How To Question Authority

To question authority we have to identify who and what are our authorities are. Previously we discovered that we could classify authorities as:

  1. Accepted
  2. Appointed
  3. Earned

Young children depend on the first two kinds of authority, accepted and appointed. As we grow and as our experience and ability to discern increases we should begin to discriminate between earned, and unearned authorities. Almost all will at some time be disillusioned by authorities that turn out to be false, or far less expert than we first assumed.

Disillusionment is not a bad thing. Finding false or untrustworthy authorities is an important learning experience. A major step is to systematically and deliberately validate our authorities and rank our authorities in terms of trust and the degree to which they have earned that trust.

We often need to step outside what is comfortable and look back at ourselves from the outside. Sometimes this sort of exploration can be painful. This can be particularly difficult if we believe strongly in something, for example, a particular religion, a New Age guru, or even a political position.

A good example can come from politics. If you are very polarized in the Left, or the Right, then when you look at what the other side is saying you are almost always are looking to find fault, not truth.

If you are serious about questioning your authorities try to look at the polar opposites of your current belief system and try to find truth, not error. Not saying ignore error, but try to focus on finding some truths. Try to find some people on the other side and try to find what you can have in common with them and hopefully you will see that people who hold very different views can indeed be decent people who just happen to disagree with you on some ideas.

If you strongly believe in God, or a Greater Life in the universe then you need to seriously examine the arguments put forth by atheists. If your faith can’t survive logical argumentation then it is a house built on sand (think of Jesus’ advice in Matthew 7:24-27).

Whatever your belief system and its authorities, you need to examine them thoroughly and be prepared for the inevitable result that you will find some cracks in them, some less than perfectly satisfying answers. If you don’t then the chances are pretty good that you didn’t look hard enough.

Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, is supposed to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The truth is probably that we live many lives that have no more purpose than to gain experience, but once we get tired of that and want to move on to greater things we have to learn to examine and question authority.

We can do this all through using our mind and being determined to look at all the evidence. But is there something more? Is there some authority that transcends the authority of the senses, the authority of the mind?


The Principle of Authority

For those who are firmly on the path of spiritual evolution one of the most fundamental and important lessons is the principle of authority. When I Googled “what is a principle” I got these definitions:


1. a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.

2. a fundamental source or basis of something.

An authority, whether it is a person, a book, or a state mind is something that you trust to give you reliable knowledge and guidance. Probably the most important fact about your authorities is how you came to accept them. What you accept as valid authority sets the foundation of  your belief system and everything you believe or know about the world proceeds from that choice.

Young children naturally tend to accept parents as their first authority.  Parents are larger, more powerful, and – if good parents – have a track record of giving the child nurturing and protective guidance. As the child grows older parents and/or society may appoint other authorities. The child is told to trust and respect authorities such as teachers, doctors, nurses, police and possibly priests or preachers.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  1 Corinthians 13:11

As we mature we may find that some authorities are reliable, and some not so much so. To “put the ways of childhood behind [us]” we have to learn to test authority.

To question authority is essential for spiritual progress

Question authority” was a popular slogan in the 1960s and is a slogan that everyone who aspires to spiritual progress must take to heart. To learn to question authority is essential for spiritual progress.

Probably the simplest test is to recall past performance.

Perhaps you had a math teacher who could do the math herself and show you how to do those same calculations on your own. Maybe you had an art teacher who could produce interesting art objects and give you workable instructions on how to express your own ideas.

Those are examples of earned authority. A person earns authority by demonstrating competence and ability. When you have faith in an earned authority it is based on something real and tangible.

Accepted and appointed authorities can become earned authorities. On the other hand we may become disillusioned when these earlier authorities don’t turn out to be so trustworthy after all. Maybe in church the preacher taught chastity on Sunday  but then you found out he was having affairs with different married women in his church. That is what you might call a false authority, or in more common parlance, a hypocrite.

You need to learn to test an authority…

There are a lot of false authorities in the world. Saying one thing and doing another is epidemic in many areas of human life, especially in politics and religions. That is why you need to learn how to test an authority before you place a lot of faith in it.

You can use logic or just plain common sense. You can use your mind to evaluate whether something really makes sense, or is just an appeal to our emotions – sucker bait making promises that can never be delivered in reality.

Most of what has been said above is for the most part not a great revelation. Using past experience and our minds to think through things maybe doesn’t sound too spiritual. Recognizing fakes and liars again may not seem too spiritual.

It is easy to say “use your mind” but hard to do. Con men and politicians spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out what you desperately want to hear and how to convince you they can deliver it.

You are responsible for the authorities you accept and the consequences of that acceptance. You are just as responsible if instead of choosing authorities by a rational and discriminating process you just blindly accept the authorities you inherit from your parents or from society. You are also responsible when you turn a blind eye to the clear failures and hypocrisy of your authorities.

One way or another you have to choose your authorities, either by unthinking default, by emotional longing, or by trying to figure our the facts for yourself as much as is possible and testing your authorities.

In the next post we will talk about more about the principle of authority and how important it is for you to come to fully understand it.