The Problem With Authority

Religion is one big argument from authority. It is the epitome of hierarchical thinking, top-down management, one-way information flow. Increasingly, this is becoming passe in almost every other area of life.

First it was the TQM (Total Quality Management) instituted by the Japanese for manufacturing. One of the components of TQM was kaizen, or continuous improvement. This stressed the involvement of everyone, not just top management, in process control and improvement.

Now comes an article from ABC News on the incredible four and a half year, 50-million-flight safety record of zero U.S. commercial airline fatalities. This is almost hard to imagine, for a system as complex and diverse as it is, that loads millions of people into aluminum tubes and hurls them through the stratosphere at 550 mph and brings them safely back to earth.

According to the article, one of the chief factors in this incredible record has been removal of airline captains from the role of absolute authority. It is called CRM, (Crew Resource Management). Pilot error has all but been eliminated through the encouragement of feedback from subordinates. Put another way, unchallenged authority can be seen to have been not only a bad idea, but fatal for literally thousands of people over the years.

In a nutshell, CRM is an absolute reversal of the iconoclastic cockpit culture we used to have up to the mid 1980’s, and if CRM had been imposed on "Star Trek’s" Captain Kirk, it would have cost him his command.

Kirk, just like most airline pilots before the mid-80’s (me included), was taught to be omnipotent and infallible and in need of no one’s advice, let alone that coming from a subordinate crewmember. To be a Captain Kirk, you had to be ready, willing, and able to assume that you not only could be perfect — despite being human — but that you were, in fact, perfect. Therefore, the act of shutting up a subordinate by waving a finger in his or her face with the angry retort, "When I want your !&@*$% advice, I’ll ASK for it!" was just part of the paradigm. Captains were God, and everyone else followed respectfully — or else.

CRM changed all that. The principles grew from a series of catastrophic crashes in the seventies in which the major causal factors revolved around one imperfect human mind controlling every decision in a culture that discouraged comment or correction.

One of those disasters occurred in the Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, when the chief pilot of one of the world’s best airlines (KLM) made an unchallenged mistake and started his takeoff into fog without takeoff clearance. The resulting collision between two 747’s killed 583.

I think this principle has application in the arena of spiritual leadership. It is the unchallenged authority of a chosen book or personality that leads religious people to abdicate their mental independence. Such authority causes otherwise intelligent people to ignore the obvious, and keep their lips zipped in fear of eternal damnation.

If humanity is incapable of giving up religion, at least congregants should insist that so-called spiritual leaders submit to feedback from the congregation. After all, if such power sharing is used at the highest levels of business, why shouldn’t it be used for the organizations which, in many people’s minds, hold the keys to eternity?

Comments (3 comments)

Matt / July 5th, 2006, 11:30 am / #1

Sean, very interesting comparsion here. The one thing I would add, in reference to the Japanese style of business management, is that at the VERY least, in traditional Japanese companies (which are becoming more American style in their management everyday), the authority above took responsibilities for failure. Take Toyota for example. If profits took a hit because a badly designed car or truck wasn’t selling, the traditional response was not to cut the low level workers, and layoff factory employees (as American companies are prone to do), but for the C level executive officers to take stock and pay cuts (and in some instances fire themselves) instead.

How this would apply to religion? In the sense of personal responsibility. Religion is, by it’s very nature, an abdication of responsibility for one’s actions. Even Christianity, which claims the opposite (claiming to lay blame squarely at human’s feet), still abdicates forgiveness over personal responsibility. My wife, who grew up protestant, has told me many times that one of the main Protestant objections to Catholicism is Confessional, and what it signifies. Sure, on a spiritual level, Confession is supposed to prescribe responsiblity back to the individual, but from a practical standpoint, it allows you to unburden yourself, guilt free, by saying a few ‘hail Mary’s’ or whatever the case may be.

And while I know a Catholic would argue that in theory this is not what’s intended, in practice it’s how it works (strait from the horses mouth of any number of Catholic friends).

It’s not just at an authority level that personal responsibility is abdicated, but systemically through the entire chain from worshiper to Priest, Shaman, Bishop or God.


BlackSun / July 6th, 2006, 6:22 am / #2

Olly, you are of course correct in your analysis here. You know the post was sort of tongue in cheek, since I know that the paradoxical combination of authority and forgiveness that makes up religion is not likely to change. (Can a leopard change its spots?)

I’m again trying to apply logic here, to an unlogical situation. Saying that religions should be subject to feedback from congregants is essentially advocating making them not religions. But that’s my point:

If an endeavour is so important that many people will devote their entire lives to it, people believe ETERNITY depends on it, shouldn’t it be improved by the same measures we use to improve mundane earthly life?

Matt / July 6th, 2006, 7:11 am / #3

I agree completely, and I think that the statement ‘trying to apply logic here, to an unlogical situation’ is about the most accurate thing you can say regarding religion. It is by definition illogical, of course. In a lot of ways, I almost have more respect for those that simply say ‘because I believe it to be so’ then religous apologists trying to warp logic to work for them.

I ALMOST have more respect… almost.


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