Religion and Ideology

This article started out as the second part of an intended critique of the “new atheism.” But the article got to be too big and, not having a professional publishing outlet, I shelved entire draft.

However, recently I found an interview in with Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Prof. Roy is an expert on religions (especially Islam) and politics. This piece inspired me to edit my article and post it on the blog. The title of the article, “The Islamization of Radicalism,” echoes Roy’s thesis that young people “find in Islam the best way to express, experience, and to live their rejection of society.” In his opinion, alienated youth from Muslim families in Europe adopt Islam as the worldview through which they can most forcefully express their anger at the society in which they cannot find a place.

I share the main implication of Prof. Roy’s argument. A religion is not necessarily the impetus to violent radicalism. It can serve as a “container” in which to pack political, economic, and cultural imperatives. While these other “domains” – politics, economics, and culture – can each serve as an organizing principle for militant action, religions can be used to combine and synthesize these elements of society into a seemingly coherent system with an apparent moral foundation.

Therefore, in my opinion it is best to think of religions as ideologies. An ideology is a comprehensive system of ideas that establishes the formal worldview of a society. It defines the criteria for membership in the society.  It defines and justifies the cultural, political, and economic hierarchy and the division of labor within the society.

While what we call religion is the oldest form of ideology, there are of course other, modern, ideologies that have had tremendous power at various times and in various societies, and operate in ways similar to religion. Among these are communism, capitalism, fascism, Nazism, and various expressions of nationalism. Cult-like ideologies created around national leaders have also arisen in the 20th century – Peronism, Maoism, and the cult of the “Leader” in North Korea are three notable examples.

It is also possible for ideologies to merge and produce variants that respond to the characteristics of particular societies and their leaders. For example, in the US a multitude of ideologies – political, social, and religious – exist in an uneasy balance, mediated through a concept of capitalism promulgated by the elites as inseparable from American democracy.

States employing nationalist ideologies have found that an association with religion strengthens their claims to legitimacy. The Falangista/Phalangiste movements in Spain and Lebanon used their affiliation with the Catholic Church to add legitimacy to their political and military goals. Rulers of some Muslim majority countries (Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Pakistan being prime examples) have used Islam as the ideological basis for the close control of their societies.

Nationalism has been the dominant ideology for many societies. However, few societies have based their national politics solely on nationalism. The Republic of China (ROC) is perhaps the clearest example of a nation governed by a nationalist ideology. But nationalism is arguably the dominant ideology in Mexico, Israel, Pakistan, India, and other countries – particularly in Africa and Latin America – that claim no other ideological organizing principle.

Nationalism has more often been conflated with other ideologies. Using communism or socialism as their formal ideology has allowed countries like Yugoslavia, Albania, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, and Romania to pursue a nationalist agenda in the shadow of dominant hegemonic communistic states (the USSR and China). This is arguably true of Cuba, as well.

Communist regimes have consistently incorporated cults of their leaders to embody the nationalist sentiments of their citizens: Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Tito, Fidel Castro, and Ho Chi Minh embody the fusion of communism and nationalism in their respective states. Religious institutions can also conflate their religious worldview with nationalist ideologies. For example, Catholicism has fueled the nationalist impulses of Poland and Ireland and Shi’a Islam has encapsulated the nationalist strivings of Iran.

Nationalism, tribalism, and cults of personality have all been incorporated into the worldviews of religious sects and their organizations. Indeed, most Christian sects were established as national churches within their respective confessions (as exemplified by Polish and Mexican-American Catholic parishes in the US, the predominantly German and Swedish origins of American Lutheranism, and the Dutch origin of the Reformed Church). Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism are easily referenced to specific populations based on ethnicity, language and geographical origin.

Religions have played a role in politics since antiquity. It is, however, questionable whether religions have played the primary role in determining how societies order their priorities. As the first ideologies, religions established the template by which all other ideologies were shaped and by which they functioned. Over time, other ideologies emerged. Some rejected religion and attempted to replace it. Some have incorporated religions into their framework.

I have noticed that the structural elements of all ideologies – including religions – are essentially the same. The individual components of religions and other ideologies can be disaggregated and interchanged as needed by the shapers of social order.

When scholars and pundits argue that “religion” is the dominant source of motivation for political actors in a particular society, they are partially right. Religion is the specific form of ideology that organizes some societies. This will be the case when other ideologies are a threat to the society’s ruling elite.  However, the political elites of a given society will construct an ideology that responds to a number of factors that include the fundamental values of the people, the possibilities for and threats to national sovereignty, and the international climate with respect to major ideological conflicts.

However, I am uncertain about the extent to which leaders who establish the dominant ideologies for their societies do so as a calculated strategy. Or do they, like the people they proselytize and control,  unconsciously accept the belief system that they espouse as true?


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