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The Old Morality of the New Religions

John McWhorter shows how woke “antiracism” is a “new religion,” but he underappreciates how its zealotry is empowered by centuries-old religious morality.

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Why does the “antiracist” movement mobilize to deplatform or fire anyone who slights or asks the wrong questions about the dominant views of “social justice”? What explains the irrational fervor of the “woke”?

John McWhorter, noteworthy Columbia linguistics professor and New York Times columnist, grapples with this question in his recent book, Woke Racism. The book’s subtitle reveals his provocative answer: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. To understand the “woke” movement, he shows, we must take seriously its religious character.

How are we to deal with a social movement guided by blind faith? McWhorter is under no illusion that we can somehow rationally persuade the leaders of the movement to change their ways. Instead, he counsels that we must find “a way to live graciously among them” while insulating “people with good ideas from the influence of their liturgical concerns” (xii-xiii).

But if McWhorter is right about the religious character of the movement, then multitudes of unsuspecting students who otherwise lean secular have accepted an unscientific, religious doctrine. Those of us who want to insulate ourselves and our children from its influence, will wonder whether it’s enough to ignore its advocates and live “graciously” among them. To know what is required to insulate ourselves fully from “the influence of their liturgical concerns,” we will need to know what makes woke doctrine so seductive even to secular, educated people.

While McWhorter’s explanation is good as far as it goes, it doesn’t go quite far enough. In particular, McWhorter’s account doesn’t make explicit what it is about the religious character of the movement that motivates such irrational fervor. Arguably his own evidence points to the fuller explanation we need, but he doesn’t dwell on it. I’d like to bring it to the forefront.

How does religion motivate fervor?

The evidence McWhorter presents of the religious character of the woke movement is compelling. The movement has articles of faith: no one is to question that racism is to blame for most social problems. It has its sacred texts (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo), which are to be read and recited almost ritualistically. It has its own conception of original sin: white people cannot escape their “privilege” and must acknowledge it. It has a gospel that must be spread to all “sinners” and who must repent. The parallels are so striking that McWhorter dubs the members of the movement “The Elect,” a reference to Puritan Calvinism’s class of those predestined for salvation.

How does a religious doctrine encourage nominally secular people to engage in such irrational behavior?

The problem is not that woke activists suffer from some form of mass psychosis. McWhorter stresses that he thinks they don’t, even though they embrace their dogmas in defiance of the evidence and hold others to impossible, contradictory standards (e.g., to be inclusive and multicultural one can’t avoid “cultural appropriation”). Why, if they are neither crazy nor uneducated do they so openly defy intellectual standards?

McWhorter thinks that the new woke religion fulfills the same basic need that traditional religions have fulfilled for countless people for millennia.1 The need is a “basic sense of succor” (70). Elsewhere he is more specific: it provides a sense of “sheer purpose . . . the basic sense of feeling like you matter and that your life has a meaningful agenda” (40).

This is headed in the right direction, but it’s important that not all religious believers behave like zealots. Consider a “New Age” religion that has also supplanted traditional belief systems in the West, neo-pagan Wicca. This sometimes polytheistic, sometimes pantheist set of beliefs and practices would strike most secularists as a genuine form of religious mysticism. And surely many Wiccans find “comfort” in their magical rituals, including through some sense of purpose from being “interconnected with the cosmos.” Yet even though Wiccans probably embrace their beliefs in animistic spirits and magic irrationally, few are motivated to join a mob marching for a new Inquisition against non-witches or a crusade against monotheists. 

Numerous other religious believers go in for a faith but don’t march for its cause. Consider sundry modern Episcopalians or Western Buddhists who formally accept their theologies and practice their rituals, but who would never persecute heretics and apostates. We can say they simply don’t take their religion very seriously, that they don’t see their beliefs as relating to the rest of their lives. But which element of their religion are they ignoring when they don’t see it as relating to the rest of their lives? 

The milquetoast modern faithful ignore the same element of their religions that a religion like Wicca simply lacks: a systematic code of morality. The major monotheistic religions come packaged with strict codes of morality because the God they worship is seen as the creator of the universe and the author of its order, and with that its moral laws. A code of morality relates an ideology’s view of the universe to the guidance its adherents need to live.

'The milquetoast modern faithful ignore the same element of their religions that a religion like Wicca simply lacks: a systematic code of morality.' Click To Tweet

If the woke crusade while the Wiccans do not, it is likely because the woke share the potent code of morality they probably inherited from the influence of the monotheistic religions. It’s their quest to adhere to this moral code that gives them not merely the sense of a comforting ritual but that of joining a holy quest. No wonder the acts of the woke invite such natural comparisons to a crusade or an Inquisition, two hallmarks in the history of Christian religion.

The motive power behind religious crusaders

The evidence for the central motivating power of moral doctrine in the woke religion is scattered throughout McWhorter’s book, though it is not emphasized enough.

McWhorter notes that “Elect ideology stipulates that one’s central moral duty is to battle racism and the racist” (48, my emphasis). He notes how the woke see the sheer act of bearing witness to the sins of racism (including, notably, their own) as garnering moral credit (49, 66–67). And he notes how this even includes embracing a “self-flagellational guilt for things you did not do,” a reference to apologies for the sins of one’s race.

The reference to “self-flagellational guilt” helps bring out the distinctively religious moral idea that’s at play in the woke crusade. Christianity is perhaps best known for making it a major virtue, but McWhorter compares antiracism’s take on the virtue to that of another post-pagan monotheistic religion: 

This is all very Abrahamic, as religion goes. Muslim, Islam — the core of such words in Arabic is the consonants s-l-m, which constitute the concept of submission. One submits not only to a God. To suspend disbelief is a kind of submission. It is no accident that many of the white Elect spontaneously put their hands above their heads as an indication that they understand that they bear “white privilege.” Think of this type, asserting “Oh, I know I’m privileged!” while holding their hand up, palm out, like a Pentecostal. . . . They are so comfortable with that gesture in attesting to their privilege because of an overriding impulse: to indicate submission to a power up there looking down on them.

Or even this: When Elect white people at protests started taking a knee for extended periods to indicate general wokeness after George Floyd’s murder, it was a submission to Elect imperatives. (27–28)

To idealize the morality of submission is to enjoin the virtue of humility. It’s the burning commitment to the duty to avoid, expurgate, and punish the sin of pride that explains the crusade to banish heretics against the woke creed.

'It’s the burning commitment to the duty to avoid, expurgate, and punish the sin of pride that explains the crusade to banish heretics against the woke creed.' Click To Tweet

The affirmation of the virtue of humility is distinctively religious. In ancient Greece, Aristotle regarded pride not as a sin but as a crowning virtue (“To be the one who thinks himself worthy of great things and [to be] really worthy of them . . .  [is] an adornment of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it does not arise without them.”2) But contrast this with St. Augustine, who formalized the Christian view: “Deign to be lowly, to be humble, because God has deigned to be lowly and humble on the same account, yours not his own.”3 Augustine emphasized the virtue of humility because he was the original champion of the Christian doctrine of original sin: we should not aim for perfection because we are inherently sinful.

It’s the Christian view of pride vs. humility that animates the zealots of the woke religion.

For example: suppose that you are a professor or an employer who thinks that some member of a minority group hasn’t lived up to the relevant educational or professional standards of a task and doesn’t deserve the corresponding rewards. How dare you, say the woke, to think you have the right to judge a member of a historically oppressed group by your standards? You don’t have the right to judge their performance by what you deem to be “objective” standards. Humble yourself and repent, prideful sinner. 

Or: suppose that you refuse to admit you’re guilty of the “original sin” of racism, because you judge people on the basis of their character and other achievements, not on the basis of racial prejudice. Here again, the woke object that racism is systemic enough to make you subject to biases and an unavoidable beneficiary of oppression. How dare you think you have the special power to escape from the clutches of your history and the system it created?  Humble yourself and repent, prideful sinner. 

Or even this: perhaps you’re a black person whose ancestors certainly were oppressed, and while you acknowledge that racial prejudice still exists, you might still claim that you yourself have never been seriously handicapped by it. Even here, the woke will intone, as they seem to have intoned against McWhorter himself: how dare you think you have the personal virtue needed to escape the same systemic oppression? And how dare you disagree with the leaders of your people who know they are victims to whom all the other sinners must submit? You especially should humble yourself and repent, most prideful sinner. Tua maxima culpa.

Earlier I asked: “Why, if they are neither crazy nor uneducated do they so openly defy intellectual standards?” In a way, McWhorter has provided material that helps answer that question: “To suspend disbelief is a kind of submission.” But this helps us see how (as Augustine himself maintained) blind faith is the ultimate form of humility.4 One takes no pride in what one uncritically accepts from others. By contrast, it is an act of intellectual pride to demand evidence and consistency and assert the right to believe only what others can prove.

This is what permits sane and educated people to engage in absurd inquisitorial crusades against heretics. They have knowledge of intellectual standards, but they suppress this knowledge when they think their moral duty demands something more important than a dedication to truth.

The underappreciated challenge of avoiding the influence of religious morality

Judeo-Christian morality has had a powerful influence on Western culture. Two thousand years of cultural dominance will leave a mark on anyone raised or educated by others influenced by the tradition, even on those who ostensibly reject this tradition.5

We can see this especially in the deference to the religious morality of humility in ostensibly secular, left-wing activist movements today. In addition to finding it among woke activists, we see it in the green activists like the members of Extinction Rebellion who demand our faith in an imminent environmental apocalypse and reject even carbon-free nuclear power.6 (The environmental movement generally has deeply Christian historical roots.7) We see it in the transgender activists who try to make heretics of anyone like J. K. Rowling or Kathleen Stock, who raise questions about the merits of transgender ideology and its critique of the biology of sex.

This suggests that we cannot easily insulate ourselves from the influence of the woke crusade simply by “finding a way to live graciously” among its agents.  That’s especially true if some of the most thoughtful and upstanding critics of woke religion are still under the spell of the Christian moralism that empowers it. This may seem hard to believe because some of them are adamant critics not only of the woke but of religion, generally. Yet the virtue of humility really is a distinctively religious idea, and it is at work in even their thinking.

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For instance, even secular thinkers like Steven Pinker and others in the “rationality community” regularly call for “epistemic humility,” the idea that “perfect rationality and objective truth are aspirations that no mortal can ever claim to have attained.”8 There’s indisputable value in intellectual honesty: in refusing to draw conclusions stronger than one’s evidence permits. But to infer that even the best and most rational science can never attain some kind of truth is to affirm a kind of epistemic original sin and so, not surprisingly, a virtue of epistemic humility.

In rare moments, even McWhorter himself seems to call out the woke for their own alleged intellectual pride: “Since about 2015, a peculiar contingent is slowly headlocking us into . . . supposing that this particular new religion is so incontestably correct, so gorgeously surpassing millennia of brilliant philosophers’ attempts to identify the ultimate morality, that we can only bow down in humble acquiescence” (58–9). Yes, he’s explicitly criticizing their demand that we be humble, but he does it by implying that they are being sinfully prideful in thinking they’ve gotten morality right.9

The real reason woke ideology doesn’t surpass millennia of philosophers’ moral inquiries is that it’s just borrowing from them (albeit without giving credit). The problem here isn’t that it pridefully claims to have identified the ultimate morality. The problem is: “To suspend disbelief is a kind of submission.” The problem is that the religious claim to ultimate morality is advanced without scientific basis. Scientists who can prove a well-integrated case for their position on the basis of the evidence have earned pride in their findings. The woke have not, especially if their morality is itself derived from religion.

'Scientists who can prove a well-integrated case for their position on the basis of the evidence have earned pride in their findings.' Click To Tweet

Generally, the work of secular thinkers like Pinker and McWhorter is rational and courageous. They deserve to take pride in their intellectual accomplishments. But the fact that even these avowedly anti-religious thinkers seem to have absorbed a religious moral idea suggests that its influence is truly pervasive. It promises comfort against some insecurity that even the most rational of the secular can feel. So, we need to guard against it to fully insulate ourselves against the effects of wokeism.

We need to guard against this insecurity because its consequences weaken the secular defense against wokeism. Consider McWhorter’s recurrent question about the irrationality of the woke movement: “What kind of people do these things? Why do they get away with it? And are we going to let them continue to?” They are people who call us out for being prideful sinners. They get away with it because we ourselves often feel guilty for our pride. And we will let them continue to do so as long as even we the secular cater to that feeling by venerating such things as “epistemic humility.”

McWhorter himself answers his last question, about why we let them get away with it.  He notes that precisely because of the moral progress we’ve made against racism,  people disapprove of it and are horrified when charges of it are leveled against them. So many would rather “tolerate some cognitive dissonance” and kneel with woke activists in repentance than be considered an unrepentant bigot. But this willingness to tolerate “cognitive dissonance” is precisely the consequence of a belief in epistemic humility. It’s the idea: Who am I to take my cognitive dissonance as a sign that something is wrong here?

Someone who takes pride in his commitment to the truth, by contrast, wouldn’t tolerate that dissonance: he’d try to understand why he’s been accused of an evil he himself disavows. He’d accept his fallibility and acknowledge that he can make mistakes. He’d even be willing to apologize when presented with evidence of his error. But he’d not kneel before his accusers without that evidence just because his peers were kneeling. And someone long convinced of the evil of racism would likely never accept that self-effacing submission is proper penance for a real mistake.


McWhorter thinks that because the woke movement is based on a kind of faith, we can’t respond to it by arguing with its most devoted practitioners, any more than we could expect to convert many fundamentalist Christians to atheism. Instead, he urges that we “just say no,” and stand up against the woke. “The coping strategy, therefore, must be not to try to avoid letting them call you a racist, but to get used to their doing so and walk on despite it.”

I agree with McWhorter that rational people must proudly walk on despite unfounded charges of racism. But if the woke faith is empowered by a religious belief in the virtue of humility, we will need to do more than simply disassociate ourselves from its practitioners. We can’t live “graciously” among them if that means accepting their ideas and practices as normal. Indeed, McWhorter’s characterization of the movement as religious dogma implicitly classifies it as unscientific and irrational, which is already a harsh but warranted judgment. We need to share this judgment with others, especially the young people we care about, as McWhorter has done in his book.

But we’ll need to do even more than McWhorter has done. To fully quarantine ourselves and others against wokeism, we need to come to grips with the fact that many of us are also already infected with the ideas that empower its followers. This means we will need a new philosophical antiviral. We will need to fully sterilize ourselves from the idea that submission is a virtue, and in another act of intellectual pride, be willing to rethink a secular, scientific morality afresh.10

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Footnotes

  1. See e.g., Shadi Hamid, “America Without God,” The Atlantic (April 2021), 9–12.
  2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, T. Irwin translation (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1985), 97–99 (1123b4/1124a1).
  3. St. Augustine, Sermons 117:7, in The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, part 3, vol III (4), ed. John E. Rotelle, (Brooklyn, NY: New City, 1990), 220.
  4. “They ridicule those many Christians who have been unable to [attain the truth for themselves] and who live meanwhile out of faith (Rom 1:17) alone. But what good does it do a man who is so proud that he is ashamed to climb aboard the wood, what good does it do for him to gaze from afar on the home country across the sea? And what harm does it do a humble man if he cannot see it from such a distance, but is coming to it nonetheless on the wood the other disdains to be carried by?” The Trinity, Book IV, Ch. 4, in The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, part 1, vol XI, ), ed. John E. Rotelle, (Brooklyn, NY: New City, 1991), 167.
  5. Even some Wiccans who pine for a return to Europe’s pagan traditions don’t fully escape the pull of Christian moralism. Some  translate their reverence for an Earth goddess into apocalyptic environmentalism as well. The ones who remain less influenced by Christian morality stick to their charms and spells; the ones who aren’t do indeed join a crusade. See Shawn Arthur, “Wicca, the Apocalypse, and the Future of the Natural World,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (vol 2 (2), 2008), 199–217. Good historical accounts trace the second phase of the movement to the influence of the first Earth Day in 1970. See Chas C. Clifton, “Earth Day and Afterwards: American Paganism’s Appropriation of ‘Nature Religion’,” in Pizza and Lewis eds., Handbook of Contemporary Paganism (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 109–118.
  6. See Michael Shellenberger, “Why Climate Activists Will Go Nuclear — Or Go Extinct,” Quillette, June 25, 2020.
  7. We can’t imagine its critique of materialism without its origin in the self-effacing moralism of Thoreau and Emerson, who saw nature as a means of transcending the world in favor of a higher dimension of existence, See Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 100–106.
  8. Steven Pinker, Rationality (New York: Penguin Random House, 2021), 40.
  9. McWhorter’s deference to humility is on display even when he targets practitioners of old-fashioned religious dogmatism. In a New York Times column in the run-up to the repeal of Roe v. Wade, argues that just as he shouldn’t be judged as evil for his opposition to the strictures of the woke religion, so he doesn’t think anti-abortion activists should be judged as evil for their oppositions to the rights some women need to live. He finds “the scientific aspect of this position a bit unreflective,” but sees their position as simply an honest difference of priorities. I would argue, by contrast, that McWhorter should not be judged as evil because he’s right, and that the unreflective nature of many anti-abortion advocates often reaches the point of dishonesty. See John McWhorter, “I’m Pro-Choice. But I Don’t Think Pro-Lifers Are Bad People,” New York Times, May 6, 2022.
  10. See Onkar Ghate, “Finding Morality and Happiness Without God,” New Ideal, May 4, 2018.
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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, PhD in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow and director of content at the Ayn Rand Institute. Ben is an associate editor of New Ideal.

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