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Authority in Religion, Law and Science

Pope Benedict XVI, Chief Justice Renato Corona and Albert Einstein

In debates and discussions contenders often cite authority to support their assertions. In some cases citing authority is the strongest strategy while in others it is the weakest.

The German sociologist Max Weber identified three types of legitimate authority:

In law, or more particularly in the interpretation of the law, final authority is clearly vested in the Supreme Court, so whatever the Supreme Court says about how a certain law should be interpreted, that’s the way it should be interpreted. The authority of the Supreme Court is an example of rational-legal authority, hence, citing jurisprudence is very effective in legal arguments.

In religion, it gets a little tricky. If the debaters are from different religions, they will be citing different authorities (holy books, popes, pastors, prophets) that often contradict one another. But even if they belong to one religion, say, Christianity, authority may not be as clear cut as it’s supposed to be.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Church’s authority was originally derived from Jesus’ alleged charismatic authority which overcame the Pharisees’ traditional authority at the time – at least among his disciples, who later on “routinized” Jesus’ charismatic authority into the traditional authority of the Church. But centuries later a ranking member breaks away to wield his own charismatic authority, and the cycle continues. So now the question is, who is the final authority in Christianity – meaning who gets to say what Jesus supposedly meant to say (in the same degree as the Supreme Court gets the final say as to what the framers of the constitution meant to say)?

Weber’s three types of legitimate authority have been exercised by the State (rational-legal) and the Church (traditional and charismatic), so what is left for science? Nothing. When someone cites “scientific authority”, such authority can be quickly refuted by presenting new evidence or by performing the same controlled experiments and coming up with different results.

The philosopher and lawyer Morris Raphael Cohen wrote in Reason and Nature:

To be sure, the vast majority of people who are untrained can accept the results of science only on authority. But there is obviously an important difference between an establishment that is open and invites every one to come, study its methods, and suggest improvement, and one that regards the questioning of credentials as due to wickedness of heart, such as Cardinal Newman attributed to those who questioned the infallibility of the Bible… Rational science treats its credit notes as always redeemable on demand, while non-rational authoritarianism regards the demand for the redemption of its paper as a disloyal lack of faith.

As the proponents of science would say, in science there are no authorities, only experts, so when we debate about science the “authority” is only as good as their last experiment or observation. If we debate about the law, authority really counts and is virtually absolute. But when we talk about religion, authority is limited within each sect, where the leaders can teach their dogma to their respective members and no one can openly question or disobey them without having to leave that particular sect. But once outside the sect, religious authority ends, and no one is deemed infallible.

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