Via Malcolm Pollack, I came to an essay by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar in which surprising claims are made with which Pollack agrees but I don't. Deresiewicz:
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. [Emphasis added.] The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
[. . .]
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
Dennis Prager is another who considers leftism to be a religion:
For at least the last hundred years, the world’s most dynamic religion has been neither Christianity nor Islam.
It has been leftism.
Most people do not recognize what is probably the single most important fact of modern life. One reason is that leftism is overwhelmingly secular (more than merely secular: it is inherently opposed to all traditional religions), and therefore people do not regard it as a religion. Another is that leftism so convincingly portrays itself as solely the product of reason, intellect, and science that it has not been seen as the dogma-based ideology that it is. Therefore the vast majority of the people who affirm leftist beliefs think of their views as the only way to properly think about life.
I begin with Prager and return to Deresiewicz.
While I agree with the rest of Prager's column, I have trouble with his characterization of leftism as a religion.
It is true that leftism is like a religion in certain key respects. But if one thing is like another it does not follow that the first is a species of the other. Whales are like fish in certain key respects, but a whale is not a fish but a mammal. Whales live in the ocean, can stay underwater for long periods of time and have strong tails to propel themselves. Just like many fish. But whales are not fish.
I should think that correct taxonomies in the realm of ideas are just as important as correct taxonomies in the realm of flora and fauna.
Leftism is an anti-religious political ideology that functions in the lives of its adherents much like religions function in the lives of their adherents. This is the truth to which Prager alludes with his sloppy formulation, "leftism is a religion." Leftism in theory is opposed to every religion as to an opiate of the masses, to employ the figure of Karl Marx. In practice, however, today's leftists are rather strangely soft on the representatives of the 'religion of peace.' (What's more, if leftism were a religion, then, given that leftism is opposed to religion, it follows that leftism is opposed to itself, except that it is not.)
Or you could say that leftism is an ersatz religion for leftists. 'Ersatz' here functions as an alienans adjective. It functions like 'decoy' in 'decoy duck.' A decoy duck is not a duck. A substitute for religion is not a religion. Is golf a religion? Animal rescue?
An ideology is a system of action-guiding beliefs. That genus divides into the two species religious ideologies and nonreligious ideologies. Leftism, being "overwhelmingly secular" just as Prager says, is a nonreligious ideology. It is not a religion, but it shares some characteristics with religions and functions for its adherents as a substitute for religion.
You might think to accuse me of pedantry. What does it matter that Prager sometimes employs sloppy formulations? Surely it is more important that leftism be defeated than that it be fitted into an optimal taxonomy!
Well yes, slaying the dragon is Job One. But we also need to persuade intelligent and discriminating people. Precision in thought and speech is conducive to that end. And that is why I say, once more: Language matters!
Now let's consider the criteria that Deresiewicz adduces in support of his thesis that the elite liberal schools are religious. There seem to be two: these institutions (i) promulgate dogmas (ii) opposition to which is heresy. It is true that in religions there are dogmas and heresies. But communism was big on the promulgation of dogmas and the hounding of opponents as heretics.
Communism, however, is not a religion. At most, it is like a religion and functions like a religion in the lives of its adherents. As I said above, if X is like Y, it does not follow that X is a species of Y. If colleges and universities today are leftist seminaries -- places where the seeds of leftism are sown into skulls full of fertile mush -- it doesn't follow that these colleges and universities are religious seminaries. After all, the collegiate mush-heads are not being taught religion but anti-religion.
Pace Deresiewicz, there is nothing religious or "sacred" about extreme environmentalism. After all it is a form of idolatry, nature idolatry, and insofar forth, anti-religious.
Why would a critic of leftism want to label it a religion? Prager, who promotes religion, might be thinking along these lines: "You lefties cannot criticize religion since you have one too; it is just that yours is an inferior religion." Someone who opposes religion might be thinking along the following lines: "Religion is a Bad Thing, not conducive to human flourishing; leftism is a religion; ergo, leftism is a Bad Thing too."
This may be what is going on in Deresiewicz's mind. He is opposed to extreme leftism and thinks he can effectively attack it by labeling it a religion. This strategy encapsulates two mistakes. First, leftism is not a religion. Second, religion is a good thing. (I would even go so far as to argue that Islam, "the saddest and poorest form of theism" (Arthur Schopenhauer, reference and quotation here), has been of service to the benighted peoples who know no better religion: they are better off with Islam than with no religion at all.) There is also the question whether dogmas are bad for us.
But now's not the time to worry about whether religion with its dogmas is good for humans. My present point is that leftism is not a religion, and that no good purpose is served by confusing it with a religion.
Isn't This All Just a Semantic Quibble?
I don't think so. It goes to the question whether religion has an essence or nature. Some say it doesn't: the concept religion does not pick out an essence because it is a family-resemblance concept in Wittgenstein's sense. I say religion has an essence and that the following points are ingredient in that essence:
1. The belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Exerience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents. So it lies beyond the discursive intellect. It is a spiritual reality. It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out in the form of revelation.
2. The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53)
3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the unseen order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the unseen order. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences.
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready access to the unseen order.
5. The conviction that adjustment to the unseen order requires moral purification/transformation.
6. The conviction that help from the side of the unseen order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
7. The conviction that the sensible order is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the unseen order.
If I have nailed down the essence of religion, then it follows that leftism, which is a form of secular humanism, is not a religion. Leftism collides with religion on all of these points. This is not a semantic claim but an ontological one. And the issue is not a quibble because it is important.
In sum. We must try to think as clearly as we can. We must therefore not confuse what is distinct. Hence we ought not confuse leftism with a religion.