Every Religion is the One True Religion and Not an Ideology

Every Religion is the One True Religion and Not an Ideology

I was reading an essay by Cameron Dixon the other day, a young writer whose work I have come to disagree with as much as I’ve come to enjoy.

Among the virtues of his essay — entitled “The Problem of Subjecting Logos to Ethos” — are the excellent definitions he provides for the primary named concepts. He describes them as follows:

Ethos (ήθος) is the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology. Ethos is not identical to ethics, but they are related. Ethos is the principles that have the power to influence behaviors, emotions, or even morals, so in a sense, ethics are a component of ethos.

Logos (λόγος) is the generative principle of order in the universe — the summit of all meaning. It is related to reason and rationality but only insofar as reason and rationality are rooted in the order of reality that is the Logos. Just as Ethos is related to ethics, Logos is related to logic insofar as logic is grounded in LogosLogos also includes the reason (not reason as in rationality, but as in purpose or source) for everything. It is the why of all things. Logos not only reveals the order and structure of the world (the logic), but it also reveals its purpose — the reason why it exists. Logos is the origin.

From this conceptual foundation, Dixon reiterates a distinction that has become common not just in Christian circles, but in basically all major religious communities: that between a religion and an ideology.

There are certain pairs of words that are semantically synonyms but carry opposite connotations. As Curtis Yarvin has pointed out, “democracy” and “politics” is an example of such a pairing. If you recommend that some task or procedure be “democratized,” the proposition is generally viewed as a positive, even innovative idea. If, however, it were recommended that the task or procedure be “politicized,” you would be looked at as an unserious prankster or worse, despite the actual implementation of these two suggestions being exactly identical.

A similar pairing exists with the words “religion” and “ideology.”

(One could perhaps argue that “ideology” is categorically broader, and that while perhaps all religions are ideologies, not all ideologies are religions…but even in such a case, the religions seeking to evade the category are still trapped inside).

My argument here is not directed at Dixon primarily, or even Christianity, but rather this broader evasive argument, used by all mainstream religions I know of to defend their own exception from understood categories that apply to — and deprecate — everyone else.

I addressed a sort of tangential version of this form of argument in Holy Nihilism, specifically to the pattern of Christians who were rejecting not the label of “ideology,” but of “religion” itself.

It has become bizarrely popular among contemporary Christians to reject the idea that Christianity is, in fact, a “religion” at all. This is based around a conception of “religion” which centers exclusively around tradition and ritual. Christianity, these Christians say, is a relationship. Aside from the fact that Christianity does contain important traditions and rituals rituals, this is not the only nor the best definition of “religion,” which is itself a broad and controversial subject. But as a baseline, the Oxford dictionary defines religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” A relationship of the Christian kind is therefore not something opposed to religion but is a variety of religious spirituality. Christianity is a religion.

If you search “Christianity is not a religion” on Google right now, you’ll get somewhere in the vicinity of half a million hits. The top results are Christian websites proclaiming that Christianity is “not a religion, but a relationship.” This is based on a variety of descriptive definitions of “religion”, and comparing that to the ideal, prescriptive theology of Christianity.

As a point of comparison, I have recently been studying Marxism in some depth (mostly through the work of James Lindsay). And as it happens, Marxists also have a very specific definition of “ideology” which purportedly excludes Marxism itself. Marxists.org defines the term in the following fashion:

Ideology is a system of concepts and views which serves to make sense of the world while obscuring the social interests that are expressed therein, and by its completeness and relative internal consistency tends to form a closed system and maintain itself in the face of contradictory or inconsistent experience.

Notice the similarity to Dixon’s Christianity-excluding definition of an ideology:

Religion does not start with morality and then build out a map of meaning from its ethical principles. That is what ideologies do […] Religion is a response to reality, not the creation of it. Ideology is the imposition of beliefs onto reality. Religion takes the world and builds a mountain vertically up toward the divine with the Logos as the summit. Ideology takes an ethos and forces it upon the world horizontally […] Religion is a response to something outside of itself, whereas ideologies are closed-off, self-contained systems. Where religion is open to being molded by reality, ideology tries to fit reality into its preconceived set of values. Ideology subjects Logos to Ethos. It creates meaning out of a presupposed ethic instead of an ethic out of an established source of meaning.

It goes without saying that Marxism considers Christianity an ideology, and vice-versa.

The same goes with all other ideologies, religions, and superspecialnotatallreligionsorideologies.

The interesting point of comparison is the mutual allegation of a “closed system.” Everyone seems to recognize that a system of thought that is circular in its self-justification is in danger of delusion, and of building a categorical, language-based construct that is in some way divorced from the actual real world.

The argument advanced by Dixon — and by Christianity in general — is that Christianity is grounded in the truth, which is the Logos. This grounding in truth is what prevents the dangers of ideological enslavement and helps maintain an open mind. But — to quote a character — “what is truth?” Within Christianity, the truth is identified with God, and so to care about the truth is to confess a kind of care about God. To question whether God is true is rendered a nearly unthinkable thought — like asking “is truth true?” — based upon the “proper understanding” of these concepts, and the whole system is completed in a mobius strip of self-justification.

As previously stated, this is not unique to Christianity. Christianity is unusually sophisticated and developed in its mechanisms for closing the loop, but the Marxists do it too. In my mind, the gold medal for obnoxiousness might actually go to Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s “argumentation ethics” which uses the process of debate itself as a praxeological justification for libertarianism.

This is not to say that libertarianism is “wrong.” Of the three listed above — Christianity, Marxism, and libertarianism — I find myself most closely agreeing with libertarianism. It is just acknowledging that at a certain level of criticism, the foundational premises of even libertarianism fall apart. They do not survive objective analysis.

Perhaps the closest thing to an ideology that is actually tied to truth is Science. But even Science — as I have written about before — has its foundations not in truth per se, but in what Dixon correctly identifies as an ethos. At its root it is an ethical endeavor, towards discovery for the sake of pursuing truth, on the faith that there is something virtuous and noble in that pursuit.

Is Christianity the exception, the ideology that — because it is founded in logos — subjects the ideals of ethos to the “truth” of logos?

We could begin by asking the same question of Christianity that I asked of science: why should someone pursue logos over ethos? Why care about “truth?”

It is worth first mentioning that when Dixon defines logos in relation to a “purpose or source… the why of all things,” he is actually talking about a different Greek concept — not logos, but telos. The idea of a “purpose” or “end” of a thing is distinct from the somewhat equivocating concepts of order, origin, reason, and creation loosely bundled up in this “word” word logos. This distinction doesn’t preclude telos being related to logos, but if telos is a component of logos, then it means that these principles are not necessarily dichotomies, but can be symbiotic, nested, or otherwise related. Think of the way a “cat” can be both a “mammal” and a “pet.” The terms are not exclusive, and we can either nest “mammal” within the broader category of “pet” (e.g., “I have three pets, two reptiles and a mammal”), or nest “pet” within the broader category of “mammal” (e.g., “I have 30 mammals; 20 milk cows, 9 meat pigs, and a pet cat”).

Or separate them entirely.

These are all logically valid.

When we talk about the importance of logos, to ask why we should care about “truth” is an appeal to a shared value (this is true even if truth is not viewed as an intrinsic good, but as a means to safety or some other higher good). We might call this shared value an “ethos.”

And if it is believed that these values aren’t merely “shared” but universal and objective, we must first ask if this belief is descriptive, rather than prescriptive (otherwise it would be “imposing beliefs upon reality”), and then according to what specific ordering principle — without appealing to the abstracted category of “ordering principle” — is this pursuit of the logos so special. Indeed, to even ask the question is to perceive the circularity, and if it is argued that it is the way I am framing the matter in my words, we can easily respond by asking “what is logos but a ‘word’?” This is not just a pun, but a point about the way any of these hierarchies of meaning and importance are established within any ideology. At the end of the day, we structure and prioritize all of our ideas and concepts by means of language, and the arbitrary, metaphorical, historical nature of language is not grounded in some “ordering principle,” but in the shared experience and understanding of a distinctive group, more characteristic of the essence of ethos than of logos.

It might be more true to say that logos emerges out of ethos, just as mathematics emerges out of language, and language out of ritual.

The bigger question is: can we escape “ideology?” To “religion,” or “truth,” or “relationship,” or “freedom,” or anything “higher?”

I think the answer is no. Insofar as ideologies are just worldviews, ideologies might be unavoidable as a mechanism by which the human mind works.

But there is some security in the acknowledgment. When we embrace an ideology knowing it is an ideology, we simultaneously recognize the dangers and pitfalls latent in our own view, and perhaps open ourselves up to correction from the external world a little more freely.

It has recently been argued that fentanyl, by itself, is generally not that dangerous — that people who knowingly take fentanyl are usually able to does themselves properly and live through the experience. The reason fentanyl is killing tens of thousands of Americans annually is because they are taking it without knowledge, believing themselves to be only taking cocaine or pot or methamphetamines.

In a similar manner, ideologies — understood as ideologies — are dangerous but useful and controllable, much like an edged power tool or a firearm or a drug. It is only when we try to define away our own special ideologies as “not really ideologies” (and indeed, perhaps the antidote to ideology!) that they begin to become dangerous, and threaten to become a closed system that insulates us from correction and reality.

With an ironically raised eyebrow, we might even suggest that perhaps the only “true” ideology — of the kind we worry about — is the ideology that advances itself as the objective truth, the one religion, the non-ideology and the solution to the danger of ideology.

More seriously, we might say that the best ideologies are those that don’t assert themselves to be uniquely above and superior to all other ideologies, based upon broad and superficial understandings of other worldviews and grounded deeply in one’s own premises. They are the ones that are unapologetically localized and not absolute, for they retain in their practitioners the humility of their actual ignorance and reflect localized, subjective character of human beings.

It is an unfortunate reality of our world that no religion will succeed at a global scale with that kind of localized view. This is, in fact, almost a tautology; localized religions don’t aspire to universality. The most successful imperial religions are precisely those that claim a special, higher understanding of “the truth,” that can speak on behalf of this truth, and which distinguish themselves from the merely ideological on account of this uniqueness. If power is the aim (power on behalf of the religion itself), this might be a good strategy. But for those of us who seek virtue and connection as individuals, in our own lives, we might do best to avoid those ideologies that survive and thrive by pretending that they are not “real” ideologies, or even “real” religions, and thus subject their adherents to all of the dangers of ideology that they appeal to in criticizing others.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. “It might be more true to say that logos emerges out of ethos, just as mathematics emerges out of language, and language out of ritual.”

    I don’t see how that is the case if the proper philosophical understanding of logos is held. Logos, philosophically, refers to reason or logic and causality. When orthodox Christians (note, not all Christians) refer to Christ as the Logos as St. John did in his Gospel, it refers to the belief that He is the first and primary cause, and further as the “living word” in that He is not only the first and primary, but the continual cause. I.e., as opposed to Deists who follow the watchmaker route that the Creator made everything, set it in motion, and stepped aside.

    From Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Logos, reason, co-exists with ethos. Ethos doesn’t cause reason, but rather can direct the use of reason. And pathos co-exists with the other two. All three are the forms of Rhetoric, and the appropriate use of Rhetoric is to convince people of the truth. We can do it logically (logos), emotionally (pathos), and by one’s trustworthiness (ethos). None of them are causal, even passively by emergence, of any other.

    Aristotle is built on Plato, and Rhetoric is a way to approach the dialectic which Plato saw as crucial to discerning the truth, and for him the truth was an objective truth.

    The reason we are more easily convinced of truth in science and math is because there are mechanisms and skills (techne) that allow us to show on paper that “x is true”. All of that goes back to rhetoric because the basis of those arguments relies on reason (logos). We collect data (techne), apply reason (logos) to make an argument of truth based on those measurements. That’s how rhetoric works for science and math.

    There is no techne when it comes to the metaphysical such as gods, morals, and so forth. Unless one is a Scientologist, and that is the unique claim of Scientology as a “religion” – that religious truths can be discerned through the use of techne (an e-meter).

    “…[the best ideologies] are the ones that are unapologetically localized and not absolute, for they retain in their practitioners the humility of their actual ignorance and reflect localized, subjective character of human beings.”

    Interestingly, it is the humility of Christianity that makes it universal : in orthodox Christianity, God takes no sides and accepts everyone as His children. Compare that to a localized religion where one would have to come from the culture or region to be accepted by that god. It is not tied to monotheism, either, as the Jews only accepted other Jews (by blood) as being able to belong to their religion.

    It is the humility to realize that there are no “chosen people” in the sense our egos (and Jew of the Old Testament) want us to think. That is opposed to the hubris that somehow “I am special and my god only accepts people like me”

    The reason orthodox Christianity defines itself as catholic (universal) is not to seek universal power (though of course that is done because humans can twist everything to their ends), but because it goes to the core of the religion: That Christ came to save ALL men, not just Jews or Vikings or Sicilians or those over 6 feet tall. That is much different than other religions up to that time.

    Orthodox Christianity in fact taught universality from the beginning, when it had no temporal power nor sought temporal power and Christians were the minority and persecuted. This universality clearly wasn’t a desire for power at that time, since there was no power to be leveraged or orders to obtain such. It was believed to be a truth and a hope for all men that whoever they were, there was a God who loved them and would accept them as His children.

    “For the scripture saith: Whosoever believeth in him, shall not be confounded. For there is no distinction of the Jew and the Greek: for the same is Lord over all, rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved.” (Romans 10:11-13)

    1. I’m not sure you totally grasped the post; your comment reads as if you were looking for points to refute, rather than trying to understand the argument. In my experience, Orthodox Christians are the most arrogant of all Christians in their assumption of the possession of the capital-T “Truth,” and not to be personal, but it shows here. To say that it is “the humility of Christianity that makes it universal” is amazing, especially in the context of your other assertions; how do you know that God did not have a chosen people? Is that written? Or is that someone’s interpretation? To me, it seems *obviously* ambiguous, and there are theologically strong arguments in both directions. To claim as if it’s plain as day — and humble! — to perceive that God has no chosen people, is to contradict this supposed humility with no sense of self-awareness whatsoever. And the claim to any kind of universal truth whatsoever is, by definition, the boldest kind of truth claim, which is an assertion to knowledge which I thought the Christian was supposed to be humble enough to recognize he did not have:

      [Of Elihu] “Who is this that obscures my plans, with words without knowledge?” -Job 38

      But we can see the origins of this kind of arrogance in exactly the verse you concluded with: “whoever believeth in him, shall not be confounded.” Well then, does this mean the true believer can never be wrong? Or fooled? Because if you believe it says something about universal truth broadly, that is actually not in the text; you are interpolating that, and possibly fooling yourself. And what principle makes this verse — made up of the subjective substrate of language — trustworthy in the first place, let alone infallible? Yet the sentiment breeds a kind of divine self-confidence and imperviousness to contrary positions that sets the Christian up for exactly the kind of ideological danger that Cameron Dixon described.

      I won’t dispute your alternative definition of “logos,” but I will point out that Christians seem to perpetually redefine “logos” — often in ambiguous and both/and language — so as to maintain their faith as an unfalsifiable and logically impervious kind of tautology, which was the whole point of this post. You define it as “logic *and* causality,” (which, it should be obvious, are separate); Dixon described it as an “ordering principle”; other Christians define it just as “truth,” and any time an argument threatens one, it is said that the critic simply misunderstands the “true” meaning of the term, which over time leads one to question whether there actually is a “true” meaning behind “logos” besides just the vague abstract concept of “truth,” divorced from any particular truth. The use of “logos” by Aristotle is different than its use in Christianity, and as used by Plato (in the Apology), was literally just “word.” Christianity changed the meaning, but acted as if it retained some semblance of the original sense of the word.

      The hubris I am speaking of is not in the belief that “God only likes me and people like me,” which is certainly real… but is which is no less hubristic in principle than the assertion “God loves everyone, but I understand him and you don’t.” The set up is a false dichotomy, and completely ignores the more historically prevalent example of a religious practice that emerges out of the uniqueness of a given people’s language, and which requires an intimate familiarity with the language to grasp (hence the endless quarreling over the proper English translation of Greek words like “logos”). To act as if any one religion can be “universal” in the face of this linguistic reality is to simultaneously assert that other people do not understand the true nature of Christianity because they don’t understand the real meaning and history of words like “logos” or “agape,” AND a claim to know the falsehood of other religions despite not knowing the linguistic undergirdings of those theologies.

      1. Well, you are partially correct. I was not looking for points to refute, but I found some I disagree with and I offered a few in the comments section.

        I would agree with you the claim would be arrogant if it were made on a whim, rather than with 2000+ years of arguments and counter-arguments in the theological and philosophical studies. And the conclusion of those arguments are a long list of “we don’t know” such as what “being” means, the mystery of the Trinity, and even how to define “God”.

        The claim may not be correct in final analysis, but how does one say it is arrogant if it it has been argued about and defended (more or less successfully) for thousands of years? At what point is there enough argument offered that it goes from “hubris” to a “belief that is being defended”?

        Or would it be more arrogant to take something like modern wicca which was created out of whole cloth and claim that is the truth with no defense really offered?

        ‘but is which is no less hubristic in principle than the assertion “God loves everyone, but I understand him and you don’t.’

        Again, no one in orthodox Christianity who has any kind of theological understanding would say they “understand” God.

        “The same thing manifestly appears from the incapacity which we daily experience in the observation of nature. We are ignorant of very many properties of the things of sense; and of the properties that our senses do apprehend, in most cases we cannot perfectly discover the reason. Much more is it beyond the competence of human reason to investigate all the points of intelligibility in that supreme excellent and transcendent substance of God. Consonant with this is the saying of the Philosopher, that “as the eyes of bats are to the light of the sun, so is the intelligence of our soul to the things most manifest by nature” (Aristotle, Metaphysics I, min. l).” ~ Aquinas. Also see Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, etc.

        What orthodox Christians claim is, “I have a relationship with God on His terms, and you can as well.” Orthodox Christians do not even claim one has to be Christian to get to heaven. We would believe it’s a lot harder because of lack of Sacraments that help us, but not impossible. In Roman Catholicism it’s dogmatic teaching (a teaching one is required to assent to) that one does not have to be Catholic to get to heaven.

        “Dz 1647 For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guilt in this matter in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things? ” (Denziger)

        For sure, I have a bias, but my main complaint is either the misrepresentation or misunderstanding of Christianity when you talk about it.

        Referring to Christianity is like referring to Paganism. One can cherry-pick from each group and call it “Pagan” to fit one’s refutation, or one could argue Lutheran vs. worship of Pan which is more apples to apples.

        If you want to argue many Christians do not understand their own religion(s) or that many Christians are asshats, for sure I’ll 100% agree with you. But what you are arguing is that “Christians do X”. That seems philosophically unfair when both you and I know that different Christian denominations have different beliefs and practices just as pagans, Jews, Muslims, etc. have differences. I’m offering counter-examples to your claim based on what is taught within one subset of Christianity.

        If you want to go after Southern Baptists or Jehovah’s Witnesses or such that do believe these things, I’ll even help argue their beliefs are wrong and sometimes arrogant. But taking a broad brush at Christianity without looking at what is actually taught in some areas I find unfair.

        That’s not to say I don’t enjoy your blog. I do. I read every article even if I don’t comment on it. Sometimes, though, I disagree, and then my $0.02 appear in the comments 🙂

      2. From your comment, I think we’re actually largely in agreement.

        The point of this blog post isn’t to criticize Christianity proper (I make my attempt at that elsewhere with the dis-ontological argument), and I actually have a fair bit of respect for — and enjoyment in — Christianity proper.

        Christianity certainly has a very old and philosophically sophisticated intellectual tradition, but I don’t think “Christianity is a relationship and not a religion” is a part of that intellectual tradition. It has its reasons for believing itself to be a “true” religion in a way that others aren’t, but “true” Christianity grounds it’s specialness in the relationship with God, and not in equivocating wordplay with “God,” “logos,” “truth,” “religion,” etc. Augustine and Aquinas never did that, and Tertullian was contemptuous of philosophy altogether.

        In short, my point here is more against a bad philosophical argument, used not only by Christians but seemingly by the evangelical subsets of basically all religions. That form isn’t unique to Christianity or even really a part of Christian doctrine. I’m not trying to say “Christians do X, therefore Christianity is X,” but rather the opposite: “*these* Christians do X, and are wrong both theologically and philosophically.”

        If my readers didn’t disagree at least 20% of the time, I’d probably be a poor source of intellectual stimulation. In any case, I appreciate the feedback, and didn’t mean to come off so dismissively before.

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