The core assertion of this essay is that religion has reemerged in the form of wokeness. The more I explore the ideas of modern progressivism, aka wokeness, the more clear it is that it is theological in nature. Religion is defined as: “… an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.” Wokeness clearly fits that definition, and further mimics many of the historical behaviors of major religions. Like religion, it feels good. Like religion, if you sum it together, it contradicts itself and sums to zero.
Weiss put it well: “(in wokness)… Ideas are replaced with identity. Forgiveness is replaced with punishment. Debate is replaced with de-platforming. Diversity is replaced with homogeneity of thought. Inclusion, with exclusion.”. It is hard to think of a set of principles more theological in nature. Interestingly, wokeness lacks a god, which if history is any indication, reinforces that the intent may be more violent. Perhaps it is the return of the mortal scapegoat and mimetic violence. It’s interesting to think about the premise of a modern, godless religion.
The enlightenment brought a certain amount of high agency, deterministic rationalism to previously feudal religious dictatorships. It’s hard not to see a regression happening where wokeness brings us back to the latter societal form. It is relieving though that unlike the long lived religions of history, wokeness is antinatalist. Perhaps we are living through both the first and last generation of the woke. Why has this new religious structure emerged? Is the emergence of wokeness itself the long term pendulum swinging back, or a symptom?
Religious experience stems from the frontal lobes of the cortex in our brain. The center is responsible for teleological thinking, which is ‘the attribution of purpose and a final cause to natural events and entities’. There’s a feedback loop where we observe something, reach a conclusion about it, turn that into a narrative or story about what to do in the future. Being that this is built into our brain, we can move beyond god and historical religions, but we cannot move beyond theological narratives as the dominant way that most people reason with reality.
It’s not clear that wokeness opposes or supports rationalist universal values, but it does give some indications. It generally considers capitalism bad, despite the clear correlation with technological progress. It generally considers bullying bad, unless it’s of high agency groups overrepresented among the successful. It generally considers some forms of personal freedom as sacred, but also considers independence of thought to be a threat to it’s monotheistic nature.
More concerning is that wokeness has become the religion of the elite. Any time there is broad consensus between the dependent class and the elite, you want to ask yourself what each side of that coin stands to gain by buying into it. My observation has not been that religion and state mixing together ends well. Any time you see religion in politics it is because it reinforces existing power structures. Only companies doing bad things to their customers like Coca-Cola embrace wokeness. Religion and wokeness both forgive the agent for lacking agency and ethics.
Because of the physical brain structure we have, I think wokeness is deserving of a certain measured amount of fear among anyone that thinks for themselves. Any monotheistic religion is going to threaten independent thought. It’s not clear that wokeness has a future in absence of a change in stance on natalism. If it does remain antinatalist, it could end up being a sort of unusual and temporary moment in history. If it finds a way to reproduce, it could end up being the end of the enlightenment and the beginning of something else. It remains to be seen what form our need for theological thinking takes in the absence of the cultural concept of a god.
What is the appropriate response to this? Could one build a competing theological narrative about the goodness of other universal values? If it can happen for the current set, why can’t it happen again for other beliefs (e.g. the goodness of progress, reduced violence and increased personal freedom)? Many factors would need to be considered, and trade-offs weighed. Would you want to base fear on a terrestrial factor, like social exclusion, or a supernatural narrative, like God’s judgement? How would you convert the high and low agency classes of people?
It remains the case that it is easier to criticize something than to build an alternative. Many woke beliefs are a criticism of what is (or is perceived to be). Until wokeness builds an alternative, it’s cultural significance will be limited to what it is perceived to be, not what is. We live in a time of far reaching technological progress, historically low violence and abundant personal freedom (e.g. no one kicks down my door for writing this essay). The central question is what alternative way of being could be built from the criticism focused foundation that wokeness offers. I suspect until it proposes an alternative, it will be limited in its growth to certain situations and types of people. Whatever alternative exists that can be built, most likely will be in place of wokeness.
It requires digging down into the origins of morals and ethics to form a view about the changes that will take place under prevailing wokeness. It’s interesting to think about the advantage a city or country could have in opposing it. In some ways, China is a sort of authoritarian (still monotheistic) counter argument to wokeness. It remains to be seen what form of modern theology will become the dominant one, and what form rationalism will take as a result. It remains to be seen how long it takes for people to wake up from wokeness. Hopefully not long.