It has become common among today’s conservatives to call environmentalism, socialism, militant feminism, transgenderism, and other leftist ideologies the modern equivalents of religion. Whereas in the past, people treated the central ideas of these movements as ideas like any other—that is, subject to discussion and evaluation—now, people must treat them with the same reverence and respect as they would with religion.
Considering the apparent zeal of climate change activists and social justice warriors, one can easily spot a few other similarities. Like religion, most of these movements have a transcendent idea akin to a deity, most have a community of sorts that will come together for a common purpose (mainly protesting), and most feature a kind of dogmatism distinguishing true from false believers. And, as exemplified with the 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, these ideologies now have their own saints.
Idolatry vs. Religion
However, the similarities end there, and insisting that people treat these movements like religions does a disservice both to religion and the movement itself. In truth, they are really false idols, idealized fixations devoid of much meaning. This makes them something less than religions, in terms of their intellectual and spiritual content. Nevertheless, they are still problematic and capable of corrupting civilization—particularly a civilization that does all it can to dispense with religion altogether.
At its most fundamental level, religion is a system of beliefs, in the form of a creed, while ideology usually consists of one belief, often in the form of a general notion. This leads the former to have a system of logic based on these core beliefs about God (a theology); the latter only has a singular belief that people can interpret however they like. True, people could do away with conflicting opinions in ideology by actually studying climatology or economics (as religious people study holy scripture and tradition), but few really do—and those that do would likely have different conclusions about climate change and socialism.
Instead, most adherents of modern ideologies focus on certain narratives: “Humans, particularly the ones in first-world countries, are destroying the planet,” “The system is rigged and the rich are oppressing the poor,” or “The white patriarchy continues to hold down women and people of color at all levels.” Where they go with this depends less on logic and more on how much they care. Those who care deeply become activists joining and organizing various marches and sit-ins; those who care somewhat become slacktivists who periodically post articles about injustice on social media; and those who care a little may just vote Democrat and blithely ignore arguments from the other side.
Although feelings are also important to religious practice, they do not constitute its foundation. Religious adherents do not follow a certain moral code, worship a certain way, or hold certain beliefs because this makes them feel good or look cool, but because they think they are true. The typical Catholic father who drags his young children to Mass might not feel much when he is there, but he accepts the truth that he fulfilling his obligation as a Christian disciple and receiving special graces from the sacrifice at the altar. By contrast, the typical hipster may reconsider joining his friends for climate protest if he doesn’t feel like it and wants to stay in and binge-watch Netflix instead.
The lack of theology, in turn, affects how these movements are organized. Because feelings predominate, specific people will become leaders based on their ability to inspire feelings instead of having actual credibility or expertise. Even if Greta Thunberg is a troubled teenager suffering from depression and Asperger’s Syndrome, or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is an actress who originally auditioned for the Justice Democrats in her run for congress, or Bernie Sanders is an old man who failed at every job except being a politician, they all generate buzz and make their respective issues exciting and accessible.
Normally, this kind of hierarchy would wither in the face of conflicting reality, but a well-funded media and new technology have pushed perception ever further along and effectively smothered reality. This is how so many young people genuinely fear ecological doom despite living in the best of times. This is how so many college students, perhaps the most privileged group in society, identify with the proletariat and hope to overturn the very institutions that made them so privileged in the first place. The messages they see and hear have normalized these fantastical notions.
How to Best Handle Modern Idolatry
All this poses unique problems for institutions looking to best reconcile these movements with the greater good of the community. They cannot disprove them because they were never actually proven. They cannot reform them because they were never actually formed. They cannot argue against them, because they are never actually argued. And, these ideologies cannot be adapted to philosophy or religion (as Pope Francis and his progressive bishops are trying to do in the recent Amazon Synod) because they are inherently incompatible with rational systems.
Rather, in order to best handle these movements based on falsehoods and propaganda, such institutions must create greater counter-movements based on truth and authentic experience. This was precisely what the early Christians did when they encountered idol-worship. They did not attempt to parse through the dense tangles of each culture’s false beliefs and mythology and make corrections; they proclaimed a coherent, all-encompassing religion to replace them. In answering the confused collective of people channeling their anxiety into idols, they offered a universal community based on charity.
Too many religious people today seem averse to confronting these idols, and most non-religious people are unequipped to properly identify and reject these ideologies as idols. Moral relativism and mediocre education have made all opinions and arguments equal and legitimate.
Many conservatives have rightly attributed the rise of fanatical ideological movements to the unfulfilled religious longing of people who live in secularized societies, but this doesn’t really explain the meaning of religious longing. Religious longing is the longing not just for ceremony, higher ideals, and shared label, but also a longing for truth, logic, and engagement.
People fall into these modern idols, however false and incredible, because there is no authority to offer something of substance. Therefore, the best way to lead people out of them is not reasoned rebuttal or disparagement, but a confident faith and honest friendship.