Is there a difference between ideology and religion?

The U.S. Intellectual History blog has an interesting guest post from Corey Washington on “After Ideology.” Here’s a bit:

There is good scientific evidence that political reasoning is based on innate, non-rational principles. Nevertheless, the fact that people reason so badly about politics is striking given that people are intelligent and believe strongly that it is important for their political beliefs to be true. Religion may also be innate and non-rational, but if people are rational enough to give up God-oriented religion because there is not sufficient evidence, why do they not give up ideologies as well?

When I ask this question, the responses are quite similar to what you hear when you discuss atheism with a religious person. Atheists/agnostics cannot imagine how you could act ethically, or more broadly make sense of the world, without an ideology. That is, ideology seems to give many atheists/agnostics a value system just as religion does for believers. I believe ideologies also provide people with a community of like-minded friends, as do religious beliefs, and people are loath to alienate themselves from their friends. But if your goal is to have an accurate political view of the world, what use are such ideologies and communities if they are based on beliefs one has very little reason to think are true?

Those two sentences I bolded struck me. Of course ideology functions like religion! Washington is right on the money with this. But so was Emile Durkheim. Religion and ideology, as sketched by Washington here, both form what Durkheim called “moral communities” in his Elemental forms of Religious Life. What Washington doesn’t outline in his post, thought I suspect it is to be worked through in his book, is the relationship between ideology and religion. Too often religion becomes subsumed under ideology. Thus, socially constructed notions of the sacred are reduced down economics or psychology or what have you. Instead, religion and ideology should be placed alongside one another as products of cultural and social imagination and construction. For example, nationalism (and here I’m following my recent reading of Benedict Anderson) as an ideology has the incredible power to motivate men to die. Anderson begins his discussion of nationalism with a comparison to religion. They both share this same power-a power that will motivate humans to lay down their lives. To go back to Durkheim, we can call this socio-culturally produced power ‘the sacred.’ Questions then follow. How is the sacred produced in cultures and societies? What is sacred in an ideology or religion? How dies it function?How do humans move between or occupy overlapping sacralities (i.e. a communist nationalist Christian)?

However one approaches the question of ideology and religion and whether one wants to use the term ‘sacred’ or not, the goal should be to  avoid reducing the phenomenon down to a single ’cause’ and instead to uncover their messy cultural production and practice.

6 thoughts on “Is there a difference between ideology and religion?

  1. “There is good scientific evidence that political reasoning is based on innate, non-rational principles.” - So there must be scientific evidence of which one is the best political system?


  2. Yes there is. Libertarianism. Because it makes the individual free, just like Jesus did.


    1. Although I strongly believe in Social Liberalism, if it makes the individual free either way, that is not a difference.


      1. Since there’s no way to edit, and I worded that quite poorly….If an ideology or Jesus makes an individual free, that is not a difference.


  3. I believe the main difference is in the way of “acquisition” by the person:
    most people receive the certain religion being children, within their family. Child perception is non-critical, so the religion incorporates into her/his system of values freely.
    People chose the certain ideology in youth or, being adult, i.e. in more mature condition. It implies their responsibility for their decision.
    The intermediate case of ideology-directed lesson in the beginning school is very dangerous, because here the ideology takes the advantage of religion.

    The western society is still much more tolerable to religions than to ideologies,
    despite the fact that in 21 century much more people have been killed because of religious reasons than because of ideological ones.


  4. Very rare that I see this kind of analysis. I’ve been saying this for years. Both religion and ideology are based on _belief_ systems which are merely forms of ignorance and magical thinking.


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