“The religion of Social Justice is redolent of the old paganism but without even the mortal transcendence of its pantheons.”
resembling a eorge Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25th in Minneapolis was a horrific case of authority abused in pursuit of cruelty, exercised with the insouciance of the psychopath. The protests that resulted from this killing were impassioned and saw huge numbers turn out in Minneapolis to protest peacefully. As we saw, these protests devolved into violent rioting and the widespread looting of properties. Footage of Minneapolis now shows large areas burned to the ground, bombed-out warzone.
The protests and subsequent violence spread across America. New York City was the stage for unrest of unhinged ferocity, with mobs running riot in Midtown Manhattan, smashing storefronts on 5th Avenue and scouring high-end stores clean of merchandise. Cities from Washington D.C. to California were then wreathed in smoke as rioters, some of them Antifa extremists and others simple opportunists, exploited an opportunity to cause havoc. In London, on Saturday, June 6th, police officers were injured during a mass demonstration, and a mounted officer was knocked from her horse after it bolted from being attacked.
What is disturbing to me is the language and imagery used by actors from the media to massive corporations to excuse, explain away, or obscure what has happened. This has helped kill the complexity noted above. Media outlets such as Vox and Mother Jones scold those who use “riot” instead of “protest.” Slate, meanwhile, argued that violence was a reasonable reaction to Floyd’s death and endorsed it as a form of resistance. Corporations, meanwhile, are only too eager to jump onto the social justice bandwagon, their leaders using rhetoric and symbology to proclaim themselves part of the moral community of the woke, conveniently distracting us from their unethical practices and over-dominant market positions.
We all need something to believe in, and social justice fills the God-shaped hole in our hearts.
The ideology of social justice has, thus, been on full view in recent days, and dissent is crushed or hounded away with ruthless speed. We all need something to believe in, and social justice fills the God-shaped hole in our hearts. John McWhorter, the Columbia professor, writes that anti-racism has now taken on the character of a religion for our post-modern culture. James Lindsay and Mike Nayna over at Areo expand this contention into a full anatomy of social justice as a religious belief system. Calling this a religion might seem an exaggeration, but seeing white people praying against their own inherent racism, kneeling for absolution from their racial sins, and washing the feet of oppressed races, it begins to seem that there is something to this.
While these diagnoses are a useful means of understanding the underlying reasons for—and structures of this new belief system—I want to look at it from a slightly different perspective, through the thought of three philosophers: Philip Rieff, Eric Voegelin, and Franz Rosenzweig. These three thinkers enable us to see why people join this woke belief system, what its aim is, where it is ultimately headed, and why it is doomed to failure.
Let’s start with Philip Rieff. Rieff was an American sociologist and cultural critic, most famous for his 1966 masterwork The Triumph of the Therapeutic. However, the work most relevant here is his trilogy Sacred Order/Social Order. As the theologian Carl Trueman summarises, this work argues that the reason the very belief structures that undergirded our society and culture are disintegrating lies in a change to how we justify our beliefs and practices as a culture, a change hundreds of years in the making and which is coming to fruition now.
To cut a long and deep story short, Rieff argued that we can categorize cultures based on their deepest beliefs—and how these affected the way they viewed and acted in the world. He called these First, Second and Third World cultures. First World cultures belonged to the polytheistic world of antiquity. In these, a range of myths grounded and justified these cultures through something that transcended the immediate present. Think of the great heroic tales of old where the gods are present. What they shared was something that held the present accountable to higher powers. Rieff argued that belief in fate was key. The Second World that followed held much in common with the First, with a social order grounded in a deep, sacred order. The difference was that cultural codes were redirected towards a specific divine Being. This was the world of the three Abrahamic religions.
The Third World was the rupture, and it is the one we are currently living in. Third Worlds repudiate any sacred order outside of ourselves: Culture cannot justify itself on the basis of looking to something larger than itself. The sacred, as traditionally understood, is ejected. If we no longer believe in the transcendent sacred order of the Second World, which is increasingly the case, what do we believe in? The Third World reduces this to us, alone. This means that the culture has to justify itself on itself. As Rieff saw, no culture has done this successfully and survived.
The growth in identity politics as a perverted religion is tied to the disintegration of our belief in the transcendent sacred and the demolition of a transcendent basis in which to ground a flourishing social order. Third Worlds are riven with scorn for the moral codes in which Second Worlds found their justification. This echoes Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote that “when a new sect springs up, that is to say a new religion, its first effort is (by way of asserting itself and gaining influence) to destroy the old or existing one.”
So, this is one answer as to why we are seeing more and more people adhering to this new belief system. But then the next question is, where is it going and what is its ultimate end point? As James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose write, the goal of this new religion is to “reconstruct society in the image of an ideology which [refers] to itself as ‘Social Justice.'” To make sense of this, we turn to our next thinker, Eric Voegelin. Voegelin was a German-American political philosopher, who rose to prominence during the Cold War by arguing that modern totalitarianism was akin to the Gnosticism of antiquity.
Voegelin defined gnosis as “a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite.” As Voegelin goes on to say, Gnosticism is a “type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism.” As Voegelin argued, the root of the Gnostic impulse inherent to modernist ideologies like Nazism and Communism—as well as the postmodern ideology of Social Justice—is alienation, a sense of being cut-off from society and a belief that this is the result of inherent disorder and evil of the world.
The most important effects of this were, first, that heaven could be reached by a select few, with the correct learning and the knowledge gained from this. This is similar to how Social Justice activists speak as though they alone have the knowledge of how the world really works, as well as the way to salvation. This is paired with their calls for people to educate themselves in the catechism of anti-racism by listening only to them. All of this serves to demonstrate Voegelin’s continuing relevance and insight.
It is a shame that this always lead to oceans of blood being spilled.
Second was the desire to implement the outcome of this Gnostic Speculation through bringing about heaven on earth, what Voegelin dubbed “to immanentize the eschaton.” We saw this in the Nazi utopia of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, Marx’s classless Communist society, or the world of complete equality where structures of oppression are removed proselytized by the Social Justice ideologues. It is a shame that this always lead to oceans of blood being spilled.
If this all sounds like we should be concerned at where the Social Justice religion is going, it is because we should. In some ways, however, I am less worried that this new belief system will succeed, than that it will fail but will cause a lot of grief and suffering for many people in the process. The last thinker who leads me this way is the early 20th century German-Jewish theological, Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig’s magnum opus was The Star of Redemption, written on postcards while he was serving in World War I.
One of the key insights of the book for us here is this:
“Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.”
Rosenzweig’s insight was that monotheistic religion, based in the transcendent, was the expression of man’s longing for immortality, as well as the survival of the meaning of our lives after we are gone. As with the individual, so with civilization. It seems to me that Social justice, the immanent religion of our Third World, that attempts to bring about a heaven on earth based on ourselves is doomed to failure. This is because it has mortality at its heart. Rosenzweig believed that the pagan empires of old died out because they had an idea of decay and death built into the foundation of their view of the sacred. The Jewish faith was different because God is eternal. Christianity universalized this to the world.
The religion of Social Justice is redolent of the old paganism but without even the mortal transcendence of its pantheons. If the old civilizations of the world of pre-Christian polytheism eventually died out for want of eternal gods, what chance does a religion have that is based on the limited, small mortality of humanity? This is the ultimate tragedy of those who follow the Social Justice religion. Not only that it will bring hardship to many but that in the end they will die, bereft of the hope that a belief in eternity can inspire. They will leave no grand achievements behind them, nothing that inspires. There will only be a wasteland of intellectual barbarism and clashing identity groups, tearing away at each other for causes none will remember the origin or purpose of, and none will believe in.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the U.K. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.