Discover more from Hold That Thought by Sarah Haider
Is Wokeism uniquely Christian?
Disclaimer: Below is a good deal of speculative theorizing, unlike my weekly essays which I feel more certain about. Take it for what it is. As a subscriber only perk, you can read the whole thing and then in the comments tell me how wrong I am. :)
I’ve been thinking about this list of Joe Rogan guests as I was drafting part 2 of my essay on progressivism, and I noticed that the man who drafted it, Matthew Sheffield, was an ex-Mormon (or, “post-mormon”, as they sometimes prefer to be called).
I had forgotten this about Matthew - even though I had a brief run-in with him about a year or so ago. I had to crawl through my messages to recall exactly why…I believe I followed him on Twitter as he seemed interesting, with a background not too different from mine. Formerly religious, now less so, and interested in the intersection of religion and politics.
After a series of short messages, we hopped on a call at his request. I frankly don’t remember much from it, except that he was starting a site geared towards people who are ex-fundamentalists. It is now live, and interesting in its 1) unambiguous partisanship and 2) which fundamentalism it devotes innumerable pages to, and which it ignores entirely. I imagine my readers can guess which those are.
Anyways, it is hard not to notice some patterns in the “exes” space. One I find interesting and have noticed occurring with some frequency - that Mathew himself appears to personify: The former Christian fundamentalist, born-again as a follower of a dogmatic, woke-infested brand of progressivism.
When I first left my faith, I had imagined that apostates would pick up on the religion-in-secular-clothing that is wokeism better than those who had never encountered formal, explicit religion at all.
And that certainly appears to be the case for some - the so-called four horsemen are mostly anti-woke, recognizing it for the faith it is.
But aside from some very visible atheists, the “secular community” as a whole has not exactly followed. Some atheist leaders and organizations appear to be very clearly captured by the new woke dogma (the American Humanist Associations withdrawal of an honor from Richard Dawkins comes to mind), but some go even further - becoming priests of the new faith.
Is it a case of “reverting to type”?
I think yes, and no.
It may be the case that secular religion appeals to the “god-shaped hole” in the brain of all apostates. Many have noted (myself among them) that wokeism is all the dogma of religion without the grace. It can satisfy some of the same social urges (as John McWhorter has detailed extensively in his book). And perhaps, there is something about the psychology or mental habits of the formerly religious that primes them for adopting a new kind of faith - maybe even more so than those who never adopted a formal religion.
But I don’t feel entirely satisfied with that explanation.
I think it important to note that wokism is not just any kind of religion.
The moral architecture of wokeism isn’t just merely religious - it is quite clearly Abrahamic, more specifically Christian. Said another way, it is at least more Christian than it is Muslim or Jewish, and very little like Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism.
Perhaps this is the case because wokeism has evolved right here in the West - atop the laws, norms, institutions - and yes, moral and ethical frameworks of Christianity.
For example, wokeism relies quite heavily on a reservoir of “guilt” (specifically, white guilt, but also male guilt, heterosexual guilt, neurotypical guilt, etc) that appears to be par for the course in Christianity but doesn’t quite map as well on Islam.
(Muslims can, of course, be woke. But note that the role woke Muslims slip into is one of “victim”, while denying point-blank their role in the victimizing of others, using the guilt of others to their advantage, but not carrying it themselves. Does the specter of the vast Islamic slave trade, history of extreme misogyny and homophobia, weigh on them as it does on their woke Christian brothers? Hardly).
The same can be said of the concept of original sin (for which wokeism has an analogue in slavery), and the appeal of confession/repentance…neither fit as well into other faiths.
Outside of the nietzschean ethical precursors, there is also the matter of the political resonance.
Former Christians, and especially former Christian fundamentalists, can more “neatly” adopt woke politics - without the tension exes of other backgrounds feel. Christians are not a protected class for the woke, but Muslims are (and, when it suits them, Jews are). While the rational path to unbelief might be similar, once someone has decided to leave the faith, their psychosocial journey will vary dramatically depending on whether they are a part of a minority or majority faith group.
This means that in the West, ex-Christians (unlike ex-Muslims or even ex-Jews) can leave their faith and find a new one waiting for them, almost-perfectly crafted to meet their psychological needs and fit their pre-existing moral framework and political inclinations.
If the above is true (and I suspect it is, but as I said, this is highly speculative at this point), the implications for the universality of wokeism are interesting.
Some thinkers, like Tyler Cowen, have appeared to accept that wokeism will conquer all, but argue that it this future be a happy one as it will lead to greater focus on justice all over the globe.
But if wokeism is uniquely evolved to co-opt this culture, and requires certain suppositions already cemented in this unique landscape, it will not map as well onto the psychologies of the rest of the world, and we are unlikely to see the effects Cowen anticipates.
Instead, the rest of the world will adopt wokeism much in the way China (and even parts of the Muslim world) already have: as a cudgel to use against the West.