Is Religion Inherently Authoritarian?
Compared to secular reasoning, the religious establishment has been slow to act when it comes to moral progress.
Human history is a story of gradual moral enlightenment. Over the ages, we’ve become less violent, less xenophobic, more tolerant, more committed to the ideals of democracy and equality under the law. Of course, moral progress is painfully slow, with many holdouts and local reversals, and we have a very long way left to go. But it’s hard to deny that the world we live in today is less prejudiced and more peaceful than the world 500 years ago, or even just 100.
Religion is a noteworthy exception to this trend of progress. Secular moral reasoning, founded on considerations of fairness and human good, allows for continual self-questioning and improvement as less-privileged groups speak out to demand justice and call our attention to evils that we’d been overlooking. In sharp contrast to this, the immutable doctrines of religion are supposed to be elevated above skepticism. Even if we know more or see farther than the clerics who once came up with them, many religious authorities tell us we should submit our wills and believe without questioning.
The result is that, in most cases, moral progress has left the churches behind. Like the tide going out and leaving once-submerged rocks high and dry on the shore, the archaic doctrines of conservative religion are increasingly isolated and exposed as the immoral and vicious absurdities they are. This has led to more conflict and dissension within the ranks, as believers who grew up in the modern era see the contradictions between what they’re taught and know to be right, and inevitably come into conflict with religious authorities who are determined to enforce the old rules at any cost.
A case in point is the Mormon church’s excommunication of Kate Kelly, a lawyer and human-rights activist who founded a movement called Ordain Women. Kelly’s crime was calling for the all-male priesthood of the Mormon church to be opened to people of all genders, and doing so loudly and publicly enough to embarrass the church leaders. (Although the LDS church calls it a “priesthood,” it’s not a clerical or ministerial position; it’s a rite of initiation, like a Jewish bar mitzvah or a Catholic confirmation.)
Kelly wasn’t a firebrand atheist. She considers herself a faithful Mormon; she was married in the Salt Lake City Temple and went on an overseas mission trip as Mormonism requires. Yet she refused several orders to take her website down and stop speaking out, and just before her excommunication, she was defiant:
“I am not an apostate, unless every single person who has questions to ask out loud is an apostate,” Ms. Kelly said in a telephone interview on Sunday , just before her disciplinary council met.
While she may have meant this comment as a reductio ad absurdum, I think it hits closer to the truth than she realizes. Almost every religion, throughout the ages, has looked unfavorably on people who have inconvenient questions and who insist on asking them out loud. What Kelly has yet to grasp is that religion is a fundamentally conservative force (unlike, say, science, where those who overturn conventional wisdom are rewarded). To claim that the tenets of some existing religion are wrong is to implicitly claim that you understand the will of God better than the authorities of that religion. Naturally, the people who’ve gained status and power within the existing strictures of the church will always look with extreme disfavor on this.
It’s for this reason that religion is not only fundamentally conservative, but anti-democratic. Aside from a few rare exceptions, religion claims that God’s will is delivered through special revelation: it was given to certain people, at certain times and places, and not others. If that were true—if there were people in possession of special, important truths that no one else could ever discover—then it would be the case that those people would be uniquely qualified to tell the rest of us how to live.
But that expectation bumps up against the modern world, where divine-right monarchy is a discredited theory and democracy is a nearly universal idea (so much so that even rulers of autocratic states often feel the need to hold sham elections). The clash between these principles is most visible in the religious people who believe their leaders have a specially privileged understanding of God, but who also apparently believe the doctrines of their church should be put to a vote. The lay Mormons petitioning on Kate Kelly’s behalf are an excellent example:
More than a thousand Mormons sent letters of support for Ms. Kelly to the bishop and two of his counselors considering her case in Oakton, Va. Hundreds turned out for a vigil in Salt Lake City while the hearing was underway, and smaller groups of supporters gathered at 50 sites in 17 countries, according to Ordain Women.
Mormonism isn’t the only authoritarian religion whose members incorrectly believe they’re participating in a democracy rather than an oligarchy. Roman Catholicism has the same affliction: for example, when Pope Francis was being selected, the author Anne Rice and others asked Catholics to tell the Vatican what they wanted to see in a new pope, as if such feedback would be welcomed or even acknowledged.
The sharp divide between lay Catholics and hierarchy is perhaps best illustrated by the issue of women as priests. As recently as 2013, 70% of Catholics believe women should be allowed to be ordained even though Pope John Paul II announced that the exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood was an infallible article of dogma and could never be changed. Kindly, progressive Pope Francis has said the same, stating that the “church has spoken and says no… that door is closed” with regard to women’s ordination.
It happens in Judaism as well, even though that religion has no single central authority. In Israel, Jewish women fought for years for the right to pray at the Western Wall, braving routine threats, abuse and harassment by ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews who believe the holy site should only be open to men. Finally, the reformers won a ruling in Israel’s courts, opening up a designated prayer section at the wall for women. The ultra-Orthodox responded by ordering their own wives and daughters to show up en masse and pack the women’s section, so that the women who actually want to pray there and who fought for the right to do so couldn’t get in.
Granted, there are some cases where churches have joined the modern world without being forced to. For example, the Presbyterian church now allows its ministers to perform same-sex weddings, joining some other mainline Protestant denominations that have already taken this step. But this is the exception that proves the rule, since most of the tolerant and progressive mainline churches are in the midst of a demographic plummet. (The more conservative and evangelical denominations are also shrinking, just not quite as quickly.)
And on the rare occasions that churches recognize their past errors, they steadfastly refuse to draw any general lessons from the fact. Earlier this year, the Mormon church formally repudiated the racism of its past rules which barred black men from the priesthood until 1978. This would be a laudable step, except that the church is determined to learn absolutely nothing from it. In its ongoing fight against women in the priesthood, not to mention its fervent and continued opposition to same-sex marriage, it is falling into the same mistake all over again, refusing to recognize that its leadership is fallible, and that any rule treating human beings unequally is morally wrong. This will no doubt be viewed as another stain on the Mormon church’s record, just as its history of racism now is.
Ethically speaking, there’s no doubt that reformers like Kate Kelly and the Women of the Wall have their hearts in the right place, but it’s legitimate to question their strategy. As the ex-nun Mary Johnson has said, at some point you have to ask yourself where your energies are best spent.
Is it worth the effort trying to change religion from within, beating your head against the metaphorical brick wall of a church that’s run by an oligarchy of old conservative men who choose their own successors and who are determined never to change anything? Or does it make more sense to leave that frozen and fossilized cathedral, to renounce religion and step out into the wild garden of the wider world, where anyone can speak their mind and no one can cite the will of God as a trump card?
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