The Difference between Ideology and Theology?

Rigorously recognizing one might make our politics less heated.

Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

The way people talk and write about theology and ideology these days, no real distinction seems to be made between the two. Especially, any theology seems to be taken to be a kind of ideology. To my mind, they are very different things and need to be kept separate in discussions about both of them.

So, what is a theology? A theology is an explication of a religion for the purposes of regulation and dissemination.

That raises the more difficult question: what is a religion? I would say that the definitive characteristic of a religion is that it is concerned with identifying what is sacred. God, along with ‘the inspired word’ from or referring to God, or gods have been at the center of most religions. People have also identified some or all of nature as ‘the sacred’, to include life itself, in any form.

One feature of every religion is that is explicitly based on one or more beliefs. Beliefs are a kind of knowledge. They are assertions of knowledge that in one way or another transcends material existence. Any assertion of sacredness intrinsically entails belief.

All beliefs are assertions of knowledge that cannot be amenable to being evaluated, much less judged as valid or not by our rational faculty as human beings. Any human being can accept or reject any belief. To accept it is to assert its validity for oneself and to reject it is to render it invalid for oneself. That is the nature of beliefs. (People do need to keep in mind that no one’s acceptance or rejection of any belief makes it valid or invalid for anyone else.)

Ideologies are also based on beliefs. There are (to this point in human history) three generally recognized meta-ideologies: Liberalism, Fascism, and Marxism. Each has spawned narrower political ideologies. Liberalism is based on believing in human equality and the existence of a priori Rights, to include the Rights to life and liberty. Fascism is based on the belief that some group is inherently superior to all other human beings. (A person who isn’t a member of that group might be allowed to be an adherent, even if that person can never be an actual member of the group.) Marx claimed that his ideology was a ‘scientific’ explanation of human history that allowed an inerrant prediction of the end-state of civilization; personally, however, I am convinced that Marx was a radical equalitarian, making his meta-ideology as belief-based as the other two are.

[“Ideology” was a term Marx and some of his fellow classmates in graduate school explicitly adopted to emphasize the distinction between their output and theology because what they were producing was — supposedly — not based on any belief. I would argue that he projected a belief in equality onto an interpretation of history that would support the vision he had for the end-state of civilization — which was in a very real sense the Liberal dream come true, to include the ultimate liberty, where “the state” had “withered away.” As I see it, then, Marx was in a sense the penultimate Liberal. (He developed the notion of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” as a political tactic to hasten the pace of human progress; Lenin — and others — thought that a Party dictatorship should be used to produce the concomitant ‘necessary changes’ in human beings; the psychopathic Stalin — and others — got hold of the political machinery thus erected and used it for maniacal purposes.)]

To my mind, then, all ideologies, like all theologies, have as a starting point some belief(s). For theologies those beliefs are sacral; for ideologies those beliefs are secular.

So, if theologies and ideologies are both based on beliefs, what distinguishes the one from the other? I’m saying it is this: the primary focus of theologies is the individual, whereas the primary focus of ideologies is society.

Given the social nature of human beings, it would be impossible to leave out altogether any references to or implications for society in a theology. Even so, the primary concern of any theology is the individual human being, to include the proper attitude towards the sacred as well as relations with other human beings and, to a greater or lesser extent, the rest of the world.

The primary focus of ideologies follows from the social nature of people. Specifically, ideologies are primarily concerned with how society should be organized and function: i.e., governed. So ideologies are belief-based notions as to what should govern the governance of society and how it should be applied in practice. To be sure, there are implications for the behavior of individuals contained in every ideology, but the primary concern of an ideology, as opposed to a theology, is society as whole.

These days, people are fusing ideology and theology. Theology is promoted an ideology and ideology is promoted as something sacred. Recognizing the two as separate and distinct abstract constructs, each with its place in life, both a matter of personal belief, might help to lower the political heat.