I’ve been reading archives from the last year in various atheist blogs (it’s a lazy long weekend for me, hurrah!) and I’ve been mildly entertained by tracking some controversies and in-fighting. What can I say? I’m a sucker for human drama. And I’m fascinated by the way intelligent, rational people can slip, or err, or occasionally fall to bits, if you press the wrong buttons. The atheist community, by and large, tolerates internal disagreement without people losing their heads, but occasionally things do get personal.
And then at some point in my reading I was struck by my own reactions. These are writers I respect, intellectual leaders in a community I identify with. When I was a Christian, quarrels like these disturbed me deeply. To see an argument between two respected Christians devolve into personal rancor was destabilizing to me; I felt I had to side with one or the other of them, or denounce them both, and the anxiety and sense of faint betrayal went right to the pit of my stomach. Whereas, seeing a similar kind of argument between atheists, I feel detached amusement, I’m able to see merit on both sides (usually), and I go on my way with my own ideas undisturbed.
The reason for the difference is plain. Christian leaders purport to have not only special training, but a divine blessing. They derive their intellectual and moral authority from a claim that God has placed them in their position of leadership, and that God is working through them, speaking through them, revealing Godself through them. I trusted their wisdom, in many cases, above my own instincts about right and wrong. I was led and guided by them, because although they would never claim to be more than mere humans, the structure of our beliefs proclaimed that they were exactly that: humans, but humans with a special voice, a special calling. They said they heard God speak. I never did, so of course I followed them. And when they fought among themselves, when they let respectable debate sink into the mire of personal attacks, I felt horribly confused and betrayed. Shouldn’t they be above this? If the spirit of God is with them, why is it not curbing these unreasonable personal impulses? And if the spirit of God is not with them, why have I been honoring their wisdom above my own?
There are times in human life where it is good for one person to submit to the authority and teaching of another. Parents know things about life that children do not; teachers know things about their discipline that their students to not. But both childhood and studenthood are temporary conditions; the whole purpose of the training is to raise the student up to the level of the teacher, to raise the child up to the level of the parent. Then the authority ends. Priesthood is a lifelong, intrinsic moral authority over laypeople (whether because the priest is inherently morally superior, or whether because they’re specially called and appointed by God makes no difference). Christian believers are not supposed to get to a point where they’re independent of priestly authority. To aspire to this would be arrogant. They are required to submit themselves, through the whole of their lives, to the wisdom of the godly men (or, more rarely, women) who have been placed there to guide and instruct them. It’s horrible. And it makes it much more horrible when it becomes patently clear that the priests are every bit as weak and foolish as the flock.