George Walford: Some Notes on the Ideology of Religion

Ideology affects all our volitional behaviour, but there are large areas of volitional activity, occupying much of the attention of a great many people, to which ideological theory has hardly been applied at all. One of these is religion. To treat this very extensive and difficult subject with any great depth will be a massive undertaking; this present paper is only what its title implies, a rough indication of the general lines which a systematic ideological study of religion might be expected to follow.

Things would be simple enough if we could associate each major religion with one of the major ideologies, but this cannot be done. In these brief notes I shall speak mainly of Christianity, leaving it to those familiar with the other great religions to decide whether they also exhibit the features mentioned.

As often occurs, we have a problem of terminology, for there is no universal agreement as to what is and what is not a religion. We solve the problem by taking the term in its widest sense, indeed by extending it beyond normal usage. We take a range of activities with magic and witchcraft at one end, religion in the more usual senses of that term as it were in the middle, and atheism at the other end. We then find, on examining the main constituents of this range, that each of them implies identification, on the part of those engaged in it, with one or another of the major ideologies. Taken in this extended sense religion, like politics, is a field in which the various main positions, attitudes or sets of beliefs, express the major ideologies with which those who accept them are respectively identified.

Ideological development begins with the protostatic, and this is the ideology whose principle assumptions are implied by the activities of magic and witchcraft. These show the same one-sidedness as the protostatic, the same assumption that all value and validity are on one side, only falseness and unreality on the other. If the ritual has been correctly performed then the magician is all-powerful, those on whom his spell has been cast helpless before him. It is the assumption which underlies much of the Old Testament, the conception of Jehovah as the God of Battles, giving his people victory over their enemies. If on God’s side one is linked with a power against which the devil is helpless. If on the devil’s side then “evil, be thou my good;” all that God and his angels can offer is rejected as worthless.

The development beyond magic is to paternalistic religion (it is here that the main weight of Christianity is centred) with the central theme that we are not merely to submit to God but to love him and therefore to obey him. Still largely a matter of power. But, unlike the power encountered in the primary, magical phase, the power of the deity is not mediated by benevolence. He is seen not simply as a force that is either for or against but as a discriminating father. The original complete concentration of validity and value has been modified, some part of these qualities now reside with the creature. In this phase of Christianity, although we are, by ourselves, creatures of sin and worthless before God, yet we find strength and security through Jesus Christ. This position, of being inferior (to God) and yet standing on secure ground is not found in magic, where one is either victorious or defeated. It is the position of the lower classes as conceived by Conservatism, it is the dualism of the epistatic.

The next phase is the multiplicity of the parastatic. Here the separate person is no longer governed by ritual and procedures but chooses for himself by what route to come to God. Each person makes his or her own decision. Political individualism is emerging, but it doesn’t yet predominate, the person interprets God’s will for himself but that will is still binding upon him or her. This is the stage of the demand for freedom of conscience, of nonconformism. In politics, Liberalism.

In the next phase God gets pushed into the background. The person may still think of himself as religious, but the main concern now is with humanity rather than divinity. Here we get Humanism, and religion as social service, Christian Socialism and the like. This is the protodynamic ideology, in British politics the socialistic (not the Trade Union) part of the Labour Party.

This is followed by a phase in which the concept of God is regarded as something to be not merely ignored but opposed. Belief in God is seen as a bad thing, leading to ill-treatment of people. Here the accepted stereotype of religion is not the disciples washing the feet of the poor but the bishops blessing the guns. Here we find active atheism. This is the epidynamic, in politics Communism.

In the paradynamic phase God is, so to speak, finished with. Here atheism is not so much demanded as taken for granted. Anarchists are more inclined to joke about God than to attempt seriously to disprove his existence, and in the SPGB, if a member admits to a belief in any form of religion he is more likely to be expelled than argued with.

from Ideological Commentary 8, November 1980.