Since they are united in their opposition to wokeness, secular liberals and the US religious right often find themselves on the same side of the current culture war. While it can be commendable to put minor political differences aside for the sake of a common cause, it would be a grave mistake for the secular liberals in this coalition to turn a blind eye to the motivations of their new allies and let anti-wokeness become a Trojan horse for illiberal religious morality. An alliance with the devout is liable to prove counterproductive to our aims for several reasons.
To begin with, the ideology of the religious right rests on an unproven premise: the existence of a personal god. This not only implies a low epistemic standard. The appeal to an all-powerful father figure also suggests an authoritarian tendency that borders on the theocratic: it means that religious mores ultimately take precedence over secular ethics.
To cite a case in point: conservative commentator and devout Catholic Matt Walsh has recently done a good job of exposing the flawed logic of woke gender ideology by asking the simple question: What is a woman? It is telling that so many of those he has questioned have responded with circular statements such as “a person who identifies as a woman” and “women only know what women are.” However, when pressed on his stance on gay marriage by podcast host Joe Rogan, it is Walsh who beats around the bush until finally admitting that he considers homosexual relations immoral, on religious grounds. This is not a view any secular liberal humanist should countenance.
One common red flag among commentators like Walsh is the theistic argument that without God we would have no objective reference point for moral values. It implies that all moral judgements can be reduced to whether they please or offend God, the ultimate moral authority. This paternalistic view not only conflicts with the emancipatory spirit of secular liberalism: it causes more problems than it solves.
For example, conservative media personality Ben Shapiro argues that God “bridges the gap from what is to how things ought to be.” But as an orthodox Jew, Shapiro clearly defies the will of Walsh’s Christian God by not accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour. And when it comes to the metaphysical truth claims of Islam, all either Shapiro or Walsh have to offer by way of counterargument are appeals to their own revelation theologies. By contrast, a non-believer can apply Hitchens’s razor—what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence—and reject the concept of revelation altogether.
By the same token, someone who believes in a soul that exists independently of the body is forced to meet those who claim that a person can be born in the wrong body halfway. The idea that men can become women—and vice versa—through the magical power of self-identification is no more absurd, after all, than the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Similarly, a believer in original sin will struggle to repudiate the concept of inherited white guilt.
Consider also the woke movement’s epistemological emphasis on subjective perceptions—or lived experience—over factual reasoning and objective knowledge. Religion also relies heavily on the (often second-hand) testimonies of people, most of them long dead, who claim to have had supernatural experiences. The devout are therefore in no position to credibly criticize woke epistemology.
While I am not arguing here that wokeness is a religion, it is certainly easily rendered compatible with conventional religion. This 2022 New York Times article by Molly Worthen, for example, argues that there have been a number of medical miracles that provide evidence for the existence of God. In typical woke fashion, the piece also associates scepticism about religious miracle cures with racist colonialism, using the trope of white guilt and relying on standpoint epistemology:
Western skeptics have disregarded witness testimony from places like Nigeria at least since David Hume complained in his 1748 essay on miracles that “they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.” Such dismissal is more awkward for 21st-century secular liberals, who often say that Westerners should listen to people in the Global South and acknowledge the blindnesses of colonialism.
The religious right in the US has, of course, often promoted creationism. There have been numerous attempts to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in American public schools, a practice that has been ruled unconstitutional. But today, it’s usually the woke who insist that other ways of knowing, in particular marginalized knowledges, be treated on a par with science. The Society of American Archaeology, for example, has promoted indigenous creationism in an effort to decolonize the field, while the New Zealand government has proposed teaching Māori ways of knowing as part of the science curriculum. This trend can only really be challenged from a secular standpoint that aspires to rationality and objectivity. The clearest and most coherent opposition to the New Zealand proposals has come from Richard Dawkins.
Religious apologists have often tried to provide non-faith-based arguments for religion. In a conversation with atheist philosopher Sam Harris, for example, Ben Shapiro argues that “to reach a more sophisticated morality that leads to the sort of rights-based society we see here, you’ll at least need the catalysing enzyme of a Judeo-Christian religion.” As Harris points out, however, this is a genetic fallacy: “Even if we granted that our respect for individual rights, say, came from a Judeo-Christian tradition, it doesn’t mean it can only come from there, or that it even is best gotten from there.”
What’s more, since nothing in scripture suggests divine authorship, we have to assume that Judeo-Christian values are a product of human thought, that they are the ideas of mere mortals. For Harris, “All we have is human conversation, and all we can appeal to are honest efforts to get at the truth.” Religious biases and commitments only get in the way of this. To combat wokeness, it’s crucial that ideas be judged on whether they are supported by facts, evidence, reason and logic—not on whether they are axiomatically believed by their adherents.
From an anti-woke perspective, it’s all the more disheartening, therefore, when a scientist like Charles Murray, whose research findings have been a thorn in the side of the politically correct class for decades, endorses one of the central claims of the religious right—that religion is indispensable to a moral society. For the self-described agnostic, “Secular humanism rests on sand” because “Absent a core of absolutes of right and wrong, anything can be rationalized. Absent some divine origin for those absolutes, they cannot be absolutes.” He concludes that “Of all the alternatives, simple atheism is the least plausible.”
But Murray puts the cart before the horse here. There is no conclusive evidence for the existence of the divine or supernatural—and yet most atheists still have no problem distinguishing between moral absolutes of right and wrong, while many devoutly religious people have violated fundamental humanist moral principles. (Religiously motivated Muslim suicide bombers and paedophile Catholic priests are only two of the most dramatic examples of this.) Nor is it clear that there is any benefit to forcing non-believers to pay lip service to religious orthodoxies that they believe to be nonsensical. That seems not unlike the kind of thing that woke ideologues demand when they ask us to recite our pronouns and make our land acknowledgements—even if we find such declarations neither useful or necessary—or when they demand we self-censor dissenting views on social justice issues. The woke notion that certain heterodox views constitute hate speech is a secular form of a blasphemy code: a demand that we refrain from injuring the sensibilities of true believers.
Rather than promoting a specific religion or religion-like ideology, secular humanism recognizes that moral progress is an open-ended human project, driven by reason and empathy, subject to continual corrections (since our moral code is not mandated by a supreme being, but is based on the understanding of fallible humans). We must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But this in no way condemns us to moral relativism—on the contrary, it allows us to construct a universal ethics grounded in our shared humanity.
For psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has often acted as a kind of intermediary between secular and religious opponents of woke ideology, universal moral truths are embodied in ancient myths, preserved and codified by religion. Peterson, for whom “God is the ultimate fictional character,” seems to view the longevity and cultural pervasiveness of these stories as proof of their truthfulness, and wokeness as a form of rebellion against that legacy.
However, not only does this fail to acknowledge that wokeism is essentially a counter-Enlightenment ideology with many parallels to Christianity, it also blurs the line between knowledge and belief. This muddying of the epistemological waters has no doubt made it easier for the religious right to hide its true face. But we should pay close attention to every occasion on which the mask slips.
Following the 2023 Grammys, Walsh, Shapiro and other prominent spokespeople of the religious right condemned what they saw as a satanic ritual: the non-binary entertainer Sam Smith’s rendition of his song “Unholy” in a devil’s costume, accompanied by transgender singer Kim Petras. Former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, who says his “tolerance for atheism has really dwindled to nothing at this point,” commented: “Even if you believe that [good and evil do not exist in the absolute sense], is it really a good idea to mimic devil worship—because what if it is true?”
This demonstrates the irrationality and weak commitment to freedom of expression that is widespread among even the mainstream of the religious right. It also demonstrates the ease with which faith-based concerns can derail any serious criticism of woke culture. There is plenty to criticise about the ideological virtue signalling that permeates events like the Grammys. But this kind of religious zealotry just makes legitimate critiques seem less credible.
Religious believers do have one advantage in the culture war against wokeness: they understand what it’s like to be truly committed to a belief system and to fervently endorse even the most absurd tenets. But that doesn’t make them reliable allies. Those of us who oppose woke ideology should heed the words of Christopher Hitchens: “Public opinion is often wrong. Mob opinion is almost always wrong. Religious opinion is wrong by definition.”