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Authoritarian Dynamics in Religion, How Corruption Begins to Take Hold and Spread

By Upendranath Das a2022 03 29

Segment 03

“Authoritarian Religion”

In authoritarian religion, the subjective[1] experience of the participants is that of subordinating themselves in obedience, reverence, and worship to a higher power. The basic reason for this surrender is not the moral quality of the authority or the love and justice the authority displays, that makes them want to surrender, but that the authority has power over them. In this system the foremost sin is disobedience.

In authoritarian religious systems, God is the sole owner of love and reason. Man prays to God and begs for mercy, and in the process, projects all his best features unto God, and diminishes himself, thus becoming deprived, empty, and poor. This leads to humans being alienated from themself. Humans naturally intensify their appeals to God, and naturally they feels more deprived, empty, and poor. A cycle is set in motion—fear and despair followed by worship and more appeals—back and forth. All this guilt and self-loathing leads to a variety of neurotic symptoms.

That is why many persons who experienced authoritarian dynamics in their religion, upon undergoing psychoanalysis, quit the religion.

It was not because psychoanalysis set them at odds with religion. Rather, they came to realize that authoritarian religion had an unhealthy grip on them, and by therapy they were able to get free. Instead of empowering them to deal with the world, authoritarian religion reduced them to fear and trembling; it caused them to shrink away from the world and themselves.

In this description, there are some similarities between the external appearance of the practitioner of authoritarian religion and humanitarian religion. However, as we shall see, the subjective experience is quite different. Authoritarian religion results in self-humiliation, whereas humanitarian religion results in humility. In both cases, the external appearance of supplication[2] is the same. Lord Caitanya praying to be an atom of dust at Krishna’s lotus feet, however, is not the same thing as the poor, deprived, empty soul, riddled with guilt and self-loathing, pleading for mercy in an orgy of self-humiliation.

Since all power lies in the authority, who represents God, the individual feels powerless and insignificant. As part of the act of surrender one loses their faculty or power of using one’s will and integrity. One exchanges it for the feeling of being protected by an awe-inspiring power, which the authority represents, and of which they have now become a part. Their worth becomes insignificant. Indeed, they only have worth to the degree that they are able to think themselves powerless and insignificant. They think their distant goal so worthy that they will try to make any sacrifice for attaining it, including their depersonalization or dehumanization. 

Frequently, authoritarian religion postulates an ideal, which is so abstract[3], and so distant, that it has hardly any connection with the real life of real people. To such ideals as “life after death” or “the future of mankind” the life and happiness of persons living here and now may be sacrificed; the alleged ends justify every means and become symbols in the names of which religious, or secular “elites”, control the lives of their fellow men.

We are not against these ideals of “life after death” and “the future of mankind” per se.  However, we are not concerned with that aspect in this discussion.  We are only concerned with the day-to-day subjective experience of religion. Hence the distinction between religion and the experience of religion, which is the way of saying the dynamics within the religious group.  The point here is that the ideals—going beyond birth and death—may be used by religious elites to justify controlling the lives of their fellow men. The elites may, for instance, hold followers in emotional blackmail to manipulate them, telling them that they will not achieve the ultimate goal if they do not fulfill the wishes of those in power.

A more popular ploy, however, is for the elites to threaten, implicitly or explicitly, with “a dropping down a shaft.” In other words, isolation from the herd.


[1]  Subjective: Dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence.

[2] Supplication: the action of asking or begging for something earnestly or humbly

[3] Abstract: existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence; dealing with ideas rather than events.