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How Religion's Demand for Obedience Keeps Us in the Dark Ages

The most fervent advocates of religion in the modern world are also the most deeply inculcated with the mindset of command and obedience, which has dangerous consequences.

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Another influential Christian writer and one of the intellectual fathers of the modern religious right, Francis Schaeffer, put the same thought -- the same demand for mental slavery -- in even blunter terms

I am false or confused if I sing about Christ's Lordship and contrive to retain areas of my own life that are autonomous. This is true if it is my sexual life that is autonomous, but it is at least equally true if it is my intellectual life that is autonomous -- or even my intellectual life in a highly selective area. Any autonomy is wrong. 

Just to prove that none of these are flukes, here's one more quote, this time from Christian evangelical pastor Ray Stedman, excerpted from his sermon titled " Bringing Thoughts Into Captivity": 

I have noticed through the years that the intellectual life is often the last part of a Christian to be yielded to the right of Jesus Christ to rule. Somehow we love to retain some area of our intellect, of our thought-life, reserved from the control of Jesus Christ. For instance, we reserve the right to judge Scripture, as to what we will or will not agree with, what we will or will not accept... [Disagreeing with any part of the Bible] represents a struggle with the Lordship of Christ; his right to rule over every area of life, his right to control the thought-life, every thought taken captive to obey him.

Nor is the demand for mindless obedience confined to Christianity. Here's how one Jewish rabbi explained the rationale for the kosher dietary laws, recounted in Richard Dawkins' essay " Viruses of the Mind":

That most of the Kashrut laws are divine ordinances without reason given is 100 percent the point. It is very easy not to murder people. Very easy. It is a little bit harder not to steal because one is tempted occasionally. So that is no great proof that I believe in God or am fulfilling His will. But, if He tells me not to have a cup of coffee with milk in it with my mincemeat and peas at lunchtime, that is a test. The only reason I am doing that is because I have been told to so do. It is something difficult.

In other words, the kosher laws have no reason or justification, and that's a good thing, because they teach people the habit of unquestioning obedience, which should be encouraged. This uncannily resembles a piece of parenting advice from Stephen Colbert, who satirically wrote that "Arbitrary rules teach kids discipline: If every rule made sense, they wouldn't be learning respect for authority, they'd be learning logic." Religious authorities like this rabbi are making the exact same argument in all seriousness! And then, of course, there's Islam, whose very name is Arabic for "submission."

The social scientist Jonathan Haidt has identified what he calls the five foundations of morality: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Surveys from all over the world find that self-identified conservatives put far more emphasis on the last three, two of which are fundamental to a worldview based on obedience and submission. The implied similarity between conservatism and fundamentalist religion is too obvious to ignore, particularly in America, where the conservative political party is dominated by an especially regressive and belligerent strain of evangelical Christianity.

And like political conservatism in general, many religious rules are actively destructive to human liberty and happiness. Christian church leaders claim we should prohibit same-sex marriage and abortion and restrict access to birth control; ultra-Orthodox Jewish zealots want to erase women from public life; Islamic theocracies want to make it illegal to criticize or dissent from their beliefs. If moral commands could only be backed up by appeals to reason or human good, these unfounded and harmful laws would vanish overnight. Instead, the people who make these rules and want us to obey them claim that they're messengers of the will of God, and thus no further justification is needed. It bears emphasizing that this is the exact same argument made by ancient monarchs and tyrants, all of whom used this idea to justify atrocious cruelty.

 
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