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Religious Authority

The Enlightenment ideal for humanity is autonomy — literally obeying no law that we do not lay down for ourselves.  An alternative model of human flourishing is that it consists in responding to authority.

Joseph Raz makes the point that A has authority for B if and only if when A asserts “You should do p” that gives B a defeasible reason to do p.  So for example if I’m a father and I’m responsible to my child and the child say “You should feed me” that gives me a reason to feed the child.  It’s a defeasible reason — I may know that the child doesn’t need the food, or I may have conflicting responsibilities, but it must enter into my decision-making.  I owe the child a response.

Religious authority is authority that gives us a reason for global decisions about what is important in our lives, matters which transcend prudential calculation.

The ultimate source of religious authority is revelation.

Revelation traditionally is believed to take two forms: natural and historical.

The primary source of natural revelation is our body.  Our body gives us reasons to breathe, to reproduce, to eat, and to avoid dangers.  So for example if we have a baby and we lactate our body provides us with a reason to feed the baby with our milk.  The baby is a natural revelation — it’s mere natural existence gives us a (defeasible) reason to feed it and care for it.  Sickness is another example — a broken leg provides us with a reason to put less weight on the leg.  In both cases the authority of the baby or the leg demands not obedience but response.  Put another way, faced with the baby or with the leg we have two choices: obedience or rebellion.  We cannot act as if there has been no revelation.

Revealed religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — claim that historical events can have the same logic.  So if we exist in a history which says that God commanded our ancestors not to steal we have a defeasible reason not to steal.  We can obey this authority or rebel against it, but we cannot exist in the same conceptual space as we did pre-revelation.

There may be other sources of revelation that don’t fit easily in either category.  Perhaps belonging to an extended family is a form of revelation.   I might think that being a descendant of a particularly brave man or woman has revealed a certain sort of life as a possibility for me, and I can either aspire to it or shrink from it.

Perhaps art can play a similar role.

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2 thoughts on “Religious Authority

  1. Mikey says:

    This is an interesting idea. How does this affect the source of authority? How should a child react to this knowledge – that when he demands food he is demanding a response of rebellion or obedience? How do you react to it as a blog writer?

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