Leaving, Leaving, Left

March 30, 2010

Dennis Prager argues that Leftism is a religion.

Mark Steyn, as usual, is must-read material.

Meanwhile, Ramesh Ponnuru contemplates whether Progressivism is inherently self-defeating.

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8 Responses to “Leaving, Leaving, Left”

  1. to onoma mou Says:

    Leftism isn’t a religion. It’s an ideology. There is already a word for a secular value system. All he says in that piece is that leftist values or commands trump religious values or commands for a lot of admittedly not-too-religious people on the left. How does that make it a religion? At least Ann Coulter made a partly systematic, if goofy, comparison when she argued that liberalism was a religion: she picked a few characteristics of Christian institutions and tried to find parallels. I’m sure that both she and Dennis Prager are just being “cute,” but nowhere in that entire piece does he give any real reason to consider Leftism a religion, or like a religion.

    Further, the only conflicts he examines are Israel and abortion. He seems confident that Orthodox Judaism must be somehow incompatible with Leftism, but doesn’t even speculate about how that might be.

    In fact, if we consider at least one definition of religion I’ve come across (a religion is a systematic way of dealing with the problem of evil–however understood–in the world), then he wrote his own opposition into his article. He says leftism doesn’t identify and confront evil.

    What he means there, of course, is that there are certain things he understands to be evil and the left does not confront those, or use force against them. We might say that the Quakers are rather leftist in their pacifism, but they understand pacifism as a way of confronting evil (if they think violence is evil, say). Or maybe they would argue that thinking in terms of good and evil is exactly the fallenness of Man. So they’re a pretty fuzzy example. But even there, I guess, they are saying that non-relativist thinking is “evil,” after a fashion.

    But I’m not sure conservatism concerns itself with fighting evil either, exactly.

    One could make the argument that liberalism is at least a replacement for religion. But one would have to say the opposite of what Prager has said. One would have to say that a politically leftist set of values and notions about how the world works and what people are like is used to address the problem of evil in the world. That these notions are used by a non-religious person where a religious person would use religious teaching in determining how best to address problems.

    (Mark Steyn, as usual, is must-read material.)

    • to onoma mou Says:

      Did it turn my dashes into hyphens? Dash–dash? Hyphen-hyphen? Maybe they are just short dashes.


    • I can’t disagree with your argument that Prager hasn’t laid out a systematic argument for his claim that leftism (or “Leftism”) is a religion. At the same time, I would like to play devil’s advocate a little bit (well, poor choice of metaphor in this case, but work with me here) and argue that Prager’s meaning isn’t as difficult to discern, or as incoherent, as you suggest.

      As the beginning of your response actually acknowledges, or at least alludes to, I think the definition he has in mind of “religion” (and/or, shading into, of “god”) is a set of beliefs and values and a cause or Person to worship and serve, the beliefs and values being very strongly held (sometimes on “faith” in the face of evidence apparently to the contrary) and the relationship with the cause or Person being such that one is willing to sacrifice other things to Him—or, as he (and you) put it, such that those values “trump” other considerations.

      In other words, as I understand Prager’s piece, he is arguing that Leftism for some is a false god, an idol. As I understand him, he prefers this framework for understanding what is going on, rather than other terms like “ideology”, because he thinks “religion” implies a stronger “emotional power of Leftist values” and a greater willingness to sacrifice to them.

      One can imagine considering other definitions or aspects of religion and making similar comparisons with them—e. g., hope in heaven vs. hope in a quasi-eschatological future utopia on earth—but I can’t really claim that that’s part of what Prager actually said.

      Did you type your response in the Web browser, in the comment text box, or did you type it elsewhere (e. g., in Word) and copy and paste? If you typed a long dash elsewhere and pasted it into the text box as a long dash, perhaps that explains the conversion into a hyphen, which does indeed appear to be what WordPress did to your dashes, which is unfortunate. I think the typeface WordPress uses for comments on this blog does make dashes shorter than ideal—a sort of “N”-length dash, perhaps, as opposed to a full “M” dash—but if you type two or three hyphens and let WordPress convert that for you, at least you get a short long dash. I think you can get the same result by entering HTML code for a long dash, — .

  2. to onoma mou Says:

    It is apparent that we aren’t arguing about the content of his metaphor, or even the validity of it, but rather his execution of it. I would love to convince you that the article just wasn’t very good, but what good comes of that?

    But I do have some responses to your particular characterizations of his ideas.

    First: if he calls Leftism a false god, he is already assuming a particular God which isn’t false. In that case, he ought to argue from within Judaism rather than from without, because in that case he isn’t really saying that Leftism is a religion, just that people like it better than his God, and they ought not. Again: there’s already a word for something not God that people worship above God. Idol. He doesn’t need to call it a religion. The English language has its bases well covered.

    Second: What does religion have to do with emotion? This is a dangerous argument to make because it can hurt religion. Too often, people assume that religion exists simply to make us all feel better or more secure. Or that religious experiences and understandings are inherently irrational (or at least non-rational) and therefore not valid. I would like to argue that the purpose of religion is not to comfort us, and that religious thinking is incredibly rational. Indeed, the branch of “religion” I would most associate with emotion is the “spiritual-but-not-religious” branch which includes a lot of new age ideas or practices that people pick up precisely because these ideas are anchored to emotional states and/or make people feel better. (A far cry from the experience of being convicted of one’s sins.)

    Third: Your hypothetical other comparison which Prager doesn’t use is irrelevant because he doesn’t use it. But even that indicates a conflation of “religion” with “my own religion.” Hope in heaven is not a consistent, defining characteristic of all religions. And hope in “quasi-eschatological future utopia on Earth” is about the dictionary definition of postmillenialism–a protestant, Christian doctrine, which (apart from political leftism) impelled Christians in the 19th century to establish sweeping social welfare programs, and sometimes to try to do so through the government as part of a perceived responsibility to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth (because Jesus would come back after this). Just as the creationists conveniently forgot about Origen in their attempt to make an argument without actually saying anything, so Prager has omitted a lot of information from his argument.

    In the end, I maintain that his article argues not that Leftism is a religion, but simply that he thinks Leftism is in contradiction to Judaism (for reasons he doesn’t explain).

    Now: I do think it is worthwhile to compare some of the ideas or projects within liberalism to religions. I would like to draw your attention to a small newspaper from Spokane, Washington, which chronicles the religious and faith-based activities of its region. (By the way, I think this is a wonderful idea. I’d love to start something like this!) But note the following two articles:

    http://www.thefigtree.org/april10/040110earthday.html
    http://www.thefigtree.org/april10/040110mainmarket.html

    At least in the most recent issue, these are the only two pieces which have nothing to do with any religion, spirituality, or religious group. The one about “green” groceries, however, contained the following paragraph:

    “She likens the co-op to a faith organization: Both bring people together voluntarily to meet common goals bigger than the individual. Both help meet economic, social and cultural needs. Both have missions and encourage people to move past selfishness.”

    This is anecdotal, and I will leave it as is, without interpretation.

    Oh, and I just type directly into the little box. (If you think my arguments could be better structured, I’ll offer that this is essentially an unedited first draft. Free-writing.) I typed two hyphens hoping they would become a dash. Is there a key on the computer for a dash? — — —- —–


    • Responding just to your second point, I don’t think Prager was saying (and I wasn’t saying) that religion is supposed to make us feel better, but that people get emotional about religion—again, not in the sense that they’re swept up in the feeling of something or other during a praise-and-worship song (though that can happen, too), but in the sense that they’ll argue about things and care a lot about them. (People feel a strong sense of duty to do this or that, according to their religion, and that sense of responsibility has great emotional weight behind it.) Thus we are told that it is poor manners to bring up politics and religion in conversation, at least in certain contexts, because they’re bound to get tempers flaring.

      On the other hand, I suppose that convention supports your side of the argument, not Prager’s, because it clearly includes political ideology alongside religion in the category of things people get emotional about.

      • to onoma mou Says:

        That’s sortof the part in my “point two” about whether religious thinking is irrational. To say it thrives on our emotional reactions to things is to say that religious conclusions are less valid. Even I would say as much about some other issue if someone became very emotional about it. I would suspect (whether rightly or wrongly) that something other than clear thinking might be going on. But, yeah, according to such a definition, conservatism is a religion, too. Or is it liberated from those accusations if we can say it isn’t in conflict with our religious directives and is therefore beneath them?

        Keep blogging, Chillingworth! Thanks for the conversation.

      • to onoma mou Says:

        You are right: he doesn’t talk about emotion, exactly, at all, but about feeling. By this he seems to mean that we (they) (folks) intuit the right course of action. He does seem to mean feeling-not-logic. And he seems mostly to be talking about the sort of rhetoric the left uses (We care about the poor). It is unclear whether he means that people become emotional talking about their politics.

        So after a day of thinking about this and a good night’s sleep, I woke up to the following realization: I wonder whether we can have it both ways. Can we malign an ideology by accusing it of behaving like a religion without religion suffering collateral damage? Maybe this is the root concern beneath the distinction I tried to draw above between arguing from within a religion that Leftism is an idol and arguing from without.


  3. I cry uncle! Our discussion of Prager’s column is now officially longer than the column itself. (No, seriously, I just checked—our combined comments contain almost twice as many words as what he wrote.) So I’ll just say, You make several very good points, and Thank you for the kind words.


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