Why Authoritarians Love Religion
The authoritarian personality finds in religion a match made in Heaven
Posted Jan 08, 2018
(This post is part of a series on authoritarian wounding and should be taken in the context of this ongoing series, which looks at many aspects of the authoritarian personality, the various ways that authoritarians harm their victim, and the efforts victims of authoritarian contact make to try to heal themselves.)
Authoritarians naturally love authoritarian institutions like religion and the military. They love the idea of someone giving orders and others obliged to take orders, they love the idea of strict punishments like courts-martial and hell fires, they love the hierarchal nature of such institutions and forced gestures like saluting and kneeling, and they love the permission such institutions give you to hate others, all those millions of enemies and infidels.
Of course, authoritarians may also avoid the military like the plague and not believe in gods in the least—remember that cynicism and hypocrisy are also hallmark qualities of authoritarians. But they love the authoritarian flavor of such institutions and intuitively understand that they ought to align with them, at least publicly. That’s why authoritarian non-believers who seek public office will profess a belief in gods in which they don’t believe and a love of religion which they never demonstrate.
For both authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers, religion is a wonderful convenience. It allows them to lord it over other people, since they alone know the truth. It allows them to punish people guilt-free, since that punishment is on a god’s orders. It allows them to deny reason by dubbing the irrational “faith.” It gives them extra ways to bully people, especially women, who are regularly regarded as second class. It is just about everything an authoritarian could wish for.
Many authoritarians, both on the right and on the left, do not believe in the gods they profess to believe in but still love the cover of religion. They know that to associate with a religion is to associate with like-minded authoritarians. To take one classic example, the atheistic, anti-clerical Mussolini, so as to get into bed with the Vatican, married in church, had his children baptized, and in his first parliamentary speech in 1921 announced that “the only universal values that radiate from Rome are those of the Vatican.” Mussolini knew where he would find his fascistic friends and allies: in church.
To take another example from the same time period, when the fascist-leaning, anti-clerical Futurist artist Marinetti, who had once said of the Catholic Church that “throughout its history the Vatican has defecated on Italy,” saw the value of aligning himself and the Futurist movement with “the sacred,” he decided to create a “Manifesto of Futurist Sacred Art” and to participate in the Vatican’s International Exhibition of Sacred Art. Writers, painters, doctors, lawyers, butchers, bakers are not above such shenanigans—no authoritarian is above such shenanigans.
Because religions are by their nature authoritarian—they castigate the other and designate the other as deserving of punishment, they demand strict obedience, they reduce nuanced discourse to the size of slogans, they announce that they are chosen, anointed, and owners of the future, and so on—they align beautifully with individual authoritarian agendas. An individual authoritarian spouting the sanctimonious homilies of a religion is a marriage made in Heaven.
Indeed, fascism, that authoritarian extreme, has been dubbed a “political religion” because of the way its mimics orthodox religion. Popularized by Emilio Gentile, the term “political religion” refers to any movement that sacralizes itself and adopts the trappings of religion, including religion’s emphasis on the never-ending battle between good and evil. These trappings can be found in every sort of group and institution, from corporations to fraternal clubs to professional organizations … and of course in families.
As to the ways in which religious trappings are employed by family authoritarians, here are three characteristic responses from respondents to my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire. Respondent Rachel explained, “I grew up in an orthodox Jewish home. I learned that I was dirty, unworthy, expendable, and second-class. I learned that nothing could be questioned and that no rational reason was needed to justify the edicts of my father and mother. The worst was when the religious men gathered. They felt to me like a pack of wild animals. You just knew that they would tear you apart given half the chance.
“Once, when we had a group over to our house, I tried to say something nice about the honey sponge cake that my mother served—I only wanted to say that it was very good. But because I interrupted a visiting rabbi who was speaking I got slammed across the face. I’ve had dental problems my whole life from that incident.”
Respondent Aabida explained, “My father was a Muslim and my mother was Catholic. They were both authoritarians and religious zealots. Because of their religious beliefs, they started looking for a husband for me when I was eleven years old. My mother, who was raised by nuns in an orphanage, parented us the way she was raised. We were not permitted to ask any questions, and we were beaten for talking too loudly or talking at all at the table when my father way praying.
“Once my father got up from his prayers, beat the table with his belt, and broke what everyone thought was an unbreakable plate. A flying piece of the plate split my three-year-old sister’s eyebrow open. We had many religious responsibilities, many family meetings, and when my sisters and I got older my father tried to get our brothers to also beat us, but they refused. So, they were beaten instead. That was our life.”
Respondent Anne explained, “When my older sister was twenty-two, she announced that she was going to get married. My parents hated the boy, but the worst part was … he was an atheist!!! My mother, who had always announced that only a church wedding would do, insisted that no clergy would marry them if he was atheist. Well, they found one. But that didn’t matter. My parents refused to give their blessing to a marriage to an atheist. And my sister refused to back down.
“On the night that they kicked my sister out, I was awakened by the commotion. I went downstairs to find my sister loading her possessions into her car. I asked what was going on. My mother responded, ‘Your sister refuses to live by our rules so she has to leave. And you have to decide, are you loyal to her or to me? If you're loyal to her, then you're going right out there with her!’ There I was, ten years old, having to make a decision like that!”
If you grow up in a religious household, the odds are great that you will have to kiss democracy goodbye. Religious followers are more antidemocratic then their secular brothers and sisters and followers of orthodox sects are even more antidemocratic. In the classic 1950’s book on the subject of authoritarians, The Authoritarian Personality, Theodor Adorno and his University of California at Berkeley colleagues explained:
“There is reason to believe that individuals, out of their needs to conform and to belong and to believe and through such devices as imitation and conditioning, often take over more or less ready-made the opinions, attitudes, and values that are characteristic of the groups in which they have membership. To the extent that the ideas which prevail in such a group are implicitly or explicitly antidemocratic, the individual group member might be expected to be receptive to propaganda having the same general direction.”
This love affair between authoritarians and religion plays itself out in the lives of the victims of authoritarian contact in the following sorts of ways. A child is threatened with eternal damnation for not completing her chores. An adult child is banished from the house for coming out as gay. A child’s accusations against his priest are ridiculed. An adult child is disowned for no longer believing. In each of these instances, the authoritarian’s true nature is revealed. He is provided with permission to punish, permission to ridicule, permission to disown, and all the other permissions he craves by the religion with which he has chosen to align.
Authoritarians will naturally gravitate toward the more punitive sects within their religion and the more authoritarian practices of their religion. The authoritarian Buddhist will revere strict sitting and will love the idea of smacking squirming meditators with a stick. The authoritarian Catholic will argue for the Pope’s infallibility. The authoritarian Jew will argue for a scriptural right to seize land. The authoritarian Hindu will pine for the heyday of the caste system and the banished practice of untouchability. Whatever door a religion allows for cruelty, authoritarians will flock through that door.
If you’re in close contact with an authoritarian, you’re likely to find his or her religious beliefs and religious posturing perplexing, bewildering and frightening. You may likewise sense, quite rightly, that he has no real belief in his god, doesn’t fear his god’s wrath, and cares nothing for ideas like love, mercy, and compassion. You may sense, quite rightly, that for him religion is just added justification to be mean.
Whether the authoritarian in your life is using religion to further his ends, like a Mussolini, whether he was born into a religion, taught antidemocratic and authoritarian principles there, and indoctrinated into an authoritarian personality, whether he actually believes in gods or just has an affinity for the authoritarian nature of religion, however it is that he came to make that marriage, the result for you will be the same: harshness and cruelty justified by doctrine and dressed up in piety.
If you have a moment and the lived experience, please take my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire. That would help me in my research efforts. If you’d like to learn more about what I do, please visit my website; or you can drop me an email to email@example.com