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Is ‘wokeness’ really the new religion? I find that hard to believe

Autor: Tom Boland

Some comparisons obscure more than they reveal; others tell us more about the people making the comparison. Consider the contemporary fashion for declaring that other people’s beliefs are “like a new religion”. Comparing one’s opponents to dogmatic zealots is not intended as a compliment. Indeed, making this comparison often reflects a very narrow understanding of religion. The emphasis is on blind faith, banishing heretics and moral crusades, rather than the complexity of different beliefs.

Ironically, this accusation is mainly directed at those who consider themselves non-religious. Andrew Doyle’s book The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World describes what he calls “the religion of critical social justice”. Similarly, John McWhorter’s Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America focuses on antiracism. These authors and many others declare that those they disagree with are not just mistaken, but cling to their opinions as though they were “gospel”. The “woke” or “social justice warriors” supposedly adhere to mantras, follow theoretical high priests and are on a holy crusade to convert everyone.

As far back as 1983, in his book The Battle for the Public Schools, Tim LaHaye compared secular humanism to a new religion which was infiltrating education, insidiously changing people’s moral values. Since then, the analogy has become a staple of the American culture wars; the left, feminism, political correctness and more have been dismissed as “new religions”.

Analogies can be illuminating, revealing the character of complex situations. They can also be reductive. An idea recently popularised on the political right is that left-wing notions of “privilege” – that is, accident of birth bestows unfair advantages – is a new version of original sin. This analogy equates the recognition of social disadvantage and the efforts to reduce this lottery of birth with Augustine’s idea that we are born guilty and sin constantly.

Crucially, by comparing one’s opponents to dogmatic zealots, it becomes unnecessary to engage with them. Critics declare themselves liberal pluralists, keen to debate, but insist their opponents are attempting to impose a belief system on others. This opposition is represented as akin to theocracy or Medieval Christianity. Ironically, advocates of free speech effectively instruct their readers to ignore competing ideas and not even try to reason with their opponents. This gesture is commonplace on blogs and social media platforms, a dismissive end to all discussion. Strikingly, those who use this comparison often say that actual religions are more open than the so-called ‘new religions.’ In a BBC radio documentary, The Church of Social Justice, Helen Lewis interviewed many faith communities who were open to feminist, queer or trans issues. By comparison she found some social justice activists intolerant, not of different faiths, but of different political persuasions.

Analogies don’t always work – they often conflate subtly different things. Social justice is far from the only idea which seeks to transform society rather than accepting the status quo; nationalism, neoliberalism and environmentalism have similar ambitions. For those making the comparison, religion is a private affair, which should be kept separate from politics, and social justice should be similarly restrained. Clearly, this perspective also ignores the transformative ambitions of many religions.

Essentially, the comparison to religion boils down to declaring that people you disagree with are either delusional or deliberately manipulative. Those on the left, feminists, anti-racists and so forth don’t often use the analogy of religion, probably because those who they oppose are often explicitly religious. For instance, calling pro-life activists “religious zealots” would just be a straightforward insult to the beliefs held by most, though not all of them.

A question for Willie O’Dea and Sharon Keogan: What exactly do you mean by ‘woke’? ]

This accusation – that one’s opponent believes in myths and has misplaced religious beliefs – has a long history. Ironically, it even has religious roots. Moses destroyed the “golden calf” his followers made while he was away. Old Testament prophets railed against false prophets. Jesus criticised the Pharisees and overturned the temple. Accusing others of being idolaters, who believe blindly in false gods, is central to Judeo-Christian religion. Iconoclasm – literally meaning the breaking of images – has transformed history. Those at the forefront of the Reformation, Enlightenment and revolutions declared that their opponents believed in false myths – from superstition to the divine right of kings. Today, iconoclastic gestures are almost routine.

Ironically, the comparison I’m offering here is also an analogy to religion. However, it does not reduce religion to the absence of thought but recognises the iconoclastic tradition which animates our public discussions today. My analogy does not dismiss the convictions of anyone as “blind faith” but does challenge anyone’s dismissal of their opponents as unthinking.

Religion is one strand of our intellectual inheritance. Furthermore, religion is varied. Rather than iconoclastically condemning opponents, wouldn’t it be better to forgive them? To recognise that they too have good intentions and values. Today, we still might learn from wisdom that is two millenniums old: “Don’t judge.”

Tom Boland is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at UCC

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