Beliefs in society:Ways of seeking the truth – ideology, religion and science

What is an ideology

An ideology is a set of ideas and values shared by a social group. It offers a particular way of seeing the world although it usually only presents a partial view. It tends to legitimise the interests of a particular social or political group and tends to be secular. 

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Religion and ideology

Religion has five main characteristics (or features): 

1. A belief in the spiritual or supernatural:  some sort of God or Gods, or possibly symbols (sacred objects representing the supernatural – holy water or totem poles).

2.Theology:  a set of teaching and beliefs based on a holy book.

3. Practice:  a series of rituals or ceremonies to express religious beliefs.

4. An institution:  a place of worship (building) alongside a formal hierarchy.

5. Moral code: values that guide and influence everyday life (the ten commandments). 

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Marxists and ideology

Marxists believe that religion is an ideological tool used by the ruling class to oppress the proletariat. Marxists argue that there is a dominant ideology which gives the ruling class power over others and that it is this ideological influence that has the most control over us. Althusser said that the ruling class achieve this through the ideological state apparatusessuch as the family, education and religion which all help to spread the dominant ideology. Gramsci went one stage further and argued that the ruling class are particularly crafty and get people to accept their views by brainwashing them rather than by using force. This is known as ruling classhegemony. Therefore, it can be argued that religion is used in an ideological way to support ruling class ideology and the oppression of the proletariat.  It is also argued by many that religion is ideological in other ways, for example, it is ideological religious views that underpin terrorism.

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Feminism and ideology

Feminists point out how patriarchal ideologies in religious beliefs have also been used to define women as inferior.  Ideas about women being unclean or impure due to menstruation and childbirth are not uncommon in certain religions.  Therefore, it can be seen that patriarchal ideology is often transmitted through religious and scientific systems – they are both tools used in an ideological way to oppress women. 

However, not all elements of religious belief systems subordinate women.  For example, in Hinduism goddesses have often been portrayed as mothers or creators of the universe.  

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Religion-a closed belief system

Religious organisations claim to have religious knowledge based on God’s authority, and as such, cannot be challenged.  While Robert Horton (1970) sees science as an open belief system, he sees religion as a closed belief system, making claims that cannot be overturned.  Whenever its fundamental beliefs are challenged, closed belief systems have a number of ways to reinforce the system and, in the eyes of its believers, prevent it from being disproved.

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Self-sustaining beliefs

Polanyi (1958) argues that belief systems have three devices to sustain themselves:

  • Circularity:each idea in the system is explained in terms of another idea within the system and so on, round and round.
  • Subsidiary explanations
  • Denial:belief systems reject alternative views. For example, creationism rejects the evolutionists’ knowledge claim.
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Science

Science is a way of seeing the world that is quite unlike religion and ideology because it aims to beobjective (avoid all bias) and value-free (no personal intervention by researcher) by using research methods which provide empirical (observable) evidence. In other words, it involves ideas which are not based on faith but on evidence which is open to challenge by others.

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Khun

Khun, however, challenges Popper’s view of scientists as truly objective. He argues that scientists work within a paradigm which is rarely questioned until it has been proven to be wrong. A paradigm is a set of values and assumptions which guide how scientists go about their research. In medieval times, the dominant paradigm was that the world was flat and any scientist who tried to argue otherwise was sentenced to death. Scientists try to fit their findings into the existing paradigm rather than trying to disprove their hypotheses. 

In addition, scientists are not always as objective as they claim to be because they are influenced by their personal values, as well as their desire to get published and famous.

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Science, race and ideology

Science is another institution that has been used in an ideological way to oppress certain groups. The biological concept of race as we know it had its modern roots when social Darwinism was embraced by many scientists.  Darwin was convinced there were profound differences in mental ability between the races. He regarded Negroes as barely human at all. 

Many of the early evolutionists were outspoken racists, and racial inferiority views were assumed to be proven, and thus were not a subject of debate or concern. This proof came from scientific experiments that involved seeing how much sand could be held in a skull; white skulls held more sand so it was very clear that this meant they had bigger brains.  This evidence was then used to justify enslaving non-whites.

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Gender and ideology

 

Gender differences exist in all societies; therefore there are many ideologies to justify it.  Marks (1979) describes how ideas from science have been used to exclude women from education.  She quotes from nineteenth century doctors that claimed that educating women would prevent them from nurturing the next generation; higher education would result in women being unable to suckle infants.  This again shows the ideological nature of scientific views.  

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Postmodernity's challenge to science

As we have moved into the post-modern era, science has been seen as increasingly limited in its ability to explain everything. The more that the scientific method has taught us, the more we get to know its limitations.

Science has brought about its own problems such as pollution, global warming and weapons of mass destruction so religion is beginning to appeal to many as they perceive that science has let them down. Membership of the world’s big religions remains strong. People continue to hold a range of religious and supernatural beliefs and many of the world’s conflicts have a religious basis. A lot of people believe in God, magic, ghosts, horoscopes, good luck charms and so on. Postmodernists, like Lyotard argue that the modern world is characterised by chaos and uncertainty. They argue that the metanarratives have all come under question and they include science, religion and ideology. There is no longer one accepted theory of how the world works in the way that there was certainty in the past.

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EVALUATION

However, while people may reject science and turn to NAM’s to improve their lives in a more spiritual and holistic sense, appearance is more important than it’s ever been.  The market is saturated with products designed to make us look and feel younger. This influence, this ideology, whether we recognise it as such or not, is science. Another area where we are still very much influenced by scientific thinking is health. While many may have a strong faith in God, not many would reject medicine and put trust in God to heal them. This suggests that we are influenced by multiple ideologies, although one may have more influence over us than another.

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Political ideology

It used to be that we took an interest in UK politics because it influenced UK people. Today, globalisation has led to decisions made in one country having a domino effect on the rest of the world. We can see this very clearly in American politics.  The world has its eyes on the American Presidential Election and the surprising success of Donald Trump.  It is argued that political ideology influences us to a greater degree than realised. While it is doubtful whether this influence can even be compared to the influence that religion or science may have, it can be argued that it is more influential than it ever was.

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