Religious/Spiritual Authority and Science

In a discussion group of “spiritual leaders” (in which I think I’m the token scientist), the question of religious and spiritual authority has recently been raised, and I warned that:

“… it’s useful to realize authority is an exceptionally powerful, and therefore dangerous “drug,” which people can get addicted to and crave more and more of…..”

One of the discussion participants, a minister who, in my opinion, is doggedly wedded to seeing Christianity as the superior religion in this world and so give it ultimate authority, replied that yes, in negative terms authority can be dangerous, but felt that I hadn’t addressed the real question, namely that people can’t exist without authority to organize and control them, so the big question is really who and what that authority is?  He was correct that I wasn’t addressing the big question, so here’s some further (but hardly complete) thoughts of mine on that.

Yes, we agree that authority is a powerful “drug,” and individuals who have it tend to want more of it, tend to get addicted to it, and to abuse it.  The same considerations apply to institutions.  Any institution, such as a church, gets used to having authority, wants more of it, and tends to get addicted to it.  I’m not a historian of Christianity, but I would bet there are innumerable instances where the actions of the church had a lot more to do with preserving the authority and privilege of the church and the priests than of spreading the teachings of Christ.

So the question is, indeed, who and what authority is, as we do seem to need a certain amount of it in ordinary life.  I don’t want to have to work out everything for myself.  On a simple level, if I need some plumbing work done, I can generally (but not always) assume that if I have a plumber licensed by the state come over to repair something, the job will be adequately done.  Similarly for licensed physicians.  Although of course there are fake plumbers and physicians, and rogues who are plumbers and physicians.

The broad question you have asked is way too complex to answer in a reasonable size post, but I will say at least part of the answer to making progress in the use of authority is pointed at by the way authority is given to people in properly done science.  In science, what is actually observable, the data, the facts are always the final arbiter of what’s the best understanding of truth that we have at the time.  Any current understanding is also subject to change or rejection if new facts are observed that can’t be handled by the current understanding.  If a Nobel Prize winner comes to a university and gives a colloquium, (s)he comes in with great authority, but if the lowliest graduate student in the department gets up and shows that there is a mistake in her/his calculations or reasoning, they don’t really fit the facts, the graduate student is right, not the Nobel laureate.

On the human level many scientists are much too submissive to authority, of course, and don’t even think to question it, but, in principle, we’re all trained to always come back to the observations of the facts, and not rely too much on authority.

What comparable “fact-checking,” or “explanation-checking” mechanism is there in organized religion?  Or in any spiritual path?

In my upbringing as a Lutheran, e.g., I can’t recall any instance in which I was told that it was all right, much less urged, to question what the minister said, to try to reason with him, to argue with him if I thought he wasn’t right.  To be good in the eyes of God was to simply believe what religious authorities, like my church’s minister, said was The Truth.

Personally, I like to believe that we were indeed created in the image of God, and that means we have intelligence like (S)He presumably does.  And we’re supposed to use that intelligence, otherwise why would we be given it?  Will there ever be a religion or spiritual path where we can respect accumulated authority but feel at liberty to question it, to try to refine its teachings, and perhaps to recognize mistakes in its teachings, even though they are now considered authoritative by reason of long acceptance in history?

Please note that I’m not making any extreme statements here that only science, especially materialistic science, can give us better truths about anything, but I am saying that this basic scientific method, that facts always trump beliefs and authority, has worked extremely well in many areas of life, and I think it could be applied to refine religion and spirituality to a very high degree, even if it wouldn’t apply to some aspects of spirituality.  And I don’t think it will be easy, but we very much need to try…..


  1. Dr. Tart, I just want you to know that I look forward to and read your blog posts. I am one of those “seekers” who is thrilled with the way current inquiry is bringing science and spirituality together. So I am an avid reader of your work, and reading your musings helps me in sorting out my own in this adventure of LIFE. So thank you.

  2. Dr. Tart I have only recently found you. After a wonderful upbringing with freedoms to explore/learn about various religions/spirituality, Christianity, buddhism, learn about astrology..numerology etc. I then chose a career with the what some would suggest has the most discipline, the Military. I think I was I attracted to the structure, and what I thought would be ‘stability’ in a sense. Definately a lazy & naive choice. At the time I was hardly locally aware of political/government events, let alone globally. However, after leaving I have since learned it did give provide me with a similar understanding to what your philosophy is based – that science & spirituality can meet quite nicely! There is structure all around, whether it be schools,churches/spiritual leaders with followers, we have generally followed this format with fear of anarchy – Lord of the Flies. However, I believe we are in that transition where there is a movement towards people sharing knowledge without fear, without as much competition, without yearning for the ‘gold star’, but for simply passing on the information/knowledge. No structure needed. When it is for the ‘good of all people’. With access to the internet, improved modes of transport.. we can continue share information readily. On a side note – Can you/someone please provide me a contact email address (for Dr. Tart). As the contact form is not working for me.

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