My former student Carolyn Homer has written a characteristically thoughtful and passionate post arguing that Trumpism is akin to a religion. Others have argued that Wokeness is essentially a religious movement, or that both Evangelicalism and Wokeness are. And one can find critiques arguing that economics is a religion or that libertarianism is a false faith. Secular humanism can be a religion too. These arguments do not all claim that ideologies are religious in the sense that they take positions on the superhuman power of God, but that ideological movements are often similar to religious movements in their organization and in that their belief structures ultimately reduce to assumptions that are matters of faith in the relevant communities.
Humans use essentially the same cognitive processes to derive their religious beliefs and their ideological views. Because individual experience is limited, many of our beliefs are based on decisions to place faith in the conclusions of others. Often, we believe that groups of thinkers are worthy of epistemic deference because we know people in these groups and believe based on our first-hand experience with them that their beliefs are genuine and that they are unlikely to be trying to deceive us about their views. This helps explain why people often have views similar to those of other people in their community. It is not just that we are more exposed to the views of our friends and neighbors (though that is surely important as well), but also that we tend to trust our friends and neighbors. It also helps explain why individuals who feel less comfortable socially in a community are more likely than others to reject that community’s ideological or religious beliefs.
I do not mean this merely to be a claim about other people’s beliefs. It is very much a claim about my own beliefs. For example, I have great confidence in my own views of climate science, specifically that the best evidence indicates that anthropogenic global warming is occurring. But that is not based on any detailed study of the models that climate scientists use. Rather, it is based on an assumption that climate scientists are unlikely to be engaged in a global hoax. This is a belief that I can hold with great confidence even though I also think that there is probably some incentive for conformity and groupthink within the relevant community and that it may be more difficult to publish research suggesting that climate change is a little milder than feared than researching suggesting that climate change is a little worse than feared. If I engaged a climate change skeptic whose knowledge level was similar to mine, we would probably deadlock in arguing about the incentives of the scientific community, more than on the actual science, since neither of us has much more than a superficial knowledge of the scientific studies on this issue. I would like to think that if I devoted sufficient time to educating myself, I would be able to explain in clear detail how the climate change skeptics are misusing evidence, but I must confess that if I today watched a 10-minute video by a climate change skeptic citing various studies, I probably would not know enough to lay out the counterarguments.
When one recognizes that one’s own views inevitably depend on matters of faith, should one discard those views? Consider Aumann’s agreement theorem, which shows that if rational agents have common knowledge of each other’s beliefs (meaning that each believes that the other believes that the first believes what the other’s beliefs are and so on to infinite regress) then they cannot agree to disagree. Imagine, for example, that in thinking about some ideological or religious issue, I could place all the parts of my brain that form my reasoning on that issue into a box, which I could then interrogate for the answer to what I think about that issue. For example, I can’t remember what I believe about climate science, but my box tells me that I believe that anthropogenic global warming is very likely. But I can see that your box says that you believe that anthropogenic global warming is very unlikely. Assume that I think that the brain in your box is mechanically every bit as good as the brain in my box. In such circumstances, it’s easy to see that I should be no more disposed to think that anthropogenice global warming is very likely than than that it is very unlikely. There is no reason that I should favor the answer from my own box than from yours, any more than I should assume that my computer is giving me the correct result if your computer and mine surprisingly give different answers to a particular floating point operation.
But I can’t place the parts of my brain that resolves particular issues in a box (at least without doing considerable damage), and more importantly, I cannot verify when you tell me your view on a particular issue that you are honestly reporting your view on that issue. When I interrogate my own view, I may recognize the possibility that my views are the result of subconscious psychological processes and self-deception, but at least I know that my views are not the result of conscious deception. Thus, I should have at least some greater confidence in my own views than in the views of any other person, all else equal, particularly if I believe that my views already place appropriate epistemic deference on the views of others. That is enough to save each of us from paralysis; I can hold beliefs, even beliefs that a majority of others reject. But it should reinforce that each of us is using a remarkable but imperfect machine to generate our beliefs, that we are all motivated reasoners who do not understand our subconscious motivations, and that many people are probably genuine in holding beliefs that we think are clearly wrong or even evil.
All of this analysis extends to my religious beliefs as well as to nonreligious ideological views. I belong to a Jewish congregation that emphasizes egalitarianism, and I do not believe that God intended for women to be excluded from positions of power either in religious organizations or in secular society. But of course I have friends who are adherents of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths that insist on different roles for men and women in at least some domains. I respect these friends and their beliefs, even though I do not agree with them. Most of us, I believe, are inclined to respect those of other religions, not only those who engage in different faith traditions (do you give presents for Christmas or Hannukah?) but who actually have different beliefs (do you believe that Jesus is the son of God?). Many people today accord more respect to those of other religious faiths than to those of other ideological beliefs, even though one might argue that the range of religious beliefs is much greater than the range of ideological views.
So, yes, ideology is like religion, but this should be cited as a reason to respect the views of others rather than to condemn them. It may be appropriate in deciding whether to grant credence to others’ views to assess whether they arrived at those views through some process of isolated impartial reflection or through social processes. But we should resist the temptation to conclude that our views reflect impartial reflection while others’ views are the product of social processes. We should explain when we believe our opponents are wrong and why. But our politics and our society would be better if we recognized that our own views are fallible and that even those we regard as fundamentally misguided may be genuine in their views and may even be employing reasoning processes that foundationally are similar to those that we ourselves are employing.
Founded in 1968, Reason is the magazine of free minds and free markets. We produce hard-hitting independent journalism on civil liberties, politics, technology, culture, policy, and commerce. Reason exists outside of the left/right echo chamber. Our goal is to deliver fresh, unbiased information and insights to our readers, viewers, and listeners every day. Visit https://reason.com