Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Acton University 2024 Mobile Banner

Religion & Liberty: Volume 31, Number 3 & 4

Thinking in an Age of Ideology

    We live in an age of ideology. The world is complex and hard to understand, so we look for a theory that can help make sense of things. This is understandable. Throughout history, people made sense of the world through cultural and religious traditions. But as the world has become simultaneously more connected and more secular, as our awareness of complexity has increased while religious and cultural traditions have weakened, people now exist with a heightened sense of uncertainty. Many of us are unmoored, finding it harder to make sense of the world—and making it more attractive to latch on to simple explanations. This need, along with several other influences, has created the conditions for increased ideological thinking and an inability to consider different perspectives.

    Ideology, of course, is not new. The 20th century was a battlefield of competing ideologies such as Nazism and communism. And while ideological fervor was quelled for a time, many of the conditions that fomented ideology remained, and ideological thinking infects us all—right, left, secular, or religious. Here we find ourselves only one generation after the end of the Cold War and the supposed “end of history,” and people are still grasping for some theory of everything.

    What is ideology and what are its sources? Ideology is not merely a set of ideas or principles that one believes in. We all have that to some extent, and it is essential to live one’s life. By ideology I mean a theory that purports to explain reality. One way to understand it is: Ideology is the opposite of philosophy.

    Philosophy—philo-sophos—is the love of wisdom and the pursuit of truth. A philosophical attitude approaches reality and tries to understand it. It is open to being shaped by reality and reverence before being. Ideology, on the other hand, tries to fit reality into its preconceived idea. The Greek myth of Procrustes provides a good image of ideology. Procrustes was a monster who had a hotel with a one-size bed. If the guest was too short for the bed, Procrustes would stretch him out to make him fit; if he was too small, he would cut off his head or his feet to make him fit. Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses this image to explain the side of effects of contemporary social planners.

    This is not to say that ideology has no philosophical basis. Often it begins with an insight. Karl Marx, for example, saw the problems of the working classes and tried to understand them. But with ideology, philosophy is ultimately dispensed, and theory trumps reality. One of the hallmarks of ideology is the suppression of questions. Intellectual coherence no longer matters when ideology reins. As Eric Voegelin and others have noted, when pressed with questions about parts of his theory that did not cohere, Marx argued that this was no longer a question for “socialist man.”

    G.K. Chesterton uses the image of the maniac—the man who moves from a genuine insight, which is why ideology is so attractive, to seeing this as the key to all of reality. This idea becomes a dogma that cannot be challenged. Though it may appear highly rational and internally coherent like Marxism or Darwinism, it ultimately rests on an erroneous premise, e.g., philosophical materialism or class struggle that is no longer held by reason and the intellect. It is an attachment of the will and desire. Think of an unreasonable prejudice like racism. The idea that one race of people is inferior to another simply because of skin color is clearly irrational when seen from the outside. But for the racist, it all makes sense. And anything and everything can be used to bolster his position. The same is true with communism. This is why, no matter how much we show someone that communism fails, it does not matter, because the theory—the idea—is an attachment of the will. Reason cannot reach the ideologue, and ideology ultimately becomes violent because it cannot withstand questions. This is why the East German communists had to build a wall in Berlin to keep everyone inside the workers’ paradise.

    Nor is this to say that philosophy never comes to solid conclusions about reality. Aristotle argues in his Metaphysics for the immutable law of noncontradiction: A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. But where a philosophical attitude can lead us to firm views about the nature of reality, its openness to being and the search for truth always allows for refinement and the encouragement of questions. A philosophical attitude is not merely skeptical. Philosophy argues that we can in fact know things, but that we must be humble in recognizing that our knowledge may be partial, whereas with ideology there is a hubris that claims it has discovered the key to reality.

    Western man is especially susceptible to ideology because of the deep influence of the Jewish and Christian traditions. This is quite complex, but one example is the idea of linearity of time —that time has a beginning and an end, and it is going toward an eschaton where the Messiah will set everything aright. This idea has penetrated deep into the Western psyche. Even when the West became secularized, this idea of the perfect kingdom remained, but instead of being realized by the Messiah, it will now be realized through a technical, political solution. The kingdom of God can be realized by man. Eric Voegelin calls this the “immanentization of the eschaton.” We saw it its most virulent forms in communism and Nazism.

    Yet despite the collapse of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, strong ideological tendencies still remain in the West. Alexander Solzhenitsyn identified a deep-seated philosophical materialism in the West that was not radically different from its Soviet counterpart in its view of man and God. And in the early 1990s, Joseph Ratzinger argued that though the Soviet Union fell, relativism did not die but combined with a desire for gratification to form a potent mix, and that “we must of course be aware that Marxism was only the radical execution of an ideological concept that even without Marxism largely determines the signature of our century” (Joseph Ratzinger, A Turning Point for Europe, Ignatius Press, 129-130).


    The Conditions for Ideology

    There are several key conditions for ideology. One, as I have noted, is simply the complexity of reality. Human beings don’t like complexity, and ideology provides the comfort of a sure answer. Another is the temptation of the philosopher to hubris. A genuine insight becomes the key to understanding everything. Other important influences that may sound counterintuitive include empiricism and relativism, and the influence of thinkers such as Freud, Marx, and Darwin, whose explanations of the world normalized the idea of a theory of everything. Let me address each of these in turn.



    In a homily just before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, said that we live under what he called a “dictatorship of relativism.” At first glance, this is counterintuitive. After all, relativism seems to be a theory of tolerance and lack of hubris in the face of absolute questions. But it does not turn out that way. Relativism is a rejection of truth; it ultimately closes the door to philosophy. Because there is no truth outside the mind, it is no longer possible to quest for wisdom. Relativism closes us off from being shaped by reality. Our minds and our ideas become the arbiter of truth and reality. Ideology is all that is left. Education becomes reduced to indoctrination. Relativism can only be a dictatorship, because instead of liberating the mind, it traps it in ideology.



    Similar to the problem of relativism is that of empiricist rationality or positivism. Empiricism holds that in order for something to be reasonable—within the realm of reason—it must be empirically verifiable. This creates two major problems: First, the empiricist position is incoherent on its own terms. The claim itself cannot be empirically verified. It is merely an assertion that, when questioned, has no answer. It must be rejected, or questions must be suppressed. The apparent exultation of reason is itself irrational on its own terms. It is ideological: It tries to fit reality into its own framework. Nor can it demonstrate why reason is good or why rationality is better than irrationality.

    Second, empiricism takes the most fundamental human questions—love, beauty, goodness, right, wrong, forgiveness, mercy, and justice—and relegates them to outside the realm of reason because they are not empirical. Love is thus reduced to a chemical reaction. Mercy is simply self-care. And as Ratzinger has noted, this causes a major problem for politics. Politics, he argues, is “in the realm of reason,” with the goal of creating a just society. But if justice is just an ephemeral feeling separated from reason, then politics is reduced to efficiency and ultimately power. Empiricism mixed with relativism sows the seeds of ideology and ultimately violence, since any objection must be suppressed through coercion and force.


    Theories of everything

    The third major influence in our ideological age is the predominance of theories of everything, especially in thinkers like Marx, Freud, and Darwin. These are some of the most influential intellects of the modern period, and each of them presented the world with powerful tools that purport to explain reality. Marx’s theories explained politics, economics, and human action though class and power, and promised a perfect society of equality and the withering away of the state. Freud’s theories explained human relationships as manifestations of subconscious sexuality and desire. And Darwin explained not only the origin of man, but psychology and society through evolution and natural selection. Today there are major disciplines like evolutionary sociology and psychology that use Darwinian and neo-Darwinian frameworks to explain everything from love, marriage, and family structure to economics, art, and culture. Each of these theories captivated the minds and imaginations of modern people and provided a framework of how to understand the world.

    The power of the theory of everything is so captivating that even those who reject such explanations almost feel the need to provide their own theory of everything to refute it. As a Catholic, I have seen this ideological tendency manifest among serious Catholics. Several times I’ve proposed the idea that while I believe Catholicism to be true and a reliable guide to operate in the world, it is not a theory of everything. The reaction was a reticence and discomfort to admit this. “But Catholicism does give us the answers …” Well, it gives us some, but it does not explain everything. And I don’t just mean chemistry or mathematics. It doesn’t provide a clear map of how to organize society. The resistance to this assertion, and I feel it too, is the sense that if we do not have our own theory of everything, we can’t compete in the tournament of ideas. Critiquing Marx or evolutionary psychology is not enough. We feel we need to have our own full-fledged alternative. This is how the ideological nature of our age can infect us.


    Is Religion Ideology?

    This leads to a serious question. Is religion different from ideology? Is not religion a type of ideology that purports to explain the world? There is always a temptation for religion to become an ideology, especially when it gets connected to politics. But properly understood and practiced, religion is not ideology, because by its very nature it is open to revelation. Religion is a simple response to reality. It may not be correct, but like philosophy, religion is a response to something outside itself, whereas ideology is a closed system. As John Paul II wrote:

    The truth made known to us by Revelation is neither the product nor the consummation of an argument devised by human reason. It appears instead as something gratuitous, which itself stirs thought and seeks acceptance as an expression of love. (Fides et Ratio)

    Second, and here I am addressing Christianity, though I think it applies equally to Judaism, religion does not claim to explain everything. God creates and calls us to participate in, and complete creation. We have to figure things out on our own. We have to use our intellects to engage in philosophical and scientific discovery. There is no full solution to the problem of life.

    Third, it is not utopian. Jesus does not proclaim to be a technical messiah who solves all the problems of evil, sin, suffering, and death through political means. Indeed, the message of the gospel is that Jesus dies for our sins and defeats death. But as we see in the Gospels, he had to rebuke his disciples numerous times for their attempt to make him king, for their attempt to make him a technical messiah. The Gospels do speak of the final times when Jesus will come again and establish the Kingdom of God. But in the meantime, we are called to participate in his redemptive work, and there is no perfect ordering of society that will solve the problems of life. That is only something that God himself can arrange. From the builders of the Tower of Babel to the French Revolution, the Nazis, and the communists, the desire to create heaven on earth is a recurrent theme. But Christianity rebukes the idea of a utopian political order.

    As Ratzinger observed in Truth and Tolerance:

    Within this human history of ours the absolutely ideal situation will never exist, and a perfected ordering of freedom will never be achieved. An ordering of things that is simply ideal; that is all around right and just will never exist. Wherever such a claim is made, truth is not being spoken. … Everything else, every eschatological promise within history fails to liberate us, rather it disappoints and therefore enslaves us.

    Fourth, while Christianity does proclaim certain absolute truths, dogmas, and doctrines, and requires submission of the intellect and will, it does not suppress questions. The asking of questions and wrestling with complexity is embedded in the Jewish and Christian traditions, from Abraham’s and Moses’ discussions with God to the debates in the Talmud, as well as the disputation method of medieval theologians such as Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas. And while this rule has not always been adhered to, any attempt to compel belief is a departure from the original vision of Christianity and its intrinsically voluntary character.

    At its core, ideology is an attachment of the will to an error that will admit no challenge to it. Thus, while it can be highly “rational” in a self-contained manner, it rejects truth and a broad vision of reason, while Christianity affirms them. John Paul II illustrated this well:

    Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

    So, yes, we must always be on guard against making religion into an ideology. But because of its openness to reality and revelation, as well as Christianity’s affirmation of reason and its rejection of man as the measure of all things, religion can be the antidote to the ideological temptation that poisons our time.

    Most Read

    Research Fellow, Producer of Poverty, Inc.

    [email protected]

    Michael Matheson Miller is Research Fellow and Director of Acton Media at the Acton Institute. With some ten years of international experience, Miller has lived and traveled in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He lectures internationally on such themes as moral philosophy, economic development, and social theory, and entrepreneurship. He is a frequent guest on radio and has been published in the Washington Times, The Detroit News, The LA Daily News, and Real Clear Politics.  He is the Director and Host of the PovertyCure DVD Series and has appeared in various video curricula including Doing the Right ThingEffective Stewardship, and the Birth of Freedom.

    Much of his current work at the Acton Institute involves leading PovertyCure, promoting entrepreneurial solutions to poverty in the developing world.  Before coming to Acton, he spent three years at Ave Maria College of the Americas in Nicaragua where he taught philosophy and political science and was the chair of the philosophy and theology department.

    Miller received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, an M.A. from Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development (Japan), an M.A. in philosophy from Franciscan University, and an M.B.A. in International Management from Thunderbird Graduate School of Global Business. He serves on the President’s Advisory Council of Aquinas College in Nashville, the board of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, and the board of trustees for Angelico Press