Sir Barken Hyena writes:
In the 18th century a revolution came to the world. Reason had proved itself the last word in truth for the physical, and the decadent aristocracy left an opening for sweeping change in society. For a thousand years Church and King, founded on myth, held nations together. Now, reason would take over. It was the birth of Ideology.
The failures and crimes of the aristocracy were known, and a new way was wanted. Now on the other side of a few centuries we are beginning to see the dimensions of Reason’s own failures and crimes, and perhaps the path of it’s demise. And we might roughly see the outlines of the answer to: what next?
Ideas were of course not new and religions are full of idea systems. Aren’t religions just ideologies? Wasn’t the change just to evict the God at the center and replace him with Reason? Many think so, and certainly the overlap is deep. But I think there is an important distinction when we regard each as functional systems that affect society and culture, rather than as paths to ultimate Truth, which neither possess. We will know them by their fruits.
In common both religions and ideologies have:
- Dogma: a set of assumed truths, not demonstrated.
- A creation story: an explanation of how the world got to it’s present fallen state.
- Destiny: a picture of the desired end state that corrects the fallen world.
- Taboo and Totem: assignment of the sacred and the evil.
- Belief tests: demonstrations of commitment to dogma.
There may be more but that’s a start. In addition to these, both also serve the function of drawing together, inspiring, binding and directing groups of individuals for purposeful action (Ibn Khaldun’s “asafiyah” or group spirit). Nothing happens in civilization without group action, civilization is in fact, simply this on a vast scale.
What differs is the means of transmission. Religion is communicated by means of myth speaking to intuition, ideology by ideas speaking to reason. One by way of heart, the other by mind.
Myth impresses the intuition with it’s mold and thereby directs the individual. It works from bottom up. By means of art and poetry, a moral order is conveyed. Daily repetition of myth and ritual from childhood implants the themes unconsciously. Thinking and questioning is regarded as the lair of the devil, which indeed it often is.
Ideology guides action through thought directly. It works from top down. The means here is by math, science and prose, not poetry. Formulas are devised to parse reality in the manner of an equation that, correctly applied, yields the path of correct action (though the equation never can be so applied, as we’ll see). Intuition is a temptress who’s siren call leads astray, as it often is.
I’m not concerned here with which is true, or more true, but rather with the character of each. Since no religion or ideology has won the near universal acceptance of Euclid, Newton, Einstein or Quantum Chromodynamics, I conclude none have delivered on their promise of revealing Truth. When only a few obvious cranks can be found to deny it, and that holds up for a thousand years or so, then we might have found it. Until then, I consider them all equally wrong.
Because religions and ideologies transmit through different means, they have different natures, and this is evident in the societies that emerge around them. Religions can persist in stable forms for centuries and even millennia. India, Egypt, China and others prove it. But ideologies are highly fluid, going through steady phases and progressions. Why would this be so?
Ideology has a defect as a creator of “asafiyah”: if the claim is based entirely on reason, then the ideology better square up at all points, to be believed. But freer thinkers are always exposing the logical defects to light, which need patching. Ideologies “evolve” because of this, and restlessly forget original aims in order to recast themselves as the next best thing, the answer to “x”. Past failures are propagandized under the rug. Over time an ideology can change to an actual opposite while retaining it’s outer features, like the way petrified wood forms.
Religions leave the Pandora’s Box of reasoning unopened by creating “asafiyah” with myth. A picture is painted of the righteous path, then you get it on it, if you can. As long as belief is maintained, undermining questions aren’t asked. It usually takes and invasion or colonization to replace a religion.
Since the 17th century when Reason took the lead, we’ve witnessed this steady shifting as in “progress”, however variously defined, and for we moderns it seems a natural thing. This makes ancient, pre-modern cultures seem oddly static and somewhat pointless from our perspective. They do not seem to have felt so themselves, rather, it’s certainly Modernity that’s marked by existential voids and suchlike. But that’s another topic.
In other words, that’s all because of kicking open Pandora’s Box. In my view, we’ve reached the zenith of all forms of Rationalism, the box is empty, and the task of the next few centuries will be putting it all back and slamming it shut good and hard. This will take the shape of epochal changes in all spheres of human activity, but a common force under these tectonics will be the restoration of myth as the heart of culture.