Politics as Religion

A commenter writes,

“Politics as religion” is such a lazy argument because nobody has a definition of religion. It’s classic case of defining the obscure in terms of the more obscure. By any reasonable definition, a religion needs a transcendent being. Where is the transcendent being of this “secular religion”? You can’t just say the passion level is so high that it has passed into religious territory. That’s not how it works; the beliefs have to actually be structured like a religion, whatever that would mean.

The term “religion” does indeed have too many connotations. So let us not start there.

Instead, let us speak of a subset of culture that defines a tribe at large scale. A broad set of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices constitutes culture. Narrow that down to a subset of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices that clearly define who is or is not a member of the tribe. Focus on that subset. For example, Jews eat gefilte fish, observe Yom Kippur, and don’t pray to Jesus. But only a subset of those (observing Yom Kippur and not praying to Jesus) are tribally definitive. The rabbis won’t question your Jewish identity if you turn down gefilte fish.

No tribe is perfectly defined by a precise list of cultural characteristics. But bear with me and think in terms of tribally defining cultural subsets.

A tribally defining cultural subset will (a) tend to empower adherents to obey, enforce, and regularly re-affirm tribal norms, and (b) lead its members to fear and despise people who are not members of the tribe.

Further comments:

1. Cosmopolitans (including progressives, libertarians, and conservative intellectuals) would say that, yes, historically, “fear and despise” was part of religion, but that is a bug, not a feature. Ironically, cosmopolitans start to look like a tribe that fears and despises people who espouse traditional religions. And yes, there does seem to be a fourth axis here: cosmopolitan vs. populist, or Bobo vs. anti-Bobo.

2. The role of a transcendent being is to help motivate members to obey tribal norms, for fear of being punished by the transcendent being (See Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods). However, belief in a transcendent being is not necessary to have a modern large-scale tribe. But it does seem necessary to have an out-group that you fear and despise.

3. Historically, major religions have usually fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe.

4. Usually, modern nation-states have fit this notion. There are those who say that nation-states were a better tribal bonding technology (so to speak) than belief in a transcendent being, and hence they made religion relatively unnecessary.

5. Finally, to the commenter’s point, I think that some political ideologies have come to fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe. The current progressive ideology seems to me to fit the notion particularly well. But the three-axis model suggests that conservatives and libertarians are tribal, also. Again, the emergence of the Bobo vs. anti-Bobo conflict has scrambled things quite a bit.

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14 Responses to Politics as Religion

  1. MattW says:

    When America was mostly Christian we had a common moral framework to start from and political arguments and viewpoints sprang from there.

    Politics as religion means people base their moral framework in their political ideology.

    That’s how I’ve understood it.

  2. BenK says:

    It’s lazy to duck the question of religion. Let’s take it by the horns.
    Any system of thought that answers questions of ultimate origins, ultimate ends, purpose, and narrative – is a religion. If a system of thought incorporates ethical or moral values (good, bad) it must be dealing in religion because it deals with purpose.

    Politics necessarily contacts religion. If the origins of things and ends of things are rolled primarily into politics (the end of France = End of civilization; progress towards good society = the purpose of mankind) then politics will be the dominant mode in a religion.

  3. Tom G says:

    “By any reasonable definition, a religion needs a transcendent being.” No. It needs only an object of worship, and a group of like-minding people who worship in a similar fashion, in an organized fashion.

    Belief in secular communism could certainly be considered “a religion”, with true believers, and idolization of Lenin, Marx, Mao, Kim.

    Communist true-believers, and every religion, do seem to satisfy the “cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe” criteria. Which I mostly like, yet not quite accepting the needs: ” to have an out-group that you fear and despise.” I don’t think the PC cosmopolitans actually fear the out-group, the conservatives and independents. Despise them, hate them, be contemptuous of them, be angry with them yes, pity them, be sad for them; but not really fear them.

    I think conservatives are more afraid, without most of the other emotions, or at least in a lower intensity for most anti-PC folk. (I know I fear them)

    The cosmo Bobo vs anti-Bobo populists are developing into another, fourth axis, tho still mostly Dem vs Rep at the voter level. Many conservatives think John McCain is more a Bobo Rep (RINO) than a real conservative. I’m not at all comfy with “populist” tho, because none call themselves populist yet the cosmo folk label all anti-cosmo talk as populist, and do so in order to despise it and dismiss it. I do think one shouldn’t usually accept the labels given by enemies.

  4. Nicholas Weininger says:

    George Orwell, IIRC, covers much of this same ground in “Notes on Nationalism”, noting that both religions and political movements can be “nationalists” in his sense, which is basically yours.

  5. CMOT says:

    Think of religion as a way of knowing about the world, compared to science’s way of knowing about the world.

    In science done properly, experimental data and/or repeated observations are processed into theories that make testable predictions.

    In religion the belief comes first and data are processed into theories that prove it.

  6. Dan King says:

    “Tribe” connotes ethnicity, which is also tied up with religion. Certainly Jews are held together not just by religious belief, but also by ethnicity. Protestant denominations frequently define themselves by ethnicity, such as “Swedish Lutheran.” Catholicism seems not to obey that rule, but on closer examination it does. Catholic churches in the US, for example, are usually easily identifiable as Irish, Italian, or Polish, etc., each with their own set of patron saints and community festivals.

    So I think “tribe” is not a very useful word to describe political groupings.

  7. Adrian Ratnapala says:

    The original commenter is certainly wrong that religion requires a transcendent being. Buddhism, for example, has no particular position vis-a-vis transcendent beings. But then Buddhism is a bit odd. Not because “it’s a philosophy, not a religion”, but because of its history of sneaking in under the radar by playing nice with whatever local belief systems it encountered.

    But the broader point aligns with what AK is saying, Buddhism is what it is because of an evolved strategy that has succeeded in causing a large, if loose, community of people to identify together as “Buddhists”.

    It’s telling that though Judaism most certainly has a transcendent being, that AK concentrates on the “tribe”. Some of my Jewish talking about about their celebrations sometimes makes Judaism seem like just the world’s largest and most successful dating agency. But it’s no less a religion for that: because in-group procreation is another strategy for sustaining a community I am talking about.

  8. Thucydides says:

    What makes leftist politics a religion is its millenarian dreams of a radical transformation of society that would abolish tragedy and contingency from our lives. Government is seen as the vehicle for the pursuit of the ideal, and serves as a vessel for hopes and aspirations, not merely as the framework for civil association.

  9. Matthew Young says:

    Politics is a defense so the other guy can’t use government agents and take your stuff.

  10. JK Brown says:

    I came across the paper below and found the quoted definition of religion to be very informative. Using it we can see politics as religion for those who see the state/government as a power greater than themselves.

    “No new-born babe or full-grown idiot has any religion, but every normally developed human being has. Whenever a man knows enough to distinguish the outside world from himself, and tries to act in accordance with this knowledge, he begins to be religious.

    “The first element, therefore, in religion is the recognition of the existence of a power not ourselves pervading the universe. And another is the endeavor to put ourselves in harmonious relation with this power. Of course the feeling or affective element is presupposed as coming in between the other two. For without it the endeavor would lack a motive, and could therefore have no existence whatsoever. Every sane man believes, at least, that he is only a fraction of the sum-total of things. He also feels some dependence upon this sum-total, and he is obliged to put himself in some sort of accord with it. This is what Caird has condensed into the statement, “A man’s religion is the expression of his ultimate attitude to the universe” (“Evolution of Religion,” Vol. I, p.30).”

    What Is Religion?
    Author(s): Frank Sargent Hoffman
    Source: The North American Review, Vol. 187, No. 627 (Feb., 1908), pp. 231-239 Published by: University of Northern Iowa
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25106079

    Murray Rothbard cited the pietist who came to see government as a means to for salvation upon society. My belief is these pietists split in the early 20th century with the modern Progressives being the ones that abandoned Christianity to take up Marxism as their doctrine and moved even more aggressively to using government as savior.

    “Now, it might seem as if the pietistic emphasis on the individual might lead to a political individualism, to the belief that the State may not interfere in each individual’s moral choices and actions. In 17th century pietism, it often meant just that. But by the 19th century, unfortunately, such was not the case. Most pietists took the following view: Since we can’t gauge an individual’s morality by his following rituals or even by his professed adherence to creed, we must watch his actions and see if he is really moral.

    “From there the pietists concluded that it was everyone’s moral duty to his own salvation to see to it that his fellow men as well as himself are kept out of temptation’s path. That is, it was supposed to be the State’s business to enforce compulsory morality, to create the proper moral climate for maximizing salvation. In short, instead of an individualist, the pietist now tended to become a pest, a busybody, a moral watchdog for his fellow man, and a compulsory moralist using the State to outlaw “vice” as well as crime.”
    –Murray Rothbard, https://mises.org/library/lysander-spooner-libertarian-pietist

  11. Handle says:

    The better word is “cult” (Latin: group that worships, and “worship” from Old English meaning the thing believe to be of the highest worth or the highest value).

    It doesn’t carry the baggage and automatic, irreconcilable debates that “religion” does.

    People will understand that use of “cult” in the sense one is trying to convey with analogizing a socio-political ideology with a religion, and know what you mean because they are already familiar with expressions capuring the impulsive, socially-influenced obsession with a cynosure such as “cult of personality”, “cult following”, “cult classic”, “cult mindset”, and “doomsday cult”. Wohlforth has a book on “Political cults”, and Murray Rothbard called Ayn Rand’s followers a cult as well.

    Using the word cult also emphasizes that transcendant beings are unnecessary components of this particular kind of general and common phenomenon in social psychology, and the same kind of behaviors and emotions regading maximization of the cult focal points will arise with or without gods.

  12. B.B. says:

    I would use “nativist” or “nationalist” as the opposite of cosmopolitan.

    It may be useful to make a distinction between an internationalist and a cosmopolitan, the latter defined by worldly experience and travels, a tribe that thinks itself as above the tribe. An internationalist, by contrast, only believes in engagement with other countries; he need not be cosmopolitan.

    Oddly, a BoBo “locavore” is anti-cosmopolitan.

  13. Ricardo says:

    I come at it from more of a Popper standpoint. If you tell me that you believe X, and you also tell me that there is literally nothing I could tell you that would make you disbelieve X, then “religion” is as close a word as any.

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