Increasingly, we are seeing insistences that Social Justice has become a new religion. The purpose of this essay is to explore this topic in some depth. Because this essay is inordinately long—because the topic is inordinately complicated—it is broken into sections, as listed below. The reader is encouraged to engage with it in pieces and to treat it as he or she would a short book on this topic.
Table of Contents
- Social Justice and Religion – What I intend to say and not say about whether Social Justice is best thought of as a religion—mostly housekeeping and a bit dry
- Ideologically Motivated Moral Communities – A Durkheimian view of the religion-like sociocultural phenomenon to which both Social Justice and religions belong
- Religions Meet Needs – An elaboration on the previous section that explains why human beings organize into ideologically motivated moral communities
- Social Justice Institutionalized – A presentation of how Social Justice exhibits institutionalization, which is central to organized religions
- The Scholarly Canon – How academic scholarship in “grievance studies” serves as a scriptural canon for Social Justice
- Faith in Social Justice – An exposition on faith and its role in the Social Justice ideology
- The Mythological Core of Applied Postmodernism – A lengthy discussion of mythology inside and outside of religion and how postmodernism and its currently ascendant derivatives fit into this framework. (If you really want to understand the deepest part of this essay, it’s probably in this section, which can be read first if desired.)
- Pocket Epistemologies – A discussion of the means by which an ideological tribe aims to legitimize the “special knowledge” that serves it and how this manifests in Social Justice
- A Focus on the Unconscious – A more focused discussion upon the methods of special knowledge production of ideological tribes and the postmodern numinous experience
- Ritual, Redemption, and Prayer – A short section about the role these play in ideological tribes and how they manifest in Social Justice
- Gender Nuns and the Grand Wizards of the Diversity Board – Addresses the function of the priest caste within ideological tribes, including Social Justice, and how they put their faith into practice
- Summary – A short summary of the case made about whether Social Justice constitutes a religion. TL;DR: Yes and no, and mostly yes.
- What Can We Do with This? – A brief discussion of secularism, construed much more broadly than usual, and how it applies to dealing with a very religion-like Social Justice
First, to address some housekeeping, for the purposes of this essay, I will use Social Justice with capital S and J to refer to two things simultaneously. One, it references a manner of approaching social justice-relevant topics through a rather inflexible moral ideology that is most readily identifiable with identity politics and political correctness (along with the more recent buzzworded concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion). Specifically, this is a social philosophy profoundly concerned with effecting liberation from oppression, with “oppression”defined by what is known as postmodern critical theory (not the Frankfurt School stuff that goes by the same name—the two meanings are explained here). Two, it represents the loose coalitions of people who subscribe to this ostensibly “progressive” view of identity and society. These people have been variously called “regressive leftists,” “identitarians,” and, more pejoratively, “Social Justice Warriors (SJWs)” in common parlance over the last half decade.
To get straight to the point, Social Justice exhibits many religion-like qualities, perhaps enough to earn it that designation. I will not make that argument, however. I will instead contend that Social Justice is a similar kind of thing to the thing religions are. The take-home point of this essay, then, is that whether or not Social Justice is a religion, it is certainly religion-like enough to treat in a way that’s similar to how we should treat religions—that is, we should approach them with an attitude generally associated with secularism. Social Justice will not like this because it is likely to enable a necessary corrective to its current bid for institutional and cultural power.
Of important note, here’s what’s not being said: that religion is bad and therefore Social Justice is bad because it’s so much like a religion. That is not my argument. My argument is neutral in this regard. It is merely that Social Justice takes on many of the qualities of a religion and should be recognized and treated as such, at least culturally. This means applying the social architecture of secularism to the phenomenon.
Another point that bears making before we start is that Social Justice should not be thought of as a substitution or replacement for religion, say, as has been recently presented by Andrew Sullivan. Social Justice, like many movements that are ultimately spiritualist in some way, is a phenomenon that has arisen because the psychological and social needs that have generated religions are roughly human constants and must be met. Still, they have to be met in ways that, on an intuitive level, “make sense” within the prevailing milieu. Social Justice makes sense in a postmodern context; religion doesn’t; and there’s likely no going back on this without some calamity that erases the progress of Modernity.
Social Justice isn’t a substitute for religion; it’s a roughly religious structure that services the same human needs that religions do from within a remarkably different paradigm. This difference is significant because if we see Social Justice (among other movements) as a substitute for religion, the obvious prescription seems to be to reinstate religion to give the masses their sociocultural opium and get society back on track. This, in fact, is a path we see people attempting to encourage already—unsurprisingly, with the many attendant epicycles (such as that religious truth is “evolved truth”) necessitated by living in a post-Enlightenment world. That will not work. God is dead, and dead things don’t come back to life, even when they’re God (Christians may need to deal with this point in their own ways). It reminds me of what Nietzsche observes in The Gay Science,
God is Dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.
To get back to the point, it is relatively easy—and a worthy exercise—to identify fairly obvious parallels between Social Justice and other religions, such as that the concept of privilege exhibits uncanny similarities to the concept of Original Sin. The purpose of this essay is not just to draw such parallels, however. It seeks to place them within a context that sees Social Justice as a postmodern religious phenomenon and to clarify why this also distinguishes it from truly being a religion. These parallels are the tell, however, and they are what one should expect from a cultural phenomenon serving many of the same psychological and sociocultural purposes the world’s many religions do. This is because these behaviors arise out of and in service to the same psychological and social needs that human beings have and attempt to satisfy not just with religious belief but with religion itself. It is to this framework that we turn next.
What makes moral tribes “ideologically motivated” is the incorporation of truly, locally, sacrosanct ideas imported from some ideology or faith tradition.
Human beings, because we are relatively intelligent and highly social animals, who evolved to form complex societies, readily form what are known as moral communities. A moral community is a community formed around a (mostly) shared interpretation of right and wrong. It is a kind of community that is enforced to greater or lesser degree by social norms, expectations, and punishments ranging from the most subtle forms of disapproval to the most severe punitive measures human beings have ever devised. They can also be very small or very big.
In the broadest understanding of what a moral community is, the moment you have two people in communication with one another with a set of mutually (mostly) accepted norms and values that serve to enforce acceptable and unacceptable behaviors between them, you have a moral community of sorts, which defines the relationship between them. Thus, you probably belong to a lot of (mostly very similar) moral communities. And, of note, the fact that your little local moral communities will invariably develop unique ways of speaking with one another is imminently relevant.
This leads us to seek a slightly narrower understanding of moral communities that is a bit more useful, and which highlights that religions fit within this definition. Moral communities can be thought of as communities of people who are in general agreement on most of the big pieces of how right and wrong work. And, to channel Durkheim, religions are moral communities.
Moral communities isn’t precisely the concept we’re looking for, however, because it’s too broad a category of things. The culture within your office defines a moral community out of the people who work there, and it’s pretty clear that, unless something odd is going on at your workplace, that grouping of people and their sense of behaviors that are and aren’t acceptable doesn’t do much to remind you of religion. Religions are more than moral communities. They, along with Social Justice, many political parties, and cults, are a specific kind of moral community.
What these social phenomena all have in common that the people in your office probably don’t is a shared worldview—in fact, an ideology—perhaps among other things. More than that, the members of moral communities of the religious kind often draw a great deal of meaning and direction in life from the overarching ideological visions of their sects. That is, moral communities that are identifiably like religions in enough particulars to raise the question of whether they’re religious are ideologically motivated. My claim is that the sociocultural concept in which religions are one family and cults and Social Justice occupy other related families is precisely that these are ideologically motivated moral communities, or, for brevity and utility, moral tribes (or, alternatively, ideological tribes).
What makes moral tribes “ideologically motivated” is the incorporation of truly, locally, sacrosanct ideas imported from some ideology or faith tradition. These by definition cannot be questioned, challenged, or doubted. Sacred beliefs are ones that have been for moral reasons removed from the realm of skepticism and doubt because they’re viewed as too important to be subjected to these corrosive influences. Instead, sacred beliefs are effectively set aside from rational inquiry, which results in an expectation for them to be understood mythologically rather than literally, technically, or scientifically. The presence of sacred beliefs that cannot be questioned, challenged, or doubted—including their corollaries, even in minuscule ways—is a strong positive sign that a moral community is, in fact, a moral tribe. More will be said on this later in the essay, but these sacred beliefs tend to form the backbone of the mythology at the center of the moral tribe.
That Social Justice defines the ideology motivating a moral tribe is instantaneously clear. Few communities of people organized around a shared moral vision aside from the most orthodox and fanatical religious sects and cults (whether religious or not) exhibit the traits of moral tribalism more overtly than Social Justice. That Social Justice represents a moral tribe is particularly evident in its tendency to police the moral behavior and thought within it and, where it can, reach outside of itself with what seems to be inexhaustible fervor and near-utter intolerance. In fact, one can tell that this is clearly morally motivated behavior because not only does it appear to lack anything remotely resembling a strategy—which one might expect from a political endeavor—it is blatantly anti-strategic to the point of being quite commonly described as “eating itself” and a “circular firing line.”
The contention being made here is little more than that religions are one type of cultural phenomenon people use to satisfy what might be called the “religious impulse” and that the broader category of moral tribes serves the same purposes in many of the same ways.
To understand why moral tribes are the proper generalizations of religion, we have to turn our attention to why people form religions in the first place. The contention being made here is little more than that religions are one type of cultural phenomenon people use to satisfy what might be called the “religious impulse” and that the broader category of moral tribes serves the same purposes in many of the same ways.
The literature on the psychological study of religion may demur on defining religions categorically, but it is unambiguous about what religions do for people and why people adhere to them. Religions are cultural structures that facilitate the satisfaction of various interrelated psychological and social (henceforth: psychosocial) needs that people have, most likely at a hard-wired level as a part of what it means to be a human animal. Broadly speaking, the primary needs met by religions address problems faced by human beings in meaning making, control, and social identity and community formation and regulation. It is the combination of one of the more important aspects of meaning making with community formation and regulation that establishes that religions are, indeed, moral tribes.
There is much more to say about these three heavily interrelated types of psychosocial needs and their role in the religious impulse—or, more broadly, the impulse to moral tribalism—than there is room to cover here. In fact, much of the rest of this essay will address various aspects of the relevance of these needs in defining this drive as it manifests in Social Justice. I’ll therefore only touch upon them in brief here.
The need for control is perhaps the simplest, and the ways in which it arises in Social Justice are blindingly obvious. The effort to achieve Social Justice is almost blatantly one of attempting to effect social control, especially over speech, symbolism, and association, as will be discussed at greater length later. Political correctness, social media mobbing, and a continual call-out culture are sufficient evidence of this, however. The belief is that, by outwardly controlling people’s use of potentially hateful language, the world can be made safe and inclusive for all oppressed people, thus “Justice” can be achieved. That this will not work is irrelevant to the aim; it is well understood that even the illusion of control, as promised through a mythological structure, will often suffice to meet this need.
Most complicated of the three is the need for meaning-making because it occurs in many ways at once. There is the need to understand the world, for example, which is often achieved in religions through some sort of mythology. This doesn’t quite seem to fit perfectly in the case of Social Justice, because we tend to think of mythology in a “premodern” (deities) sense and Social Justice is postmodern in orientation (much more will be said about this later). More specifically, there is a need to create an attributional framework, that explains the world in terms of the ideology.
This need to establish an attributional framework is especially important with regard to morality. It’s rare enough for people to feel as though they are being good people through their behaviors. People often need a system by which their moral views (which define and tie together the moral tribe) can be given some sense of concreteness. All moral tribes do this, with religions often putting moral perfection into the hands of a deity, who has brought moral teaching to humanity. The underlying framework seeming to justify this aspect of meaning-making arises in Social Justice through “Theory,” which is how they seek to interpret the social and cultural world and all occurrences within it. (Perhaps the most explicit object in this regard is the intersectional Matrix of Domination of Patricia Hill Collins, which is supposed to explain how privilege and power form a matrix of domination and oppression which is ultimately rooted in assumptions about identity.)
Another more obvious form of meaning-making comes in the form of a teleological framework, which is to say a system through which purpose in life can be given some sense of concreteness. A teleological framework should explain what the point of life is in the context of the operative mythology or ideology. In some religions, this purpose might be to establish a relationship with God or to build a more Godly world here on Earth—a sort of Utopia. In Social Justice, the telos in play is remaking society into a utopia, according to the moral vision of Social Justice.
The third aspect of psychosocial need underlying the formation of moral tribes is social identity and a need for community. This is a complex underlying need that is often met in part through meaning-making and control. Clearly, social control is an approach to defining and policing a community, for example, and moral codes (which depend upon moral attribution, a kind of meaning-making) are often a vehicle for doing this. The important thing to consider where moral tribalism is concerned is that the social aspect of psychosocial needs has a great deal to do with defining, maintaining, and policing a community into which one fits, and it has even more to do with defining social identity through that community and social standing within it. Put another way, moral tribes provide a framework through which a person can feel good about her- (or him)self (both in terms of how she sees herself and how she perceives being seen by others) and a community in which that framework makes sense and, in a sociocultural sense, really exists.
One would be hard pressed not to see the focus on community among participants in Social Justice. The ideology of Social Justice is, in fact, set up specifically to be community oriented. In fact, the raison d’etre of Social Justice is to remake communities in line with its operative vision for the world. Thus, nearly all of its work is focused upon the actions, thoughts, and various usages of language within vaguely defined communities. It’s difficult to miss, on this last point, the fact that adherents to Social Justice have particular ways of speaking to one another and use a distinctive (and oddly technical) dialect. This is a sign that, as with all moral communities, membership can be signaled through specialized speech, which group members are comfortably familiar with and outsiders don’t use (at all or at appropriate times), stumble over, misuse, and misunderstand. We don’t often think about it, but language conveys a powerful signal of group membership, which may, in fact, be one of our most deeply hardwired social traits. Religious or woke speech is no exception.
More broadly, the word “community,” as it arises within Social Justice, often explicitly refers to specific implied communities—labeled with phrases like “white folks,” “black folks,” “queer folks,” and so on, including those communities of people committed to “Justice” or overthrowing “oppression.” That said, it also implicitly nearly always carries an overt connotation that reminds one of the so-called “royal we,” meaning that its applicability implicitly encompasses everyone. All of this focus on community has a purpose that, on even the slightest reflection, leads one to feel as though something distinctly religious is going on, including calls to look inward, to do better, to see manifestations of subtle evil (like racism, sexism, and so on) and its impacts throughout the community so that it might do better.
Thus, two specific points bear mentioning regarding the social and community needs, particularly in regard to how they arise within the context of Social Justice. These are signaling and conventionalism.
As just mentioned, membership signaling (by use of language, anyway) is a significant moral tribal behavior in every moral community, but this goes further within and from moral tribes. By now, nearly everyone has heard of virtue signaling—and this is what it’s for. Virtue signaling is, if you will, a performative behavior by which a person signals to his (or her) moral tribe(s) and others where he stands on various moral issues so that he can be accurately placed (by himself and others) in the tribe and then in the social standing hierarchy within that tribe. It’s easy to scoff at virtue signaling or dismiss it as the performative behavior that it is, but this is a grave mistake. Virtue signaling is one of the most important human behaviors because of our immense sensitivity to our psychosocial standing (which we are far more aware of, in general, than most even realize), which is also what makes it risible when it goes overboard. Of course, virtue signaling is so well known a phenomenon now because of its association with Social Justice, that there’s no need to elaborate upon the ways in which it bears relevance.
Conventionalism is the other important aspect to mention. Ideological conventionalism, as I’m using the term (drawing from, paraphrasing, and diverging slightly from Bob Altemeyer), is formally a high degree of adherence to the social norms perceived to be endorsed by one’s moral tribe and its authorities, combined with a belief that others should also be required to adhere to these norms. Put more simply, it is a tendency to believe one’s (ideological) moral framework is and should be conventional, which is to say something that all people who deserve to be called “good” should hold. (In this sense, secularism can be defined philosophically in the broadest possible way as a general attitude of moral anti-conventionalism—not to be confused with moral relativism.) Of note, for those who don’t recognize Altemeyer’s name, conventionalism forms a core part of how he attempted to characterize (right-wing) authoritarianism in the late 1980s. “Ideological conventionalism” is my own generalization.
Social Justice is also strongly characterized by conventionalism, and it is in this sense that the communities around and within Social Justice police their memberships. Not only that, if anything at all characterizes the various species of the Social Justice moral tribes, it is that they also do this to outsiders. They have termed this “call-out culture,” and it is so common as to be a core performative behavior. It is, in fact, such a pervasive trait of Social Justice sects as to bring to many minds Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon, exhibiting a virtue-signaling tattletale society best described by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning as “victimhood culture.”
Though there are many smaller ones, as we’ll discuss, among the biggest differences between Social Justice and true religions is that religions—at least the established ones—tend to be organized around their doctrines in ways that Social Justice isn’t. Part of this is likely to be because, being based in postmodern deconstructionism, Social Justice nominally rejects the necessary metanarrative to bind its communities and is inherently opposed to explicit organizational structure. This isn’t dissimilar, however, to that which was wrought in Protestant Christianity following the Reformation, which now boasts an alarming number of denominations, perhaps close to fifty thousand. Nevertheless, while we might struggle to view religions meaningfully outside of the context of “organized religion,” we should be ready to admit that Social Justice most neatly approximates a kind of disorganized religion.
Having established this framework, which places Social Justice taxonomically as cousin to religions and addresses how it fits therein by indicating that both arise from communal attempts to satisfy the same underlying human psychosocial needs, we’ll now turn our attention to various features of prototypically religious behavior that are overtly expressed in their own unique ways within Social Justice.
Social justice has arranged things such that it can treat its beliefs as knowledge.
Organized religions are institutions built atop, around, and in service to their moral tribes. These institutions offer structure, legitimacy, and opportunities to build and maintain an extended community centered upon the ideology of the tribes. They are also the seats of their power. That power can be considerable, and for all the good it can do, among the biggest lessons learned over the last two thousand years is the lesson that a free society depends upon preventing the institutional power of a moral tribe (to generalize a bit) from gaining state power—this is of the utmost importance to any free society. This is because moral tribes are conventionalist and often strictly punitive (which Altemeyer might have identified as a kind of “authoritarian aggression”) where it comes to policing their tribes’ moral norms and expectations—that is, they’re inherently bent toward the totalitarian. Specifically, we call the resistance to the intertwining of religious institutions and state institutions secularism, which is a point we will return to at the end of this essay, when we might what to do with regard to Social Justice going forward.
Moral tribes are frequently, but not always, interested in gaining institutional power. Indeed, an apparent lack of this will to societal power and to the establishment of structures through which it can be obtained might be the most blatant distinction between religions and cults. Religions institutionalize; cults don’t. This is because cults are often maintained in service to an individual (and, perhaps, his or her peculiar beliefs) whose ambitions are, for whatever internal reasons, to gain personal power over a devoted group. They may evangelize and attempt to gain members—and may even want to fundamentally remake society in their images—but they only rarely attempt to institutionalize.
Social Justice is no exception to the trend of seeking to institutionalize its belief structure, but it has done so in a particularly parasitic way. Social Justice seeks societal institutionalization at the broadest scales, but it started out by bending our universities to its agenda. Because universities are the houses of higher education in our society, thus the pinnacle institutions for creating, legitimizing, and passing on knowledge, this has been a frightfully worrying takeover. And this point that they’ve taken over our greatest institutions for producing and transmitting knowledge is no small point. Religions in secular sociopolitical environments are forced to treat their beliefs as beliefs. Social Justice has arranged things such that it can treat its beliefs as knowledge.
The result is that this slow creep into academic institutions makes Social Justice much harder to challenge or dismiss from the outside than religious precepts (at least in the modernized world over the last couple hundred years—certainly this difficulty exists in every non-secular society, from the pre-Enlightenment Catholics to the devout Hindu and Islamic worlds today, all of which also claim or claimed to be the true arbiters and producers of genuine knowledge). This enables Social Justice as an ideology to seep out of the university with undue legitimacy, both through citations of its research and application by its graduates. In this way, it creeps into other institutions, including primary and secondary education and any portions of media, the corporate world, and politics that are susceptible to it. Surely you will have noticed that everywhere people seem to be taking up initiatives to incorporate equity, diversity, and inclusion at an institutional level. Unwelcome and worrying as it may be, this is to be expected.
Social Justice is an application of postmodern philosophy, we must remember. That means that Social Justice is a moral tribe whose central fascination is power and how it can shape society. And its agenda has never been secret: it is openly to remake society according to its aims and “theories.” This means that Social Justice is a collection of moral tribes, whose primary agenda is its own institutionalization, and they’ve made the universities not only into their cathedrals but also, in something of an ironic throwback, into their seminaries. By seeking to conquer educational institutions first, Social Justice has effected a social and cultural coup that religious hardliners have only been able to dream about for most of the past century.
Still, Social Justice only represents a disorganized religion, to the extent it represents one at all. This is because, much as with Protestant Christianity, there is no central authority that can hold sway over competing—perhaps warring—denominations. Any Protestant can interpret the Bible as she will, and any Social Justice devotee can problematize aspects of society in an attempt to remake it in the hopes of greater “Justice.” But just as the Bible is the ultimate arbiter around which all Christian sects must revolve, Social Justice has its own non-scriptural canon that defines and delimits what interpretations constitute Social Justice.
There are excellent reasons to accept that revealed wisdom is little more than the elevated opinions and prejudices of certain human beings whose claims to special knowledge are permitted to bypass the usual mechanisms of epistemological rigor.
Nearly every faith tradition has a canon which it considers a repository of special knowledge, often in the form of what gets called “revealed wisdom.” The revelation in most religions is taken to be, in one form or another, handed down from the deities, either directly or through some media such as angels, sacred objects (like tablets), or prophets. Not to step on any faith tradition’s toes, but as no faith tradition accepts the special revelations of any other, there are excellent reasons to accept that revealed wisdom is little more than the elevated opinions and prejudices of certain human beings, whose claims to special knowledge—whatever their worth or accuracy—are permitted to bypass the usual mechanisms of epistemological rigor before being treated as truths. That is, if we take a view from outside any particular faith tradition, it’s imminently fair to say that this special knowledge isn’t necessarily knowledge at all. It consists of ideas that, though they may be true or tap into truths (or not), have been laundered by some ideologically skewed process into being treated as knowledge whether they deserve that status or not.
Scriptures exist as ideological reference materials to inform, defend, and define the faith tradition that respects them. They typically contain innumerable propositions and pronouncements, among whatever else, that are treated as truths within the moral tribes that defer to those sources. Because these references contain so many articles, and most of them are (usually) well-intended attempts to describe the human condition intrapersonally (“spiritually”) and extrapersonally (societally), many of these pronouncements are either true, mostly true, nearly true, touching upon truths, or contain recognizable kernels of truth.
That is, what is relevant to the present discussion about the propositions contained within moral tribalist scriptural canons isn’t whether or not they are true—or how true they are—it’s that the process that provided them with the status of “special knowledge” isn’t adequate to that epistemological task. There is no claim to knowledge possible when epistemological rigor has been bypassed because knowledge has not just to be true but also to be justified. Special revelation and morally motivated idea laundering are not accepted avenues to justification, and for good reason. The reason is that people are far more often wrong than right, and right answers about reality are only obtainable provisionally and by the elimination of, as the religious might put it, so much chaff from so little wheat.
The scholarly canon in grievance studies—and any neighboring academic sectors that have been corrupted by grievance studies—is the same. Grievance studies scholarship is the Bible and the Hadith of Social Justice. Because scholarship of this kind is judged primarily ideologically, it constitutes a kind of revealed wisdom. In place of the epistemological rigor we should expect in legitimate research, and instead of the authority of prophets in religions, grievance studies makes use of an extremely complex network of ideological pieties, offense-based social rules, and scholarly performance to canonize its scholars’ revelations. Because this canon is treated as a body of knowledge, however, nothing within it has to be explicitly taken on faith by its adherents and activists, and this is a major problem.
There is a bright, clear line between faith-based beliefs and knowledge, and that is epistemological justification.
Faith, it has been written, is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Religious adherents often tend to apply faith in this sense as both the first and the last line of justification for their (typically unfalsifiable) religious beliefs. Certainly, articles of faith may represent true beliefs about the state of the world, since they are held through the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen—and they may be treated as such within the sect and deferred to as something similar by those outside of it—but they are not knowledge. There is a bright, clear line between faith-based beliefs and knowledge, and that’s epistemological justification. The lack thereof is unambiguously what the author of Hebrews meant by “things not seen,” and faith can be understood as the proxy for justification, which makes the “special knowledge” of revealed wisdom special.
In terms of epistemological justification, we can, with broadest strokes (to the immense frustration of historians and philosophers who will have to get over it—but who won’t anyway) divide the history of human thought into three overlapping and oversimplified paradigms. These are the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern. The best way to characterize these are in terms of their stance on the (perhaps somewhat naive) approach to knowledge production and social organization that we often label as Enlightenment thought. The modern paradigm generally accepts the Enlightenment worldview and is characterized by liberalism, rationality, science, skepticism, and individualism. Both the premodern and postmodern paradigms are, now that the Enlightenment has occurred, actively anti-Enlightenment, one with blatantly religious motivations and the other arguably so. In general, the modern paradigm—Enlightenment thought—is skeptical of faith’s capacity to justify knowledge claims. Enlightenment thought rejects as a human vanity and almost sure source of error the idea that any knowledge is special.
Religions evolved to serve human needs almost entirely in premodern epochs, and as such typically put their faith in agential deities and the various assurances their traditions offer—most often about well-being, life, and death. The premodern anti-Enlightenment project works, as it has for centuries (arguably since Kant started it), to defend these religious articles of faith from the corrosive effects modern skepticism has upon them. Success in that project, relentless though it has been, has been limited. The Enlightenment happened, and with it blossomed Modernity. God slowly died.
Modernity isn’t wholly satisfying, though. The psychosocial needs religion helps people meet run deep and don’t go away just because we learned to harness our skepticism into a useful way to procure increasingly accurate knowledge about the world. In his prescient 1992 book, Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch plainly articulates three human complaints against the knowledge-production methods of Enlightenment thought (which he calls “liberal science,” for lack of a better term). According to Rauch, the foundation of Modernity, as Helen Pluckrose and I would have it, suffers a complaint from spirituality, a complaint from virtue, and a complaint from community.
Without getting too far into the details of Rauch’s argument—which insists that people feel that the Enlightenment liberal values and norms of Modernity are a bit too callous and dry in these regards to constitute a human cultural staple—these complaints “speak less to liberal science’s badness than to its completeness.” In short, people often perceive them to fall short in speaking to our deeply human needs for wonder, purpose, morality, mythological interpretation, and shared belief. Thus, it should be sufficiently clear to conclude that what he calls “skeptical faith” makes it difficult for people to meet the precise needs premodern constructs like religion and their attendant mythologies exist to fill.
These dissatisfactions spawned a new postmodern anti-Enlightenment project as a reaction to and rejection of the great, sweeping “metanarratives” of Modernity that so plainly failed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rather than attempting to go backwards and linking arms with premodernists and their religions, however, the postmodernists recognized and accepted the hardest truth of the Enlightenment: God really is dead. With it, they seem to have adopted the bleak nihilism the premodernists consistently warned would come of such a conclusion, should it be embraced.
Postmodern faith is therefore not like premodern faith, but it is still faith. In Social Justice, for instance, it still looks to the assurance of things hoped for, seeing itself as inexorably on the “right side of history.” It is also the conviction of things not seen. Social Justice is what might better be called applied postmodernism (with its canon in what I have, with others, elsewhere called “grievance studies”). Applied postmodernism begins in postmodernism, which as a social philosophy bears the following axioms, treated as articles of faith, as succinctly (and charitably) summarized by Connor Wood:
- Knowledge and truth are largely socially constructed, not objectively discovered.
- What we believe to be “true” is in large part a function of social power: who wields it, who’s oppressed by it, how it influences which messages we hear.
- Power is generally oppressive and self-interested (and implicitly zero-sum).
- Thus, most claims about supposedly objective truth are actually power plays, or strategies for legitimizing particular social arrangements.
To this list, we must necessarily add an anti-realist component that not only views objectivity as practically unobtainable but that goes further and concludes that objective reality isn’t real (or, at least not knowable) at all. Instead, reality is constructed by and mediated through language (hence, Wood’s second point containing a reference to the influences upon which messages we hear), and this is always tainted by inherently self-interested power. In short, those who hold the power can and do structure language—referred to as discourses, which are ways of speaking about things—so that their truths, which are subjective, are mistakenly treated as the truth, which is objective.
Postmodernism thus carries forward an article of faith in the form of relativism as well: it professes to believe that there is no reason to privilege any one set of culturally mediated truths over any other, and so the truths of any cultural group may be as valid (read: true) as those of any other. This is how Wood’s fourth point follows from his third, and it is why postmodern initiatives like Social Justice are so interested in finding ways to forward “other ways of knowing” and the “truths” of oppressed groups, which they believe are less recognized only because they have been on the short end of a power dynamic of oppression.
Applied postmodernism, however, isn’t as fluffy as postmodernism. A significant conceptual turn occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s—notably following Kimberlé Crenshaw’s famous “Mapping the Margins,” which introduced the idea of intersectionality to the world. The turn produced two new articles of faith that set the stage for Social Justice (and its heavy reliance upon identity politics). Crenshaw explicitly insisted that postmodernism needed to be applied to create change, and in order to do that, some of postmodern philosophy’s anti-realism needed to be walked back.
For Crenshaw, (group) identity and oppression based upon identity must be real, and postmodern analysis remained the way to tackle those realities. Thus, Social Justice accepts as articles of faith that group-based identity is real, meaningful, and a site of oppression (or dominance), and the way to understand this problem is through the postmodern doctrines of social construction (largely through language) of power. This idea was bolstered considerably in 1989 by the introduction by Peggy McIntosh of the doctrine of “privilege.” This concept is tantamount to the doctrine of Original Sin for Social Justice, and it operates functionally in approximately the same fashion as power does according to Wood’s characterization above.
Creationism is, if we might so sully the term, a philosophy designed to remove humanity from nature.
As in every religion, these objects of faith for Social Justice are not isolated beliefs. Quite the contrary; they’re a part of a relatively sophisticated mythology that, more than anything else, makes Social Justice a closer cousin to religion than many other types of moral tribes. Because Social Justice is a postmodern phenomenon, rather than a premodern one, there’s little reason to expect its mythology to arise in the usual contexts that fit that term, which often center upon deities of some sort, because for postmodernists, God is dead. In place of deities, there are the myriad and ultimately mysterious workings of society which “God” functionally symbolizes in premodern mythologies. This is, in fact, specifically the distinction that most sets Social Justice apart from religions—religions have premodern mythologies while Social Justice doesn’t.
Perhaps the most blatant and inelegant sign of mythological thought is a belief in something like creationism. In premodern moral tribes, typically creationism is written explicitly in the usual mythological language. The gods created the world and everything, most especially human beings. The first of these issues is a cosmology—a kind of origin story for the universe and everything in it. In religions, which are premodern, these cosmologies take the form one might expect; they’re phenomenological attribution schema for the existence of the world, and they describe its origins in terms of their mythological figures. God made the world in seven days, or perhaps it was crafted by Odin from the carcass of his great-grandfather, whom he murdered.
Social Justice, as a postmodern phenomenon, doesn’t have an explicit cosmology in the same way premodern faiths do because those are constructed from premodern mythologies. Postmodernism has no interest in such things and is content that the world exists and that the various human attempts to explain it are all equally quaint. This is because postmodern mythology is social mythology that, rather than seeking to place Man within the world, seeks to remove society entirely from nature. Therein, it has a cosmology—a phenomenological attribution schema for that portion of the world which it cares about: society and culture, and particularly power within these.
The postmodern cosmology is therefore constructivist and assumes our social constructions define cultures in which exist pervasive conflicts of inequality, dominance, and oppression, with white, male, straight, Western, European, colonialist, able-bodied, and so on possessing inordinate quantities of dominance over all else. Why? Well, that much is unclear, but it’s generally assumed to be for reasons that, whatever they are, are decidedly Socially Unjust. In the postmodern cosmology, it isn’t a righteous God who created the world and ordered it to His designs and to His glory but the self-righteous powerful and privileged who did it such that their power and privilege eternally seek to sustain themselves, their designs, and their glory.
Humans tend to be a solipsistic and narcissistic lot, however, and the creation of the world is of little mythological importance as compared to the special creation of human beings within the world. Indeed, it isn’t so much creationism as special creation of humans that is the attribute that most plainly tips the hand of the profoundly mythological. In brief, creationist mythologies serve the ultimately vain but seemingly comforting purpose of elevating human beings to a status that is separate from all other biological organisms. Creationism is, if we might so sully the term, a philosophy designed to remove humanity from nature.
In Social Justice, this denialism first removes society from nature by assuming constructivist origins and then further removes human beings from nature through the vaguely noble (and originally Enlightenment) idea of blank slatism. Blank slatism is, in brief, the belief that cognitively and psychologically, all human beings are born largely identically, with minds like “blank slates” upon which can be written all the myriad modes and manners of human expression. Where, for some of the religious, we are children of God, fashioned in His divine image, for Social Justice, we are children of society, fashioned by its social constructions and the power dynamics they maintain. This view is meant to be a palliative that justifies the (postmodern) critical constructivist means by which Social Justice seeks to justify itself through both the usual tools of sophistry and insisted-upon ethical imperative.
Put differently, for adherents to Social Justice, special creationism takes the form of (critical) social constructivism—which insists, in accordance with Wood’s four points above, that people are socialized into their identities by culturally legitimized discourses and expectations about identity— a socialization that is absolute. Its explicit purpose, despite being certainly false in the absolute, is to prevent any potential innate differences on average in psychology or any other mental ability from being put to nefarious ends by any kind of supremacist. Supremacists are, in this case, (absolutely evil) people who hold power and privilege by virtue of their identities (or seek their rewards in sycophantic betrayal of them) and hope to exclude other identity groups from obtaining the same. The most overt and, from a rational perspective, unlikely application of this belief is that gender (or sex) is a social construct, predicated upon the dubious assumptions that there are absolutely no average cognitive or psychological differences existing between the genders (or sexes) and that gender (or sex) equality intrinsically depends upon no such differences being acknowledged as the product of anything other than Unjust social constructions in immediate need of disruption.
It’s important to distinguish this belief within Social Justice from the more reasonable (and certainly true) belief about average innate differences, which is embraced by essentially every working scientist who studies, say, gender—that there is a socializing element that partially defines our expressions of gender. That is, the argument is not as adherents to Social Justice would have us believe it is: blank slatism versus gender essentialism. Most people rightly assume that whatever gender identity is, it has something to do with the realities of their biology and something to do with the way their local culture has taught them to express it. Blank slatists do little of this, if they do any at all. Following imminent gender priest Judith Butler in her monumental tome Gender Trouble, for example, the overwhelming belief of Social Justice is that “gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes,” and even “perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender.” That is, both gender and “perhaps” sex are, for Butler, wholly socially constructed. Bookmark this totalizing thinking for a moment because it will come back as we discuss myth more deeply.
Perhaps more neatly than any other philosopher, Leszek Kołakowski has explored the idea of mythological thinking inside and outside of religious contexts, most notably in The Presence of Myth. Writing for The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and science, Alan Jacobs has summarized Kołakowski’s notion of myth as it applies to Social Justice (“wokeness”) as it manifests on campus. In the briefest possible summary, a “mythological core” for Kołakowski is ultimately metaphysical and is not to be understood literally or rationally. As Jacobs puts it, quoting Kołakowski, “The ‘mythical core’ of civilization … describes that aspect of our experience ‘not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs.’ It encompasses the ‘nonempirical unconditioned reality’ of our experience, that which is not amenable to confirmation or disconfirmation.” This is, of course, precisely as we just discussed. It is believed upon the conviction of things not seen.
Among the many cogent and important points Jacobs raises in this useful essay is Kołakowski’s point that, whatever spiritualists might have us believe, mythological belief sets tend not to be treated a la carte, and they are inimical to Enlightenment thought. As Jacobs observes, “One cannot analytically pick apart a complex, integrated mythical framework and say, ‘I choose this but not that’ without tearing holes in the web and leaving it dangling and useless. That is what instrumental reason always does to myth.” This, Jacobs argues, is the only way to interpret the all-or-nothing nature of Social Justice, which often sees the slightest disagreement as something catastrophic, such as denying or erasing the very basis of one’s identity. Jacobs, likely rightly, identifies that this probably occurs because disagreement with one’s sacred beliefs is perceived as defilement, which psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work on psychological disgust shows us is often believed to be contagious, in parallel with disgusting infectious agents. This shows up as a common feature of religious thinking. Still, springing immediately to mind are also copious examples of behavior in Social Justice that are otherwise difficult to parse, such as that microaggressions prove systemic bigotry which proves rampant supremacy and, more specifically, that any potential interpretation of a wage gap other than the naïve one we so often hear quoted is intolerable apologism for bias and oppression.
Identities in Social Justice are understood mythologically by being reinvented as ideologies—including whiteness, blackness, and masculinity—established in (“authentic”) expressions of lived experience and defined according to the articles of faith of applied postmodernism. As such, they are not to be reasoned with, and they cannot be disagreed with or challenged “without tearing holes in the web and leaving it dangling and useless.” This is where you should check back with that bookmark about the totalizing understanding of social construction with regard to gender (and even sex), which should make it clear that social (and critical) constructivism is a part of the mythological core of Social Justice. As explained by Kołakowski, “One can participate in mythical experience only with the fullness of one’s personality, in which the acquisition of information and the absorption of directives are inseparable.” This can be taken as a reliable sign that mythological thinking in service to sacrosanct ideas is taking place.
The structure of the mythological core of Social Justice—as it has come to be under intersectionality, which Robby Soave fittingly identified as “the operating system of the modern left”—actually has a name which was provided by one of the pioneers of intersectional thought, Patricia Hill Collins. Collins describes society as being subject to (rather, characterized by) a Matrix of Domination in which power and privilege operate to dominate, oppress, marginalize, and silence relatively oppressed identities. In this way, victimhood becomes sacred and raises one’s divine standing, and so the (perceived) victim is provided with a kind of living sainthood. This is, as outlined above, an explicitly applied postmodern concept, and it represents the “nonempirical unconditioned reality” that isn’t “revealed by scientific questions and beliefs” of Social Justice. Collins, like Crenshaw, embraced the article of Social Justice faith that identity and oppression based upon identity are realities and that applied postmodern analyses of power and privilege are the operative means of understanding them. As Crenshaw herself puts it, “Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power.”
Religions sometimes view the world in terms of a Fall from Utopia, and these features are often expressed within their overarching mythologies. In premodern religions, these myths usually feature some form of Enemy who, in his arrogance, initiates a fall into corruption and, in his envy, takes up the role of Deceiver of Man, so as to corrupt fallible humans—often with false wisdom or true, but forbidden, knowledge. In the Bible, for instance, the myth is that Satan, the Enemy and the Deceiver, offered Man the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge so that Man might Fall into the awareness of his own interests, which is named Sin. “I think, therefore I am” is, in a sense, in that same instant corrupted by “I am (separate), therefore I want.”
In postmodern mythologies, wherein there are posited no such beings, that Enemy is taken to be, or at least begins in, the sin of hubris, specifically in believing we could dare to claim to know objective truth. Postmodernism was a negative overreaction to Modernity’s arrogant assumptions about progress and a cynical rejection of its “metanarratives,” which would be the modernists’ mythologies, including communism, capitalism, logical positivism, and science, not to mention premodern ones, like religion. In postmodernism, philosophers like Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard looked upon the wreckage of the great wars of the twentieth century and the failures of our modernistic, positivistic technological progress to cure the ills of humanity and saw that the Deceiver of Man is Man. In postmodernism, Man, through his own arrogant belief that he can know how to order the world, becomes his own Deceiver, his own Enemy, his own Death, and so the response is cynicism repackaged as skepticism with regards to the projects of Modernity, particularly the claimed rationalism, which it views as the self-justifying products of white, Western, powerful men.
Applied postmodernists like those we find in Social Justice take this a step further, though they build directly upon the postmodern mythology to do so. The application that led postmodernism into its applied turn recognizes as axiomatic that identity and oppression are real, and that the best way to understand them is through cynical postmodern analysis. The Enemy in theoretical circles is power and privilege, which are ubiquitous and terminally corrupting. As it translates into Social Justice activism, this Enemy becomes “Hate,” and Hate is everywhere and never-ending—racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and on and on and on—and it is expressed in Hate speech, which perpetuates and legitimizes it.
In Social Justice, Hate is the maleficent manifestation of power and privilege as it manifests within the Matrix of Domination, acting through discourses upon the realities of oppression and identity. Because power and privilege are everywhere and relational, and because they are deemed to intrinsically operate to justify and perpetuate themselves, Hate is everywhere and eternal. Humankind is therefore Fallen because the dominance of dominant groups is an eternal corruption, and our sinful nature—privilege—expresses itself in bigotries that are, ultimately, the very attempt of our privileges to maintain and justify themselves. This belief is theologically identical to the Calvinist notion of Total Depravity, which insists that humans are so corrupted not just by (original) sin but by the inexorable desire to sin, that we cannot even choose righteousness (God) no matter how we want Him.
This leads into yet another theme, which is nearly ubiquitous in Social Justice: the work of “Justice” is never finished. As with so much, this doctrine applies both extrapersonally (societally) and intrapersonally (individually). This applies societally, where we must constantly make the effort against Hate to reduce all forms of bigotry (as read through an applied postmodern analysis). It also applies to the person, who is expected to continually look inward to discover her (or his) own fallen nature—her unconscious, implicit, and incidental biases—and to attempt to make them and their oppressions visible. The guarantee of failure of such an intentionally interminable project concentrates faith and reinforces affective ties to the mythological core operating beneath it.
Pocket epistemologies are the sometimes elaborate means by which moral tribalists attempt to justify the articles of their faith in a way that superficially pleases the “skeptical faith” of the technological core.
As Kołakowski points out, the mythological core (of any moral tribe) will inevitably and repeatedly butt up against the “technological core” (which we might call Enlightenment thought, or liberal science, in keeping with previous sections), and it cannot survive this encounter. When this happens, the rational skepticism of the Enlightenment will demand the mythology justify itself because, as Kołakowski observes, society always “wishes to include myth in the technological order.” But as Jacobs observes, “the only way to seek justification for myth is to analyze it into components and reassemble them in a logical sequence. That is to say, myth can only be justified by ceasing to be myth.”
This doesn’t merely play out as a kind of verbal war between the rational technologists and the affective mythologists, however, especially in a world that has already experienced Enlightenment Modernity. Anti-Enlightenment thinkers who wish to cling to their mythologies are put under tremendous pressure to legitimize them in the technological sense, and they do so through the evolution of what we might call pocket epistemologies. These are the sometimes elaborate means by which moral tribalists attempt to justify the articles of their faith in a way that superficially pleases the “skeptical faith” of the technological core.
Ultimately, to put it a bit formally, these efforts make various unwarranted metaphysical claims (specifically, ontological ones such as that God exists or that our total potential understanding of reality is ultimately subjective and constructed by language used in service to power). They then attempt to ground “special” knowledge-producing methods (epistemologies) in them. This is done to give a sense of warrant to the metaphysics (thus mythology) they’re forwarding, and the magic is accomplished by applying a great deal of philosophizing or theorizing to the task of hiding the fact that the whole enterprise is made of circular reasoning.
The most gauche—but not the most insidious—way pocket epistemologies work is to actively attempt to undermine standard, proven (Enlightenment) approaches to knowledge. They do this to disguise the deficits in their own knowledge-production methods. The premodern tricks for this are to assert that “skeptical faith” is still faith and to insist that all knowledge is, itself, rooted in the Deity, and thus to speak of knowledge at all is to acknowledge the existence and sovereignty of God. The postmodern trick for doing this is to claim that what we consider knowledge is just one knowledge amongst many and particularly one that is culturally situated within white, masculine, Western, and other “dominant” ways of knowing, which actively exclude alternative ways of knowing from oppressed and marginalized groups. This goes so far as to openly insist that reason and rigor are tools of domination.
Ultimately, to put it another way, for premodernists all knowledge is rooted in God, and for postmodernists all knowledge is intrinsically tied up with the Matrix of Domination. That is, in both antimodern cases, all knowledge is seen to be subject to the mythological cores at their centers. This is an active means for nothing more than resisting the encroachment of the technological and skeptical into the realm of the sacred and mythological, and it cannot rigorously achieve what moral tribalists employ it to do.
Pocket epistemologies can be quite specific, too. Most famous among pocket epistemologies in premodern traditions is (Calvinist) Reformed Epistemology. Reformed Epistemology is, in essence, a way for certain premodern religious adherents to insist that their faith constitutes justification for their beliefs, down even to the point of proposing an alleged additional sense, called sensus divinatatis, that proves God exists (to the righteous, anyway) purely by being able to feel His presence. Mormons have famously referred to their version of this idea as a “burning in their bosoms,” and famed Christian apologist (par excellence?) William Lane Craig has called it his “internal Witness of the Holy Spirit” (which he has labeled an “intrinsic defeater-defeater,” meaning that no argument can overcome it—needless to say, Enlightenment modernists are skeptical).
Applied postmodernism, thus Social Justice, has a few of its own pocket epistemologies, which serve a similar function. These include the postmodern epistemologies, and most famous among these is standpoint epistemology, which could be said to be the philosophical powerhouse behind intersectionality. Standpoint epistemology is a derivative of a philosophical tradition dating back through Martin Heidegger to Georg W. F. Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” and is used in applied postmodernism to claim that people can feel their way through generalizable “truths” about identity (hence, autoethnography as a methodology). In short, this concept insists that masters are masters who live in a masters’ world, but slaves are slaves who live in a masters’ world, and thus masters possess only the perspective of the masters while slaves perceive both the perspectives of the masters and of the slaves, which gives them an epistemological advantage. (Astute readers will recognize that Karl Marx picked up and ran with the same idea in an economic context, which creates certain parallels between Marxism and Social Justice that are often incorrectly labeled “cultural Marxism.”) Standpoint epistemology puts this notion on steroids by treating every possible dynamic of “dominance and oppression” as a potential site for a master-slave dialectic to provide increased insight to those occupying oppressed standpoints.
Other details of these pocket epistemologies and further discussion of them are better left for other essays in other venues, but there are two points to make here. The first is straightforward: whenever a moral tribe adopts a pocket epistemology to defend itself against Enlightenment skepticism, chances are good it’s a faith-based project attempting to make itself palatable in a modern world. The second is more important and speaks to a subtle commonality between both types mentioned above: a pocket epistemology can be diagnosed by recognizing that it cannot be adequately criticized. The reliance upon pocket epistemologies, then, is precisely what renders premodern and postmodern faith traditions objectively on far poorer epistemological footing than that which we obtain through modern Enlightenment “skeptical faith.”
In Reformed Epistemology, regarding the sensus divinitatis, at least, if you doubt the existence of this alleged God sensor, it is posited that yours merely fails to work because of your sin or, somewhat less cheerfully, your depravity—i.e. because you subconsciously want to sin. With standpoint epistemology, it becomes impossible for a critic with any dominant identity to prove that his criticisms aren’t blinded by his identity-limited perspective. Meanwhile, any critic without a dominant identity position can be dismissed as appealing for favor from dominant groups to whom he (or she) is a sycophant or brainwashed victim of false consciousness. In astonishing parallel to the accusation that your sin (or depravity) prevents you from accessing the special knowledge of the faith, your power and privilege in society (or desire for it) do the same.
In all cases, it is the search within that defines the (approximately) religious experience.
This focus on the psychological interior is not restricted to a religion-like moral tribe’s attempts to justify its articles of faith as a form of special knowledge, although the ideas are connected. Ultimately, many religions tend to focus strongly upon the “spiritual,” which can mean a variety of things applicable both in the psychological (intrapersonal) and social (extrapersonal) realms. Rather than getting lost in the weeds of what “spiritual” means in practice, however, it should be sufficient to address two elements of it which are drawn directly from the psychosocial needs that moral tribes form to help satisfy: a moral component which speaks to goodness and psychosocial valuation and a teleological component that speaks to purpose.
The central spiritual project in most premodern religions is to connect with and serve God, which speaks to both this moral component and the teleological one at the same time. By carefully teasing this apart, it is possible to see that this form of meaning-making addresses two primary needs: a moral need for psychosocial standing and evaluation and a teleological need that connects the individual to something not just bigger than herself but transcendent. Our spiritual lives can be summarized, then, in terms of how we approach moral standing and our efforts to connect to something greater than ourselves. The former is more complicated than the latter, so we’ll discuss it second.
The teleological framework of a religion is where the non-moral side of “spirituality” comes to life. It is, broadly, that which is posited to give life a grander meaning than the apparent cruelties of physical and biological reality tend to allow.
As stated, in premodern faiths God is at the center of life’s purposes. In modern Enlightenment “skeptical faith,” scientific inquiry, and civic participation fill this role—and rather poorly, as they are inherently skeptical of transcendent meaning. Postmodern faiths are, in general, radically skeptical even of the grand metanarratives, which are the articles of faith of naïve Modernity, and, in their pure and deconstructive forms, often fall into cynicism, nihilism, and futility as a result. (Of course, this deconstructive cynicism is their telos; the high postmodernists lived to pick apart and render arbitrary all that is or can be established.) Applied postmodernism’s applied turn can be characterized, then, as an attempt to inject grand purpose back into the spiritual hollow left by modern banality and high-postmodern cynicism, and its purpose is progress toward a socially “Just” society. Specifically, it adopted this purpose to remake society in the image of Social Justice.
In this sense, to connect with and serve “Social Justice” is the transcendent meaning of Social Justice, and as with premodern religions, these endeavors are profoundly connected to tribal morality and provide the spiritual sense that motivates much of the zeal present in tribal projects. A grand sense of transcendent purpose builds a bridge between special knowledge and mythology and a sense of life well-lived. Much of this purpose-building is achieved through drawing attention to the numinous—that which has a spiritual quality or focuses upon divinity.
It is this concept, divinity, to which we should turn our attention to reckon with the moral side of the issue. Not coincidentally, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the term divinity to label the most elusive of just three dimensions of psychosocial valuation—how we evaluate ourselves and others (morally and in terms of our standing in the prevailing social hierarchies in which we interact).
Divinity in this understanding is, in rough approximation, how we evaluate ourselves and each other morally, which ultimately means against the prevailing cultural (thus moral) framework in which we are embedded. Divinity is a relatively mysterious and difficult concept to grasp, however, because it is that part of (moral) psychosocial valuation that is left over after subtracting any overlapping components from the other two dimensions: relational closeness and something we could approximate again by calling “reputation,” like the prestige a bank manager might have as a result of his professional standing or that which an attractive person often unjustly gains by virtue of his attractiveness. As its name suggests, divinity refers to something more “spiritual” in nature, and this is approached through the realm of the morally numinous.
Diverging somewhat from Haidt’s characterization in The Happiness Hypothesis, it is my own contention that in modern democracies (sometimes called W.E.I.R.D. – Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies) “coolness” is how we evaluate divinity in our psychosocial (read: cultural) milieus. More traditional—and often devout—societies make divinity more obvious through acts of sacred observance. These could be thought of, respectively, then as the (contemporary) modern and premodern approaches to expressing divinity. Accordingly, there are also postmodern approaches.
Hipsters, who are essentially postmodern deconstructionists made into a kind of gratingly annoying counterculture, are a perfect example of postmodern divinity, which is often expressed through what they call irony, understood in the postmodern sense. This manifests as a kind of being too cool for cool, as a modern culturalist might see it. Social Justice, as a form of applied postmodernism, measures divinity in “wokeness,” being aware of, concerned about, and activist in service to the various injustices of the Matrix of Domination (that is, privilege and oppression, in all its forms).
In all cases, it’s the search within that defines the (approximately) religious experience that makes moral standing of this type into a path toward divinity.
For the premodernist, it may be socially sufficient to observe all the duties, prayers, and rites of the local faith, but it’s considered empty and false unless accompanied by the appropriate introspection and realization of the purpose of those observances. These behaviors are meant to show respect and deference to numinous ideals, among other recognitions, and those factors are what imbues them with the psychosocial value that is sensed as divinity.
In the context of relatively contemporary Modernity, as we all know, the one thing you cannot do is fake cool. You’re either cool because you get it, or you’re not. Doing all the “cool” things won’t make you cool. You can only be cool by having the right attitude toward the things you do, and it is through this moral alchemy that what you do becomes cool. So if you want to be cool, it’s about getting yourself right internally and being authentic, confident, and true to other traits valued in W.E.I.R.D. dignity-based cultures—all while presenting the right image. It’s not difficult to see how someone from a premodern traditional society would miss that this is divinity playing out in a weird way. Likewise, it’s difficult to see the W.E.I.R.D. mythos as a mythology, but when you think of coolness in terms of image, it’s possible to get a sense of it. On the other hand, it’s easy to see how unstable this social divinity is, and thus it’s easy to understand how dissatisfying cool would be to a postmodernist cynic.
Postmodern divinity requires a different kind of inward search, and, in the same way as everything in postmodernism stands in relation to Modernity, postmodern divinity is achieved through ironic reaction to and disruption of the divinity of Modernity—coolness. One achieves divine postmodern status, yet again, by searching inwardly, reflecting on the futility and superficially arbitrary nature of cool and rejecting it. Much of this is done performatively, and it’s probably no surprise whatsoever that the gender and queer theories of Judith Butler and her contemporaries, which were reaching a pinnacle as postmodern culture started to fully ripen, focus on the performativity of just about everything. It’s also no surprise that ironic performance and the “politics of parody” are near the top of Butler’s agenda. Of course, the mythology of postmodernism is itself a humorous irony, as it is a metanarrative about being skeptical of metanarratives.
Applied postmodernism doesn’t view everything as performative or otherwise antireal, however. Oppression is real in applied postmodernism, and it is rooted in (demographic) group identity, which is also considered real. If Kimberlé Crenshaw was clear on anything when she outlined intersectionality, it’s that identity and oppression must be treated as realities if postmodern disruption is to have any beneficial effect whatsoever. Constant postmodern irony and endless deconstruction aren’t enough, and the applied turn that postmodernism took, starting in the late 1980s, redefined the postmodern culture accordingly. Divinity after the postmodern turn to application is being woke. It’s recognizing, caring about, and acting on behalf of overcoming the multivariate and interwoven problems of privilege and oppression. It’s about accepting that “everybody is an intersectional being.” In this case, as discussed above, the mythological core is obvious and in full effect. One’s moral duty is to search within for its endless manifestations.
Like in all moral cultures, the specific manifestations of local divinity are learned through interaction with the surrounding culture. Unlike in the case of the weird divinity of Modernity but as happens in more traditional religions, divinity in Social Justice is not merely picked up by social osmosis; it’s also taught, including as an established university curriculum.
Students in diversity and inclusion seminars and courses—which are required at many universities now as standard curricula—are endlessly encouraged to search inside themselves to make privilege (and oppression) more visible. To “check one’s privilege,” for example, has at least two obvious meanings which spring to mind, and one of them is to pause to look inward and examine how it plays a role in any present situation (the other is to put it in check). Students are also taught to look for microaggressions, and their roles in producing them, to achieve this goal. Academics applying for jobs at many colleges and universities now are required to submit introspective statements about their commitments to equity, diversity, and inclusion, if they hope to be hired—regardless of the department to which they’re applying. The entire culture is built around call-outs, which are meant to induce confessions, penitence, and a never-ending spiral of looking more deeply beneath the surface to find ways in which one’s unconscious biases against oppressed classes are present and ultimately manifest.
Thus there is—as we often see in religions and cults—also a great deal of manipulation of vulnerability within Social Justice, both to gain new converts and to deepen the commitment of those already present. Consider, for example, the current trends in feminism with regard to sexual assault, which tend to posit that we live in a “rape culture,” which is monumentally worse on college campuses than anywhere else. Whatever virtues (and weaknesses) this discourse has, among its many impacts is ginning up a substantial amount of vulnerability in young women who are away from home, often for the first time in their lives, both in a circumstance and culture that allow for and even encourage a healthy amount of sexual experimentation.
The effort to create and manipulate vulnerability in potential converts to Social Justice is plain in the constant prioritization of feelings—as ways to knowledge, as guides to right and wrong, and in terms of close-reading every possible social interaction for real and imagined slights and offenses against the marginalized. We see it also in the (corporate) focus on implicit (or unconscious) bias training and on the endless focus upon ways that racism, sexism, and other bigotries either happen to us (the victims) or are, often unintentionally, perpetrated by us, frequently in microscopic form. It is truly difficult to hear about what goes on in these kinds of training sessions, seminars, and classrooms and not think vividly of the smarmy old Christian guilt track: “Have you ever told a lie, about anything at all? And what do you call someone who lies? So you’re a liar….”
There are only two effective paths toward redemption in the Social Justice soteriology: one, a commitment to an impossibly complicated set of behaviors that fall under the overlapping but distinct rubrics of allyship and solidarity, and, two, identifying, adopting, and attempting to legitimize one’s own status among intersectionally “oppressed” identities.
These, dare I say, performances serve the purpose of a kind of ritual, and introspection into one’s privilege is offered as the only path toward something resembling redemption. Outside of this sort of display, Social Justice offers little in the way of a clear soteriology, unlike most premodern religions. As a pointed aside, perhaps only Calvinism—a particularly harsh subtype of Christianity—offers a plainly comparable doctrine regarding salvation, and the parallels between Social Justice and Calvinism in this case may be too deep to miss. In Calvinist theology, salvation is reserved only for the Elect, who are the exceedingly few predetermined by God to be saved (through Irresistible Grace) and thus to go to Heaven. Everyone else is locked within the “Total Depravity” that follows from their Original Sin, which posits human beings as woefully and irredeemably Fallen creatures, who cannot save themselves because they are by nature too inclined to serve their own wills rather than that of God.
It’s a grim picture, and Social Justice treats power and privilege in much the same way. Thus, though it disclaims the fact, its ultimate focus is upon penitence and building the Utopia—the Kingdom of God on Earth—by creating converts and applying them to the project. There are only two effective paths toward redemption in the Social Justice soteriology: one, a commitment to an impossibly complicated set of behaviors, which fall under the overlapping but distinct rubrics of allyship and solidarity, and, two, identifying, adopting, and attempting to legitimize one’s own status among intersectionally “oppressed” identities.
Claiming an intersectionally oppressed identity can take many forms, which vary in their degrees of acceptability and problematics. With regard to gender and sexuality, this process can be relatively straightforward and might proceed by identifying—in earnest, experiment, or only nominally—as some gender or sexual identity that falls outside of being cisgendered and heterosexual, all the way up to and including identifying as trans. With regard to race, the matter is distinctly more delicate, as was proved by the reaction to and fallout from the episode in which the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia published Rebecca Tuvel’s philosophical defense of transracial identities, which points out that the same arguments that justify room for transgender identities provide room for transracial ones. This suggestion, if made only for the sake of argument, was vehemently deemed too problematic to countenance.
Another form of subtly oppressed identity that can be and is frequently claimed—often by the so-called Tumblr crowd, named after the social media blogging platform on which they congregate most—is to adopt a psychological disability, obesity, illness, or personality disorder as an oppressed identity. One may not just suffer from depression and anxiety but be a depressed or anxious person, as though it’s intractable and thus carries intersectional credit along the ableism spectrum. This is a distinctly anti-therapeutic invention, which comes as a corollary to valorizing identity-based victimhood.
Solidarity and allyship—which are themselves fraught with problematics from the applied postmodern perspective because of their capacity to recenter the privileged while extracting a divinity resource from oppression—are deemed the necessary response to privilege. “Allies” are what we call relationally privileged brothers and sisters in Social Justice, and solidarity is approximately socioreligious fraternity in the faith. Exercising these includes deferring to oppressed identities and making personal sacrifices to stand “in solidarity” with their claimed agendas. These deferrals and sacrifices are the costly signals that “prove” one’s loyalty to the moral tribe and its ideology, and they have the psychological effect of increasing one’s commitment to it. This occurs because undertaking this cost must be rationalized, and the rationalizations employed are the moral ones provided by the ideology, usually in some form of “doing the right thing,” “taking a stand against Hate,” or “using one’s privilege to help overcome oppression.”
Much of this is achieved through the act of Social Justice prayer, which primarily takes the form of making woke social media posts—which even Crenshaw has complained about in an applicable way—and attending public rallies ostensibly treated as protests. This will be, no doubt, a controversial claim to have made, so the reader is reminded that this approaches the topic of how religious-like phenomena work on a psychological (and social) level.
Psychologically, prayer serves many functions, and it’s reasonable to conclude that among these is a hope to call upon the numinous forces of the universe to shape human experience for the better. Often, though not always, prayers of this type are presented in the form of blessings—bless this food for the health of our bodies, bless this meeting that it serve not only our purposes but Higher ones, God bless the USA. For the applied postmodernists of Social Justice, the premodern numinous forces are all functionally dead, however. The living gods are societal, and they’re primarily the reification of discourses and narratives (because postmodernism, applied and less so, is ultimately logocentric in believing that language creates society, which creates our total understanding of reality). Among other effects, including virtue signaling and hierarchy jockeying, woke-posting on social media is a way to offer a blessing to the wokeness gods so that discourses might be blessed, problematics and dissenters might be shamed, and society might be improved.
The most overt form this behavior takes is in public rallies, which superficially resemble protests that have lost all of their focus. Rather than protesting specific issues or political concerns, Social Justice adherents increasingly appear to gather together to protest against concepts that are directly derived from the Matrix of Oppression. What, exactly, is a protest against the “right wing,” for example? What are “anti-fascism” rallies? And how are these conducted? For those familiar with the left-leaning protest scene as it has evolved from the early 2000s until now, there has been a distinct devolution of clarity, organization, and focus and increased reliance upon gathering and chanting, as though demonstrating alone can suffice to affect society in a way that effects the protesters’ goals (and, when it doesn’t, that is subsequently taken as proof that society is even more fallen than previously thought and in desperate and urgent need of even more “protests”). These aren’t protests. These are prayer rallies. This is church.
At the heart of every faith is a blurring of rigor through appeals to mystery that are intended to be mistaken for profundity.
Religions have religious authorities who are (often formally) recognized for their knowledge and achievement in attending to the faith’s manifestation of divinity or for their pious dedication to it. These go by a variety of subtle terms that can be, for the present, summarized under a familiar but slightly austere archetypal word: priests. Among others, one particular purpose of the priest is as a repository and transmitter of the wisdom and special knowledge of the faith. Another is to dutifully contemplate the faith. A third is to adjudicate religious law.
If the canon of special knowledge behind Social Justice is its scholarly canon, the producers and promulgators of that canon can easily be identified as its priests. That means scholars and educators who work with Social Justice scholarship—which we have called grievance studies—are the priests of Social Justice. Its executors are, in addition to these academic pontificators, the gender nuns and grand wizards of the various offices of diversity and inclusion, including the troublingly Inquisitorial Bias Response Teams and their leadership.
A fourth purpose of the priest is to be a whip for the faith, which is to say not only to transmit the theology but also to do so in ways that tap into the mythological core that it aims to expound upon. This, because of the nature of myth both as (meta)narrative and as representative of the “nonempirical unconditioned reality” of our experience, is done mostly by appealing to emotion rather than rationality. Therefore, this is where many of the loose threads of this essay tie together into a single strand: the appeals to vulnerability, the reliance upon affective or other irrational pocket epistemologies, and the focus upon the unconscious elements that shape lived experience in relation to sweeping mythological structures come together into an approach to knowing that stirs rather than convinces. The weaver of this emotive braid is the priest, who meditates upon the faith that much more profoundly, articulates it that much more affectively, and expresses it that much more movingly than the average adherent. Priests, when they are effective, make you feel your religion.
Feelings in this context, to pull from Kołakowski, are meant to lead to (mythological) belief and simultaneously mislead from (technological) clarity. This is because at the heart of every faith is a blurring of rigor through appeals to mystery that are intended to be mistaken for profundity. The priest’s job is to muddy this water while appearing to clarify. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including raw and passionate appeals to emotion, such as those we might see at a vibrant Pentecostal service in full speaking-in-tongues swing. It can also be achieved through the intentional manufacture and exploitation of guilt and other forms of emotional vulnerability, which are the chief dominion of the nuns, who constantly remind us to search harder for complicity in bigotry or sin. It is also arrived at through the guru mechanism.
This mechanism relies upon spinning pseudo-profundity, as it is called—otherwise known as high-minded bullshit—in a way that is found convincingly profound by those who want to be convinced. Martha Nussbaum describes it accurately in her summary of the style of writing presented by landmark queer (and gender) theorist Judith Butler, upon whose work much of contemporary Social Justice with regard to gender is based. Nussbaum writes,
When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma. One hangs in suspense, eager for the next move. When Butler does follow that ‘direction for thinking,’ what will she say? What does it mean, tell us please, for the agency of a subject to presuppose its own subordination? (No clear answer to this question, so far as I can see, is forthcoming.) One is given the impression of a mind so profoundly cogitative that it will not pronounce on anything lightly: so one waits, in awe of its depth, for it finally to do so.
Much theology is written this way, as is much of grievance studies. Ultimately, it’s a linguistic—or, if we’re generous, philosophical—means of playing hide the ball. In the guru’s version of this game, the ball in play is the fact that one’s conclusions have merely been asserted somewhere along the path, and all apparent argument for them is an elaborate means of making them look convincingly argued for. In its purest form, not only are the arguments disguising the fact that they forward opinion and prejudice as though they are knowledge, they do so in such a way that the reader either struggles to comprehend them or simply cannot do so. On the assumption of great wisdom and greater access to special knowledge—which is conveyed through a belief in the divinity of the guru—a reader is left with the impression that the incomprehensible must be profound. But what does this achieve? Intellectual dependence upon the guru and thus the actionable importation of the guru’s ideology.
It should go without saying that the vast majority of priests are sincere. Indeed, most are among the most painfully sincere people one could potentially meet and are true believers in the moral ideology they serve. It also goes without saying that every religious tradition eventually attracts faith grifters, who are not sincere and may not even be believers. These are opportunists who exploit undercritical belief in a (moral) ideology for their own selfish purposes. Certainly, with enough effort, most faith grifters can be distinguished from their true-believing counterparts, but the amount of effort required can frequently be impractically immense.
Social Justice is extremely unlikely to be immune from this problem and, in fact, may be more susceptible to it. This follows from two facts about the Social Justice faith. One is that it is so overwhelmingly focused on identifying and purging sin from the world that it is straightforward for any Social Justice faith grifter to accuse her (or his) accusers of being intentional or unwitting agents of oppression. The other follows from locating special knowledge in identity. And who could question it, for as Robby Soave explained, “intersectionality also recognizes the oppressed as the sole experts on their own oppression.” This enables any grifter who can claim to be a member of an oppressed class to turn accusations back upon her accusers in an irrefutable way.
There are many reasons to see Social Justice as fitting within those categories of human social behavior that are best characterized as “religious,” and yet there remain excellent reasons to see it as distinct from those social structures that formally go by that term. This essay presents a case that Social Justice represents something best understood as a close cousin of religions but technically not one. It posits that it is likely that the similarities in features arise because Social Justice represents a cultural phenomenon that uses many of the same means as religion to address the (nearly) universal underlying human psychosocial needs that people established religions to address. In my own assessment, I would place Social Justice nearer to religion than most cults are, although because religions nearly universally rely upon premodern mythologies and Social Justice relies on a distinctly (applied) postmodern mythology, which is fundamentally secular in nature, there’s enough difference to prevent us calling it a religion.
The purposes of characterizing Social Justice this way are various. One is to simply add clarity and depth to a topic of rapidly growing interest and concern. A second is to attempt to offer some fruitful directions for solutions to this problem, which are given in the final section of the essay, below. Another is to enable people who encounter Social Justice to recognize it rightly for what it is and to react accordingly.
On this third point, a fitting metaphor to clarify this reaction can be found in a pointed remark by the character Hank Hill in Mike Judge’s satirical cartoon series called King of the Hill. In one episode, Hill takes his son to a Christian rock concert and eventually speaks with one of the pastor-musicians, saying, “You’re not making Christianity better; you’re just making rock and roll worse.” Something like this sentiment should be familiar to many of us who, say, while driving far from home and dazzling the radio dial, might come across a rock station that seems good enough for unfamiliar territory and then encounter lyrics including, “Jesus is my light.” For many of us, this leads to sudden disappointment and a somewhat gross “hey, I know what this is!” feeling—along with changing the station. Because Social Justice is so psychosocially similar to religion, people should have precisely this reaction as soon as they see the Social Justice scripts kick in.
To the degree that we can accept that Social Justice is a faith-based program based upon a kind of locally legitimized special revelation, we should have serious concerns and discomfort about institutionalizing its beliefs in any space that isn’t wholly devoted to them.
Liberal societies have already developed and made one of their cornerstones the answer to dealing with groups that forward special knowledge as though it is knowledge, and in the specific case of forming a bulwark between church and state, it is known as secularism. Secularism, taken as the separation of church and state, can be understood plainly enough as a committed prevention of institutionalizing religious doctrines and practice in liberal governments. The philosophical principle underlying this fundamental point can be understood more generally as well, and this should shed some light upon what we might be able to do about the problem of Social Justice. Better yet, despite our human proclivities toward religious architectures and mythologizing, because all of the developed world is profoundly secular in civic orientation, we already possess precisely the necessary instincts for treating Social Justice as another object within a similar-enough fold.
In a broad philosophical sense, there are three core concepts to secularism. The first is a general reticence toward institutionalizing the ideology of any moral tribe in any public space. The second is protecting moral ideology and recognizing it as a matter of private conscience, which leads to the third, which has already been mentioned: an attitude of anti-conventionalism. Applying the first two of these philosophical principles consistently by insisting that no special knowledge is granted institutional or other formal public power merely as a result of the degree of its adherents’ conviction gives us an indication of how we can deal with secular moral ideologies, including Social Justice.
Legality of the behavior aside, to the degree that we can accept that Social Justice is a faith-based program based upon a kind of locally legitimized special revelation, we should feel serious concerns and discomfort about institutionalizing its beliefs in any space that isn’t wholly devoted to them. We should also be quick to be honest about which spaces are and which aren’t. Public institutions like public universities, being public, should be very hesitant to implement Social Justice initiatives. Private institutions, like corporations and private universities, can make their own choices on the matter and accept the benefits and consequences of openly aligning with a faith initiative as they come.
Applying the third principle above provides a more potent benefit. It immediately gives every person the same degree of permission to guiltlessly reject the moralizing of any moral tribe—including Social Justice—that he (or she) would apply to any (religious or other) faith program of which he were skeptical. Christians, in common with atheists and Hindus, have no problem not seeing themselves as morally deficient for failing to recognize Jewish or Islamic beliefs, for example, and in secular societies there can be no effective compunction put upon them to keep or even to respect alien faiths. Similarly, no one need feel any guilt for rejecting the applied postmodern mythology or tenets of faith which exist at the center of Social Justice. In this sense, viewing Social Justice as a cultural entity very much like a religion is a moral permission slip to question, doubt, and challenge it as such, to demand rigorous evidence for it before it should be implemented, and to treat objections in very much the same way as one would those extended by any religious faith under similar conditions.
Social Justice, because it is an (applied) postmodern mythological system upon which a moral tribe is built, is not technically a religion but is a kind of faith system. This raises serious questions about how we should deal with its attempts to institutionalize itself in various cultural enterprises—especially education—under the guise of being secular in the broad sense merely because it qualifies in the narrow sense. Most importantly, however, it provides all of us with explicit permission to treat its claims and advances in the same way we would any other faith—say, like Scientology—and to proceed accordingly without the guilt it attempts to foist upon us as a conversion mechanism.
This article was originally published at Areo Magazine.