Although I grew up in northern Italy, where I was raised as a Catholic, I haven’t attended church much since I was a child. My involvement with Christianity—like that of many other westerners—has been mostly a cultural thing. Today, I only walk into cathedrals and old chapels when I feel particularly down or hopeless. It usually helps. When I enter my hometown’s Duomo di Verona—a Roman Catholic cathedral consecrated in 1187—I immediately feel a sense of transcendence. The silence inside reveals an almost palpable sacredness. When I see the ancient walls, covered in Renaissance paintings and the majestic stone pillars reaching up to the beautifully decorated twenty-metre-high ceiling. I instantly feel better. This has always been the case, regardless of the many stages my faith has gone through over the years.
Lately, many people have suggested that Critical Social Justice resembles religion—and for good reason. Social Justice ideology has a clear, dogmatic structure, and is followed by some irrational fanatics. Yet to claim, as secular humanists often do, that intersectionality is something approximating Christianity is wrong . My cultural upbringing may be flawed, but it cannot be reduced to virtue signalling displays of self-abasement, let alone compared to the ideas of a few quacks preaching ideas from their gender studies degree as if they were gospel. The parallels between Social Justice and religion are as clear as day—but so are the differences.
Just as some conservatives and libertarians enjoy reminding leftists that Nazi Germany had the word socialist in its movement’s name, blaming religion for the wrongdoings of the far-left has become a way for the average secularist to renew hostility towards conservatism. One day, the internet will probably be full of bloggers arguing that wokeness was largely a right-wing phenomenon. Our pre-existing biases can often get in the way of a genuine desire to find solutions. James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose are perhaps today’s best known exposers of intersectionality’s worst tendencies. They’re also, occasionally, a good example of this problem.
In a recent podcast, Lindsay suggests that wokeness might have been a conservative movement this whole time: “Me and Helen had this idea for an essay for months, about how Critical Social Justice ideology is not really left-wing, it is in fact conservative,” he said, “and I don’t mean just conservative … but deeply conservative.” Unless you reduce conservatism to the mere reactionary impulse of preserving or—worse —attempting to restore some outdated immoral status quo, to suggest that the woke are “deeply conservative” is preposterous. Lindsay’s proof that conservatism is aligned with woke ideology is the latter’s desire to restore some of the social categories that liberalism had defeated: “They’re trying to re-elevate racial categories as important categories. They’re going to re-look at the idea of how sexuality is just something performed, rather than the way one’s born.” This is accurate, but also suspiciously convenient. Intersectionality is as much conservative because of its attempts to restore racial categories, as the Third Reich was a liberal project because of the Nazi suspicion of laissez faire economy.
Aren’t the anti-hierarchical, egalitarian, hypersexual, materialistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, iconoclastic and explicitly anti-western aspects of wokeness—not to mention its Marxist elements and active attempts to chase conservatives out of the public square—enough to classify critical social justice as an anti-conservative phenomenon? Secularists do not like to be held responsible for the atrocities of Marxist, for example, just because it is not a religious ideology. By the same token, just because it is not fully secular in all of its manifestations, must Social Justice therefore be considered conservative?
Although secular liberals take pleasure in pointing the finger at commonalities between religion and Social Justice, Lindsay himself—unlike Pluckrose who still feels positively about New Atheists—seems to recognize religion’s role in society. At one point in the same interview, for example, Lindsay acknowledges that he has gradually grown more aware of religion’s capacity to properly channel spiritual needs. He brilliantly observes that intersectionality, unlike Christianity: “seeks and obsesses over finding sin to purge in society, rather than pointing its followers towards God.” In this 2018 essay, Lindsay even calls social justice “a cult”—although still claiming that its similarities with religion are “enough to earn it that designation.”
Aside from intersectionality’s dogmatism and its demands that adherents place complete faith in its cause and claims, it has nothing in common with religion. Social Justice ideology is a crippled, low-resolution, cynical look at human nature and the world we inhabit, without the capacity to produce the awe-inducing aesthetic beauty and artistic grandeur that can help us transcend life’s suffering. It requires no journey of self-discovery and actively seeks vengeance. It offers no window into human existence and has no philosophical depth: its body of written work is a self-obsessed feel-good manual at best. It leaves non-adherents with no chance of redemption, by proclaiming their original sins not a burden, but a sentence. It cannot speak to the deepest aspect of our being, nor it has any practical, everyday wisdom to give. It does not preach kindness and teach forgiveness, but fosters violence and resentment. It is narcissism writ large, and learned psychopathy at its worst. In its zealotry and censoriousness and its appeal to converts, it can be confused for religion. But it is not a real religion—it’s just an ugly cult.
At a time when politically correct, postmodern and regressive theories have never been so ubiquitous, it’s understandable that the reasonable left might find comfort in the knowledge that the set of beliefs that gave birth to those movements shares many commonalities with that of their right-wing opponents. This might even lead a thinker like Lindsay down the convenient path of wondering whether Social Justice has always been a form of conservatism in disguise. But this is a misapplication of Steven Weinberg’s misguided observation that “for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”
There’s definitely something to learn from a secularist’s harsh critique of religion. Wokeness does incorporate much of the irrationality and blind devotion that has led to some of the worst religious crimes in human history, and it is vital to recognize that if we do not want that history to repeat itself. But does that mean that Social Justice is, in part, the fault of the right? That is a reasonable question. After all, the distinction between left and right has always been a lot more subtle than most of us like to believe. Social scientists like Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt consider political affiliations to be more linked to biological inclinations, than to carefully planned choices.
Modern ideologies provide the most selfish and laziest ways to channel one’s spiritual needs into a cause. Furthermore, their capacity to spread so fast and widely suggests that radical materialists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, might have been wrong all along when they predicted that, in the absence of a religious narrative, rationality and common sense will come to fill the void. Sam Harris once expressed incredulity at Jordan Peterson’s contention that the non-cognitively gifted among us might continue to need a religious structure to help them cope with the tragic and complex nature of reality, to which Peterson replied: “Yes, in a way, I am saying that stupid people need their myths.” The New Atheists’ faith in rationality blinds them to the obvious: as Jonathan Haidt reminds us, “scientific thinking isn’t natural thinking, religious thinking is natural thinking.” Our religious instincts must be channelled somehow. To completely suppress them, you must be an intellectual. But “what if you’re not smart enough?,” as Peterson rightly asked. Not all of us are good critical thinkers. Pluckrose’s dream of a society in which “a sceptical, rational, evidence-based, unapologetically outspoken, liberal mentality can act as an effective antidote” to religion is unlikely to come true anytime soon. The New Atheist core belief, which Pluckrose summarises as “a commitment to the importance of evidence and reason … an ethos based on the wellbeing of all humans” falls short because reason alone cannot give us a reason to live.
Our tendency to fall prey to an overarching explanation of the world has given rise—and will continue to give rise—to some of the most tyrannical of human impulses. But, ultimately, religion is about the human need for meaning. Given the decades-long decline of Christianity in our increasingly atomized, shallow, advertisement-filled, materialistic societies, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a cult like wokeness—no matter how destructive and vindictive—has managed to convince many that it is the perfect answer to one of our most basic longings. The human need for purpose is inherent, not learned. Even reasonable liberals agree that it is a fundamental component of the human condition. In the absence of traditional solutions to this need, human beings will seek to replace it with whatever is available: whether it be a brave populist resistance to the Satanic forces of globalism, a never-ending fight against the ghosts of neo-Nazism and white supremacy or the challenge of saving our planet before Judgement Day descends. God might even be dead—but our instinct towards worship is alive and well.
Lindsay and Pluckrose’s efforts to resist and educate people on Critical Social Justice are commendable. Yet, principled liberals and conservatives must work together to push back against this modern form of fanaticism—whether through the promotion of civil liberties or a call for a return to a more traditional society. If we want to resist the ugly cult of Social Justice and its attempts to seize the means of cultural production, we must collaborate. Given the evident, widespread yearning for purpose and meaning, perhaps the reasonable left could consider using the term religion a bit more cautiously. The About section of James Lindsay’s New Discourses website reads: “The purpose is to meet the need that the problem of political alienation and homelessness has created.” As someone who has experienced what real religion is capable of, I ask that he be a bit more gentle when using a term that for centuries has described a system that—despite its well-known atrocities—has provided a proper refuge for the spiritually homeless and a sense of belonging for the alienated.