Saturday, January 27, 2024

Caleb Anderson: The Religiosity of Woke

It is not uncommon to hear musings that wokeism bears religious (even cultic) hallmarks.  I have some sympathy for those holding this view.

I am going to use some typically religious terms here.  I am not taking any specific position concerning these terms, or concerning religion.  I am using these terms simply to support my contention that wokeism resembles a religion in certain key respects, and because there are no sufficiently similar secular terms.  I am also using them in the sense that they were used and understood by pioneering psychologists.

I have clocked up many hundreds of hours of counseling.  After deep-diving into people's struggles, as nuanced as they necessarily are, I find significant commonalities.  

I have become convinced of the following.

Most people  ...

1.  Have a sense of some sort of standard that they have difficulty living up to ...  and in respect of which they fall short (i.e. sin).

2.  Having fallen short (i.e. having sinned) they feel shame, and a sense of guilt ...  which simply will not go away.

3.  Have a pervasive feeling that (someday) they will have to account for this...  necessitating some sort of atonement (or sacrifice).

4.  Need to find some sense of meaning (a functional worldview) if there is any hope of achieving the above.

The earliest psychologists (Freud, Adler, Frankl, Jung, and many others) have recognised these themes and sought to deal with them in various ways.

They generally saw these as religious (type) responses or drives.  

Freud saw them simply (or not so simply) as ego-defence, Adler as the pursuit of perfection, Frankl as denial of an inherent God consciousness, and Jung (in part) as a manifestation of the collective unconscious, and as a denial of meaning.

No matter what, therapy, in large part, was directed at finding constructive ways to deal with the guilt arising from a pervasive sense of falling short of some sort of standard (of having sinned).

Irrespective of time, place, or context, all societies have sought ways to deal with issues of ethics, sin, guilt, and atonement.  Most ancient religions practised atonement (sacrifice) of one form or another, personal as well as corporate.

Interestingly, very eminent, neuroscientist, Iain Mcgilchrist, describes all religious systems, and we might loosely include wokeism in this category, as fundamentally psychotherapeutic (or pseudo-psychotherapeutic) systems (i.e. systems designed to help people deal with internal conflicts by providing a functional framework of meaning).

Modernity has its equivalents

Ego conflict indicates a neurosis (conflict of ideas) of some sort, a conflict that needs to be reconciled, and a "sin" that needs to be atoned for ... by someone, somewhere. 

In a sense, even things as inane as progressive tax rates, affirmative action, carbon taxes, climate mitigation, apologies for the actions of one's ancestors (assumed and actual), payment of reparations, occasional concessions toward a political opposite, and charitable donations, etc., while they have arguable utility, can also be seen, in part, as works of individual, or semi-collective, atonement for having fallen short (a Freudian might see these as examples of ego defence).  

Atonement always involves the death of something (metaphorically speaking) and its replacement (re-birth) with something else ... a sort of trade-off.

Even warfare can be an example of collective atonement at a macro level.  The carpet bombing of Germany at the end of World War 2 was, in a sense, an atonement (or retribution) for the devastation of war and the horrors of the holocaust. Some believe that many of Germany's (and Europe's) current dilemmas (e.g. mass immigration) are derivative of a perpetual atoning for the "sins" of the early twentieth century.

So just how relevant is this to woke?

It seems that climate change and anti-racism are the new moral domains (the new religions) toward, and within which, morality and ethics are weighed, measured, and shaped, and on which restitution (atonement) is exacted.  

Configured to the four points above this looks as follows  ...

1.  The promulgated views (and necessary presuppositions) around climate change and race now constitute the standard to which all will be held accountable, and ultimately judged.  

The West, and Westerners generally, come(s) short of this standard (i.e. is/are guilty of collective sin).

2.  Having fallen short (having sinned) the West, and all Westerners, bear associated guilt.  

Because every aspect of the Western worldview is contaminated, efforts to void this guilt, or even to atone for it, simply implicate the West further.

3.  Therefore it is imperative that the West accounts comprehensively for falling short.  

The only way the West can atone for its past sins is to disembowel its culture (decolonise), re-write its history, disown its achievements, make endless reparations, and submit to re-education. 

4.  That all of the above (in fact almost all things) are understood only in the context of a worldview narrative that has oppression and power as the primary drivers of thought and action.

Woke - postmodern - cultic doctrine

This is certainly not a pitch for religion, that is not the point.  

It is just a statement that, no matter our propensity to deny, no matter how uncomfortable this makes us feel, we are fundamentally religious at our core, we construct (and inherit) structures of meaning to make sense of incomprehensible things.  We naturally seek answers to questions, and solutions to problems, that only "religious-type" systems are equipped to explore (and note I said "religious-type", not "religious").

The demise of institutional Christianity in the West has created a void that wokeism, and post-modernism (of which it is a variant), have been delighted to fill ...  and to which many vested, and vulnerable, people have allied themselves.  

And while materialistic science is impressively equipped to explore matters relating to the observables, it is stuck with supposition beyond that.  

Physics is courageously leading the way into domains of knowing that make materialist determinists feel mighty uncomfortable, but it has a way to go.  

For many, wokeism appeals because it provides simple answers to complex questions - complexity is replaced by a near singularity.  With only a few exceptions, all things are viewed through the worldview lens of power and oppression as the pre-eminent motivators of human action, nothing else is considered to matter.  

Critical thinking is frowned upon, and unthinking, and blind, acceptance of the promulgated dogma is the highest of all virtues.  

Wokeism provides a sense of belonging to a cause, of community, of collective purpose, of self-stroking (in the psychological sense), of voice, and of meaning.  Wokeism has allusions to falling short (sinning against the disadvantaged and against creation), it provides a suite of actions to remediate this sin (atonement), it demands the unquestioning acceptance of its dogmas (e.g. around climate and race), deals ruthlessly with those who question (heretics), and wages relentless crusades against those they see as the enemy (including against free thought and free speech more generally).  

In so doing wokeism brings its adherents within arms reach of the promised land and invites them to take their failings, their struggles, their insecurities, and their fears, and to lay these at someone else's door and, having done this, to insist that they pay for what they have done (i.e. atone on their behalf). 

And they must atone endlessly!

Wokeism allows its adherents to feel the illusion of being OK while someone else picks up the tab.   

But, of course, all illusions are temporary.  Because wokeism exists only as long as its latest cause, and the most recently discovered oppression, it must perpetually find new stones to overturn, new injustices to uncover, new reputations to ruin, new enemies to destroy, and new causes to champion ... the West's death is by a thousand cuts.

The woke are willing to sacrifice enlightenment values, virtue, free expression, open inquiry, public discourse, and civility (things becoming almost unrecognizable to them), on the altar of ignorance and intolerance.   Atonement always demands the (metaphorical) death (sacrifice) of something, and the (metaphorical) re-birth of something else, and herein lies their "acceptable" trade-off. 

Postmodern wokeism needs to be exposed for what it is, a monumental act of collective projection (scapegoating).  

It needs to be stripped of its counterfeit virtue, and returned to the dark abyss from which it has come, and from which it will no doubt come again.

In the words of Sir Roger Scruton, postmodernism, in its various iterations, has "...  replace(ed) the doctrine of liberty with the doctrine of condemnation".

The West's crisis is an existential one  ...  and it needs to rediscover itself while it is still capable of doing so.

Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal


Anonymous said...

No doubt about this.

Culture embraces race and religion as well as artistic heritage. Often all mixed together.

Scott said...

I totally agree with the writer that wokeism is a religion, a substitute in the West for Christianity.

As for me I'd rather have that hour a week in church as opposed to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year of wokeness.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. May it be true as it give me hope we can find our way out of this Wendy dream.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

>Irrespective of time, place, or context, all societies have sought ways to deal with issues of ethics, sin, guilt, and atonement. Most ancient religions practised atonement (sacrifice) of one form or another, personal as well as corporate.

These comments are true enough for the Near Eastern and Middle Eastern religions both Abrahamic and pre-Abrahamic, but less so for the Far Eastern religions. The concept of sin is strongly tied to a chief deity that is offended by people breaking rules it has imposed. This is not really the case in Hinduism or Buddhism. Atonement again smacks of the Middle Eastern approach to corrective action. The ancients cast their sins onto a goat which was then taken into the desert to die of exposure and thirst. Later, the Christian cult replaced the goat with a guy. The Far Eastern religions observe the Law of Karma which is essentially a "as you sow, so you will reap" principle but this is a foundation law of the universe and even the god(s) are bound by it. Buddhist ethics are the most highly developed of all religions' approaches to ethics from an intellectual point of view.

mudbayripper said...

Thank you, a well written description of just how religious beliefs in its many manifestations is a curse on all.
Postmodern subjective thinking didn't just follow on at the end of the enlightenment, it's always been there.

Anonymous said...

Personally I think wokeism is for the easily brainwashed and the dim.

Anonymous said...

There may be similar underlying psychological compulsions I suppose, but I disagree that what you call ‘wokeism’ is similar to religion – or to world religions at any rate.

Postmodernist politics (PP), as I will call it, is fundamentally antagonistic to the viewpoint and aims of the world religions (WRs). WRs acknowledge a common humanity and also a source of power and of moral imperatives beyond our human weaknesses. WRs admit to an ultimate truth that informs justice and convicts injustice – though for sure, humanity needs to work at it time and again to aspire to this truth. WRs recognise that fundamental reality exists and impels us to move beyond self and act kindly towards others – not because our any inherent goodness on our part, but because of the imperatives of this truth.

PP instead sees everything as subjective, secular and driven only by power and self-interest. There is no common humanity, only various group identities. Our actions are largely determined by our identities, not by any ultimate truth. There is no fundamental reality; we each of us see things differently and we cannot avoid being alienated from others who do not share our identities. Any apparent altruism towards others with a different identity is almost always a covert act of self-interest. In the end PP undermines civil society as only same-identity members can be trusted to pursue one’s own interests without ulterior, selfish motives. Society breaks up into separate groups and subgroups.

PP does suggest a way, however, whereby people of different identities may be able to overcome self-interest, namely, if people with oppressive identities willingly subsume themselves under people with oppressed identities. We can see how this is worked out in a New Zealand context; people with certain identities (e.g., men, Pākehā) are viewed as inherently oppressive and bad whereas people with other identities (e.g., women, Māori) are inherently oppressed and therefore virtuous. The latter identities are ones we are all being tasked with absorbing into our own identities if we don’t already have them, regardless of any contradictions or absurdity.

Anonymous said...

The key thrust of this article is that the woke dilemma is, at least in part, an existential one, and that motivations for action are deeper than what we see, they run to the base of consciousness itself ... which is where religious orientations begin. I believe there is a strong case for this. Woke will only be defeated if it is attacked at its very roots. This is much deeper than its political actions and justifications.

Mark H said...

I dont think that Woke believers are normal or neurotypical, and are simply dysfunctional cult followers. Normal neurotypical people have normal religious experiences, but Woke followers are neurodiverse and plagued with anxiety and fear and inadequacy. This is different to religious people who might feel some guilt at falling short in their vows. The biggest difference is that religious people are seeking some divine liberation, whereas Woke people are just seeking normal and neurotypical, cos they dont have any divine aspirations.

Anonymous said...

You have missed the army of opportunists who support these religious based ideologies in order to exploit their adherents.