51 Comments
Sep 8, 2023Liked by Sheluyang Peng

A friend recently remarked to me that we live in a Puritanical age. I find this very insightful. It seems to me that we are indeed looking at the template of Calvinist religion as it has been developed and secularized over the generations into the American culture of liberal high-mindedness and duty. The Godly of today are deeply engaged in the distinctive sin-contrition-atonement cycle of thePuritan Elect, just with different objects: for the sin of Eve, we have slavery and capitalism, for Original Sin, we have systemic racism and greenhouse emissions, for Contrition we have equity and climate apocalypse, and for Atonement we have anti-racism and the Green New Deal. For witches we have "haters" and billionaires.

Expand full comment
author

If you trace the history of the Puritans in America (where they were known as Congregationalists), and how Unitarianism gradually took over Puritanism (with the remainder going to the United Church of Christ), then you can in fact construct a genealogy of wokeness in America going back to the Puritans.

Expand full comment

Definitely! We also see the Puritan template in abolitionism, womens' education and suffrage, and prohibitionism (whose doctrines were often espoused by the same individual people)

Expand full comment

Yes. If we can just ban the Bad Things/ Bad People, then will come the kingdom of heaven on Earth...what do you mean, people still want to drink? What do you mean, they're still holding to the gender expressions of 5 minutes ago? Suppressive persons! Shame and ban them!

Expand full comment
Sep 8, 2023·edited Sep 12, 2023Liked by Sheluyang Peng

Love your writing Sheluyang, always enjoy what you have to say. I found this piece quite inspiring so this may be wordy, but I’ll try to keep it brief.

I studied political science (IR) and music performance formally and philosophy auto-didactically (especially regarding psychology/psychoanalysis and theology. No deep textbook dives in these fields as of yet, barring some Freud and Jung, but a cursory and working knowledge). I’ve always had a propensity to be curious and drawn to intellectual challenges, so both the discursive and expressive natures of music and politics fit me well. I’ve found having a proper bearing on cognitive and spiritual functions and how they pertain to these fields to be essential in my understanding of them, as much as all of these subjects have helped with my understanding of reality.

I find your linguistic explanation of some of the origin points of religion to be quite elucidating. It reminded me of Leighton Woodhouse’s writeup on fanatical political expression as a form of religion, particularly his section detailing a possible origin point of religious expression in the experience of “collective effervescence”.

https://leightonwoodhouse.substack.com/p/fanatics?utm_source=direct&r=annra&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web

What I have found is that ideology is capable of functioning as *a religious substitute* in a secular and political context. By this I mean that when the philosophical elements of spirituality are absent from a secular worldview (corroborated by your definition of religio), ideology has the potential to take on a spiritual dimension as the vehicle of religious expression.

Look at the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia 1975-79. An ideological cult with a fanatical devotion to its promulgation that produced within its members a cognition of pure religious purpose and virtuous justification. The true faith in and belief that a heaven will be built on earth in the form of agrarian communism (for the record I am a Marxist through and through, I find the idealization and rejection of scientific philosophical Marxism by the Khmer Rouge to be truly fascinating and tragic).

To answer your question - I think religion can be defined as: the belief in, and spiritual expression of, ideology that seeks to answer the epistemologically unknown, through faith alone. To clarify my use of spiritual, I mean: that which is expressed by humans as an extension of themselves and imbued with our emotions as a means of non-linguistic emotional communication and communion. In other words - a projection of ourselves.

Where music is the dialectical expression of our spirituality and emotions in a non-verbal sense, religion is the idealistic expression of our spirituality and ideology in a - more or less - verbal and emotional sense.

P.S. - all those books you’ve got for school look fascinating!

Expand full comment
author

Ah, an non-woke Marxist. Quite the rare breed in the West these days, especially as “Marxism” has been blamed as the root of all wokeness by some thinkers. I get it though, I’ve read Debord and Lasch and think they have some great diagnoses of the (post)modern condition.

I’d argue that, if the end goal of ideologies like communism, fascism, and liberalism are to usher in heaven on Earth, then all such ideologies can be called religions. There is a term in sociology, “civil religion”, where the idea of a group ethos (perhaps at a national level) becomes a “religion” in its own right.

And you write that ideology is capable as functioning as a religious substitute. In which case, what is the line between a religious substitute and a religion itself? If it serves the same purpose, then the religious substitute is basically another religion. And that’s John McWhorter’s thesis, it’s just that he failed to define religion in this way.

Expand full comment

Yea, the bastardization of Marxist political science and philosophy by postmodernists via schools of thought involving critical theory (Frankfurt or otherwise) - and for that matter their misappropriation of thinkers like Foucault - is highly disappointing to me. What can you do but address the errors? Haha.

Ah ok, I would delineate between religion and religious substitute based on philosophical, epistemological, and to an extent political function. While I agree that ideology can absolutely be or evolve into religion, I view ideology as the base and religion as a potential consequence. Ideology need not take on a spiritual or religious dimension to operate, it can stay in the realm of political science (or the lack thereof), philosophy and epistemology, and still be comprehensible (or not!). Religion can always be indicted of possessing ideological trappings, especially those of a metaphysical or idealist nature.

The political ideologies you listed do absolutely function as religion, which is why I say ideologies can be religious substitutes *in a secular and political context*. Perhaps it would be better to describe religion as an Ideological substitute, or as an extension of ideology, but what makes religion distinct is that it is not always political in function, but it is inherently ideological and spiritual. Ideology need not be either political or spiritual and it is not necessarily religious, but it is often the basis of political thought.

The unfortunate reality of communism, imo, is that it is so often viewed as an ideal and not as a political process.

Expand full comment

Well done, again. Thanks for the book references. Here is my answer to your question:

A religion is a set of beliefs among a community of like-minded people that 1. explains who we are and why we are here, 2. provides comfort to those who feel alone or unworthy, and 3. teaches the behaviors of a virtuous life.

Expand full comment
author

Interesting definition. Especially that last one. Throughout my religious studies, I haven't seen a single religion that frames its teachings as non-virtuous. Even Satanists frame their religion as a positive force teaching others to live a good life.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaVeyan_Satanism

Expand full comment

I have not heard of LaVey but if the wiki page is correct, I don't see how his theories would be considered virtuous. One sentence claims he considers the seven deadly sins to be a good thing.

There is no question in my mind that evil exists and LaVey is on the evil side of the ledger of life.

I read the premise of your essay to ask what is religion. You began with Whorter's assertion wokeness is a religion. His use of that term, IMO, robs it of its meaning. I believe he means the woke are intolerant believers of the rottenness of humans, ready to destroy, with no vision of a better future. As fervently as they believe, it would not be accurate to call them evangelical.

Expand full comment
author

When I say virtuous, I mean from the perspective of the believer. For example, I wouldn't consider beheading people virtuous, but to a Muslim that subscribes to a radical sect of Islam (like Wahhabism), it is virtuous to kill unbelievers. So the action of beheading unbelievers is seen as a good thing to a Wahhabist Muslim, even if we don't see it the same way.

And as for the woke, again, it is like Christianity but without salvation. Christianity teaches that humans are all sinners, that we have fallen short of the glory of God ever since Eve took a bite out of the fruit. So Christianity does teach that humans are rotten, even at birth, although we can all be saved by grace.

Expand full comment

Finding virtue in beheading unbelievers is a very post modern argument whose premise is there is no truth only various truths, each one validated and socially constructed by the speaker's personal belief. While some truths are IMO scientifically based, like the binary of sex, others are determined by reason, like good and evil. Removing a person's head from the body by violence is evil, here, there and everywhere and no fanatic believer can make it otherwise.

As for original sin, that is obviously a social construct, one that I reject.

Expand full comment

Things aren't as simple as that. Many societies prescribe capital punishment for certain offenses against norms - we still pronounce death sentences right here in America. Moreover we consider it "justified" to shoot dead a person who you feel is a threat to your own life. So plainly we do not consider killing always evil.

This is in contrast to groups like the Jains and some Christian sects - and there are probably more - who *do* consider killing always evil, and who consider that one should remain nonviolent even in the face of physical assault to the point of death. Jains do not even kill mosquitos.

We, who consider some killing to be righteous, are rather closer to the Wahhabis than to the Jains.

Expand full comment

First, I did not say killing is always evil. Killing in defense of self or just wars is not evil.

Second, killing as punishment for not believing in one theory of the world is evil, IMO.

Third, you do not speak for me or the tens or hundreds of millions of others who believe capital punishment for crimes is immoral. I am unwilling to call it evil as that term requires depraved motives. In my state, capital punishment was abolished by Supreme Court decision. In the EU it was abolished by vote of its representatives. Even among those who favor capital punishment, the state must prove mens rea and the crimes are only those that are malum in se.

Fourth, the subject was how to define religion, my three criteria (all of which need to be shown) included advancing virtue and Peng posited some Islamists claimed virtue in beheading unbelievers. My objection to him is to denounce the post-modern attempt to deny truth exists.

Expand full comment
founding

Yeah, I’ve written up over ten thousand words on the theology of postmodernism. I should probably actually post it rather than just sitting on it. I did put up a brief intro to belief versus belief in belief. [https://taboo.substack.com/p/tyre-nichols]

My main concern with postmodern theology isn’t that it involves faith based belief (although it does) but that the faith demonizes people. There are violent religions and peaceful religions. Religions you can leave easily and cults where you’re punished for leaving. Those are the main distinctions I’m worried about.

I was very disappointed with McWhorter’s book for calling anti-racism a religion but never defining religion. And then I’m a fan of Batya Ungar-Sargon, who said it’s not a religion, but also never really defined religion.

Expand full comment

Publish it mate. I need to sit down and write up an essay I’ve planned discussing how certain beliefs and an unconscious social acceptance in postmodern philosophy have memory-holed some people through a Mandela Effect in their understanding of reality.

Expand full comment

The worst part isn't that it demonizes people; that's a failing common to all religions and ideologies. The worst part(s) is that there's no established hamartiology; no clearly defined "sin" (because the goalposts keep moving and shifting) and no means of salvation. Public contrition might get you somewhere, but there's no Woke Jesus to save you; the result is a life of guilt and neuroticism. It's the worst parts of Christianity without the work of the Holy spirit or the hope of an afterlife.

Expand full comment
founding

Also, you produce more writing than other substacks I pay for. I don’t think you should freeze payments just because you went quiet for a few weeks. I think that part of why substack is a good thing is that it provides financial stability for people outside the mainstream, and being able to take a brief period off is part of that stability.

Expand full comment

Some random notes:

- Paul Gottfried touched on wokeness as religion in "Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy."

- RW blogger Z Man recommends "A History of Christianity" and "A History of the Jews" both by Paul Johnson, so I keep them both as references.

- I got into GK Chesterton in highschool years because of the cyberpunk video game "Deus Ex" which sprinkled quotes from "The Man Who Was Thursday" throughout its missions in a way that was both subversive and reactionary. A surprising number of RW podcasters that I listen to were also Chesteron-pilled because of that game.

- Finally, neo-reactionaries use "Gnon" as a way to prevent factions of the right from getting bogged down in scriptural circular firing squads: https://twitter.com/0x49fa98/status/1038055873950576647?lang=en

Expand full comment
author

I'll have to check out that Gottfried book.

And, of course, I'm sure we both know Yarvin's thesis that Unitarianism is America's "secular" religion.

Expand full comment
Sep 8, 2023Liked by Sheluyang Peng

I was totally wondering if you were OK this morning b/c I realized I hadn't seen a post from you in a while! Enjoy your studies!

(Re: religion, for me it has to have a more institutional reality to be one, but "wokeness" and especially genderism definitely look religiOUS in the way people embrace and police and perpetuate the ideologies.)

Expand full comment
author

Thanks for your concern. I didn’t think I was big enough that people are actively awaiting my posts!

Expand full comment

Yea mate, I be looking forward to when I get an email drop from you.

Expand full comment
Sep 8, 2023Liked by Sheluyang Peng

Thank you for freezing our subs Sheluyang, you’re a Dude! Wishing you all the best in your academic endeavors!

Expand full comment
Sep 8, 2023·edited Sep 8, 2023Liked by Sheluyang Peng

I agree that McWhorter's definition is flawed. It is simultaneously too precise and too vague. Original sin is too precise, specific to Christianity*; evangelical is too vague. I mean, a lot of woke isn't evangelical in any meaningful sense; they enjoy the shaming more than the conversion in a lot of cases. And Judaism isn't evangelical; if you extend it to concepts like tikkun olam, a light unto the nations, evangelical loses its meaning. Then there are religions such as Alawitism that share with Judaism an ethnic character but have absolutely no evangelical aspects whatsoever.

For me a religion is a shared community of belief that ultimately rests on a supernatural claim. Those are the only non-negotiable aspects for me. I have no defense for this claim that isn't circular, though. For me: Belief in historical materialism is a shared community but cannot be religious. Believing privately that the earth was created by an eternal hedgehog named Jim is supernatural but, as it is not part of a shared community, isn't a religion per se. Again, I can't defend this. It is because it is.

Everything else - evangelism, rite, ritual, liturgy, elect, the specificity of supernatural claims (Creator God? Elemental gods? Pantheon? Angels? Transubstantiation? Afterlife? Reincarnation?), the structure of the community, the role of the believer within that community - is negotiable

*notwithstanding some neo-Gnostic dualist sects influenced by Christianity but I think those are all LARPers anyway.

Expand full comment
author

The hedgehog point is an interesting one to consider: does religion need community? If Joseph Smith got a bunch of golden plates from an angel in Upstate NY, and no one believed him, then would Smith still be the founding Mormon prophet? Can he be a Latter-Day Saint without a community of them? I think he can be the only Mormon to ever exist and still have it be a religion. A personal God, if you will.

Expand full comment

With the proviso that this is just my ill-considered opinion that I've not thought too deeply about:

It's like conspiracy. You can't have a conspiracy of one. One person can have a lone wolf plan. But only two people can conspire on a plan.

I don't have any real reason to feel this way except a vague sense that religion requires a shared experience in order to be a religious experience, but of course that's another tautology.

It's a bit like the difference between a dialect and a language - it's not clear-cut and often just comes down to popularity. For me, the popularity of a belief is pretty much a necessity. Again, no idea why.

There are probably some Native American belief systems that once had hundreds of believers and now have one or two due to decimation and Christianization. But they were shared communities once and thus remain religions, albeit moribund or extinct ones.

One guy having visions of a talking snake, on the other hand, even if it was yesterday... I can't call that religion.

Expand full comment

Memes exist by reproducing.

Expand full comment

Lots of people use words as technical classifications: "The pope is technically a bachelor, because a bachelor is an unmarried man." I can use words that way, but I prefer to use words as informal exemplars: "The pope isn't really a good example of a bachelor, because the typical bachelor is a young man looking for a date."

Wokeness is a social phenomenon with the hallmarks of a cult:

* a countercultural movement,

* demanding strong emotional commitment from its adherents,

* centering around sacred figures or martyrs,

* encouraging its members to cut ties with outsiders,

* creating a subculture where where all events are perceived through the lens of the cult, and

* encouraging dogmatism and showy professions of belief, etc.

To say "wokeness is a religion" may wrongly imply it's as much of a religion as Islam, which it isn't. But to say "wokeness is not a religion" is even more misleading - try putting a tomato in a fruit salad, and you'll see what I mean.

Expand full comment
author

What is the definition of a cult, compared to the definition of a religion?

Expand full comment

Exactly. It's a cult in every way.

Expand full comment

Every single person you mention here should stop saying the stupid little word "woke" right this very instant. It sounds puerile, it isn't accurate, and it's misguided. What is being described as "woke" did not recently manifest whole-cloth in this form. Rather, activist-academics have been elaborating similar doctrines and dogmas for decades in the fringes of academia. The only difference is that now they are used to justify legal action.

There is a plain keystone that connects activist-academic theorizing with social-justice-based calls to mandatory upheaval - this keystone is Psychology, through which it is declared that "harm" as construed by activist-academics must be eliminated posthaste to avoid the commission of grievous psychic injury.

*Ascends soapbox* Ahem. Friends, Americans, Countrymen - We the people have established a state religion in America today! It is a religion called Psychology, and it should always be written with a capital P.

The arrogant insertion of the religion Psychology into every facet of life has led us to the present crisis. The religion Psychology wears the clothes of science, and it performs a caricature of the scientific method when needed, but it is not bound by science's limits. The dicta of Psychology are accepted without factual evidence and without waiting for scientific research. We see that when science contradicts Psychology, Psychologists abandon science. We see that "Psychology" is not an "-ology" any more than Scientology - it is a religion.

The vocabulary of Psychology is found everywhere & heard incessantly. Bad people are “narcissists,” “bipolar,” “socopaths.” In “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” we have an excellent example of how Psychology overwrites cultural touchstones - in this case the ancient myth of Narcissus - with its own particular definitions.

The average American of today searches for meaning through the lens of Psychology in just the same way as the average American of two hundred years ago searched for meaning through the lens of Christianity. Likewise, in just the same way, the average American of two thousand years ago analyzed himself & his place in the world through the lens of animist tradition passed down to him from time immemorial.

The "psych" of "Psychology" is not the brain - that would be neurology - it is the psyche, the spirit, the mind, the soul. We may observe the brain, we may observe the body, we may observe behavior. We may observe how chemicals, conditions & chromosomes affect the body, affect the brain, affect behavior. Yet the study of the unobservable mind - this is not in the remit of science. It definitionally can not be.

This is not a pedantic distinction - this is fundamental. When one attempts to study the unobservable, one steps outside science. The mind is studied with the mind, the soul with the soul, the spirit with the spirit. The study of the psyche by the psyche for the psyche - this is called art, this is called literature, this is called music, this is called religion. So-called Psychologists have set themselves above all these. They have set their purported true understandings of the psyche above art, above science, above everything.

A psyche studying the psyche can communicate its findings on the psyche by art, by literature, by music. It can not purport to declare empirical truth. To do so is to found a religion. It will not matter how disturbed & bizarre the doctrines grow. Psychologists have claimed moral & scientific truth theirs to pronounce.

We must firmly restrict Psychology to the religious domain. As long as we fail to bind it thusly, its shifting dogma & whimsical clergy will rule us by clerical fiat.

Expand full comment

There's a great book about this called "Politics as Religion" by Emilio Gentile (2001), and he calls these totalizing political-ideological movements "political religion", which he describes as:

"Political religion is the sacralization of a political system founded on an unchallengeable monopoly of power, ideological monism, and the obligatory and unconditional subordination of the individual and the collectivity to its code of commandments. Consequently, a political religion is intolerant, invasive, and fundamentalist, and it wishes to permeate every aspect of an individual’s life and of a society’s collective life.

The resulting religion of politics is a religion in the sense that it is a system of beliefs, myths, rituals, and symbols that interpret and define the meaning and end of human existence by subordinating the destiny of individuals and the collectivity to a supreme entity.

During the Modern Era, the relationship between the religious and political dimensions and between power and sacredness entered a new phase that gave rise to the sacralization of politics, which reflected the affirmation of the primacy of the sovereignty of the state, secularization of culture, the loss of the church’s spiritual hegemony in relation to the state and society, the subsequent separation of the church and state, the triumph of the principle of the people’s sovereignty and the creation of mass politics."

Highly recommend!

Expand full comment

A single definition is a good exercise since in truth it probably requires an entire book. I think the best way I can describe it is that it’s a set of externally prescribed and ritualistic beliefs AND behaviors that seek to settle unanswerable or at least very difficult questions and provide a deep meaning for the self that can’t be obtained through material things, with faith holding it all together.

Expand full comment

I’m sorry. I think white guilt is a crock put out by a mentally Ill racist Robin D’Angelo. I can’t believe so many people are falling for this junk ....

I think they’ve been brainwashed in school over the last few generations by the Green Agenda. That is what is the religion behind Wokenss

Religion of the earth 🌍. It’s anti-human.

Have you seen King Charles, religious leader of Major Church recently stated the Magna Carta is invalid & he created the new Terra Carta... “a 2 step change that puts animals & EARTH above

Current HUMANS.

That is a religion

On a weird side note..Terra Carta was listed as a location by both Epstein & Maxwell listed as “place of residence”. Back then, nobody knew what they meant ..

I’m a Jew, who’s in ❤️with a Christian & have a Shaman sister. We all make it work together 🙏

Expand full comment

The first page in White Fragility states that whiteness doesn't exist, but that denying its existence makes it more powerful.

This woman made millions of dollars off of writing that.

Don't let progressives pretend they're intellectual. Challenge the absurd notions of their doctrine, and the first thing you will discover is that almost none of them have thought about it.

Expand full comment
author

Here’s something interesting: White Fragility was published by none other than Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian church. The Unitarians were basically the founders of Woke Christianity.

https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/beacon-unitarians-joseph-keegin

Expand full comment

<--- Mother was Unitarian while she was sane

*Hangs head in shame*

Expand full comment

Wait, what? There's overlap between environmentalism and wokeness, but only because they're both liberal. Environmentalists are mostly white, and often criticized by the woke:

https://www.wired.com/story/climate-anxiety-whiteness-problem/

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/23/science/earth-science-diversity-education.html

Expand full comment

I stumbled on you in the Free Press comments this morning, and found your Substack.

This was a great article, though I’m late to the game, here’s my definition for religion:

A set of mutually agreed upon beliefs by a group of individuals that explains how the world functions with “moral” codes of conduct for both individual behavior and interpersonal behavior between others that maintains the stability and security of that group.

Good luck in grad school--it can be brutal, but take good care of yourself and have a Merry Christmas!

Expand full comment

Two words: Unquestionable Dogma.

Expand full comment

Some great insight here, Sheluyang! The history of the word “religion” is even more complex the further back in time you go.

The etymology of the word is surprisingly obscure, and it’s clear that different people used it to refer to different things.

Cicero thought. it meant rituals that are performed for the gods.

Julius Ceasar thought it was a specific kind of oath.

Pliny the Elder used the term religio to describe how the intellect of elephants was a testament to the power of the heavens.

The best insight I’ve read into the modern use of the word is Leora Batnitzky’s superb book “How Judaism became a religion.” (Spoiler: Judaism isn’t really a religion. At least not annoy most people think of it.) I highly recommend the book for all scholars in those interested in this question.

Expand full comment