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 Logos. Logos 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.