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Nov 12 2013

Guest post by Iain Walker

Originally a comment on Why the Catholic church is an intrinsically immoral institution.

Minow (#22):

No it isn’t, it could reform to be less or more authoritarian, as the Anglican church did.

There are two issues here regarding the authoritarianism of the Church. Firstly, there’s one of authoritarianism in practice – the fact that it is a hierarchical organisation which emphasises obediance to the teachings promulgated from the top, and which traditionally has had a low tolerance of dissent from those teachings. This might be capable of reform, although I’m not holding my breath. There’s an awful lot of institutional and doctrinal inertia to be overcome, and any reform is (at least initially) going to have to be top-down. And I’m far from convinced that Senor Bergoglio has the moral imagination for the kind of radical transformation required – he’s at best a moderate conservative with a very selective view of what needs fixing, not a serious, root-and-branch reformer.

Secondly, there’s the issue of authoritarianism in principle. Theism itself is inherently authoritarian, in that it teaches that human fulfilment must be based on the adoption of a subservient attitude towards an unaccountable authority. Some theists (the Quakers spring to mind) manage to erect a kind of egalitarian firewall between this core principle and their day-to-day values and teachings, but it still remains the case that the tendency even in the more egalitarian sects is to teach that it is up to the individual to determine what God wants him/her to do. I.e., for all their talk of “conscience”, the underlying belief-system remains a deeply authoritarian one.

The Catholic Church is an organisation that is built on this kind of thinking. There may be Protestant sects that emphasise the submission to divine power rather more explicitly and with rather more frothing at the mouth, but the Church has constructed itself on the basis of a self-image in which it is a necessary part of the divine hierarchy. Its structure and doctrines are highly dependent on metaphysical assumptions about power, authority and submission, with God at the top, the Church in the middle, and the punters in the pews at the bottom. In other words, the authoritarianism of the Church isn’t just a matter of institutional organisation – it’s an integral part of the very mindset that gives it its raison d’etre. And while the former might possibly be reformable whilst still retaining the substance of Catholicism, the latter … not so much.

In fact, I think human rights is really a religious idea, it comes from Christianity.

There’s an element of truth in this, but only a very small one. The idea of natural law as developed by medieval Christian theologians is often seen as being influential on the later development of the idea of human rights, but the main work was done by secular thinkers like Locke, Spinoza, Rousseau, Paine, Godwin, J.S. Mill and others, some of whom were Christians and some of whom weren’t.

More to the point, the influence of Christianity is at best a contingent fact of history rather than a necessary requirement. The concept of universal human rights is a secular one in that it does not presuppose any religious assumptions, and can be derived without reference to any religious ideas – all you need to do is recognise reciprocation as the foundation of human moral behaviour and be willing to universalise consistently. Just as the Golden Rule crops up independently in many different cultures, human rights is not dependent on any one historical belief system.

 

29 comments

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  1. 1
    screechymonkey

    If the RCC can’t be intrinsically authoritarian because “it could change,” then isn’t Minow saying that there is no such thing as an intrinsically authoritarian institution?

  2. 2
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    I suppose it’s sort of worth mentioning that when there was an attempt to reduce that authoritarian hierarchy by maybe letting people interpret things themselves and not rely solely on priests and bishops and the Pope, the RCC didn’t so much go for it. I mean, the Reformation was a thing. (Yes, there were many other factors, but that’s a part of it.) The authoritarian structure is baked in. It’s the whole point.

    But then, the person who thinks otherwise who we’re all responding to is a massively historically illiterate minimizer of child rape, so.

  3. 3
    Dan L.

    screechymonkey@1:

    That was my reaction to Minow’s argument as well.

  4. 4
    SallyStrange

    I have a hard time seeing how a reformed Catholic church that was recognizably not-evil would still be recognizable as the Catholic church.

  5. 5
    Claire Ramsey

    The part I like best is where you say that the idea of human rights has stronger secular roots than religious roots. Well said.

  6. 6
    mudpuddles
    In fact, I think human rights is really a religious idea, it comes from Christianity.

    There’s an element of truth in this, but only a very small one.

    No, that’s incorrect. There are many examples of innate or natural rights of persons being recognised independent (in whole or in part) of Christian influence. For example, ancient Roman concepts of ius naturale and its antecedent ius gentium recognised fundamental rights of all persons, and predated Christianity by several centuries. These influenced customary laws in much of the world for centuries right up to the Magna Carta, which was not a religious document but in fact codified concepts that themselves were in conflict with Christian teaching and caused tension with the Church of England and the Papacy (e.g it held idea that the Church of England’s rights were inviolable, including the right of conviction for heresy without trial, whilst in contradiction also holding that the population had a right to due process). Furthermore, many indigenous peoples that remain uninfluenced by Christianity have long held their own concepts of innate rights, whilst others had their own notions of innate rights before exposure to more recent Christian teaching; for example we know much about concepts of innate rights held by native Americans prior to colonisation.

    Also, what about other religions? Are we to believe that they never had any notions of human rights until Christianity gave it to them? That’s about as backward a view of non-Christian thought as I can imagine. On the contrary, ancient Hinduism and Islam had clear concepts of rights, whilst ancient Buddhism, though it had no fomalised protections, had clear ethical concepts which are still relevant today . Many of us today would feel that aspects of current Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic thought on human rights are fundamentally ass-ways, particularly with regard to the rights of women. And we might agree that much of Western thought on human rights, which has been a foundation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, has been influenced by some Christian scholars. But to say that the concept of human rights comes from Christianity (even in part) is to ignore history and a vast amount of cultural evidence to the contrary.

  7. 7
    Iain Walker

    mudpuddles (#6):

    You seem to be presenting your (very well put) comments as a disagreement, but for the most part you’re actually just expanding on the points I was making. The “very small” “element of truth” I was referring to was no more than the point that historically, Christian theologians had some input to the concept of human rights as it evolved in the West – a contingent fact that totally fails to support Minow’s attempt to claim the idea as a Christian one. The modern secular notion of universal human rights could have emerged from any number of cultural contexts (and as you point out, precursors and parallel notions have). As it was, in the West, Christian thinkers did have a pass at the script that they inherited from Classical thinkers, and the secular thinkers of the Enlightenment inherited it from them in turn. Acknowledging this is not the same as saying that they deserve a full-blown script-writing credit.

    I’m also a little cautious about reading ancient codes and ideas through the lens of modern human rights thinking – there’s a risk of exaggerating the similarities while neglecting the original context – but other than a few points of emphasis, I don’t particularly disagree with what you say.

  8. 8
    Iain Walker

    Oh, and Ophelia, thanks for considering this to be worth reposting.

  9. 9
    Minow

    but it still remains the case that the tendency even in the more egalitarian sects is to teach that it is up to the individual to determine what God wants him/her to do. I.e., for all their talk of “conscience”, the underlying belief-system remains a deeply authoritarian one.

    I think this is a bit silly. In the religious practices being described the individual attempts to work out what is the right thing to do based on the moral teachings of the church. Yes, he or she believes that god wants them to do the right thing, but that is not ‘authoritarian’ in the sense that is it generally used. The ‘authority’ in question (god) is not present. It is ‘authoritarian’ only in the sense that following ones own conscience would be authoritarian . The sttrainto insist that even practices that are manifestly non-authoritarian fit the description is telling I think.

  10. 10
    Minow

    For example, ancient Roman concepts of ius naturale and its antecedent ius gentium recognised fundamental rights of all persons

    No, these concepts were legal, they did not refer to rights in the sense of ‘human rights’ at all. And to suuggest to a Roman that all people were fundamentally equal would have been absurd. Equal in which sense? Strength? Intelligence? Wealth? Beauty? Freedom? Power? What? Well, what is it? What is the invisible property that we all partake of that makes us in the most fundamental some sense all the same? What is this ‘humanity’ in which we are all equals and which defines our rights? The religious have an answer thhat the godless can’t claim without a duck into Platonism.

  11. 11
    deepak shetty

    Theism itself is inherently authoritarian,
    huh? A belief that God takes an interest in human affairs in inherently authoritarian? Definitely not in practice. Many Many theists believe in doing what they believe is right and letting God handle everything that is not in their power. Theism does not imply strict obedience to any dogma.

    The Catholic Church is an organisation that is built on this kind of thinking.
    There are (atleast) two ways this can go. The Church continues behaving as it has in which case I expect it to become irrelevant after a few more centuries. Or it starts reflecting the beliefs of the majority of its adherents (pro gay marriage, pro contraception , and hopefully in a few years pro women(but that needs more parts of the society to change)). I do not believe that the latter is so impossible that we must go around claiming that, intrinsically, the church is immoral. Is it so hard to imagine that the pope could be elected by popular vote or that the rules may be relaxed to allow women popes? or that any teaching of the Church cant be changed – Surely this has been demonstrated many times?

  12. 12
    deepak shetty

    Equal in which sense? Strength? Intelligence? Wealth? Beauty? Freedom? Power? What? Well, what is it? What is the invisible property that we all partake of that makes us in the most fundamental some sense all the same? What is this ‘humanity’ in which we are all equals and which defines our rights? The religious have an answer
    Cool – now we only have to find a few major religions that say Atheists are equal to the believers or women are equal to men (not different but equal crap).

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    Iain, well thank you for writing it.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    Minow @ 9

    I think this is a bit silly. In the religious practices being described the individual attempts to work out what is the right thing to do based on the moral teachings of the church. Yes, he or she believes that god wants them to do the right thing, but that is not ‘authoritarian’ in the sense that is it generally used.

    Does it not occur to you that I’m trying to point out and dispute what I take to be blind spots in the conventional wisdom? You seem to have an unerring instinct for saying “no no no what you said is not the conventional wisdom, the conventional wisdom is right, because it’s the conventional wisdom.”

    And claiming that “based on the moral teachings of the church” is not authoritarian is…laughable.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    Deepak @ 11 – yes. Theism is more than just a belief that God takes an interest in human affairs.

  16. 16
    deepak shetty

    @Ophelia
    what definition of theism are you using?

  17. 17
    Minow

    And claiming that “based on the moral teachings of the church” is not authoritarian is…laughable.

    It isn’t unless you hold that following any moral teachings is intrinsically authoritarian, which you surely can’t be because that would mean that all morality is authoritarian (which is the mistake I think the comment at the top makes: if there is an ‘ought’ it is authority therefore authoritarian, the only liberty is a complete absence of value).

  18. 18
    Minow

    You seem to have an unerring instinct for saying “no no no what you said is not the conventional wisdom, the conventional wisdom is right, because it’s the conventional wisdom.”

    This is baffling because I don’t think I have mentioned conventional wisdom or defended it at all. In fact I have been disputing the conventionalities being paraded on some of the comment threads here.

  19. 19
    Iain Walker

    Minow (#9):

    It is ‘authoritarian’ only in the sense that following ones own conscience would be authoritarian. The sttrainto insist that even practices that are manifestly non-authoritarian fit the description is telling I think.

    I made it clear (in the part of the post that you rather noticeably didn’t quote), what I meant by “authoritarian in principle” – the very idea that human fulfilment must be based on the adoption of a subservient attitude towards an unaccountable authority. That is an authoritarian attitude, even though it does not always translate into authoritarian practice. Ergo, no strain is involved.

    (#10):

    What is the invisible property that we all partake of that makes us in the most fundamental some sense all the same? What is this ‘humanity’ in which we are all equals and which defines our rights? The religious have an answer thhat the godless can’t claim without a duck into Platonism.

    The fact that we are self-aware social agents, which in turn is a consequence of shared membership of a particular species which just happens to have evolved those traits. Rights are just a way of codifying rules that maximise the individual flourishing of such agents in the course of their interactions. Or you could think of rights as rules for putting the Golden Rule or some similar principle of reciprocity into practice, and if you want that grounded in turn, well, game theory suggests that reciprocity is a stable strategy for social interactions. So I have no idea why you think non-theists would need to resort to Platonism (especially since I likewise have no idea what possible coherent answers Platonism might provide).

    And frankly, the religious (or at least theistic) answer, which basically boils down to those rights being granted from on high – is an example of the kind of authoritarian, top-down thinking that I was talking about. It’s also a rather unhelpful answer, since it make those rights fundamentally arbitrary – why this set of rights rather than some other possible set? I’ve seen it argued that we have the rights we do because God has created us a certain way, but if you go down that road you risk ending up with the position that we have the rights we do because we are a certain way, whether any gods created us that way or not.

    So I’ll throw the question back at you: How does God make the notion of universal human rights any more intelligible or any more grounded than a secular account? Because I don’t see that it does.

  20. 20
    Ophelia Benson

    Deepak – I’m using the definition of theism in which the god wants humans to follow certain (God-given) rules and in which humans reliably know both what the rules are and that the god wants humans to follow them.

    What one might call normal theism, in other words. It covers, for instance, liberal versions in which the rules just boil down to “be good”.

  21. 21
    Ophelia Benson

    minnow @ 17 – the “moral teachings” of the church are authoritarian because they start with the command. That’s what “authoritarian” is.

    One doesn’t, for instance, talk about “the teachings” of Mill or Kant or Moore or Singer.

  22. 22
    deepak shetty

    @Ophelia
    A Hindu might well say that per the Gita itself if one needs to go against God for something that they believe is their Dharama then that is what they must do. Your karma is in your hands and you can let the Gods evaluate you later.
    A Buddhist too could make that claim (and the buddha says that too)- Theism as you define may be common or normal but some theists I see do not follow the definition you have.
    Even the humans reliably know what Gods think is not necessarily a theist view – one of the Hindu vedas does have a verse which goes something like Only the God who created knows or perhaps even he doesnt know (referring to creation). There are few theists who I personally know that do not subscribe to the view that they know whatever God wants reliably so I would not accept your definition as inherent or intrinsic to theism.

  23. 23
    Iain Walker

    deepak shetty (#11):

    A belief that God takes an interest in human affairs in inherently authoritarian?

    Um, I explained the aspect of theism that inherently authoritarian – right after the phrase you quoted.

    Now, I’ll grant you that “belief in a deity that takes an interest in human affairs” serves as a minimal definition of theism (and in many areas of philosophy of religion, a perfectly useful one). However, “theists” who believe this and no more are rare fish indeed. I’ve no doubt that there may be some individuals who believe a God exists who is interested in humanity, but who do not consider said God to be a moral authority or a power to be worshiped or placated, and who live their lives by their own lights without caring what this deity thinks of them. But theism as a family of ideologies is far more than this bare-bones hypothesis, and what they do have in common is this notion of submission to a higher authority – whether as judge, moral authority or object of worship – as the precondition to human fulfillment.

    Is it so hard to imagine that the pope could be elected by popular vote or that the rules may be relaxed to allow women popes? or that any teaching of the Church cant be changed – Surely this has been demonstrated many times?

    Hard but maybe not impossible. The problem is that more than most Christian sects, the Catholic Church represents itself as an integral part of a metaphysical hierarchy, which adds an extra and rather formidable layer of ideological inertia for true reform to overcome. Also, bear in mind that changes to Church doctrine can be regressive as well as progressive. Pius IX, anyone?

  24. 24
    Ophelia Benson

    deepak – well yes, I’m talking about The Big Monotheisms I suppose.

  25. 25
    Iain Walker

    Minow (#17):

    that would mean that all morality is authoritarian (which is the mistake I think the comment at the top makes: if there is an ‘ought’ it is authority therefore authoritarian, the only liberty is a complete absence of value).

    Not at all. “Ought” can act as a persuader or a reminder of shared values between equals. The question is rather of where the “ought” comes from – is it promulgated from the top down or does it emerge from the interactions of members of a moral community? The former is authoritarian, the latter is not.

  26. 26
    deepak shetty

    @Iain
    right after the phrase you quoted.
    I did see it and did respond that you are dealing with flavors of theism instead of an in principle argument that the 2nd point of your post deals with.
    is to teach that it is up to the individual to determine what God wants him/her to do.
    And again that some theisms do not have this

    However, “theists” who believe this and no more are rare fish indeed.
    Are you switching from an in principle argument to an in practice one? Explicitly there are many people who say there are things they would not do so even if God told them to – see for e.g. Desmond Tutu right here http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2013/07/all-right-then-ill-go-to-hell/ – they probably don’t believe God will so command them but thats beside the point and he’ll probably tell you he learnt this from reading Jesus’s views.

    Also, bear in mind that changes to Church doctrine can be regressive as well as progressive. Pius IX, anyone?
    Just to be clear the RCC has , is and will probably remain for the foreseeable future an authoritarian,immoral,corrupt evil institution :). i only argue about intrinsic.

    @Ophelia
    I would agree for those 3 as inherently authoritarian – though Christianity is a lot more fragmented and isnt quite clear and contradictory in parts on this.

  27. 27
    Silentbob

    @ 26 deepak shetty

    Explicitly there are many people who say there are things they would not do so even if God told them to – see for e.g. Desmond Tutu [... ] he’ll probably tell you he learnt this from reading Jesus’s views.

    Nah, not Jesus. Jesus was a God first, people later, kinda guy.

    Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
    (Matthew 22:35-40)

    But he might have picked it up from Moses! Moses had a nasty habit of teaching morality to God.

    And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation. And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.
    And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
    (Exodus 32:9-14)

    :-)

  28. 28
    Minow

    the very idea that human fulfilment must be based on the adoption of a subservient attitude towards an unaccountable authority. That is an authoritarian attitude, even though it does not always translate into authoritarian practice. Ergo, no strain is involved.”

    Ian, that is authoritarian by definition, but it is a parody of most religious belief and practice, and so it does not convince me that the catholic Church is intrinsically authoritarian. Of course some religious practice may take that form, but it needn’t and generally doesn’t, as you seem to acknowledge. Religious people are not generally encouraged to attempt to approach their god because god is simply bigger and stronger than any other thing, but because god is good and good is good for you. That you have a choice in the matter, that you are free not to accept what is good for you (according to the belief system) is kind of the point.

    Rights are just a way of codifying rules that maximise the individual flourishing of such agents in the course of their interactions.

    No, the principle of human rights is more than this as Bentham recognised. Legal rights might be coded in order to maximise flourishing of individuals, or (more realistically) certain groups of individuals, but the idea of human rights is more than that. Even if being a slave maximised my flourishing, we believe that the principle of human rights should not allow me that choice. We should not kill people even if it maximised human happiness, as it often would.

    Or you could think of rights as rules for putting the Golden Rule or some similar principle of reciprocity into practice”and if you want that grounded in turn, well, game theory suggests that reciprocity is a stable strategy for social interactions.

    Again, this is the legal concept of rights as a utilitarian strategy. But human rights is not simply that.

    So I have no idea why you think non-theists would need to resort to Platonism (especially since I likewise have no idea what possible coherent answers Platonism might provide).

    We need some similar idea to explain the peculiar idea of moral equality, not legal rights. To explain what we mean when we say all people are equal in a fundamental sense. On the face of it, human equality is nonsense. Because we all emerge from monotheistic social traditions, this idea seems easy and obvious, we are blinded to the strangeness of it, but it made no sense whatsoever to pre-Christian (especially) societies. Why should not a brave, strong man have the use of less brave, weaker, people?

    And frankly, the religious (or at least theistic) answer, which basically boils down to those rights being granted from on high

    No, it isn’t, it is the idea that kings and slaves are all basically the same moral stuff, the most important stuff that lies underneath the material. To outrage the dignity of a king and a slave is the same thing (before go, not the courts). They share something fundamental, they are brothers and sisters despite the illusions of material difference and social status, you can call it soul. Materialists can only say: we prefer to consider all people equal because that idea is, currently, to our advantage. This idea has been a powerful one in challenging the authority of the state.

  29. 29
    Minow

    minnow @ 17 – the “moral teachings” of the church are authoritarian because they start with the command. That’s what “authoritarian” is.One doesn’t, for instance, talk about “the teachings” of Mill or Kant or Moore or Singer.

    They can be, but they needn’t be. That is the whole of my disagreement. I am not saying the RC church cannot be authoritarian, or is not authoritarian, just that it is not intrinsically authoritarian. We don’t talk about the teachings of Hume, or Mill or Nietzsche, but we could, it would mean the same thing, and we have all met disciples of Peter Singer among many others.

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