How Religion’s Demand for Obedience Keeps Us in the Dark Ages
This article was previously published on AlterNet.
For the vast majority of human history, the only form of government was the few ruling over the many. As human societies became settled and stratified, tribal chiefs and conquering warlords rose to become kings, pharaohs, and emperors, all ruling with absolute power and passing on their thrones to their children. To justify this obvious inequality and explain why they should reign over everyone else, most of these ancient rulers claimed that the gods had chosen them, and priesthoods and holy books obligingly came on the scene to promote and defend the theory of divine right.
It’s true that religion has often served to unite people against tyranny, as well as to justify it. But in many cases, when a religious rebellion overcame a tyrant, it was only to install a different tyrant whose beliefs matched those of the revolutionaries. Christians were at first ruthlessly persecuted by the Roman Empire, but when they ascended to power, they in turn banned all the pagan religions that had previously persecuted them. Protestant reformers like John Calvin broke away from the decrees of the Pope, but then created their own theocratic city-states where their will would reign supreme. Similarly, when King Henry VIII split England away from the Catholic church, it wasn’t so he could create a utopia of religious liberty; it was so he could create a theocracy where his preferred beliefs, rather than the Vatican’s, would be the law of the land. And in just the same way, when the Puritans fled England and migrated to the New World, it wasn’t to uphold religious tolerance; it was to impose their beliefs, rather than the Church of England’s.
It’s only within the last few centuries, in the era of the Enlightenment, that a few fearless thinkers argued that the people should govern themselves, that society should be steered by the democratic will rather than the whims of an absolute ruler. The kings and emperors battled ferociously to stamp this idea out, but it took root and spread in spite of them. In historical terms, democracy is a young idea, and human civilization is still reverberating from it – as we see in autocratic Arab societies convulsed with revolution, or Chinese citizens rising up against the state, or even in America, with protesters marching in the streets against a resurgence of oligarchy.
But while the secular arguments for dictatorship have been greatly weakened, the religious arguments for it have scarcely changed at all. Religion is very much a holdover from the dark ages of the past, and the world’s holy books still enshrine the ancient demands for us to bow down and obey the (conveniently unseen and absent) gods, and more importantly, the human beings who claim the right to act as their representatives. It’s no surprise, then, that the most fervent advocates of religion in the modern world are also the most deeply inculcated with this mindset of command and obedience.
We saw this vividly in recent weeks with the controversy over birth control. As polls and surveys make clear, the overwhelming majority of American Catholics use contraception and in all other ways live normal, modern lives. They mostly just ignore the archaic bluster of the bishops. But the Pope and the Vatican hierarchy conduct themselves publicly as if nothing had changed since the Middle Ages; as if there were billions of Catholics who’d leap to obey the slightest crook of their finger.
The attitude that the Vatican displays toward Catholic laypeople is perfectly summed up in a papal encyclical from 1906, titled “Vehementer Nos“:
The Scripture teaches us, and the tradition of the Fathers confirms the teaching, that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, ruled by the Pastors and Doctors — a society of men containing within its own fold chiefs who have full and perfect powers for ruling, teaching and judging. It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.
An even more breathtakingly arrogant expression of this idea comes from New Advent, the official Catholic theological encyclopedia. Watch how it addresses that whole embarrassing Galileo episode:
[I]n the Catholic system internal assent is sometimes demanded, under pain of grievous sin, to doctrinal decisions that do not profess to be infallible…. [but] the assent to be given in such cases is recognized as being not irrevocable and irreversible, like the assent required in the case of definitive and infallible teaching, but merely provisional…
To take a particular example, if Galileo who happened to be right while the ecclesiastical tribunal which condemned him was wrong, had really possessed convincing scientific evidence in favour of the heliocentric theory, he would have been justified in refusing his internal assent to the opposite theory, provided that in doing so he observed with thorough loyalty all the conditions involved in the duty of external obedience.
To translate the church’s legalisms into plain language, what this is saying is that it’s OK to doubt something the church teaches, but only if you keep quiet about that doubt and outwardly obey everything the church authorities tell you, acting as if your doubt didn’t exist. And if the church teaches that something is an infallible article of faith, even that ineffective option is taken away: you’re required to believe it without question or else face eternal damnation.
Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, wrote that believers should “always be ready to obey [the church] with mind and heart, setting aside all judgment of one’s own”. To explain just how absolute he thought this obedience should be, he used a vivid analogy:
That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.
Nor is it just from the Catholic side of the aisle where we hear these pronouncements. Even though Protestants don’t have one pope to rule them all, they still believe that following your betters is essential. Here’s a statement to that effect from the esteemed apologist C.S. Lewis, from his book The Problem of Pain:
But in addition to the content, the mere obeying is also intrinsically good, for, in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adam’s dance backward, and returns.
According to Lewis, obedience is “intrinsically good”. In other words, it’s always a good thing to do as you’re told, no matter what you’re being told to do or who’s telling you to do it! It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the moral atrocities that could result from putting this idea into practice.
Another influential Christian writer and one of the intellectual fathers of the modern religious right, Francis Schaeffer, put the same thought – the same demand for mental slavery – in even blunter terms:
I am false or confused if I sing about Christ’s Lordship and contrive to retain areas of my own life that are autonomous. This is true if it is my sexual life that is autonomous, but it is at least equally true if it is my intellectual life that is autonomous – or even my intellectual life in a highly selective area. Any autonomy is wrong.
Just to prove that none of these are flukes, here’s one more quote, this time from Christian evangelical pastor Ray Stedman, excerpted from his sermon titled “Bringing Thoughts Into Captivity“:
I have noticed through the years that the intellectual life is often the last part of a Christian to be yielded to the right of Jesus Christ to rule. Somehow we love to retain some area of our intellect, of our thought-life, reserved from the control of Jesus Christ. For instance, we reserve the right to judge Scripture, as to what we will or will not agree with, what we will or will not accept… [Disagreeing with any part of the Bible] represents a struggle with the Lordship of Christ; his right to rule over every area of life, his right to control the thought-life, every thought taken captive to obey him.
Nor is the demand for mindless obedience confined to Christianity. Here’s how one Jewish rabbi explained the rationale for the kosher dietary laws, recounted in Richard Dawkins’ essay “Viruses of the Mind“:
That most of the Kashrut laws are divine ordinances without reason given is 100 per cent the point. It is very easy not to murder people. Very easy. It is a little bit harder not to steal because one is tempted occasionally. So that is no great proof that I believe in God or am fulfilling His will. But, if He tells me not to have a cup of coffee with milk in it with my mincemeat and peas at lunchtime, that is a test. The only reason I am doing that is because I have been told to so do. It is something difficult.
In other words, the kosher laws have no reason or justification, and that’s a good thing, because they teach people the habit of unquestioning obedience, which should be encouraged. This uncannily resembles a piece of parenting advice from Stephen Colbert, who satirically wrote that “Arbitrary rules teach kids discipline: If every rule made sense, they wouldn’t be learning respect for authority, they’d be learning logic”. Religious authorities like this rabbi are making the exact same argument in all seriousness! And then, of course, there’s Islam, whose very name is Arabic for “submission”.
The social scientist Jonathan Haidt has identified what he calls the five foundations of morality: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Surveys from all over the world find that self-identified conservatives put far more emphasis on the last three, two of which are fundamental to a worldview based on obedience and submission. The implied similarity between conservatism and fundamentalist religion is too obvious to ignore, particularly in America, where the conservative political party is dominated by an especially regressive and belligerent strain of evangelical Christianity.
And like political conservatism in general, many religious rules are actively destructive to human liberty and happiness. Christian church leaders claim we should prohibit same-sex marriage and abortion and restrict access to birth control; ultra-Orthodox Jewish zealots want to erase women from public life; Islamic theocracies want to make it illegal to criticize or dissent from their beliefs. If moral commands could only be backed up by appeals to reason or human good, these unfounded and harmful laws would vanish overnight. Instead, the people who make these rules and want us to obey them claim that they’re messengers of the will of God, and thus no further justification is needed. It bears emphasizing that this is the exact same argument made by ancient monarchs and tyrants, all of whom used this idea to justify atrocious cruelty.
Those ancient monarchs were toppled because they proved, despite their lofty claims of divine right, that they were no better or wiser or more suited to rule than any other human being. This is a lesson from history that deserves wider attention in the modern world. Like them, religious conservatives claim that they’re passing along God’s ideas, and thus that we should obey them without critical challenge and questioning. This idea has always had disastrous consequences in the past – why should we expect anything different this time?
In sharp contrast to the religious and conservative worldview of obedience and submission, the worldview of freethinkers and progressives at its best is one that exalts freedom and liberty – freedom to make our own choices, freedom of the mind to travel and explore wherever it will. These are our commandments: Think for yourself and don’t blindly bow down to the claims of another. Exercise your own best judgment. Ask questions and investigate whether what you’ve been taught is true. There have been countless wars and devastations because people were too eager to subordinate their will and conscience to the ruling authorities, but as Sam Harris says, no atrocity was ever committed because people were being too reasonable, too skeptical, or too independently minded. If anything, human beings have always been too eager to obey and to subordinate their will to others. The more we throw off that ancient and limiting mindset, the more freedom we have to think, act and speak as we choose, the more humanity as a whole will prosper.
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