evidence.

The rules we use to define authoritative, approved scientific procedures have developed as the procedures themselves were proven to be successful. Their authority comes from the historical success of the process, and ultimately they are adopted because they work – because the actual evidence supports them.

Moral Authority is Another Example

Rules of appropriate behavior and principles that define what we should or shouldn’t do – moral rules and principles – are also underwritten by two factors. First they must be endorsed by the community and second they must actually do what they are supposed to do – advance the overall interests of the community. This second factor provides the reasons for adopting or buying into these principles in the first place.

Rules and “values” are not imposed on a community. They do not come from some mysterious shadowy realm, emanate from a deity, or be suddenly found on some magic tablets. They develop within a social setting. Communities adopt rules of behavior and specific moral standards because they serve the purposes of the community and advance its interests. There are many views on the “source of good and evil” or the “foundation of morality”, but I maintain it is really as simple as I’ve described it here.

The Authority of Holy Books and Other Revealed Truths

This is the general framework I will use for discussing and evaluating the authority claims made for religious doctrines and holy books like the Bible. Ultimately non-religious rules and doctrines are adopted because we can see real evidence that they do what they say they do. Scientific theories explain natural phenomena, and moral principles guide the life of and promote the interests of a particular community.

But can we say something even remotely similar of religious doctrines? I don’t think we can. By their very nature they are supposed to be derived from “supernatural” sources (revelation) which are beyond the reach of observation or testing. Their champions think this excuses them from the demand for verification or evidence. But why should this be if the issues involved are really as important as religious people claim they are?

At least two examples come immediately to mind. First there is the claim that the Bible itself is “revealed” and therefore true and trustworthy. No evidence or anything approaching rational argumentation is ever put forward to support this claim. It is simply asserted. Take it or leave it. But the Bible is full of factual errors and questionable moral edicts emanating directly from god (as presented mostly in the Old Testament). Believers simply ignore these facts.

Second, there is prayer. Fantastic claims are regularly made for the “power of prayer”, but there is literally no evidence that this so-called power is anything but imaginary. Everybody from our political leaders on down talks as though prayer has some sort of effect on things (other than a psychological one). But the actual facts are rarely looked at, because they just do not support the absurd claims made for prayer.

In my next post I will deal with claims that holy books like the Bible have some special authoritative status.

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