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What Is A Religion?
The implications of "wokeness is a religion", plus a life update.
It’s been a busy few weeks. I’m back in grad school (third semester now) and have quite the course load, so I have not been able to post regularly. I have frozen all paid subscriptions, so if you have a paid sub, you will not be billed for this month. While I never promised anything (I have no paywalled posts) and I noted that paid subs were essentially donations, I felt weird taking people’s money and not writing anything new, so I won’t turn billing back on until I’ve settled down in my classes.
I am currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion. As some of you already know from my essay in The Free Press (which Substack analytics tells me a third of my readership also subscribes to), both my parents are pastors. Both my parents have graduate degrees in divinity (the study of Christian theology), so while other Christian kids were reading children’s Bible stories, my parents were reading the stories while also teaching me how to perform Biblical exegesis (critically interpreting the Bible through various lenses). Religion is something I’ve grappled with all my life.
Now, I’ve always been a major political junkie. I remember my teenage self watching Mitt Romney debate Barack Obama and being fascinated with the way politics worked as an institution, and I’d go around telling (and annoying) my classmates about libertarianism, my chosen political philosophy at the time (I am very far from libertarian today). Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between theology and political theory. I’m not the first person to ever link the two—Carl Schmitt, for example, (in)famously argued that the two are inseparable.
Lately, it is in vogue to say wokeness is a form of religion.. Over at The Atlantic, Helen Lewis has an essay titled How Social Justice Became a New Religion. In the Washington Examiner, Josh Christenson discusses The false religion of wokeness, implying that wokeness is like a religion but not an actual religion. Christenson was criticizing John McWhorter’s use of the word “religion” in McWhorter’s book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.
Here’s a quote from Woke Racism in which he discusses wokeness:
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. An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism. Language is always imprecise, and thus 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 recently emerged ways of thinking within which there is no explicit requirement to subscribe to unempirical beliefs, even if the school of thought does reveal itself to entail such beliefs upon analysis. One of them is this extremist version of antiracism today.
I agree with McWhorter that wokeness is a religion, and that concepts like Ibram X. Kendi’s1 version of “antiracism”, or the idea that people have “gendered souls” different from their sexes that even kids somehow “just know”, are religious beliefs. However, McWhorter’s analysis of religion itself is lacking. Despite being a linguistics professor, McWhorter never properly defines the word “religion”.
From my personal study, I know that the word religion comes from the Latin word religio, which referred to a drive—either resulting from internal or external forces—to act in a manner deemed virtuous. There needed not a belief in divine or supernatural beings to enforce religio, but simply a feeling of obligation or duty. The theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith uses the early Latin phrase religio mihi est (religion is for me) to describe how religion was seen in the early Greco-Roman world as a personal matter: one was religious if one had a duty in life, a purpose, that had to be fulfilled. Gods could be invented and worshipped at will to symbolize such a purpose.
It was not until the invention of the Christian Church—the ecclesia—that religio took on structural form, at least in the Western context. Christianity was unique in that it required adherents to believe only in Christ.2 Much of the Roman persecution of Christians happened not because of Christians worshipping Christ, but from the fact that Christians only worshipped Christ instead of putting Jesus on the ever-growing pantheon of gods.3 From this distinction, there had to be a word that could be repurposed to distinguish between belief systems: religion.4
So if we were to use the original definition of religio, then yes, wokeness can be construed as a religion. But that’s not how the term is used in our modern Western context. In Woke Racism, McWhorter doesn’t describe wokeness as any religion. He talks about religion as composing certain elements that woke people, or as he calls them, The Elect, have:
The Elect have superstition.
The Elect have clergy.
The Elect have original sin.
The Elect are evangelical.
The Elect are apocalyptic.
The Elect ban the heretic.
The Elect supplant older religions.
However, those aren’t the doctrines of any religion. There is no original sin in Judaism. Or Islam. Or Buddhism. Original sin is a Christian doctrine. Only Christianity covers all seven tenets McWhorter lists. McWhorter’s example of White people feeling guilty for the “original sin” of being born White isn’t just any religious belief, but one derived from Christianity. It is no surprise, then, that wokeness is almost nonexistent outside historically Christian nations—because wokeness needs Christian concepts like original sin to already exist to get people to believe in it. This is why many of the wokest people are “ex-vangelicals”—because former evangelical Christians that become “atheists” already have the mental foundation it takes to accept wokeness: I’m sorry for being born as an Evil Cisgender Straight White Male. I repent of my privilege and will Do Better so that I can achieve the salvation of being on the Right Side of History.
So, then, what does it mean to call wokeness a religion? In the vein of the question “If trans women are women, what is a woman?”, one can ask, “If wokeness is a religion, what is a religion?” What are people trying to say when they say that wokeness is like a religion or specifically like Christianity? How helpful is it to think of wokeness in a religious context and outside a religious context? Can religious beliefs be separated from political ones? Are all political beliefs religious? What is a religious belief? What is a religion?
These are questions anyone who compares wokeness to a religion must answer, and something I’ve been pondering a lot about in my studies. In the meantime, feel free to give your definition of religion in the comment section below. People will all have different definitions, and one’s personal definition can say a lot about their relationship to religion.
Interestingly enough, Kendi’s parents are both pastors. I suppose evangelizing runs in the family.
Jews avoided such persecution for a few reasons, namely that Jews were viewed as a people, that Jews did not proselytize, and that Jews paid a special tax (that Christians refused to pay).
A similar persecution happens in China today: while Christianity is technically legal, all worship must take place within government-backed churches, and all teachings must be approved by the government. However, some Chinese Christians refuse government-sanitized Christianity, seeing it as not the true Gospel, and worship in secret “house churches” at the risk of prison time if discovered.
Even then, religion was still defined in terms of social grouping. It was not until the Protestant Reformation that religion became defined as a set of doctrines to be personally held: that an individual could “be religious”.