Perspectives on authority

In many religions, God is the ultimate authority and is to be obeyed and revered to a degree that no human authority enjoys in this day and age. (The concept of blasphemy has no humanist equivalent.) From this religious perspective, atheism comes from pride, stubbornness, and egotism; in short, unwillingness to submit to authority – in effect, to the authority of scriptures or institutions which act as a proxy for the authority of God.

I think questioning and ceasing to believe in God does require confidence about defying that authority. But it is motivated by doubt over whether there is any real basis for the authority. To this type of person, the only authority is objective truth, and from this point of view it is also pride and egotism that stops people submitting to authority – the authority of truth. We have been too proud to readily accept that our planet is not the centre of the universe; too proud to accept our humble evolutionary origins. Too pompous to consider the notion that the universe is not in fact a stage set up expressly to play out the epic drama of our human moral struggles.

This very interesting talk discusses perspectives on authority in a social/political context. By the end of it I felt very validated in my anti-idealism. 🙂

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13 Responses to Perspectives on authority

  1. Achelois says:

    Very interesting views! I have been thinking about all this a lot lately.

    I believe in God. And I believe in God not because I think that our planet is the center of the universe, but precisely that it *isn’t* the center of the universe; that the universe is so large and so complicated that there is more to the Big Bang theory.

    However, I do believe that when most submit they submit “to the authority of scriptures or institutions which act as a proxy for the authority of God.” I am frankly quite sick of people thinking all those who don’t believe in religion are idiots that have to be taught the wisdom of *God’s* words. I love religion and I admire all world religions – they fascinate me endlessly – but I get frustrated very quickly with ‘sweet religious talk.’ If there was one standard word of God, I would understand but every religion has its own dogma and scripture and call to divinity and adherents of each think they are on the right path.

    I think every person who thinks they know exactly what God does and says don’t believe in the Grand Mystery. I have accepted that I will never know a lot of things and I will never understand the origins of this universe. I’m ok with that now.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. Seeing it from both sides, I think we are all capable of resisting ideas we simply don’t like, whether it is in religion or science. No-one is above personally-motivated bias…

  2. susanne430 says:

    I wanted to watch the interesting talk before posting. Enjoyed what Ted had to say for the most part. I found it really interesting how liberals are two-channel on what? I can’t recall, but conservatives are five-channel based. I’m glad the guy mentioned that liberals are “pure” on food issues whereas conservatives moreso on morals/sex. I found all that rather fascinating. Liberals are more concerned with what goes into bodies and maybe conservatives on what comes out…or with whom! 😉 Like…sex in the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman. On the other hand, conservatives in the Middle East would likely say 1 man, 4 women in which case I am a definite liberal and say “oh no ya don’t!” So, it varies a bit from culture to culture and I know his talk was generally on the US.

    Really I’m proud to live in Jesusland! 🙂 That doesn’t bother me one bit. If people want to say I’m stupid for following Jesus, then that’s their right, but don’t start telling me how tolerant you are when you also label my area “Dumbfuckistan.” Really…they call us hypocrites, but they are as well. We all just need to look in the mirror and realize we ALL are intolerant and hypocritical when it suits us. I think Amber’s blog tag says it all when she declares “As a Gemini, I reserve the right to hold two contradictory opinions on any subject at any time.” 😀

    Very interesting post/talk by Ted. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      Glad you enjoyed the video! I totally agree there is intolerance everywhere. This talk definitely makes the challenge for us all to be less black-and-white, which I liked. 🙂

    • Julian Adkins says:

      Hi Susanne,

      I know Haidt probably knew his map of Jesusland and Dumbfuckistan would raise a laugh because of the political homogeneity of his audience, but to be fair to Haidt (and perhaps I am being too lenient here) I think he was setting them up to criticise them, but in a gentle way that would be effective at getting them to think about their prejudice and the reason they were laughing. He certainly had that very positive effect on me and I am the first to admit I have my fair share of religious baggage and laughed out loud at the joke. Please feel free to chuck a ‘Godless Heathen’ joke at me btw 😉

      • Sarah says:

        Julian, I think that is what we got from the video too. It was quite cleverly done. And yes, I have to admit I did smirk at the joke too. It is actually a compliment to American Christians that such jokes can be made… imagine trying to make a joke like that about Saudi Arabia?!?

  3. Julian Adkins says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Sadly your observations about religious rejection of the authority of evidence based conclusions arising from objective inquiry have been historically true, and remain true for many believers today. I think it is difficult for the religious fundamentalist to step outside his or her world view for even a moment to consider how arrogant their claims seem to those who do not share their certainty and do not consider it to be founded on anything like good evidence. I love Jonothan Haidt’s work by the way, and have come across it before. As you know, I also share your view that some kind of absolute moral perfection is an impossibility (even in theory, leave alone practice) and that in no way diminishes my moral aspirations.
    I think Haidt’s work is essentially descriptive rather than normative. He offers a picture of how human beings do in actual fact order their moral worlds, but doesn’t draw rigid conclusions from that about how they ‘should’ order their moral world. He doesn’t seem to violate the maxim that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ whilst pointing out that we do, none-the-less, have to consider naturalistic explanations of our behaviour when considering what we ought to do. I am pretty liberal – especially on social issues – and consequently do emphasis the ‘harm / care’ and ‘justice’ issues more than those of ‘authority’ and ‘sanctity’. However, I acknowledge that respect for authority is something which may contribute to social cohesion and community in a way that I am not always willing to admit in my more anarchistic moments 😉

    • Sarah says:

      This was the first time I’ve come across Haidt I think, but I liked him. I definitely didn’t feel he was didactic in his conclusions either. In a way the message is just “keep doing what you’re doing”, but avoiding being too black-and-white about it. Which can only be a good thing for the world 🙂

      Irrational bias and not submitting to the authority of evidence is a natural human tendency, it seems. I have been reading a book about physics that is quite critical of string theory, and it paints a picture of string theorists as being like cult members, believing unreasonably strongly in their ideas (among other cult-like behaviours). I will probably post something from the book at some point. It’s quite fascinating.

  4. susanne430 says:

    Just wanted to say hello to the Godless Heathen Julian.

    Greetings from Dumbfuckistan! *waving* 😉

    Thanks for what you said.

    Sarah, I enjoyed Haidt as well. When I saw “Dumbfuckistan” and Jesusland, I was prepared for a tirade against conservatives and how incredibly stupid and heartless we are, but was pleasantly surprised by his fairness. I’m glad you shared the link with us. I really enjoyed it.

    • Sarah says:

      You are so funny! I should introduce you properly… I met Julian recently through the Unitarians. Julian, Susanne and I met on my old blog… probably about a year ago I guess? Time flies! We have struck up a friendship that transcends our very differing religious views.

      I know, I thought at that point in the video that it was going to be a tirade against conservatives, but I wouldn’t have shared it if it was ;o)

  5. Sarah says:

    From “The Trouble With Physics” by Lee Smolin:

    “There seem to be two conflicting views of science. One is science as the domain of the rebel, the individual who comes up with grand new ideas and works hard over a lifetime to prove them true. … Then there is the view of science as a conservative, consensual community that tolerates little deviation from orthodox thinking and channels creative energy into furthering well-defined research programs.

    In some sense, both views are true. Science requires both the rebel and the conservative. … The trick seems to be to bring the rebel and conservative into lifelong and uncomfortable proximity, within the community and, to some extent, within each individual as well.”

    I thought it was neat that the same sort of balance between the two approaches is also needed in science. 🙂

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