A man who believes in the impossible – and it is a man more often than not – appears as a moral authority every morning on national BBC radio. This same man is frequently asked by television networks to give his views on moral issues of the day, be they assisted suicide, pay-day loans, same-sex marriage & adoption, abortion or capitalism. And even when he hasn’t been asked, the views he expresses on these subjects are widely reported, sometimes all around the world. The man can, in one of his roles, sit in the second most important legislative body of the land, again as a moral authority, influencing laws that are binding on everyone else whether they believe in the impossible or not. Indeed, the man has an automatic, unelected right to be part of this august body.
Where, you might ask, does this man’s moral authority come form? Is he a psychologist with a profound understanding of human behaviour? Or a geneticist with knowledge of the biological bases of our decision making? Maybe a philosopher who has analysed the cognitive processes that lead to moral decisions? An ordinary, educated person, then, who has given much rational thought to how we might best treat one another?
No, he’s none of these. He’s just a man who believes in the impossible and wears funny clothes to prove it. Invariably, it is true, he has become quite an expert in believing the impossible and he’s even been granted a special place in society that allows him to encourage others to believe the impossible. As a result, he has somehow made the leap into thinking that, because he believes in the impossible, he must therefore be a moral authority.
Now, we may not object to the man believing in the impossible in the first place – it’s a free country after all – but we don’t accept, surely, that because he does, it means he knows much more than the rest of us about morality?
Yes, I’m sorry to report that we do. We acquiesce to the man and say ‘because you believe in the impossible, and for no other reason, you must know more about morality than we do.’ And when we are looking for moral guidance, we turn to him – whether we are the BBC, the rest of the media or the government – and we say, ‘what do you say about this? What should we think about it, because, after all, you are the authority here by virtue of the fact that you believe in the impossible?’ And the man, in whatever guise he appears – pope, archbishop, bishop, reverend, imam, rabbi – says, ‘this is what it says in my magic book (even when it doesn’t) and you should follow it, even though you might not believe in either the magic book or in the impossible.
And we say, ‘Well, you’re the expert and we respect that you should tell us how to behave, if for no other reason than you believe in the impossible.’