Religion and Ideology

Here, I consider the difference between a religion and an ideology. Of course, as is always the case, someone may define these items differently, and no one can say their different definition is wrong.  Definitions cannot be right or wrong, they can only be more or less helpful. So please, please, don't post a comment arguing about my definitions as being different than yours! Of course, someone could define these terms so that all religions are "ideologies," if by "ideology" they mean a somehow connected nexus of thoughts, images, and so forth. And someone could define "ideology" in such a way that every single person on earth has an "ideology," if that just means "how they think about things."

I am only trying to say that here is what I have found to be a fruitful differentiation of these terms, and certainly not "the correct" differentiation of them! And further I will note that I am here following in the footsteps of a master, Eric Voegelin, in suggesting these uses.

Religion: an attempt to grapple with our primary, experiential reality.

Ideology: an attempt to create an alternate reality through verbal constructions that act to replace primary, experiential reality with an abstraction.

So, for instance, Zen Buddhism, under these definitions, is very obviously a religion: it instructs its followers to shut down their discursive thoughts, and simply sit until they begin to encounter reality without the intervention of any abstract scheme for understanding it.

Materialism, on the other hand, at least in its modern forms, is obviously an ideology: primary experience is through-and-through qualia, and yet consistent materialists, like Alex Rosenberg, are forced to admit that within their ideology, qualia are mere illusions! Of course, this move makes nonsense out of all of science, since every single bit of scientific evidence consists of qualia experienced by individual scientists. (We know the charge of an electron only because individual scientists have had they experience of seeing similar readings on their measuring apparatus when trying to determine the charge of an electron! If their experiences were mere "illusions," then we actually don't know anything about electrons at all!) So we can see that modern materialism, rather than being an effort to directly encounter and make sense of our experience, is an attempt to flee from experience behind a screen of discursive thought.

Now, many phenomena we typically regard as religious can actually be ideologies in disguise: this occurs, as Voegelin noted, when the symbols the original, genuine religious figures created are turned into "dogmas," so that rather than being transparent images that direct the mind toward the ultimate mystery of being, they instead become a "system" of ideas that must be believed in order to achieve some sort of approval from God. (E.g., "If you do not believe in the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, you are going to Hell!") And such "religious" dogmas are typically the understandable targets of "rationalist" critics of religion: once a "religion" is turned into an ideology, then it has opened itself up to the well-justified attacks of rival ideologues, who can clearly see that this competing ideology makes no sense. (Of course, their adoption of an ideology blinds them to the fact that their own ideology makes no sense either!)


  1. Professor Callahan, you write that "Definitions cannot be right or wrong, they can only be more or less helpful". This is certainly true when introducing a formalism and in sciences applying formal methods. However, it seems to me that unless you reject essentialism, the definitions should be helpful In grasping these essences and not “just helpful”. If you agree on this, there certainly is a possibility of criticizing your definitions as being wrong on the ground that they do not capture the essence of what we refer to as religion. Also, from purely logical point of view, the definition can be wrong when it simply does not denote its examples with sufficient clarity.

    Consider the following definition of religion: “an attempt to submit the mind and will of the people to some authority by reference to a particular order of being and whose existence has not been otherwise observed”. This definition, while probably not giving a very nuanced view of religion, will prove to be helpful when planning a political attack on e.g. Islam.

    Regarding your definitions, I believe that what you refer to as “religion” is encompassing e.g. science, which is most probably too broad and not very helpful. If you define religion without referencing cultural practices common to religions or common properties of their worldviews, you may get indeed surprising things.

    By your example, a vast majority of e.g. Catholic or Orthodox tradition seems to be not religion at all (and mere ideology) and indeed any religious tradition that attempts to articulate itself in something other than myth or raw mysticism is an ideology. Do you mean that? If not, could you point to some other examples of genuine religious traditions other than Zen Buddhism, please?

    This may be influenced by rather obscure terminology of Voegelin (I believe that Voegelin’s use of the term “dogma” is very creative, similarly to his use of “Gnosticism”), but nevertheless very strange. It may be also influenced by your wide application of your definitions, because there is nothing in your definition of religion that prevents it from asserting that the being is not ultimately mysterious (how do we experience mystery?).

    But, of course, I may be wrong or may totally misunderstand you. If this is the case, please do not hesitate to correct me.

    1. Voegelin analyzed these issues in detail in about 12 volumes of detailed historical analysis. Needless to say, I cannot do justice to this material in a blog comment. But Voeglin certainly does not limit the category of genuine religious experience to just Zen Buddhism! His differentiation is on whether or not the people using the religious symbols are using them to reach the experiences being symbolized, or simply using them as learnt formula. Any religion can become mainly dogma, but probably also always contains the possibility of breakthrough into genuine religious experience. So, for instants, St. Francis would represent a real irruption of genuine religious experience within a church that was becoming worldly and dogmatic.

    2. Professor Callahan, thank you for your reply.
      You write that: "His differentiation is on whether or not the people using the religious symbols are using them to reach the experiences being symbolized, or simply using them as learnt formula"
      I believe that even most legalistically minded Catholic dogmatists would deny that they are using religious symbols as mere learnt formulas. This “learnt formula” approach is probably the domain of people with shallow understanding or interest in their religions that are confronted with outright attack form similarly uneducated opponents.

      Also, it seems to me that there isn’t really Christianity without its dogmas (and, what follows, the condemnations), at least not the one we know, and it started far earlier (e.g. with disputes against Marcion and the Gnostics) than official dogmatic statements of Nicene Council and others. I might be wrong here – could you please describe a non-dogmatic Christianity?

      As far as I can tell, St. Francis, apart from representing a real irruption of genuine religious experience, he also was completely orthodox in both his teaching and his beliefs, to the point of trying to actively convert Muslims, sultan in particular. This stands in contrast to e.g. the Cathars, whose religious experiences were not entirely unlike St Francis’, but differed greatly in terms of creed (Gnostics, again!).

      What I’m arguing here is that unless we mean that any religious group can degrade into factionalism and use its symbols as merely declarations of allegiance (which is probably much less frequent than is commonly accepted), the differentiation as formulated by you is not helpful at all.

  2. Thank you for this, it's a valuable frame for thinking about a very important distinction.

    It seems to me that most people must start out with ideology, and if they persevere they may ascend to religion. Unfortunately, most exoteric churches have lost sight of the proper purpose of dogma. It should be seen as a stepping stone or guide post to a deeper and truer faith (perhaps a vital one, but intermediate nonetheless).