Is Social Justice Really a Religion?

As traditional religious belief wanes, a new faith has rushed in to fill the spiritual vacuum. Its adherents are just as dogmatic as the most devout fundamentalists and its strictures every bit as immovable as the bedrock tenets of any religion. But this new faith is unmoored from the history and principles of the old faiths—it’s adrift in moral relativism, performative outrage and shallow (but vicious) condemnations of petty heresies. It’s the church of Social Justice and identity politics: the Church of the Woke.

This argument has become so common that it’s practically a genre of socio-political criticism. In the New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan decries a “social justice ideology,” which “does everything a religion should” and “whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical.” In the Daily Beast, Joel Kotkin and Alicia Kurimska argue that “rising new faiths—built around notions of social justice, the environment and technology to extend life or even achieve immortality—may supplant the old ones.” And, in the Federalist, Jayme Metzgar observes that a “righteous fervor is sweeping America, shaming and punishing all who do evil.” She attributes this phenomenon to the emergence of “a new religion—one I’ll call progressivism.”

Political movements can certainly have religious characteristics (tribalism, rigid commitment to certain doctrines, etc.), and some are more religious than others. As James Lindsay and Mike Nayna have recently argued in this magazine, there are many parallels between identitarian Social Justice movements and religion, such as the stringent adherence to unchallengeable moral beliefs and the obsession with the original sin of privilege. However, Lindsay and Nayna point out that “Social Justice should not be thought of as a substitute or replacement for religion,” which would imply that the “obvious prescription” is to “reinstate religion to give the masses their sociocultural opium and get society back on track.”

This is exactly what Sullivan, Metzgar and many other conservative writers think we need: the revival of traditional religion. But these writers often fail to make a coherent argument that the cult of Social Justice, progressivism, etc. is anything more than an amorphous social and political phenomenon. And they certainly don’t make a compelling case that old dogmas are better than new dogmas. While Lindsay and Nayna carefully define what they mean by religion and build an argument based on that definition, other contributors to the politics-as-religion genre aren’t so scrupulous. To Sullivan, just about anything can be labeled religion—including reason itself. And, to Metzgar, the definition of progressivism (the religion) doesn’t even have to be internally consistent.

Metzgar writes that the “church of modern progressivism” worships three deities: the self, science and history. She doesn’t have much to say about the first two, beyond noting that progressives look to self-realization and self-expression to “know what is beautiful,” while looking to science to “determine truth.” But her claims about the progressive conception of history—which she describes as the “moral force people invoke when they talk about being ‘on the right side of history’”—are at the core of her argument.

She argues that progressives have “seized on the notion of ‘History’ as a moral force that trends in one direction, the direction of progress.” But, considering the rest of her argument—that progressives are hyper-focused on victimhood and oppression (despite the remarkable social and political progress we’ve witnessed over the past century)—isn’t this backwards? If anything, progressives are stubbornly reluctant to admit that history is moving in a positive direction.

In fact, it’s strange that Metzgar has a problem with people who talk about being “on the right side of history” in the first place. She praises Dr Martin Luther King Jr. as a “model of virtue,” apparently forgetting the fact that King popularized the words of the nineteenth-century clergyman Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” So one of the “modern deities” worshiped by the progressive left is, in fact, a principle held by the greatest civil rights icon of the twentieth century—a man Metzgar says we should emulate.

At the beginning of her piece, Metzgar cites the Biblical story of Ananias and Sapphira, who sold some property, promised to donate the profits to the poor, and lied about the price so they could pocket a portion of the money. “For this self-exalting falsehood,” Metzgar writes, “the Holy Spirit struck them dead.”

Metzgar sees a parallel between this story and recent “hate hoaxes” perpetrated by people like Jussie Smollett: “Like Ananias and Sapphira before them, we should see these particular liars as early hypocrites in a new religion: the church of modern progressivism.” After all, considering the emphasis on victimhood on the identitarian left, “Should we be surprised that while early Christians were tempted to inflate their giving to the poor, early progressives are tempted to fabricate hate crimes against themselves?” She claims that these fake hate crimes “bear too many similarities to be seen simply as isolated attention-seeking,” arguing that they “have everything to do with” the philosophy (or theology) of progressivism.

But there’s another gaping contradiction here. Like Ananias and Sapphira, hate hoaxers like Smollett are (as Metzgar admits) liars and hypocrites. There may be a few people on the fringe who think Smollett was justified in fabricating a brutal racist attack to advance his career, but the vast majority of the progressives Metzgar decries have condemned his behavior. He isn’t a congregant in good standing in the church of modern progressivism—in fact, he has been excommunicated. So to treat him as a perfect example of the “toxic belief system” of progressivism is akin to regarding Ananias and Sapphira as model Christians.

Like Sullivan, Metzgar believes we need to reject the “religion” of progressivism and return to real religion—namely, Christianity. And she doesn’t just argue that a religious revival would be good for our society—she thinks it’s a prerequisite for any moral discussion whatsoever: “Without God’s goodness as a plumb line for right and wrong, moderns have no framework with which to judge the clear evils that exist in human behavior.”

The religious constantly tell us that we would have no “framework” for right and wrong without God, Allah, etc. While it’s one thing to argue that objective moral truths and rules exist, it’s quite another to claim to know exactly which supernatural being enforces them. Perhaps there is such a thing as objective morality, but we should approach this question with curiosity instead of dogmatic conviction. In fact, whether you’re a zealous Christian or a zealous Social Justice warrior, that’s exactly what you need: more curiosity, less conviction.

Meanwhile, if you’re going to argue that “progressivism is a toxic belief system, incompatible with freedom, peace, and unity,” you might want to come up with a definition of progressivism that actually makes sense.

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  1. Radical progressivism is close enough to a religion to be grouped in the same bag, much like how many aspects of their ideology are not technically conspiracy theories but are in the same category of “paranoid conclusions drawn from insufficient evidence”.

    One of the difficulties in pinning down ‘progressivism’ as an ideology is partly that it’s still evolving due to constant one-up-manship from its adherents, and also that there are two broad types of progressive today: the zealots and the moderates. Both share a common vocabulary on social justice issues but often each means very different things by those shared terms. For example, for a moderate a term like ‘white supremacist’ conjures up images of swastika-tattooed skinheads, but for a zealot the term means anyone not actively engaged in trying to end white privilege. Linguistically the waters are very muddied and effectively it has resulted in ‘linguistic entryism’ on the part of the zealots, since they’ve been able to co-opt existing widely-used terms. Given postmodernism’s close relationship with linguistics I suspect this is quite deliberate on the part of the zealot intelligentsia.

  2. This is spot on. The likes of John McWhorter talk of the these ideologies as a ‘religion’ and he’s referred to Slate Mag as ‘Church’ but you know he’s after a point being flippant. Yes, what’s held are closer to ‘belief’ than reasoned arguments and ‘Call out’ culture seems closer to dealing with heretical thought than rational argument but it’s ultimately just an analogy.
    In many ways the analogy to Maoism and the Cultural Revolution works just as well.
    Anyway, in many respects it bears more relation to a cult than any mainstream religion.

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