Issues with Religious Authority

The two main issues with religious authority are its attractiveness to anyone desiring power and the subjective interpretation of doctrine.

Religious authority is unique.  It has absolute and unquestioned primacy in the eyes of religious believers – but it is exerted by humans in practice:

●  People wanting power can claim religious authority. They can claim it falsely, with no shred of justification, as described in an Economist article: America, migration and the Bible.  It 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.”

●  They can choose how they interpret religious texts. The Utopian idea of being governed entirely in accordance with instructions given by God seems persuasive, but 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 issues with religious authority are reasons why believers should be properly cautious about obeying those who claim it.  It is not always what it seems 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”.


Next Section

This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4315a.htm