Everything is Ideological… and Everything is Labelled

Kester Brewin has a post about a new campaign brought to you by the “atheist bus” people. In this effort they pick up on a complaint made by Richard Dawkins that labeling children as belonging to any particular religious, political, or ideological group is somehow tantamount to child abuse. Of course we can all see the extreme examples of this, the kids of Westboro Baptist come to my mind as horribly mistreated props in Fred Phelps insane efforts. It seems easy enough to spot the dangers of the extremes.

A brief aside: I want to make it clear that I went to public schools and I fully intend to send any children that I have to public schools – what I am about to say is not any sort of pitch for homeschooling or Christian private schools. That said, it is impossible not impress one’s values on one’s children – and yes, this is an observation that homeschoolers and private religious institutions frequently make. Even if I differ with their solution, their analysis is fundamentally correct. The very value of religious choice – a characteristic of neo-Durkheimian and post-Durkheimian societies – arose out of the Westphalian system and its aftermath. Prior to this turn, one’s church was embedded in one’s identity with community, social order, and nation – Durkheim’s opponents after all were French Catholic Royalists. (Some more in-depth discussion here.) Thus religion was part of a broader construction of identity that could not – or ought not – be disentangled.

Insofar as evangelicals are, by definition, always trying to add to their numbers, both from non-Christians and Christians disaffected by their own church, it can be argued that contemporary evangelicalism is a product of neo-Durkheimian society itself. Nonetheless, giving individuals unfettered religious choice is a sort of late-Western value. (One that might have some ancient antecedents, but I haven’t the time to go into that right here and now.) At any rate, a commitment to at least some form of neo-Durkheimianism is something that the British Humanist Association (creators of the new campaign) and Western evangelicals share – whether or not either group is aware of it. Kester Brewin himself expresses his support for some kind of neo- or post-Durkheimianism stance towards religion by saying,

“Parents do not and should not see their children as blank canvases that they should not make any mark on. If they did there would be no education. It is the responsibility of every parent – and every society – to do its best to pass on the history and story of the family or culture they have come from – as long as this is then followed by an invitation to freedom beyond it.”

What the British Humanist Association is trying here is a classic trick that Žižek is often fond of pointing out: the effort to appear non-ideological or post-ideological as a way to smuggle some a priori ideology into an argument. For Žižek everything is ideological (on YouTube you can find his explanation of the ideological underpinnings of toilet design – I’m serious) and any attempt to appear non-ideological should be greeted with a great deal of suspicion as the “non-ideological” rhetorical trick often works since it allows one to accuse one’s opponents thusly: “Why are you being ideological about this?! I’m just proposing something here and now you’ve put your ideology in it.”

This ad campaign is an excellent example of the process: there is an advocacy for a particular sort of meta-religious attitude that at first appears to be non-ideological since is appears to be against imposing any sort of religious labels on children. As I’ve demonstrated above though this is an expression of a particular ideological stance – that religious choice – previously delegated to adults, should be extended to children as well. By saying that there should be no religious/political/ideological label on children, one creates and new sort of meaning for the word “children” that now means not only “younger persons” but also “pre-ideological.” Of course “pre-ideological” is a label that concerns ideology.

By saying that children should not be labelled by their parent’s ideology one is both applying a new label and making a statement about what said parents ideology should be.