Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Tenth place (tie) — Grad student essay contest: Sam Hyde

Vol. 36 No. 09 November 2019
Sam Hyde                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

The dangers of a blind land

FFRF awarded Sam $300.

By Sam Hyde

Have confidence in your leaders, and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. — Hebrews 13:17

There are themes in the bible that some would consider to be against the best interests of modern society — verses that endorse slavery, gender subordination and sexual subordination. The passage of time and sift of cultural beliefs have worked against these practices, and they’ve fallen out of favor among many sects. There are, however, other tenets in the bible that have successfully resisted time’s ravages, yet have the capability to damage civilization — including Hebrews 13:17. It tells readers to not only obey their leader, but to have confidence in them, to not make their work “a burden.” This type of obedience is blind, in that it suggests that people should never question authority, but merely follow along like sheep. This line of thought is dangerous, stymying scientific innovation and enabling despotic regimes.

First and foremost, blind obedience stifles scientific innovation because it discourages questioning authority. Science, as a discipline, hasn’t had a perfect track record when it comes to getting things right on the first try. Diseases were once thought to be caused by bad air, the solar system was considered to be geocentric, and slaves only ran away because they suffered from drapetomania. Each of these theories ended up being overturned by later researchers, working from newer models and with new information. Overturning these erroneous models often meant going against existing authority, sometimes enduring ridicule by peers and superiors to do so. A large part of scientific research has arisen from individuals questioning accepted explanations and investigating alternative possibilities.

Obedience of the kind embodied by the above bible verse rejects this type of questioning. Instead, readers are simply told to believe in their leaders, and to not make life difficult for them. In such a society, scientific progress would slow to a crawl. This would leave erroneous and dangerous models, such as the theories that led to asbestos — now known to be carcinogenic — being used as a construction material. Science needs to be able to question authority to develop and adapt, something that the obedience preferred by the bible is incompatible with.

Blind obedience also leads to the enabling of despotic regimes. Hebrews 13:17 instructs readers to just believe in their leaders, and have confidence in their actions. However, questioning leaders is an important tool in the political arsenal, especially in a democracy such as the United States, where public displeasure is the only thing reining in representatives. The United States itself was born out of colonists questioning and eventually disobeying the British Empire in order to form a new country. Questioning leaders is the central pillar of current democratic regimes. If politicians were never held accountable by the populace for their actions, they wouldn’t need to take actions to benefit the citizenry. Despotic regimes often take advantage of this, indoctrinating their citizens into a state of total obedience, enabling the regime to get away with self-benefiting behaviors without having to worry about revolts. The regime in North Korea uses this method, having formed a cult of personality around the head of state, in which citizens are indoctrinated to be blindly obedient to whoever the current Glorious Leader is, regardless of the failings of the nation around them. This, obviously, is not an ideal state for society.

Civilization has reached the point where the status quo is no longer workable. The crises that will come in the next decades are global, in effect, and will require innovation in both science and policy to overcome. Blind obedience of the type proselytized by Hebrews 13:17 stymies both of these matters. It quells the populace and prevents them from holding their leaders to account for failing to deal with issues in an appropriate manner. It stymies the development of new scientific theories and inventions that could help mitigate the issues before us. These cause society to simply sit in place and stagnate, unable to break free from a rigid status quo. Given the global crises coming upon us, this simply is not an option.

Sam, 26, is from Tallahassee, Fla., and attends the University of Florida Levin School of Law. He is interested in reading, chess and the occasional delivery of a lengthy philosophical argument to his cat.