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Religion: Ideology and Utopia

Posted on: October 24, 2021

Category: Theology

Religion: Ideology and Utopia

In the 1970s, sociologists distinguished between ideological and utopian forms of religion. The distinction was based on two German words used for social analysis in the late nineteenth century, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. These two German words are often found in English dictionaries, but it remains a challenge to find the best way to trap their meaning in English equivalents.

Gemeinschaft has mein stuck in the middle of it, and that sounds like the English mine. Mine has nothing to do with the German word, but for an English speaker, mine can work like a little signal to prompt the meaning of the German. Gemein in German means “common,” but mine in English reminds us that the German word Gemeinschaft means something more personal or more intimate than the other word, Gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft is usually translated as community, but it is more like communal identity. It is an identity that means something to me on the level of intimacy with a group, shared values and symbols, and solidarity. It is “my” people. Religion understood as Gemeinschaft is religion understood as the intimacy of a shared or collective identity.

Gesellschaft is a harder word to relay in English, and I do not have a trick to translate this one or relay its sense. Gesell in German means a friend or companion with whom you are in some way joined. If you see the expression “gessellen sich zu” somebody, you can translate that as “join in with” somebody. Since schaft is usually translated into English with the suffix “ship,” Gesellschaft means companionship. However, the word when used technically means something like “social complex” in English—often simply translated as “society.” Religion understood as Gesellschaft means religion understood as a type of system of belief (a society of belief).

It is probably not exciting to read about the difference between these two German words, but they do play out in the understanding of religion. In English, the distinction can be made between religion understood as utopia and religion understood as ideology. I think this distinction remains very important. It is worth some reflection.

Gemeinschaft and utopianism go together because religion as part of an intimate group identity holds the symbolic power of solidarity. It is religion as solidarity that accounts for its radical, or potentially radical, nature. Radical can, of course, be positive or negative. There is radicalism on the left and on the right. In the Bible, the radicalism of religion is related to the solidarity of God with the poor, the despised, and the oppressed. The biblical God is in solidarity with the oppressed, and from the view of the oppressed arises utopia—a different place, a “nowhere,” away from here.

In the Exodus narratives, religion as solidarity is expressed in the solidarity of slaves who dream of and travel to a promised land. With the historical Jesus, utopia is expressed in parables where strange things take place and altered symbols are used to envision another way the world could be. Religion as utopia is prophetic religion; that is, it is religion understood as the critical voice in society that pictures an oncoming just world. Unfortunately, religion is ambiguous. Sometimes the utopia envisioned within a solidarity group is not pleasant and not about justice.

The other way that religion appears in society is as ideology, and this is religion as a system, as a Gesellschaft. Religion as a system is religion as an interrelated body of beliefs that plugs into politics. In the seventeenth century, when the European nations were rising from the Middle Ages, religion worked in this way. Protestant and Roman Catholic expressions of Christianity were glued to the nations in which they dwelt. It is still possible today to travel to Germany and to notice the cultural differences between the Protestant North and the Catholic South. Religion understood as a system of belief is religion understood as the arm of government. Religion becomes useful either to build up or to maintain the complex nature of a political order. The way that God is used in politics, still today, is evidence of the way religion remains an ideological companion (Gesell) of the state.

Religion as ideology means that society as a whole, outside of groups, focuses on collective symbols to inspire national identity. Christianity in its specific denominations (Gemeinschafts) does not provide this focus, but the general sense (Gesellschaft) of the Christian God does provide such focus in expressions like “God and country.” Of course, there is ambiguity here, too. As an ideological system upholding society, religion can unite broad, multi-cultural identities in the collective network of the state. On the other hand, religion as ideology can tie itself to one expression of politics. It can unite people of diverse backgrounds to a specific political agenda. In this regard, it is impossible to avoid mentioning the religious Right and its divisive social agenda as a prime example.

Sociologists are good at analyzing the forms and presence of religion in society. Sometimes sociologists can point out where religion resides underneath what otherwise appears secular. But do the sociologists have any solutions? Do they help us, when making a distinction between religion as utopia and as ideology, answer questions about the future of religion or about its value (or lack of value)? Sometimes sociologists simply conclude that whenever human beings form societies, religion in one form or another is inevitable. There’s not much we can do about it.

Theologians should appreciate sociologists and should learn from them, but a theologian is not likely to be satisfied with the conclusion that religion is inevitable, like it or not. I think a theologian takes a more proactive view. Religion may be inevitable, but it is our human creation. Accepting religion passively as the fate of humanity does not enable the critique of religion, particularly when religion goes bad. Religion is a human poetic. It is an invention of cultures, and it is expressive of alternative futures. Like any form of poetry, religion holds metaphors capable of recasting the social imagination, and it can do so both personally as Gemeinschaft and broadly as Gesellschaft. But like any human creation, religion needs to be handled with care. It is quite capable of making us believe in delusions. It is incredibly agile when it comes to inspiring hatred. Even if religion is inevitable in one form or another, this does not make religion acceptable in any form.

The role of a theologian is not to believe something. A theologian is not an official believer. Neither is the role of a theologian to defend religion. A theologian is a thinker about religion, and the most important thing to think about is how religion is abused. It costs us personally and it costs us socially when religion goes wrong.

-- ©By David Galston

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