Science and Religion – Where is the Source of Authority?

In previous posts, I offered this hypothesis: Personal and social factors influenced Charles’s attitude toward God and religion at least as much as his observations of nature and Man and his theory of evolution by natural selection. 

And more generally about the “social factors” influencing Charles’s thinking: There are other forces at work in driving the Science-Religion Debate besides science and religion.

At this point in the development of my book about Charles and Emma Darwin on the question of God (working title: Walking Fish), I want to do a series of posts on social, political and intellectual history of Western Europe to identify and describe these “other forces at work.”  I aim to make this a short but deep dive into the evolution of Western European thinking about God and Nature.  For those schooled in this academic discipline, I hope you will be entertained by my gross generalizations, and I ask your forbearance and correction (Comment, please!).  For other readers less steeped in intellectual history and philosophy, I hope to make the topic interesting in itself but also show how essential this ground work is for the project when I return to the early and mid-19th century and Charles and Emma themselves.

Here is the overriding question:

Who Gets to Say What is True and Right and Good?

Who, where or what is the source of Authority?  The term authority has so many meanings and connotations, evoking all sorts of emotional response.  Here I don’t mean authority in the sense of who has the Power, the control over others in the social structure or in the marketplace or on the frontier with other societies – that is the authority that derives from possessing greater strength or weaponry.  If you maintain that Might Makes Right, you are often right in specific situations and for periods of time.  However, to endure, this political authority must be legitimized by a higher authority, a source of knowledge about what is True from which flow ideas about what is Right Conduct that leads to what this authority asserts to be Good.  This is the Moral Authority which ultimately has to underpin any lasting political authority.

Let me explain with a couple of examples.

Consider the coach of an athletic team, like my son’s baseball team.  This man is in charge.  My son and I fear displeasing him, because he has the power to decide whether or not my kid gets to play a particular position, or at all, in the next game.  But to remain coach for the whole season, and especially year after year, this man has to demonstrate to the great majority of kids and parents certain qualities of character and knowledge of the game and ability to motivate kids.  We give this man permission to have the power he has because he earns at least minimal respect for his knowledge of what is True about the game, for his Right Conduct with the kids and on the field, and his ability to lead the team to what we collectively agree is Good (fair play, winning games, skills development and having good, clean fun).  His political authority depends, in the long run, on his moral authority.  Note: this moral authority is collectively defined and supported by all involved – without defining from scratch what is true and right and good.  Our notion of what is “moral” is culturally defined and passed (with modification) from one generation to the next.

Now consider the Constitution of the United States of America.  The American citizenry give permission to the federal, state and local governments to have the power they have because the moral authority of the Constitution legitimizes this government structure.  If you doubt this, consider the passionate conflicts that are resolved by U.S Supreme Court decisions simply by reference to what is “constitutional.”  There are winners and losers in these Supreme Court decisions, and the losers often vow to fight on for their cause.  Nonetheless, the losers respect the power of the Supreme Court decision, and the necessity to fight on within the bounds defined by the Constitution-mandated government.  Why?  Because of the citizenry’s collective respect for the moral authority of the Constitution, which derives from the ideals of the 18th Century Enlightenment, particularly as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers.  Even in the 21st Century, there is collective agreement among the citizens of the United States that ideals of the Enlightenment, such as the right of the individual person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, define what is True and Right and Good in governing the United States of America.  

God or Me or Some Other Person 

We have to go further back in history to find the source of moral authority for the Enlightenment ideals.  In simplest, starkest terms, the answer to “Who gets to say what is True and Right and Good?” is either God or Me or Some Other Person.  Only a few who choose “Me” as their answer are audaciously self-confident; the vast majority is simply intellectually lazy.  They don’t really care about sources; they simply “know” what is true and right and good – enough said.  But a truly thoughtful person has to admit that her or his development of moral beliefs is based on more than personal experience. 

Think about it—how often do you accept something as true or right simply because it comes from a source you trust and admire, to whom you look up to?  Most of the time, right?  You are “taking their word for it.”  There is no shame in this.  It is how we humans efficiently gain knowledge without having to experience everything ourselves or do all our own original thinking. We depend on our sources having done the hard work of unearthing and examining facts (including experience) and making sense of them through logical analysis leading to rational conclusions.  Who are these sources?  They are parents, friends, teachers, coaches, authors, scientists, religious leaders, politicians (sic), journalists, news anchors, op-ed writers, books, movies, etc.  More implicitly, you trust and admire your source because you believe this person has looked at reality through the same lens or worldview that you would look through, if only you had the necessary skills, experience or data, and time.  Your source has saved you the trouble of working hard (even taking risks) and thinking deeply for yourself.  You can also have “anti”-sources—if information comes from them, it must not be true or right.  It works both ways, does it not?

We all have been strongly influenced by the moral beliefs of other people, often from the writings of long-dead other people. So, where did these “other people” get their moral beliefs? 

The intellectual history of Western Europe traces the source of moral authority to the God of Christianity. If this is self-evident to you, you can skip the rest of this series of blog posts.  But for those who do not accept this assertion at face value, the burden of proof is on me!  For starters, it is irrelevant whether or not you believe in this particular god.  This is not about your worldview or mine.  It is about the worldview in which Charles and Emma Darwin grew to intellectual maturity and to which today’s scientists are the intellectual heirs.  It is a long, man-made road from the original Christian story to the intellectual life of 19th-century England. 

Bear with me in the next few posts!  This is important.  I promise to be as brief as possible.

Copyright 2011 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)

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Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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