heterodox: the blog
Stop Calling “Wokeness” a Religion
Certain circles take for granted that “wokeness” is a religion (see examples here, here, and here). The popularity of this line of thought can mostly be attributed to Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, who wrote a now famous 2015 piece for the Daily Beast titled “Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion.” McWhorter has subsequently doubled down on his analysis in a soon-to-be published book Woke Racism, which he previously released serially on Substack (“It Bears Mentioning”). There he makes it clear that calling wokeness a religion is no analogy, but literal truth: “I do not mean that these people’s ideology is ‘like’ a religion. I seek no rhetorical snap in the comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion.”
And one can see why a person might think this. For many, wokeness bears more than a passing resemblance to human behaviors often associated with religion: emotional fervor, revivalist evangelism, unquestioned dogma, condemnation of heretics, rejection of logic, and the prioritization of keeping people in line over intellectual curiosity and exploration. While I do not deny that there are similarities between wokeness and some religious behavior, I take issue with the idea that wokeness is a religion.
This is not because I am offended that McWhorter would sully religion’s good name by associating it with wokeness, as he suggests might be the case. I do not think that religion is all “sweetness and light.” Religious people have contributed at least their fair share to human cruelty and evil. Rather, I object to McWhorter’s analysis because it obscures more than it illuminates.
Why Does It Matter?
What is at stake in whether we call wokeness a religion?
First, McWhorter’s analysis is liable to inflame tensions, not alleviate them. It’s worth pointing out that religious literacy is low in our society (see here and here). Consequently, many citizens’ grasp of religion rises only to the level of a caricature. It’s not obvious how helpful assimilating wokeness — a complex cultural phenomenon — to a caricature is in facilitating understanding across differences and lowering tensions between groups already angry with one another.
Second, the “wokeness is a religion” analysis is increasingly becoming a dogma of its own, taking the oxygen out of the room. One of the issues with dogmatic thinking is that it leads us to believe that a single analysis is sufficient to explain a complex phenomenon. Rather than saying it is like a religion in some respects, or suggesting that it’s a useful interpretive exercise to view it as if it were a religion, and then moving on to another analysis, “wokeness is a religion” is presented as definitive. Treating one interpretative lens as definitive stymies open inquiry.
Third, as I will develop below, McWhorter’s analysis seems to attribute specifically to religious people characteristics actually common to all people. This approach is something of a red herring, leading intellectuals down the wrong path — away from true understanding of a complex social phenomenon.
Is Wokeness a Religion?
So, is wokeness a religion? To answer the question, we have to specify what we mean by “religion.” Scholars of religion — historians, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, etc. — have spilled oceans of ink trying to pin down precisely what a religion is, without a consensus.
Nevertheless, one reasonable approach comes from the philosopher of religion Kevin Schilbrack. Schilbrack has argued (though he did have predecessors) that for something to count as a religion, it must have two elements: one substantive and the other functional.
Schilbrack’s argument combines insights from two traditions of defining religion. Substantivists believe what distinguishes religion is its unique content. The famous anthropologist E.B. Tylor claims that “belief in spiritual beings” is the distinctive element of religion. Later thinkers in this tradition have suggested variations of this, including belief in the supernatural or superhuman beings — in any case, belief in a metaphysical reality that transcends what we ordinarily experience (God, the Dao, etc.).
For functionalists, what’s distinctive about religion is what it does. In contrast to thinkers like Tylor, the sociologist Émile Durkheim argued that religion is that which binds people together into a community around whatever is considered sacred.
Scholarship on religion has consistently suggested that using either substance or function alone as a litmus test for whether something is a religion is inadequate. After all, we don’t usually consider people who simply believe in spirits or a group of intense sports fans as having a religion. Hence, Schilbrack argues that our definition of religion should include both as criteria. If a social phenomenon lacks either element, then it is not a religion; if it has both, then it is.
If we want a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as religion, Schilbrack’s analysis may be the best that we can do. So, we might say that a religion is an institution that binds people together around what is sacred, where “what is sacred” is something supernatural, transcendent, or otherwise ontologically independent of human activity.
Given this working definition, wokeness would not be a religion; there is no supernatural element.
Interestingly, McWhorter is aware of this particular criticism. He even seems to argue that there is a supernatural element to wokeness. McWhorter quotes Stephen G. Ray Jr., president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, “Michael Brown Jr. is and will be our shining Black Prince for from his death God has brought Life to us all and in his gaze we are enveloped in its power.”
Taken out of its theological context, this looks like the deification of Michael Brown Jr. But in the broader context of the essay, Ray is only suggesting that Black flesh may have an integral role in God’s plan of salvation and so ought to be thought of as sacred. The suffering of Black men and women, when it gives rise to a loving communal response, is thus interpreted as not only symbolizing God’s salvific work through Jesus but (quite in line with much Christian theology) participating in it.
So, McWhorter is right: What Ray expresses is religion; it is Christianity. But McWhorter’s claim isn’t that Christians are running amok; it’s that we are witnessing the birth of a new religion. I see no reason to think that wokeness itself has a supernatural element or is a new Christian sect, much less one that ought to be thought of as a separate religion. A Christian offering a theological reading of Black Lives Matter is weak evidence for McWhorter’s argument for the birth of a new religion.
More frequently, McWhorter argues that a social movement need not have a supernatural element to count as a religion. He writes, “We have traditionally restricted the word religion to certain ideologies founded in creation myths, guided by ancient texts, and requiring that one subscribe to certain beliefs beyond the reach of empirical experience. This, however, is an accident, just as it is that we call tomatoes vegetables rather than fruits. If we rolled the tape again, the word religion could easily apply as well to more secular and recently emerged ways of thinking. One of them is this extremist version of antiracism today.”
McWhorter is a top-notch linguist, so I’m a bit reluctant to criticize when he is speaking as an expert on his own subject. And McWhorter is quite right that there could be other timelines or “possible worlds” where we use words very differently. But if the argument for calling wokeness a religion is to have “analytic bite” (to repurpose Schilbrack’s admirable turn of phrase), he must mean that religion — the phenomenon, not the word — has a specific nature in which wokeness participates. But since wokeness lacks a supernatural element, it doesn’t share that nature.
To be charitable to McWhorter, I suspect that he means that it is only an accident of history that the word “religion” implies a set of beliefs and practices that relate to supernatural realities; it need not have. From the tenor of much of what he says in writing and various interviews and podcasts, it seems to me that for McWhorter, anti-intellectual dogmatism is the defining feature of religion. What he thinks religion is, I take it, is the binding together of individuals into a community of belief where some things or ideas are considered sacred and must be “taken on faith” and never questioned, even if they are illogical. In other words, McWhorter seems to think that this kind of functional definition is the proper way to define religion.
Two questions arise: First, is McWhorter’s functional definition of religion tenable? And second, is his analysis of wokeness illuminating? I think the answer to both questions is “no.”
Regarding the first question, using a purely functionalist definition of religion makes McWhorter’s assertion subject to all the criticisms that such definitions are prone to. With a functionalist definition of religion, virtually anything that binds people together into a community can be properly considered a religion. This makes the concept of religion so amorphous that it becomes essentially useless as an analytic category. Under McWhorter’s definition, sports, politics, and the opera could all become religions, as could fervent devotion to the sciences, provided that the people involved have unquestionable dogmas. Even dogmatic atheists would now have to be understood as members of a religion. I assume they would find this rather surprising.
To be sure, there are other ways of defining religion than coming up with a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. One might argue that there are no necessary conditions for calling a social phenomenon a religion; one just needs a set of features that are shared with prototypical religions, like Christianity. Sometimes McWhorter makes this kind of case, enumerating features of religion: There are priests, scriptures, a creation myth, original sin, an apocalypse, etc. But since his interest in these features seems to lie in how they function — as the source of or examples of what the faithful are supposed to take as unquestionable truth — this definitional strategy is subject to similar criticisms. For example, while McWhorter frequently claims that Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo are priests of this new religion, at best one could say that Kendi and DiAngelo are like priests in certain respects. The most obvious thing about priests — that they function as mediators between humans and supernatural reality — is entirely absent. The same could be said about the other features, like scriptures and creation myths, which usually catalog the activities of the gods or other transcendent beings.
As for the second question, when a person pejoratively calls something a “religion,” this often tells us more about their own way of thinking about religion than it does about the subject matter. Far from discovering that wokeness is a religion, McWhorter seems to be conflating religion with anti-intellectual dogmatism. (Chloé Valdary has made a similar point.) I think this conflation obscures the real issue. After all, some religions are not anti-intellectual or dogmatic, and some nonreligious groups are.
For example, are we to think of, say, Quakers (radical and free-thinking, if any group is) as anti-intellectual and dogmatic because they are part of the Christian religion? Or are we supposed to think that Quakerism doesn’t qualify as a religion? One could say the same about Daoists or Zen Buddhists. Conversely, in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, one couldn’t discuss lots of things — dogmas that were taboo to question. But the Stalinist and Maoist regimes were militantly anti-religion. Should we now consider them devoutly religious? If you question materialistic Darwinism publicly, you invite absolute scorn from Darwinists, as the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel discovered. Is materialistic Darwinism therefore a religion? Examples could be multiplied.
Since the dividing line between anti-intellectual and dogmatic versus not doesn’t map onto whether the group is a religion or not, calling such groups a “religion” obscures rather than reveals the real issue. Anti-intellectualism and dogmatism are not distinctively religious problems; they are human problems. The attempt to offload features of human nature onto religion — as if getting rid of pesky religion would solve the issue — conceals this fact.
Wokeness may be continuous in some respects with some forms of religion, but it also lacks important (if not essential) elements of religion. And the negative features often associated with religion are found outside religion as well.
We need to get into the habit of understanding analyses as interpretations. And we need to realize that any interpretation of a complex social phenomenon will bring certain features into the foreground, while pushing others into the background. This will encourage the idea that we need to look at complex social phenomena from many different perspectives. Perhaps it is sometimes helpful to read a social phenomenon — even an explicitly secular one — as if it were a religion or to argue that it functions like one. But then we should be willing to move on to other analyses. In this case, how does the phenomenon of wokeness connect with identity, tribalism, careerism and the iron law of institutions, sincere concern for social justice, and earlier forms of anti-racism?
For all of us, a little bit of intellectual humility and willingness to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty will go a long way toward alleviating some of the tensions surrounding the debates about wokeness. As for religion, it has been too readily available as a scapegoat for things that go wrong in society.
We have real social problems; we need more-nuanced social analysis. We need to stop calling whatever we don’t like a “religion.”
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