“Equality”, I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now". - Bob Dylan, ‘My Back Pages’
“Until the color of a man's skin
Is of no more significance than the color of his eyes
Me say war”. – Bob Marley, ‘War’
The Rise of the “Nones”
If you’ve been around the world of North American Christianity in the past decade, you’ve probably heard word of an alarming rise in one category of religious identity- the “nones”. The nones are people who respond to survey’s by saying that they have no religious affiliation at all. Or none. They may be atheist or agnostic or religion and religious identity just isn't on their radar at all. Those identifying as ‘none’ are up to 26% of the US population, a 10% jump from 2009. The nones are found across the country, in both men and women, and in diverse populations, and although more Democrats are nones, the same “swelling” growth is happening within Republican ranks too. The growth is happening faster in younger generations, with four-in-ten millennials identifying as none. It was bad enough for the church when it learned of a rising group of people who identified as “spiritual but not religious”. At least those folks still sought out spiritual experience and could theoretically be led back into the Christian tradition. But these new nones aren’t religious at all. Or are they?
The Past Persists
Does our human religious propensity ever truly go away, even when we think it has? Some more atheist minded thinkers such as a Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins believe that we’ll eventually- or at least hopefully- evolve out of our mucky superstition laden religious past, one day shedding its outdated skin and leaving behind only rational individuals on a new clear-headed earth. Contra these atheists, I believe that we’re hardwired for religion, that we’re homo religiosus, and that our religious impulse will never truly go away. As the depth psychologists of the early 20thcentury discovered, our past ways of understanding and organizing our world (what Jurgen Habermas termed a ‘lifeworld’) don’t go away when we develop new ones. The past gets embedded within us. The philosopher Charles Hartshone put it this way- “The earliest manifestations of the cognitive-spiritual side of man become…part of the vague but potent background of all the later ones” (Philosophers Speak of God). And the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser put it like this- “We must first of all remain cognizant that these structures [of consciousness] are not merely past, but are in fact still present in more or less latent and acute form in each one of us” (The Ever Present Origin, p.42).
Our developmental past does not disappear as we evolve and grow, it persists within us, ready to be activated given the proper circumstances. Let’s take warlordism for instance. This rudimentary form of political organization has existed throughout much of human history. An often ruthless and brutal strongman takes control of a small region and commands his own ruling army. Warlords often thrive in periods of social chaos and societal breakdown. The form still exists in our society within organized crime and street gangs. In most of the modern world of democratic nation states warlordism is obviously outlawed and is crushed if it arises in any significant way. The society thus perceives it as mostly ‘gone’, a gnarled relic from a less enlightened past. But it remains latent within us, and given the right conditions it can erupt again out into the open, such as what happened in China during the Warlord Era of early 20th century. When the Chinese Revolution ended two thousand years of imperial rule, the vacuum left in its wake was quickly filled by willing and capable warlords. This part of our past is apparently easily accessible. As Johnny Cash sang so wearily, “The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars”. Our religious impulse is the same. We might think it’s gone away but it just finds new outlets, as we find new altars on which to worship, new avenues for redemption, and new Gods to idolize. And not surprisingly, it’s going to seep into our politics too.
Our Flawed New Religion
Over the past several years a variety of commentators have increasingly noticed that the ‘woke’ (radical, identity politics) left bears many hallmarks of being a religion. In particular, as we’ll see, it looks like a recapitulation of a fundamentalist form of Christianity. But before we outline the eye-opening ways in which religious forms show up in the movement, let’s take a moment to outline what we’re talking about when we talk about the ‘woke left’, and where it came from.
The woke left has its roots in postmodern philosophy in general, as well as the Critical Theory of the German Frankfurt School, and the critical pedagogy movement. What do I mean by postmodern or postmodernism? Here’s a description from the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton- “By ‘postmodern’, I mean, roughly speaking, the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. Postmodernism is skeptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends towards cultural relativism, and celebrates plurality, discontinuity and heterogeneity” (After Theory, 13). Postmodern philosophy emerged in the 1960s and became ascendent in the academy in the 1970s and 80s, particularly through the work of original thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard and a host of others. It influenced many other fields, including architecture and film, to name just two examples. It also began to influence the social justice activism of the radical left, especially through a nascent movement in the 1970s and 80s called Critical Race Theory , which has become central to the thinking of the contemporary woke left.
By the time I hit campus in the mid 1990s and plunked myself happily into the middle of the radical left, much of these postmodern ideas were definitely swirling in the ethos. Many of the strands of what now gets called the woke left (or the Social Justice Warrior left) were already in the mix too, although they were not yet as cohered into a totalizing worldview, nor were their activist expression as virulent as the ‘woke revolution’ that’s permeating society today. There were at that time already critiques from within the left against the rise of what was then most commonly called ‘identity politics’. In 1992 Todd Gitlin wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine entitled ‘The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity’. In it he lamented that the shift to identity politics on the left had transformed “the core idea of the left: the weakening, even breakdown, of the ideals of a common humanity that have animated it for more than two centuries...Whatever universalism now remains is based not so much on a common humanity as on a common enemy -the notorious White Male”. The commonalities and universalism that were found on the left in Marxist slogans such as, “Workers of the world, unite!”, had given way to groups of people who shared a particular identity organizing and demanding redress for their own particular set of grievances and oppressions. Old school leftists such as Eric Hobsbawm and Michael Parenti were critical of the departure from class as the central element of analysis and collective action. Chris Hedges recently voiced this same internal critique and was met with great condemnation from the woke left. We’ll talk more about the issues of class analysis and universalism in a later section.
As we moved into the 2000s, this confluence of forces- postmodern philosophy, Critical Theory, and Critical Race Theory- came together to form what Peter Limberg at the The Stoa calls “the woke egregore”, or the “totalizing meta-narrative” by which the radical identity politics left understands itself and the nature of reality. The word “woke” got attached to the movement not long after. According to an article in Vox, the phrase “stay woke” was being used by Black communities in the US in the mid 2000s (although it has a longer history). It was after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson that, ““woke” evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory”. But the woke left isn’t just the latest instantiation in the long history of the liberal reformist left, which tried to transform the system from within. As we’ll see, it marks a startling break from it in some of its core ideas. The woke left can be seen as a novel mutation, one that Wesley Yang has termed a “successor ideology”, because it has broken with and often become a fierce adversary of the old reformist left.
This new woke left has also come to increasingly have many hallmarks of being a religion. Its religious qualities have been remarked on by many commentators, including Columbia University’s John McWhorter, who wrote a 2015 article in The Daily Beast called, ‘Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion’. McWhorter has a new book length treatment of the subject called ‘The Elect’, which he’s currently serializing on his Substack page. Let’s now look at the many ways in which religious forms have resurfaced within this movement. Firstly, a conversion is required. One must covert from their deluded worldview to that of wokeness, and this becoming woke is very much like being born again. There is original sin, the sin of racism, or the sin of groups of people having inherent power and privilege over others. To overcome this sin you must confess your sin, or check your privilege, often out loud and to others (confession). This privilege checking can take extreme forms of self-abasement and self-humiliation, such as self-flagellation and washing people’s feet, which starts to move into Opus Dei type territory.
There are of course sacred texts, with “grievance studies scholarship being the Bible and Hadith of Social Justice”, not to mention popularizing texts such as White Fragility, which are important for the growth of any religious movement. One must keep strict puritanical observance of dogma however, or face banishment as a heretic, a form of excommunication known today as cancel culture. To avoid a dreaded canceling one can virtue signal to others on social media that they’re strict adherents, a display of public piety akin to Christians of old making sure they were seen at church on Sunday. The woke left seeks moral purity, imploring its acolytes to strive for a utopian moral perfection in all their behaviour. Like many fundamentalist forms of religion, the woke left is very hostile to criticism, and is not interested in debate. Like cults such as Scientology, it’s very organized and effective at attacking and silencing detractors. It’s also highly intolerant, including against its own devotees. In all this it acts with a very noticeable zealotry, already commented on by David Brooks in 2015. It has increasingly morphed over time into a real life version of the Faith Militant.
There’s a proselytizing impulse on the woke left, a Great Commission to go to all the world and preach the gospel of anti-racism, as seen for instance in an array of articles teaching woke disciples how to talk to their ‘racist family’. As John McWhorter remarked on a podcast with Sam Harris, “The woke think of themselves as The Elect who are ahead of the curve, and who are bringing the Good News”. The increasing attempt by the woke left to get anti-racism training into younger and younger age groups at school, could be seen as a new manifestation of Sunday school. The woke left believes in evil, but instead of it emanating from demonic forces in the heavenly realms, our human system itself is evil, and must be exorcised of its racist possession. It also rejects the modern separation of church and state and openly seeks a form of theocracy, where anti-racism training and woke ideology is fused into every aspect of the state apparatus. And there’s also apparently a belief in martyrs, as seen in Nancy Pelosi’s strange remarks that George Floyd sacrificed his life for the cause of justice (which sounds vaguely familiar).
Surveying this whole woke terrain, David French writes, “It was foolish for anyone to believe that a less Christian America would be a less religious America”. Our religious impulses don’t go away, they just resurface in new and sometimes twisted forms. And this new woke religion looks a lot like the recapitulation of a fundamentalist Christianity. But this new religion is missing three crucial aspects of the Christian tradition- there’s no grace, there’s no redemption, and there’s no forgiveness. There’s no conception of grace, where God extends God’s love even to those who don’t deserve it. There’s no redemption, no vision of a future where all the nations come together in unity (Revelation 7:9; Isaiah 2:1-4). As Andrew Sullivan comments, “Life [in the woke view] is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation”. And above all, there’s no forgiveness. It doesn’t matter how long ago the infraction was, or how much someone might’ve changed, there’s only persecution, banishment, and extreme intolerance in the name of tolerance. Jesus’ second great commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself, is tossed out the window. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for a time when his children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, has been kicked to the curb. All that remains is no quarter. There’s something very sour, something dark even, in this whole “Great Awokening”. And many within this new religion are seeing it and getting out.
Leaving My Religion
As far back as 2014, an article titled ‘Everything is problematic’ was published in the McGill Daily by a queer activist named Yarrow Eady. It opened an important pressure valve for a growing discontent that was building within the woke left. Eady said that there was something “vaguely dark and cultish” about the movement. Eady writes, “Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist. Calling them ‘sacred beliefs’ is a nice way to put it. What I mean to say is that they are dogmas…When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare. The insular community served as an incubator of extreme, irrational views”. Articles like this continued to trickle out as the years went by and the woke left grew in both prominence and vehemence. In 2017, an American trans woman by the name of Frances Lee wrote a piece called, “Excommunicate me from church of social justice”. Lee writes, “There is an underlying current of fear in my activist, queer, and trans people of colour communities. It is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, discrimination, or street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure…Among us, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by…The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist communities is enormous. Often times, it means that I'm not even doing the real work I am committed to do”. She grew up in an evangelical form of Christianity, and after some time in the world of the woke left she was forced to ask herself, “Have I extricated myself from one church to find myself confined in another?”
Also in 2017, an article was written by a Chinese-Canadian trans woman talking about a “crisis of faith” within woke activist communities. Another talked about ‘Leaving the SJW Cult and Finding Myself', after having seen “concepts like equality and justice being used as a mask for resentful, murderous rage”, in what she describes as a “secular religion” full of “true believers”. The exodus of willing apostates continues today. The Spectator recently released an ongoing series called “Wokeyleaks”, which will act as a “confidential news leak organization for sources who wish to divulge classified information (and hilarious anecdotes) about woke culture without fear of getting canceled”. There’s also a new podcast called Fucking Cancelled, where the hosts and their guests tell some truly awful stories about cancel culture and getting cancelled. The podcast describes itself as “for anyone who feels stifled or trapped by the authoritarian, punishing culture that dominates the left. It’s a podcast for anyone who is too afraid to say what they really think. It’s a podcast for people who have been cancelled, who are afraid of getting cancelled, or who have taken part in the cancellation of others and wondered if it was right”. Episode 9, a 101-type introduction to cancel culture, is particularly eye opening in terms of the truly toxic and often traumatizing nature of the woke left’s internal culture. Another podcast in the same general territory is Blocked and Reported, hosted by the journalists Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal.
A lot of people are leaving the religion. Peter Limberg talks about the “woke refugees” that are showing up at his project The Stoa. But there’s another large yet mostly hidden group that doesn’t consent to the woke left either, and I’m not talking about conservatives and the right, who are open about their rejection of it. There’s also a silent mass of liberal/progressive/left-leaning people who reject the woke left but are too afraid to speak out about it. Those within the woke left likely view their worldview as the dominant one in today’s culture, because they’re currently being supported and amplified by the mainstream media and many corporations (a troubling situation that we’ll explore in the next and final section). But for many years now there’s been what Freddie deBoer called in 2017 ‘the backchannel’, “that second line of communication, the private counterpart to the public face of the internet that is social media”. Basically, a lot of people talk privately in one-on-one settings about their critique or concern or horror at the antics of the woke left. It’s just that they’re too afraid of cancel culture and the possibly job ending attacks, or painful social ostracism, that might come from expressing their true feelings. So people speak privately to those they trust. I’ve spent plenty of time in the backchannel. The same happens on the internet. Away from the blaring woke bullhorns on Twitter, and the fire laden peaceful protests in the streets, are what Yancey Strickler in 2019 termed “digital campfires” in his Dark Forest theory of the internet. Strickler observes that many people are increasingly gathering in “Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat”, protected spaces that “provide psychological and reputational cover” and allow genuine conversations free from the attacks of caustic woke partizans. I’ve spent plenty of time around these digital campfires too, and have heard a lot of distaste directed towards the views and actions of the Faith Militant.
The reign of the woke left appears to be waning. Its own members are leaving and more and more from the ‘progressive left’ are becoming braver in their open rejection of it, often aligning with conservatives along the way. The increasing truism that if you “Go woke” you’ll “Go broke”, signals that there’s still a large silent majority that doesn’t want anything to do with this flawed new religion, and won’t spend their money on corporations or sports leagues who are virtue signaling on its behalf. It’s looking like a major weapon of global capital and the ruling class is slowly losing strength, and not a moment too soon.
Raging on Behalf of the Machine
It wasn’t that long ago that voices from the left were calling corporations psychopathic. These brand bullies were said to be solely interested in profit and nothing else. There’s also a long history of media analysis on the left, from Noam Chomsky to Edward Said to Robert McChesney and Michael Parenti, that has viewed the media as a dangerous tool of elite power, one that can steer and construct reality for masses of people. And yet today many powerful corporations and almost the entire mainstream media establishment are behind the woke movement and its agenda, and I’ve heard very little reflection or concern from the woke left about this startling inversion. What do they think happened? Do they believe that these ‘psychopaths’ and the media they own all had powerful Road to Damascus moments, and have come to see the woke light?
Commentators from across the political spectrum have been trying to understand the phenomenon of “woke capitalism”. What’s precipitated the shift, and what’s in it for the corporations? Is it just fear and a desire to be on the side of the perceived rising tide of culture? Or are there other motivations behind this show of support? Glen Greenwald sees the patronage as a sleight of hand that helps obscure the unjust activities of corporations. He writes, “The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the corporate class and the ways they abuse and eliminate labor, control government, and destroy the working and middle classes will be impossible to see, as we are all blinded by the glare of their virtuous Instagram posts about racial justice and their unified campaigns against voter suppression. In an instant of swooning over their benevolent devotion to social justice, we will forget what they actually exist to do”. Chris Hedges sees the support of woke left as a weapon that can be wielded by corporations to their own advantage. He writes, “Corporations know these moral purity tests are, for us, self-defeating. They know that by making the cancel culture legitimate…they can employ it to silence those who attack and expose the structures of corporate power and imperial crimes”. Woke ideology becomes an incredible weapon/excuse for censorship, deflecting away criticism by calling it racist or homophobic or misogynist or hate speech, or silencing conservative voices by deeming them all alt-right or white supremacists. The deplatforming of a wide variety of alternative voices has been intense and plain to see over the last several years and has only picked up steam. This is another inversion of the historical left and its storied Free Speech Movement of the 1960s.
The support of the woke left’s identitarian politics also serves to obscure class as a key locus of analysis and activism, as the left gets lost in an endless series of internal identity conflicts. Whether it’s “black men are the white men of black people”, or woke anti-Semitism, or gay Jews being banned from a pride parade, or Asian Americans now being deemed “white adjacent”, the focus on identity and who has the most intersectional cred is a very effective vehicle for divide and conquer tactics, one of the oldest ruling strategies of elite power. Marxism even has a concept for this called bourgeois nationalism, a “practice by the ruling classes of deliberately dividing people by nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion, so as to distract them from initiating class warfare”. This part of the left’s DNA has been forgotten too it would seem. What’s incredible is that according to Episode 12 of the Moe Factz podcast, the term white supremacy was originally understood as a class concept. That statement needs a double take I’m sure, as that’s not how it’s understood by Critical Race Theory and the woke left, and that’s not how it’s commonly wielded within the culture wars today. But at least according to a long and sizeable strand of the American black intellectual tradition, white supremacy refers to a ruling class that people of all colors must live under. Moe says that this term could be exchanged for other terms that are commonly used today, such as the elites or the globalists.
We can see from the above that there could be good self-interested reasons for corporations, and by extension the media, to support the woke left. But let’s expand the scope of the analysis one step beyond just this level of self-interest. In doing so we might evoke the ‘conspiracy’ label, but it’s worth considering Mark Fisher’s comment that “[M]any of what we call 'conspiracies' are the ruling class showing class solidarity". The author Christopher Knowles, host of the singular Secret Sun blog and a totem figure of sorts for us here at Limited Hangout, tweeted this out recently- “Wokeness is the religious project of transnational corporate Capitalism. Prove me wrong”. What if the woke left is being used as the tip of the spear by globalists who seek a world order beyond nation states? Who are these globalists? They’re people like Henry Kissinger, Klaus Schwab, Jacques Attali and others of the Davos set, who speak very openly about their desire to see a system of global governance that supersedes nation states. Twenty-four world leaders just recently called for more globalism in response to the pandemic. Klaus Schwab’s book The Fourth Industrial Revolution describes in (rather unsettling) detail exactly what this future technocratic society would look like. If it’s a conspiracy, it’s a very open one. Does the woke left help this globalist project achieve its goals? Does the woke religion help people form new identities, allowing them to abandon their old ones and be re-formed as global citizens of the Great Reset? Is this why Amazon and Facebook and Apple and George Soros and Bill Gates and the Ford Foundation have all donated millions of dollars to various social justice organizations of the woke left?
I’m not saying the woke left was created by a nexus of elite corporate power, although given the CIA’s storied history of culture creation one could be forgiven for going down that road. But when you see a tool that could be useful to your own empire building project, you support it while you can. And the woke left is a powerful force for the erasure of old identities, as it’s against many of the cornerstones of Western civilization. In the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, it says, “Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law”. An education manual by Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Stenzoy echoes this by saying they reject “liberal humanism”, seeing it as a “mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place”. Black Lives Matter came out against the nuclear family, before having to backtrack due to backlash. The National Museum of African American History & Culture also spoke out against the nuclear family, but went much further by saying that, “"self-reliance," “objective, rational thinking,” “hard work,” the "nuclear family," and being “polite” are among the aspects and assumptions of “white culture” in the United States”. They too had to retract this due to backlash, including from the black community. Besides trying to eliminate the family, the woke cancelers have also come after the word’s mom and dad, have said we shouldn’t read to our kids, and have announced that mythology has too many triggers and shouldn’t be read. If you add to this the ongoing attack on historical statues and the attempt at renaming buildings and erasing all of the ‘racist’ past, one can understand why this quote from George Orwell’s 1984 was going around this year- “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right”.
In 1961, MIT psychologist and professor of management Edgar Schein wrote a book called Coercive Persuasion: A Socio-psychological Analysis of the “Brainwashing” of American Civilian Prisoners. In it he laid out a three-step process through which someone can have their identity remolded. 1) Unfreezing- the breaking down of someone’s identity; 2) Changing- an indoctrination process that introduces new beliefs and values; 3) Freezing- reinforcing and normalizing that new identity so it becomes fixed. Also in 1961, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote a book on the same subject, entitled Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism- A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. When you read his “Eight Criteria for Thought Reform” and then look at the woke left, some eerie resemblances are readily apparent. Both Schein’s and Lifton’s work have been used to understand how cults work to transform and control their members, and whether intentional or not, these processes are alive within the successor ideology of the woke left. If you add to this creation of malleable identities a belief in open borders and a rejection of nationalism, you can see why the elite globalist class would be readily supporting this movement.
Our religious impulses never fully go away, they just resurface in new forms. We are homo religiosus after all. As John Sexton writes while surveying the woke left, “Intersectionality is a substitute religion. Lack of faith doesn’t always make people secular”. And a new religion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it’s full of malice and resentment, when it lacks forgiveness and mercy, when it’s dogmatic and insular, when its own members feel stifled and harmed by it, when it sows endless division and strife, when it’s being used by powerful interests as a weapon in their class war, when it attempts to erase history and many of the core important values that underlie a healthy society, then this is a toxic religion that’s got to go. And thankfully the tide is finally turning. Its own members are leaving and speaking out, and many others are leaving their digital campfires and backchannels and finding the courage to join them. A post-woke future is starting to emerge.