Religious leaders are afforded great respect in society and often comment on matters of moral and ethical importance. They routinely offer opinions on family life, adoption, abortion, social values, and even scientific research.
But what is it that gives them that respect? Are they exceptionally gifted in matters of moral philosophy? Do they have extensive experience in family matters, or a deep understanding of the scientific issues? Before accepting someone as an expert, we would normally expect them to show a high level of competence, perhaps some evidence of exceptional ability or knowledge, some capability well beyond the average. A medical specialist will be expected to have worked in the field for many years, working with diverse cases, conducting research, consistently producing high-quality results. But do religious leaders get their credibility from their skills or from somewhere else?
When families are in crisis, we expect the therapist to have studied psychology, possibly even be a medically trained psychiatrist, with a deep understanding of conflict resolution. When working with troubled adolescents, again we expect the therapist to have expertise in psychology and in dealing with young people.
But religious leaders typically rise through the ranks of a hierarchy, attaining leadership by internal selection, with criteria that are religious rather than meritocratic. In the case of the Pope, his authority rests on his position in the hierarchy, attained through strict adherence to dogma. He is himself dogmatically claimed to be infallible.
In the case of Imams in Islam, they are experts in the Qur’an and the Hadith, and since these books define Islamic morality, they therefore are automatically seen as experts in morality and ethics. But the source is dogma, and not social and political practice.
For religious institutions, the morality to be defined and defended is derived from religious books. But is that where moral and ethical values really come from?
Suppose that a religious leader condemned a life-saving practice for dogmatic reasons. That creates a dilemma for believers. Do they follow the demands of the religion, or overrule them and act ethically and morally in the eyes of society? Does religious teaching overrule what feels socially and morally right? This is exactly the sort of dilemma that religious people often face, whether the issue is abortion, stem cell research, or the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS.
When the Catholic Church ruled against using condoms in Africa in the fight against AIDS, this dilemma affected hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. It shows in stark contrast the difference between a morality based in religious dogma and what is socially and ethically justified in modern society.
In trying to pull society towards a dogmatically defined set of values, religion demonstrates its limited ability to respond to the changing world. Social values arise from social interaction and religion is just one factor. We all, including religious believers, validate our ethical values against social practice, our interaction with society as a whole. That’s why there are religious ethical dilemmas – religious people have to check that their religious beliefs are in ethical accord with society’s values.
Taking religion out of the mix can actually strengthen our ability to reason ethically, because our judgments do not have to accord with dogma. We don’t need religious beliefs in order to behave ethically and morally. Atheists are not by definition immoral, they simply have ethical and moral values rooted in society and their own practice. There is nothing about religion that privileges the believer in ethical matters, and therefore nothing that grants religious leaders any special abilities in moral matters compared to atheists.
Whether we are dealing with AIDS, stem cell research, abortion, adoption, euthanasia, or blood transfusions, religion offers little more than dogma. Religion brings no special expertise to the table of ethical debate and often limits it. And religious leaders have a seat only because it is an established social or political custom, as for example in the UK House of Lords.
Leaders, whether religious or atheist, have equal potential for informed and valuable contribution to ethical issues. Whatever their views, we should subject them to the same standard of rational criticism, and not assume that the religious camp has some sort of innate superiority. Both are judged by social values and our negotiated sense of fairness and justice. Maybe that way, we can avoid telling hundreds of thousands of people in Africa to put their lives at risk for the sake of dogma.