Monday, 4 July 2011

Authoritarianism without hierarchy: Presbyterianism extra!


We are continuing our trend in challenges to authority with a further look at religion and society and mentioning some rather interesting one-liners which we have been gathering over the years.  I would refer you to our previous posts on: 

- Interfaith in Palm Springs

- the religious specialists conference Salon de Refuses at Edinburgh

- the event of channelling during the sacrament of the Blessed Bhaji (, and

- Presbyterian: the most fissile element in nature

These were posted early in the history of the blog.  Many had considered these to be over the top, but you will see from a list of commentators that end of term papers provided by our first class honours * essays have not been far off the mark.  To celebrate the 4th of July and the uprisings of the Americans against the British Empire, we are reviewing some of the better known reviewers of scholars.

Contemporary trends have impacted on religion in several ways.  First, the rise of science and its ability to provide more rational explanations than religion - for example Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang theory.  For an accessible introduction to the history and current developments in the latter, we recommend Simon Singh’s Big Bang.  This has also led to the rise of rationalism and the scientific method, based on hypothesis, experimentation and evidence, which encourages a questioning and investigative attitude.   Second, and related to the first, is the rise of democracy which scholars like Professor Donald Meek suggest has led to a “rejection of central authority and authority figures” and a reaction against “metropolitan control”.  In current UK terms, this has meant challenges from the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and to some extent Northern Ireland coupled with an ideological Conservative Party mindset which encourages localism.

This has generated an increasingly free, open and more tolerant society especially in western democracies, a decline in traditional communities and an increased emphasis on the individual and an individual’s rights.  It has seen changing social attitudes to women, minorities and sexual orientation and the emphasis on human rights.  By 2011, however, Rights and Responsibilities were being coupled as some governments found themselves hauled before the courts in terms of human rights issues.  This has even led to some difficulties in Scotland regarding the authority of the UK Supreme Court having any say in criminal law.  (Lord Hope)

Third, politics, economics, and advances in transport and communication technology have all made societies more interconnected with one another.  This trend towards globalisation has meant that societies are no longer isolated or insular, but are able to compare conditions (social, economic, political) as well as belief systems between each other.  The rise of Facebook and Twitter is said to be responsible for some of the Arab Spring uprisings, though this has been questioned with uncontrollable ‘spoof’ postings by some parties.

However, the increased openness has allowed others to examine and challenge long-accepted beliefs, either to reform the religion, abandon it in favour of another or ‘develop’ a hybrid of beliefs from several religions.  This utilitarian approach has been likened by Marion Bowman to a “spiritual supermarket” or a “pick and mix” approach to religion, and has been studied by scholars using rational choice theory, which is based on economic models.   (Economic models, however, have said to have failed in predicting the financial crisis of 2007 and the recession which followed it, though anthropological research has claimed to have predicted both.)

These trends have resulted in challenging the various forms of religious authority identified above.  Thus, the inerrancy and interpretations of scriptures and texts have been questioned, as has the selection and legitimacy of religious specialists (especially to interpret texts).  Moreover, traditions (and interpretations) have begun to be seen as being a product of particular historical and social contexts, so bringing their legitimacy and current relevance into question.  A few years ago, Katherine Whitehorn, the journalist and broadcaster, was quoted on a BBC Radio 4 programme as saying that tradition was after all “habit in a party frock”.

Thus, while these authorities may have exercised power and expected unquestioning obedience in the past, religion’s declining influence coupled with changes in knowledge and social attitudes have led to an increasing willingness to both question and look for alternatives.   The willingness to question is particularly prevalent in belief systems such as Wicca and New Age and Celtic spirituality which emphasise choosing beliefs according to personal preferences and experiences.  This can be described as having mystical ‘elements’ with transformational qualities and Linda Woodhead calls this “relational religion”.  (Much of the cult of the late Diana, Princess of Wales exemplified this.)  Professor Paul Heelas* describes this situation as one in which “The individual serves as his or her own source of guidance,” with a life being lived in the “here and now” and without a reference to an external authority.  Authority is essentially grounded in experience which is also able to modify tradition according to individual needs.

Authority within these belief systems includes texts where these exist; myths and traditions pre-dating conventional religion (e.g. Celtic Christianity); traditions from ‘nature religions’, for example Native American and aboriginal traditions, but also including so-called pagan religions, occult phenomena and eastern philosophies.  Other phenomena such as channelling, memories of a previous incarnation can be linked to post-World War I increases in spiritualism.   This has given rise to hybrids based on traditions across belief systems – syncretism – or on denominations within the same belief system – ecumenism.  Thus, Richard Holloway, a former Anglican bishop of Edinburgh described himself in a BBC Radio 4 programme as a “Buddhist, Quaker, Anglo-Catholic Agnostic.”

Some have attributed the appeal of these belief systems to a lack of understanding and some justifiable disillusionment towards science (failure of education system) and an increase in the promotion of intuition (previously thought to be exclusive to females).  With globalisation and the consequent exposure to alternative belief systems has come what David Spangler refers to as an “awareness that we are all one people ... [and share] ... a common destiny.”

However, this has also raised issues about authenticity, legitimacy and credibility.  There can be a lot of sociology jargon such as emic and etic perspectives which serve to further complicate the issue.  However, some have dismissed this whole trend as nothing more than misplaced nostalgia, romanticism or just plain nonsense. With some justification, Donald Meek also debunks the ‘phony’ nature of much that passes as authoritative in Celtic and new age spirituality as well as myths that either portray Celtic Christianity as having a ‘light’ touch compared to Catholics or being more in tune with nature.

As regards legitimacy, Celts by blood such as W Davies have dismissed “self-appointed Saxon expert[s] on Celtia” of being “cultural imperialist[s] or cultural transvestite[s]”.  Further, accusations of “cultural theft” have been made whether in relation to Druidry or the adoption of Native Indian traditions by non-Indians.  It has also brought into question the legitimacy of claiming affinity with traditions that one does not belong to by birth or ancestry.  Terms such as orthodoxy, orthopraxy and omnipraxy abound and it is obvious that an outsider wishing to market an alien spirituality would claim that one does not have to belong to a tribe to espouse its spiritual lineage.

Finally, the emphasis on personal experience has brought the credibility of these belief systems into question.  Thus, Heelas regards the “authority of the participant” and the absence of an agreed body of beliefs as “sociologically precarious” while others have dismissed this as ego gratification in this current age of celebrity and event driven historical ‘analysis’.   Similarly, Steve Bruce considers the ‘pick and mix’ approach only possible in societies where “people do not have very strong religious commitments” Indeed, a review of Woodhead and Heelas’s book likens these beliefs to a fashion accessory or ‘must-have’ “ideological clutch bag.”



  1. Thank you for your post. I'm all for individuals working things out for themselves rather than follow some cleric with a vested interest. It makes me think that it is all the more important to keep the public space secular!

  2. I'd always thought some of your earlier posts were slightly mad, though I can see that you've obviously been mixing with some scholars and academics, who use expressions such as 'ideological clutch bags' as part of their discourse. It may not always be helpful language by those who are more used to giving pronouncements from their regius chairs of theology. Your comments on the holy Saturday round up of theologians caused some to re-think their role in the British establishment now that the Murdoch saga is unwinding. Perhaps your use of direct language should have been used more often rather than the overladen subjunctive descriptions, which were picked up by some journalists as a means of obfuscation, deception and abuse of power. While you have excluded some of the religions and churches in your political analysis of late, I think there is a seamier side to the connection between some religions, journalists and even the police. It's not that I have anything against Freemasons and Papal Knights; it's jsut that they seem to enjoy power beyond their true station.

  3. I agree with the previous comment. It's all very well thinking that some religious leaders are cuddly and give out waves of love, but they too are influenced by money. They also indulge in the cult of celebrity and enjoy great income from the sale of books, trinkets and what is called material culture in our academic discourse. You have been viewed as cynical with regard to your proselytize and monetize theory of how religions work. I think it is more relevant in this digital age when the terms information, knowledge and wisdom are banded about as if they meant the same thing. I wonder why the British are taken in by some of the press barons and some really dreadful politicians and policemen. it was ever thus I suppose and in this regard we are no better than the Americans with the penchant for 2 minute wonders and the Irish who have discovered that they had been misled by a church which they had loved. Abuse of authority can lead to drastic swings of a social pendulum.