Issues with Religious Authority

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4315.htm)

Religious authority is unique.  It has absolute and unquestioned primacy in the eyes of religious believers – but there are two problems in attempts to exert it:

  • The power that religious authorities can wield is attractive to anyone desiring power. People can claim it falsely, as in the example quoted by The Economist in an article headed America, migration and the Bible – which reported that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted the Bible to grant himself divine authority:

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”

  • The Utopian idea of being governed entirely in accordance with instructions given by God seems persuasive, but religious texts can be opaque – so in practice God speaks through a human interpreter who has weaknesses and ambitions. The subtitle of the above article was: “Scripture offers much material for arguments about dividing families”, describing the lively debate provoked by Jeff Sessions’ claim.

These two problems are reasons why believers should be properly cautious about obeying those who claim religious authority.  Not all religious authorities are what they seem and, as described later (, people are ultimately responsible for making their own decisions after taking into account all the relevant factors.

Those who do not share the same religious belief cannot accept religious authority without question.  It can therefore be very divisive and it is certainly not inclusive – so it should not be exerted over anyone who has not signed up to it, and nor should it be given the force of law.  The First Amendment to the US Constitution rules that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.