Rejection of Imposed Authority Divine or Human

Presentation to the Melbourne Atheist Society, Tuesday May 10th, 2011

As David Miller, co-ordinator of the Atheist Society has pointed out Dr. Joe Toscano, of the Anarchist Media Institute, was supposed to be speaking this evening. It is very unfortunate that the has been unable to attend due to family matters and I am humbled that he nominated me to take his place; although I have had only a short period to prepare for this presentation, I will be using the title nominated by Dr. Toscano, and hopefully it will be in a similar spirit.

I will take this opportunity to mention that Dr. Toscano is one of the great radicals of Melbourne. A medical practitioner and surgeon, he was the chief organiser of the 1986 Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebrations, has run the Anarchist World radio show on 3CR since 1977 and produced a weekly newsletter, the Anarchist Age Review, since 1991, which is nearing a thousand issues. One of the most prominent recent campaigns he has been involved in is founding and promoting "Defend and Extend Medicare" through decentralised community groups. That attracted not only the criticism of the government's health minister as well as briefing papers on the activists by "a senior intelligence official".

If there are any "senior intelligence officials" in the audience, I hope you enjoy tonight. Please listen carefully and take plenty of notes. You and your masters might learn something.

Imposed authority; it can blunt and obvious, as the truncheon on the skull, or can be subtle, through laws, regulations and very importantly property relations. It can be carried out by legal authority which claim a legitimate monopoly on violence, or it can be carried out by illegal groups. It can be carried out in an organised fashion or randomly. It can be carried out by individuals, groups, or through formal institutions. But ultimately it relies on the use of force against individuals who have not breached their natural, subjective rights or those rights that arise from inter-subjective agreement. That particular classification is noted in order to distinguish against that those who engage in imposed authority against these natural rights of others will find that their rights are temporarily suspended. One who engages in violence against another may discover that, contrary to their will or consent, that others will restrain their actions of harm, and this applies equally to the criminal or the government.

More radically, one include in this is the right to an equal share of natural resources; the distinction between economic land, labour and capital is often overlooked since political economy has become a very specialised rather than general discipline. "Land rights" are natural rights - following Locke, Rousseau, Paine, Adam Smith, David Ricardo and through to contemporary economists such as Galbraith, Friedman, Solow, Samuelson, Vickery - the withholding of natural resource to the exclusion of others without compensation is an act of subtle violence. As this address is being made in a Unitarian church hall, I feel it appropriate to refer to Harriet Martineau's comment: "The old practice of man holding man as property is nearly exploded among civilised nations; and the analogous barbarism of man holding the surface of the globe as property cannot long survive. The idea of this being a barbarism is now fairly formed, admitted and established among some of the best minds of the time; and the result is, as in all such cases, ultimately secure"; to secure land to exclusion of others without compensation to the community is to be a enslaver.

In government, authority is often used interchangeably with "power". However, their meanings differ: while "power" is defined as "the ability to influence somebody to do something that he/she would not have done", "authority" refers to a claim of legitimacy, the justification and right to exercise that power. An angry mob has the power to punish a murderer for example by lynching, the legal system may court of law has the authority to order execution; either way the criminal is dead and yet another body is added to the pile. The importance of legitimacy in a modern context was particularly explored by the sociologist Max Weber who defined authority as the chance of commands being obeyed by a specifiable group of people. Legitimate authority is that which is recognised as legitimate and justified by both the ruler and the ruled.

Authoritarianism however is perceived to be the use of power without legitimacy - it is imposed authority, rather than legitimate or accepted authority. In politics, an authoritarian government is one in which political power is concentrated in a leader or leaders, typically unelected by the people, who possess exclusive, unaccountable, and arbitrary power. Authoritarianism differs from totalitarianism in that social and economic institutions exist that are not under the government's control. Authoritarianism is the method, totalitarianism is the scope. John Duckitt of the University of the Witwatersrand suggests a link between authoritarianism and involuntary collectivism, asserting that both stand in opposition to civil liberties and democratic processes. Paul C. Sondrol of the University of Colorado argues that whilst authoritarianism and totalitarianism are forms of autocracy, they differ in "key dichotomies" in terms of leadership, role conceptions and utilisation of power, the totalitarian system being ideologically-driven.

While authoritarianism and democracy are opposed to one another, it is possible for democracies to be authoritarian and totalitarian. A procedural democracy, the rule - and tyranny - of the majority is distinguished from a substantive democracy that includes civil rights, the rule of law, an independent judiciary. The Economist Intelligence Unit conducts a Democracy Index every two years with 60 indicators grouped in five different categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture. The Index was first produced in 2006, with updates produced in 2008 and 2010. Countries are categorized into full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes; only 12% of the world's population live in "Full", that is, substantive, democracies. At the top of the list are the countries you would expect; the Scandinavian, Australia and New Zealand, Canada. Whatever criticism we have of such governments when they breach the natural rights expressed in the beginning of this presentation, we recognise that they are far in advance of the governments of the 36% of the world who live in "authoritarian" regimes. A discussion like we're having tonight would certainly not be possible. The promise of The Enlightenment, freedom and democracy, is a project that is far from complete.

What are the justifications for imposed authority? Typically claims of social stability, normalcy, predictability are given. More so, they are based on the application of other criteria over freedom and agreement. A collective loyalty is made over that stands above common humanity; for some it is their state, for others their nationality, for others their religion or church, for others their political party, and perhaps in the future for others it will be the company their work for. However the greatest appeal comes from divine authority, an appeal beyond human justification. Often, astute politicians can combine the supernatural appeal with national appeals; I have quoted it here in the past, and I shall do so again - Adolf Hitler on the Jews: "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.." How clever of him to be a German Christian against the Semitic Jew!

The core concept of fundamentalism, whether religious or political, is its inability to engage in reflexive reasoning. Historically, the term is associated with the Christian Niagara Bible Conference at the end of the 19th century and further defined by the 1910 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church into five fundamentals (inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth, Christ's atonement through death, the bodily resurrection, the reality of miracles). These beliefs, as strange as they may seem, are not so much the problem at least on a personal level. But when they are transferred to the political they are dangerous, as the famous XKCD cartoon on belief illustrates.

When transformed from a personal to a political level fundamentalist - the human-mediated imposition of divine authority - must inevitably come in conflict with those who have the temerity to think and act differently. And because the belief system allows only reinterpretation within narrowly defined criteria - the sacred texts - then reaching a point of commonality with all beings becomes impossible, as there are no texts which are perfect for all time and all situations. At best we can only make appeals towards that orientation; and the fundamentalists often do not even bother to go that far. I am particularly concerned that there are religious beliefs that encompass an entire lifeworld, that do not make the mental separation between 'my' belief and 'others' beliefs, that do not recognise how the separation of church and civil society provides freedom for both. It is this perspective which I think is particularly prone to engaging in the imposition of authority.

There are those who will point to progressive claims within a religious context. For example there is Marx's famous statement; "It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.... Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.... The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."

For Christian anarchists a founding text is Tolstoi's "The Kingdom of God Is Within You". Tolstoy argues for of the principle of non-violent resistance when confronted by violence, as taught by Jesus separated Orthodox Russian Christianity, which was merged with the state, from what he believed was the true message of Jesus Christ. Another Christian anarchist also from Russia, Nicolas Berdyaev, argued in his book 'Slavery and Freedom', that "There is absolute truth in anarchism and it is to be seen in its attitude to the sovereignty of the state and to every form of state absolutism. [...] The religious truth of anarchism consists in this, that power over man is bound up with sin and evil, that a state of perfection is a state where there is no power of man over man, that is to say, anarchy. The Kingdom of God is freedom and the absence of such power... the Kingdom of God is anarchy".

Although these statements are framed with religious expression, they represent the natural freedom of conscience and a search for inner strength against imposed authority, whether human or human with divine justifications. This is no mere utopian fancy; consider Viktor Frankl, who in From Death-Camp to Existentialism (also published as Man's Search for Meaning) argued that the human search for meaning is more powerful that either the Freudian search for pleasure or Nietzsche's will to power. Frankl, who was (let's say) "intimate" with the conditions of the camps write:

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way... We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

Atheists must realise that although such statements are phrased in a religious manner, they are, in fact, representing ideal states of humanism. 'God' is not essential in these expressions, just as God as not essential in the expressions of human oppression. Whether it is for the love of one's fellow or the hatred, whether it is for for the ultimate degree of solace or for the greatest disruptions, 'God' is being used as a poetic metaphor for extremism, both good and bad.

So what constitutes acceptance of authority in a non-imposed manner? This is not as trivial as it sounds, and naive libertarians simply espouse ideal conditions as if they were actual conditions. Because ideally, authority could be derived solely from reputation of instrumental skills and respect for value-leadership. Individuals would be free and rational, and through argumentation alone, the force of reason, they would be able to reach consensus. However being able to engage in such practise requires an ideal speech situation and the practise of discourse ethics, as outlined by the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas. Not surprisingly this concept of an ideal speech situation and an elaborated requirements for discourse ethics have come under some criticism as being utopian and idealistic, for ignoring the issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality But it is strongly stated that the ideal speech situation as a desirable objective, not a existing condition. It is phrased in the counter-factual, of what could exist. As such the rejection of imposed authority, divine or human, also requires the practical task of removing the conditions that distort the achievement of free association.

It is no surprising there in studies on what constitutes universal rights there is actually a great degree of uniformity, obviously dating as far back to such radicals as John Locke, Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, including classic liberals from John Stuart Mill to Isiah Berlin and John Rawls, and to modern practical philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and Noam Chomsky. For example, among all such authors one will find that it considered almost trivially self-evident that all adults of adult reasoning should be allowed freedom of conscience and expression and have the right to make decisions concerning their own body. It logically follows likewise that like individuals are therefore entitle to engage with relevant others on the basis of mutual and informed consent. Likewise one would also expect, given these freedoms and autonomy, that the individual would be protected from violence, the threat of violence and from discrimination by the social system. After all, there is little point in having, for example, freedom of religion, if persons of a particular religion are systematically discriminated against.

None of this is terribly difficult to understand, yet it would be a challenge to find a legislature in the world which has established such principles. Nevertheless, the purpose of this presentation is to engage in a bit of speculation which is at least possible, if apparently, against conventional real-politik. So to continue, imagine a situation where the State, the armed body enforcing laws, is actually established to ensure that individuals have the freedom to go about their lives as peaceful acting and transacting members of the public – and to protect those individuals from violent individuals within the State or from external forces which would wish to enslave them. Assuming a State, one where there the government has deliberately, purposefully and timelessly, limited its own jurisdiction (for anarchy is that area of life where the State does not intervene) - this raises the question of what actually is the legitimate role of democratic government at all, if it is not for the rule of the government over people.

The answer to this lies in the Roman concept of res publica,"the public thing". If the lives of peaceful flesh and blood humans is not subject to public rule, then all that is left for the State is administer is quite correctly "things", to paraphrase Saint-Simon, "the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things". It is, in fact, no longer a State at all, but it remains a government. The most obvious "thing" and one which no human being in the right mind to have any legitimate claim over creating of their own labour or investment, is natural resources itself. Consider also the fact that in 1991 no less than thirty five of the top economists of the United States – all Nobel prize winners, professors, and university deans, across the political spectrum – urged then President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev that, in the transition from a command to a market economy, that public ownership of natural resources be retained and common income be generated from land-rents. That did not happen of course, and with the inevitable consequences.

In summary, imposed violence, whether human or divinely-inspired, can vary from the blunt imposition to subtle regulation. Power and Authority has varied claims of legitimacy. Authoritarianism is the method and Totalitarianism the scope of imposed power. Although democracies could be authoritarian or totalitarian (and indeed they often are on particular issues) they mostly are not. Only 12% minority of the world live in "full democracies" (democratic governance, liberal protection of individuals). Justifications for imposed authority come from a collectivist mentality that places loyalty to other criteria than common humanity. Ideologies for imposed authority do not engage in universalism, nor do they engage in reflexive evaluation and criticism beyond their narrowly defined 'sacred ideas'. Religious approaches can be used to represent common humanity, and orientation towards humanism etc. as an extreme expression of individual freedom and moral behaviour. The rejection of imposed authority implies an acceptance of justified authority (reputation and respect). This can be achieved by through rational argumentation however, the capacity to engage in rational argumentation is conditional on civil rights and social welfare.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on July 15, 2011.


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I just found this website and network. My views may be closer to Isonomy than Isocracy, if isocracy implies a system or state but isonomy can be better practiced/integrated into any form of government that somebody chooses to affiliate with.

On that note, I believe in working "equally" with theists even theocrats, as well as secular atheists; and promote ways to resolve conflicts and form agreement where NO ONE is imposed upon or threatened by views or ways of other people/groups.

The reason either theists/nontheists impose on each other is if "conflicts are left unresolved" so that this escalates and becomes a lawsuit in a court under a judge to make a decision for these warring parties. The only way to prevent unequal imposition is for the parties to resolve their own conflicts directly.

I can cite examples in America, such as the removal of crosses from public memorials, or the lawsuit by an atheist to remove a reference to "heaven" from a public street sign. More serious life-or-death issues include the case of Terri Schiavo in Florida and the death penalty cases such as Troy Davis that also received worldwide attention. All of these situations where the state authorities are dragged into a religious issue of whether the termination or sparing of life can be "justified legally" could be prevented by the individual parties mediating and resolving their own conflicts instead of invoking the government to step in and decide for one side over the other. Personally, as a Constitutionalist, I believe this violates religious freedom (or "separation of church and state") for government authority to take one side of a religious issue and impose a biased decision that excludes or discriminates against the dissenting parties; I believe our Constitutional laws protect all persons equally, including the minority as well as the majority opinion in any matter, especially religious issues involving decisions of life, death, and termination.

The difference in my approach seems to be that I will take any "given" system, in this case, Constitutional law, and use THAT to correct the wrongs according to the laws WITHIN that system.
My point is not simple to protest or block a decision, but to compel the parties to resolve conflicts in keeping with their own given systems.

Same with using Christian laws or the Bible to resolve conflicts with someone who cites and commits to those scriptures as their laws.

I don't know if this approach falls under "isocracy" or is more like "isonomy" or equal law enforcement (regardless which laws an individual or group subscribes to).

I believe people will still govern themselves under their laws they associate or affiliate with, but my point is to make sure they are enforcing their own laws and principles equally for themselves as they would hold others to their laws.

Most conflicts seem to involve people contradicting their own principles, and then projecting the blame onto the other party, who is usually doing the same thing.

So by just enforcing one's own laws, beliefs, or principles CONSISTENTLY, the conflicts can be resolved, prevented or corrected; the systems people use can be harmonized to get along civilly without infringement or threat thereof; and nobody has to feel imposed upon with the risk of being overruled or politically bullied by a different group, especially not by abusing government or physical force to do so.

I encourage all people to learn basic laws of due process and conflict resolution, whether using the Bible or Bill of Rights or any unifying principles that the given parties relate to respectively, in order to fulfill the laws establishing equality of justice and persons, either by natural laws as in the US Constitution or by divine laws as in the Bible. In order to be equal, we must have equal knowledge of the laws, or there will be competition for power and unresolved conflicts where people are prone to use force to outnumber, subdue, or oppress the other side.

I believe this equality can be established, but with respect for people's diverse views, including theist or theocratic views that traditionally exclude and discriminate against secular and nontheist and easily clash with universalist approaches that don't.

I don't believe in excluding or attacking even seemingly opposite views, religious or political, or else that is not universal either, but contributes to the same mutual rejection and projection of blame by both sides onto the other group. If such conflicts are not resolved directly between the parties, that is why a third party like the government can be called in to try to settle the conflict by force of law.

If anyone reading this knows of a group that promotes mediation between religious and political members of different groups in order to resolve conflicts, I would like to support more training and assistance in that area. People would need access to this kind of mediation, training and assistance in order to resolve conflicts and keep their decisions in their own hands instead of submitting to third-party authorities to step in and make or impose decisions for them. The process of resolving conflicts is a key part of the education and enforcement of higher standards of informed consent and consensus decision-making. We learn by doing, so if anyone knows a group that does this, provides free outreach, training, and direct assistance in conflict resolution of religious/political issues, please contact me!

Thank you for hosting this website and network

Yours truly,

Emily Nghiem
Houston TX

Thanks Emily for your comments. I share you concern of recognition of varied levels of knowledge of the laws, the need to appreciate a variety of metaphysical outlooks, and the overall intent of consistency that works towards conflicts to be "resolved, prevented or corrected".

Picking the right word can be difficult to describe such an approach. My initial thoughts were towards a normative agnosticism - that is, regardless of one's sense of religiousity they should engage in a participatory treatment in a manner that is free of value-judgments on that level. This is, of course, regardless of one's own thoughts on such matters.

As for particular groups there is a quite a number of organisations that specialise in such issues, particularly in war-torn countries where ethnic and religious divisions have led to some people to surrender their common humanity towards an abstract goal.

For example:

Once again, I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. I hope you can take the time to visit her again.