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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Column: Religion as power

The Anarchist

Ideology is what we don’t know that we believe.

This take on ideology comes from the Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek. He infamously gave the example of the toilet. German toilets are built such that the waste is clearly visible, ready to be inspected. French toilets are built such that the waste simply disappears from sight. This is supposed to indicate the contrast between French and German ideology.

The Germans want to look right into the face of the fact, be pragmatic, be real. The French might only want to pontificate on the fact of the matter. At least, this is the conclusion that Zizek drew.

Now, the whole point of the analysis of the toilet is to show that ideology pops up everywhere, in everything. It pops up most of all in the places that one would not expect: in toilets, in fonts, in diets, in the preferred level of complexity of a culture’s music, etc.

Human creations of every sort have messages built into them, telling us what to value, how to think, how to live.

These also happen to be the places where the ideology of the elite class is most blatant. We live in a world where a small section of the population makes most of the decisions that affect the entire planet. They shape the world the most.

If we look at the ideology built into our world, in all the unexpected places, we will see that things are shaped to instill in us an ideology of subservience. Groups naturally do what is in their interests, even without realizing it, and so the elite classes shape the world with their ideological interests built into it.

The only way these anti-human, hierarchical structures of power can exist is if the majority of the population holds views that will prevent it from rising up against them. Elite institutions coerce the society through propaganda, but even prior to the propaganda campaigns that constantly bombard us, there is a barrage of ideology in every moment of our daily lives.

Of course, as I frequently restate, there is no group hiding in a lair under a volcano planning this. This is how power groups stay powerful. They do whatever upholds or increases power, and so they create these effects without realizing it.

This should convince us that liberation could only be possible if we resist the ideology built into every aspect of our world. We could never fully escape it, but as long as we hold general skepticism toward this barrage of the elite class’ ideology, we should be more effective in reducing it.

We want to — in Marxist terms — destroy the ideology of the capitalist and replace it with our own ideology, that of the proletariat. Where should we start then? Where can we begin this ideological unearthing? Common sense would dictate that we start with the easiest target.

Religious thought.

Religious thought deals with our core concepts of reality. It also deals with our core concepts of morality. These are the foundations of all belief. If we can be convinced of a certain concept of reality or morality, then we can be easily convinced to take the action that naturally follows. We can be controlled.

To put it bluntly and concretely, it is no coincidence that American Christian churches tend to extoll the virtues of capitalism. Churches are massively powerful groups. They are hierarchies, operating in the power interests of those at the top. The most powerful and pervasive churches set the ideological agenda for all the churches. Since those at the very top of the church hierarchy are themselves members of the capitalist class, they reshape Christian theology to be pro-capitalist.

From Mitt Romney back to Jerry Falwell, the message from these Christian leaders (yes, Mormons are Christians) is that the free enterprise system is the fourth part of the holy trinity.

Remember, Christian theology has evolved immensely over the last 2,000 years. It is no coincidence that it has evolved to endorse whatever ideology catered to the elite class at that time. Church leaders were and are of the elite class.

What if Christian theology was hostile to hierarchy, despotism and tyranny? Then elite institutions would be hostile toward it. It would be reduced. It would lose power. It would be destroyed by the propaganda machine. Christian institutions do not want to lose power. They must acquiesce to the ideology of the elite class. Furthermore, they gain power by instilling pro-hierarchical ideology themselves.

Of course, this applies to the ideology pushed by every institution, but religious institutions deal most directly with ideology. So, we have reason to be most suspect of their doctrines. Even if we did want to follow a theology, we would have to, at every turn, examine that doctrine to ensure that we are not implicitly buying the ideology of the institution that crafted or disseminated it, to ensure that we are not being beaten into ideological submission.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid such ideological manipulation is to reject any theology.

BRIAN MOEN loves Satan and heavy metal. He can be reached at bkmoen@ucdavis.edu.


Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Slavoj Zizek’s name. 


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