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What Type of Religion Is Wokeness?

(Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via AP)

“As we might expect, the Woke, often well educated and articulate, have generated their own convoluted and comprehensive ‘theology’ replete with saints and sinners, priests and heretics, and even their own kind of Heaven and Hell.”

In a few short years something amazing has occurred. Since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, a whole systematic set of ideas has swept through society and, most dramatically, through virtually all institutions—both public and private. This phenomenon did not appear out of nowhere but represents a kind of blossoming of ideas and systems already in place. The broad generic term for those most caught up in this movement is Woke.

Wokeness is a revelation that the world is not right and must be radically changed. This involves widespread displays (both personal and institutional) of awareness of social and racial inequities. These displays often take quite specific forms—indeed, orthodoxical forms. Wokeness is a comprehensive and beguiling view of how the world is and how the world should be. Wokeness seems to be more than a new political ideology; indeed, it seems more like a new religion.

Actually, Wokeness is not like a religion. According to Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, it is a religion. In his 2021 book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, McWhorter makes a compelling case that Wokeness manifests all of the traits we commonly associate with religion, and a particularly fundamentalist one at that. The Woke—or what McWhorter calls “the Elect”—have “superstition”; “a clergy”; they “bar other religions”; they are “apocalyptic”; “evangelical”; and apparently, “they’re coming for your children.”

Over the centuries, the United States has spawned many kinds of religions, cults, and sects, but few have so dramatically captured the public’s attention the way Wokeness has these last few years. This begs the question: How could such a radically new “religion” arise and dominate in a largely secular modern society?

Sacred and Profane 

The word “religion” is related to the Latin word “ligare,” which means “to bind.” All traditional religions recognize forces greater than ourselves; they represent a “binding” to those forces. “For religious man, the cosmos ‘lives’ and ‘speaks,'” writes mythologist Mircia Eliade; it makes itself manifest in all things. “[F]or the man of all premodern societies,” the “sacred” is not simply some other world but “equivalent to a power, and…to reality.” By identifying with this power, the religious man transcends the simple material world and unifies with the sacred: “religious man deeply desires to be, to participate in reality, to be saturated with power.”

Conforming to a sacred universe involves making interpretations in language and images of how the world works and how we fit in. The accumulation of these interpretations is what we usually think of as a religion. A religion represents a relationship to the greater universe—morality, art, law, social hierarchies, and the like are analogues of how the universe works.

All interpretations, however, tend to take on a life of their own, and we forget the original inspiration. Religions tend to undergo a process of vulgarization whereby the forms or interpretations are confused with the original experience. All religions are susceptible to becoming abstracted, dogmatic, and priest infested. Not surprisingly, all of the great religious traditions warn against idol worship, the confusion of the image of reality for reality itself.

In his classic work The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade contrasts the ways of the traditional sacred world with those of the modern profane world. Where the sacred world begins with a kind of revelation of connectedness, profane reality recognizes no such connectedness, no need to conform to powers greater than ourselves. Modern profane man “refuses all appeal to transcendence…Man makes himself, and he only makes himself completely in proportion as he desacralizes himself and the world. The sacred is the prime obstacle to his freedom.” Profane reality consists of the play of material forces which can be—to some extent—known by human reason and ultimately remade by human reason. Reason is profane man’s means of liberation.

The profane and sacred are, Eliade argues, “two modes of being in the world.” Both operate on presumptions about the nature of the universe which are neither provable nor refutable by reason or science. Sacred and profane are not simply philosophies (let alone ideologies); rather, they represent completely different metaphysical systems. And it is “[m]etaphysics,” says Martin Heidegger, which “grounds an age” and “holds complete dominion over all phenomena that distinguish the age.”

However, the profane worldview did not arise out of thin air; it arose from the sacred. “The completely profane world, the completely desacralized cosmos,” writes Eliade, “is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit.” We should not be surprised that “profane man cannot help preserving some vestiges of the behavior of religious man, though they are emptied of religious meaning…He forms himself by a series of denials and refusals, but he continues to be haunted by the realities he has refused and denied.” To this day, profane and sacred metaphysics remain in tension.

The modern secular profane world involves a profound shift in how we interpret reality, which in turn alters how we understand science, art, morality, and–to the topic at hand–religion. With the loss of an experience of greater forces–what Martin Heidegger calls “the loss of the gods—religion does not outright vanish; instead, “the relation to the gods [is] changed into mere ‘religious experience.'” Religion is effectively personalized and more or less removed from the common public realm. In the profane secular world, where reason is valued over faith, religion is seen as a manifestation of unreason or irrationality.

It is this modern and profane understanding of religion that McWhorter emulates. He presumes a religion to be a series of dogmatic and unempirical set of beliefs; here, faith is in conflict with reason. Thus, for McWhorter, the Woke phenomenon is just another vulgarized form of religion. However, since he does not recognize the more elemental distinction between modern profane metaphysics and traditional sacred metaphysics, he ends up minimizing the peculiarly modern origins of Wokeness. As Eliade suggests, the profane is a relatively recent but highly significant branch of the sacred tree, a branch with its own peculiar assumptions.

Woke Racism is not intended as a treatise on metaphysics though it inevitably must engage with the subject. Wokeness resembles a religion in the same way the Tasmanian wolf resembles the Eurasian wolf: similar morphologies and behaviors but different genealogies. A Woke activist and a religious fanatic may think and behave in similar ways: Homo secularis can be every bit as vicious as Homo religiousus, but they are the products of different metaphysical systems. To understand fully the phenomenon of Wokeness, I believe it necessary to examine its profane genealogy.

Profane Education: Reason Unrestrained

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Wokeness is that it is largely a phenomenon of the educated. Indeed, the world of higher education is the very source of all the concepts we associate with being Woke. This is quite counterintuitive, since education—higher education, in particular–corresponds with the cultivation of reason, a means of overcoming the irrationalities associated with religion. How, then, did the world of secular education suddenly become a hotbed of religious fundamentalism?

The profane worldview presumes that reason will be valued over faith. Reason, or philosophy in general, asks questions, and all questions will remain fundamentally open. Ideally, in a democracy  consisting of many conflicting world views and religions, the university will serve as the one place where all questions can remain open: It represents the institutionalization of reason and even allows for an examination of the tension between the sacred and profane worldviews. The existence of the university helps create malleability and thus shields society from intellectual and social sclerosis.

The profane worldview may exalt reason, but the modern profane world did not invent reason. Aristotle, Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein—the list of  individuals with some form of faith who also epitomize human reason is endless. Sacred metaphysics tends to restrain reason because it presumes greater powers that cannot be fully understood through reason. Those with a most profound appreciation of the sacred universe understand that, ultimately, reality cannot be explained; it can only be described.

As the profane universe displaces the sacred, reason becomes unrestrained and evermore fixated on human liberation. Rather than simply observing order and relations in the world, reason (and particularly modern science) presumes to know reality by taking it apart. Skepticism becomes a more prominent feature of reason. Reason unrestrained involves, in Karl Marx’s words, “a ruthless criticism of all that exists.” It analyzes, interrogates, demystifies, and debunks all claims to transcendent truth or authority. Traditional religions assume a knowledge of the whole; reason unrestrained unravels all wholes.

Inevitably, reason turns its corrosive powers on itself; the problem of truth is resolved not by asserting some new truth but, rather, by suggesting the impossibility of truth. An orthodoxy of belief is displaced by an orthodoxy of doubt. We no longer have truth, but we do have opinions. What ultimately characterizes the profane universe is not reason but the fetishization of reason, the vulgarization of reason.

Not surprisingly, this vulgarization of reason is most pronounced among those who live in the world of ideas and abstractions. The triumph of the profane over the sacred appears primarily in the world of higher education. Profane education cultivates what is euphemistically referred to as “critical thinking,” which, when practiced, tends to destroy our human capacity for simply observing the unfolding of reality. Skepticism dominates. Nothing seems true. Everything appears relative. Profane education cultivates a facility for what Heidegger calls “ideation” while subverting the very capacity to think. This cultivated sense of relativism is what Allan Bloom describes as The Closing of the American Mind. This is the intellectual compost from which Wokeness sprouts.

Metaphysics Becomes Psychology

Where the sacred universe begins with a revelation of connectedness, the profane universe culminates in a revelation of disconnectedness. Wokeness, as the very word suggests, is the end product of a hyperawareness of the relativity to all claims to truth. Being Woke suggests being in possession of a kind of knowledge.

As McWhorter documents, the Woke do behave irrationally, and they appear hostile to reason itself. But being Woke is not simply a feeling, given its elemental knowledge of fragmentation; it does follow a kind of logic. It is not a coincidence that the irrationalities and paranoias of  Wokeness resemble those of the schizophrenic, both are driven by a kind of hyperlogic that renders them blind to reality. As we might expect, the Woke, often well educated and articulate, have generated their own convoluted and comprehensive “theology” replete with saints and sinners, priests and heretics, and even their own kind of Heaven and Hell.

In the Woke universe, we have fallen from our formless Edenic state of perfect equality into an inegalitarian world of oppressors and oppressed. If the true world has no inherent structure or order, then all apparent differences and hierarchies are merely accidents of nature and history. The persistence of inequality requires some explanation, clearly some malevolent force is at play. “Racism” (or “homophobia” or “xenophobia” etc.) is the name for the satanic power which saturates all social structures and perpetuates inequality. “White privilege” or “white supremacy” are manifestations of this power. Of course, those in power are invested in maintaining the dominance of traditional power structures so all of this must be relentlessly challenged, deconstructed, torn down, and canceled. To be aware of this unjust state of reality is to be Woke.

The emergence and dominance of Wokeness is the culmination of a generational process in which millions of us have participated. What we call higher education has evolved into nothing less than initiation into this extreme profane universe. “University buildings,” observes McWhorter, “are now all but indistinguishable from churches.” Here metaphysics becomes psychology: The fragmented universe cultivates fragmented minds, fragmented minds only see a fragmented universe and they are intent upon remaking the world in their image.

Wokeness then is not simply one more religion in conflict with reason but an inevitable result of the vulgarization of reason itself. Wokeness does not arise from the atrophy of reason; it arises from the hypertrophy of reason. But, as Eliade observes, “the majority of men still hold to pseudo religions and degenerate mythologies… profane man is the descendent of homo religious and he can’t wipe his own history.” The Woke do indeed behave like religious fundamentalists but by way of the profane universe which itself can be traced further back to a common sacred universe.

By classifying Wokeness as a religion, McWhorter has elevated the whole conversation by highlighting its increasingly irrational manifestations. But by confusing Wokeness with traditional religions, he has muddled the profane and sacred universes. Simply calling Wokeness a religion does not explain its power and proliferation among the most educated people on the planet.

If the profane universe is the universe of fragments, then the best we can do is obtain a more precise knowledge of the fragments. Higher education ends up producing two human types: the expert and the activist. These experts and activists have swarmed out of academia and have reached a kind of critical mass in virtually all institutions. Who can resist? Who will resist?

Our True Inner Compass

McWhorter wrote Woke Racism with a specific audience in mind: what he calls “my people,” which includes black people and “New York Times-reading, National Public Radio-listening” people. As he argues, the hardcore true believers–“medievals with lattes”–are beyond reason, but they exist in a much larger context among people who retain enough capacity for reason to see the problems with Woke regimes. “I want to reach those on the fence, guilted into attention by these ideologue’s passion and rhetoric but unable to disregard their true inner compass.” What is this “true inner compass” to which McWhorter appeals?

McWhorter observes that much of the inability or reluctance to heed this true inner compass is the result of fear–specifically, fear of being labeled a racist. This fear certainly is not unfounded; even the accusation of racism can end a career and lead to social ostracization. But this begs the question: How is it that the few can intimidate and terrorize the many? Recounting the cruelties of the Woke, McWhorter repeats this refrain several times: “What kind of people do these things? Why do they get away with it? And are we going to let them continue?”

Fear suggests a power relationship. We are fearful when we are unsure if we can overcome some threat. We may overcome fear by knowledge and courage. This is an exercise of personal power, which may require the engagement of our “true inner compass.” Overcoming fear, therefore, involves a kind of transcendence. But what if the very capacity for transcendence is denied?

It should be noted that there are millions of Americans who are not objectively racist and who have no fear of being called racists. These are often those who do not function in the world of higher education. They do not live in a world of abstractions. They participate in reality; their thinking is related to their doing. I personally know many blue-collar types who freely admit their own past racist sentiments and the United States’ racist past. But now they recognize the inherent stupidity of such ideas. They have moved on; they have transcended their dysfunctional prejudices. They have engaged their true inner compasses.

But in the fully Woke universe, there are no true inner compasses. Profane education turns out not to be liberation from dysfunctional prejudices but, rather, a hypersensitivity to all prejudices. This hypersensitivity may produce a kind of righteous euphoria but also a generalized paralysis. The very idea of a true inner compass is itself determined to be one more self-serving prejudice which perpetuates existing power structures. Affirming that everyone has an inherent capacity to transcend their circumstances is called “blaming the victim.” The profane universe is essentially  the meaningless play of material forces, where, unlike the sacred universe, there are no greater powers to which we must conform or from which we might draw inspiration or by which we can orient ourselves. In such a fragmented relativistic universe, to what truth could an inner compass possibly point?

In the sacred universe, the problem of being involves awareness of (and adaptation to) greater powers. This requires faith in a capacity for self-transcendence, even a capacity for courage—hence, the exaltation of the hero in the mythologies of sacred societies. In the triumph of the profane universe, the problem of being is not transcendence but change. Thus, the hero is replaced by the activist. As the inscription on the gravestone of the great profane saint Karl Marx reads, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Changing the world for the Woke requires, not individual transcendence, but the tearing down of oppressive social structures and the restructuring of society by an enlightened few.

In Woke reality, we, as individuals, are forced into categories we can never transcend, but we can (and must) demonstrate awareness of our categories. Everyone in the Woke universe is obliged to engage in perpetual displays of victimization by the underprivileged and perpetual displays of sensitivity by the privileged. This is a never ending dynamic of resentment and guilt which, as McWhorter so eloquently argues, is rife with absurdities and contradictions. It is almost wholly performative, involving ever more elaborate displays but ultimately accomplishes nothing and degrades all participants. As such, a few zealots dominate when hypersensitivity becomes paralysis, paralysis becomes weakness, and weakness becomes fear.

Those who accept the logic of the profane universe may end up denying not only their own capacity for transcendence; they deny everyone’s capacity. In the Woke universe, the iconic victim, George Floyd, replaces the “dreamer,” Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet most people (especially McWhorter’s “people”) retain a true inner compass. They maintain some degree of individual integrity. They manifest a capacity for transcendence in their day-to-day lives, and they usually assume it in others. In spite of their adaptation to profane reality, they tend to treat others as individuals, judge people by the content of their character, and demonstrate a capacity for growth and forgiveness.

Everyone has a true inner compass because nobody can actually live in a fully profane universe. We participate in a universe of powers greater than ourselves, than our mere existence. McWhorter claims that a religion requires a “suspension of disbelief”; however, existence itself requires a suspension of disbelief. We live by faith, not doubt, and never simply by reason. And as a linguist McWhorter should know, the very existence of language requires a shared capacity for transcendence. Language is the sublimation of dissonant forces into a common cosmos of sounds and symbols, without which human society is impossible. Unlike the uneducated, the educated tend to live in two universes. They function in the largely profane and abstract universe of our greater institutions, yet they can never fully escape the sacred universe which precedes and underlies everything.

Woke Racism is a tour de force of reason; it is an appeal to our capacity for reason. While McWhorter consistently champions reason over unreason, his reason is not the vulgarized corrosive reason of the profane universe but the restrained, expansive reason of the sacred universe. He not only points out the problems with Wokeness; he appeals to our capacity to transcend our current absurdities, to overcome our fears, and to engage our true inner compass. What distinguishes John McWhorter is not simply his reason but his courage and his faith.

Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.

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