Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Religious Authority

It is a priority of mine to present ideas that are practical and informative. Ideas that stimulate and widen. Ideas that encourage exploration and examination.

The world's religions, in my opinion, don't do that. They tend to dictate truth, rather than encourage the individual to find his or her own truth. Religions start with the assumption that there is some truth out there that is above all others and that clarifies the facts behind our existence, and then they go about telling you what that truth is. They do NOT encourage the individual to explore and develop and evaluate their own ideas and understanding. They are not truly empowering. They encourage reliance on doctrine, on holy works or holy messengers.

I think it's time that we as a race come to terms with what religion really is and what purpose it serves. I grew up as a church-going Christian, and I feel I am well qualified to speak about Christianity as it is often approached in modern times. I have studied Islam, read some of the Quran, learned the history of Islam, and heard and read enough quotes from Muslims past and present to have a solid understanding of many of the influences that Islam has on the majority of its adherents.

Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is a path, a strategy for reducing personal suffering and cultivating compassion. And as such, I will not include Buddhism in the current discussion. Nor will I include Taoism, for much the same reason.

I am driven to articulate the limitations that religions - particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - foster and perpetuate.

First and foremost is the belief structure of Authority. Without crunching any numbers, I'm going to posit that 80% of the faithful members of these three religions consider the leaders within their faith to be spiritual authorities. In other words, the typical adherent to one of these religions believes that their pastor/priest/rabbi/cleric knows more about God and the Truth than they themselves do. These leaders are, more often than not, looked upon as experts.

Western society and most large societies around the world incorporate authority figures everywhere - family, school, work, politics, medicine, etc. We are surrounded by authority figures as well as laws and rules supporting such authority. And so we are very familiar with looking to sources of authority for approval and direction.

Such tendencies serve many useful purposes in our society. Having people respect the authority of police officers helps maintain peace, at least somewhat. It provides structure, order, etc. And other types of authority serve similar purposes.

But spiritual matters are different. Unlike human laws , which we acknowledge are man-made, religious laws and doctrine are touted as superceding human ones. And people, in general, do not engage in an objective examination of religious doctrine. Religion is seen by the faithful to be beyond discussion, beyond individual assessment. To look critically at the words or ideas expressed in the Bible or the Quran is blasphemous.

When the Christian Church had its stranglehold on Europe many centuries ago, man-made laws were weaved into religious doctrine, and vice-versa. Thus the rules regarding society were attributed to the same authority that purely religious rules were - God. This is still the case in some areas and sects of Christianity and Judaism, and it is quite prevelant in many Muslims societies as well.

Today in the West, laws regarding society have been, to varying degrees, wrestled from religion and are often freely debated without drawing charges of blesphemy, treason, etc. But, importantly, religious laws have not. The divinity and infallibility of our holy books and revered religious figures is still, for the most part, beyond debate. We have not begun, on any sizable scale, to critically assess our religious sources of authority - the Bible, the Torah, the Quran, and the words and acts of prophets, messengers, saints, and messiahs.

Those beliefs in our society which value authority figures and firm guidelines for thoughts, words, and behavior are, in most cases, strongly expressed in the context of religion. When people who value authority practice their religion, they do so from a conservative perspective. Authority figures provide structure and uniformity. They provide sources of beliefs regarding right and wrong, good and bad. The existence of religious authority figures - Imams, Rabbis, Priests - and sources - Torah, Bible, Quran - give those who value homogeneity of thought and action an anchor, a template with which to evaluate right/wrong and good/bad. For those who need to have others agree with them, a common source of authority is a must.

Only a source of authority can allow one to know he is "right" or "good". Being right and good is important to one who is trying to prove himself, to justify his existence, to look good in his own eyes or in the eyes of others. Religious authority, religious rules and doctrine allow such a person to prove he or she is good, right, acceptable, worthy of being loved. Islam provides that opportunity for Muslims, Judaism provides it for Jews, and Christianity provides it for Christians. At the heart of their faith is the desire to be good, to be right. To be on God's good side. And to appear good in the eyes of others.

The majority of these people are not going to the Church or the Synagogue or the Mosque to find or understand God or themselves. They are going to SHOW their faith, to prove that they are good Christians or Jews or Muslims. Because that is what faithful people do.

And being faithful is GOOD.

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