Religion in search of power

Authority: the parable of the magic pact

How can power and authority be established on an unshakeable foundation? The following parable explains how this can be achieved.

A decision without certainty

One of our distant ancestors, the chief of a hunter-gatherer clan, is thinking about tomorrow. In order for his people to have food, he must take effective action. What to do? Go hunting on the western plain? Go fishing in the southern river? Go picking in the northern forest. Whatever his choice, there is no guarantee of results. He cannot rely on any certainty, but he is forced to make a decision. This decision is informed by reason, since each option has a good chance of being profitable for him. His experience will help him to make, if not "the right" choice, at least a sensible and defensible choice in front of his clan.

The magic pact

He also knows that he is taking an unavoidable risk for which he bears a heavy responsibility. If he comes home empty-handed, his authority will be challenged: several members of the clan are just waiting for a good opportunity to take his place as chief. This is why he will seek the support of his relative who is the clan shaman.

Tacitly and unconsciously, by defending their interests over the generations, they converge towards the idea 1 of attributing the decision to a deity, which relieves them of all responsibility. Their official role is to make the gods favourable. Popular discontent is preventively deflected. In case of failure, prayers and offerings to the spirits are made. This religious practice is decreed indispensable for the survival of the clan and is therefore obligatory.

1  A tacit agreement whose realisation is diluted over several generations may be unconscious on the time scale of individuals.

The status of chief is solemnly declared "of divine right". One function of the shaman, who has become a priest, is, as the representative of the gods, to legitimise the power in place, which in return gives a privileged place to the official religion. Opposing the divine will is even more serious than insubordination to the chief and demands exemplary punishment. The chief's concession - sharing power with the priest - is largely compensated by the strengthening of their common authority.

The successes of the powerful and the rich have thus become manifestations of the benevolence of the heavens. By orienting the discourse towards the divine will, earthly power can no longer be challenged. Here lies the real magic, the effectiveness of which can be verified in many societies.

A red thread of history

At the time of his coronation, the King of France, in order to be considered God's lieutenant on earth and to base his legitimacy on divine law, had to swear to "expel from the lands under his jurisdiction all heretics denounced by the Church".

Reciprocally, the Pope granted the King of France the right to appoint candidates to the major benefits - bishoprics, abbeys - who were then invested by the Pope (Concordat of Bologna, 1516, between Leo X and Francis I). The king thus acquired power over the Church, which reinforced the convergence of interests.

As for the fate of the people, according to the principle "The religion of the ruler was to dictate the religion of those ruled", the faith of the subjects had to be aligned with that of the prince. In a context where the will of the greats was impervious to tolerance, while propaganda was radicalised, the religious wars of the 16th century could develop in a climate of unlimited hatred. Paradise is exclusively reserved for those who fight Error with determination. There is no salvation for the lukewarm. Killing is not enough: it is necessary to gut, enucleate, emasculate, drown, in short, to show contempt for the other, since the latter is not human, but demonic.

Pope Pius V unreservedly encouraged the massacre of Protestants. In 1569, he wrote to Catherine de Medici:

«Full of confidence, you must, in agreement with your son the most Christian King, use all your strength to avenge the insults done to Almighty God and His servants, by treating the rebels with just severity. It is only in this way that, having inflicted on them the punishment that their crimes deserve, the Lord will allow himself to be convinced. Spare no means, no effort, that these execrable men may perish in the torments due to them.»

Pius V was beatified and canonised. That he became a Catholic model undermines the moral authority of the Papacy and does not make one want to be faithful to the Church!

In order to organise an efficient administration, it is wise to adopt the moral principle that "one must sometimes, for a greater good, accept to do evil". Abuse of authority is justified by the best interest. Naturally, "only authority has the competence to decide what is best". And if, in order to contain a challenge, recourse to repression should prove necessary, reference to the divine will can easily justify its rigour.

For example, the Church can explain that it is in no way responsible for the excesses of the Inquisition, since it limited itself to pointing out where the doctrinal error nested. As for the execution of sentences, it can wash its hands of them because the sentences were the responsibility of the secular arm.

God is very useful in justifying privileges. So it was with the royalty of divine right. Who would dare challenge royal authority when it was willed and instituted by God himself?

"Let us never cease to hold the people under the sceptre of tyrants; let us protect the thrones, they will protect the Church, and despotism, child of this union, will maintain our rights in the world" [i.e. the privileges of the nobility].
The Marquis de Sade, in The new Justine

In the Church-State couple, there is a truly magical dimension, with infinite explanatory power.

Only a few characters have had the courage to raise objections to the incitement to defend an unequivocal truth. Thus Sebastian Castellion (16th century) who said: "Killing a man is not defending a doctrine, it is killing a man".

The sacred

God is a universal panacea, because He is the answer to all questions. He is also a source of power for those who speak in His name. The definition of what is sacred, as well as the establishment of a hierarchy in the sacred, is strongly influenced by the interests of the elites and the type of political regime in place.

In the notion of the sacred, the idea that it is the Authority, designated by the clan or society, that sets the foundations of the way of thinking without any possibility of questioning by individuals, is imposed. It is not God, but its representatives who decree divine law, codify it and compel conformity. In pre-republican or non-secular societies, the sacred and authority are intimately linked. This is why any reference to the sacred must be contrasted with the question "To what authority is it referring? Which power does it tend to reinforce?"

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