[R]eligion can be defined as a comprehensive belief system that addresses the fundamental questions of human existence, such as the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the universe, and the nature of good and evil, and that gives rise to duties of conscience. –Ben Clements, Cornell Law Review, 1989
The question of whether or not the worldview and practice—for practice it intentionally is—going variously by the names “Social Justice,” “Critical Social Justice,” or, more colloquially, “Woke” constitutes a religion is one of some general interest that seems to be growing. Until quite recently, we maintained the luxury of not having to treat the matter more deeply than as something of a curio of sociocultural philosophy, however important the issue may be. I have contended, for example, that Critical Social Justice constitutes a religion of sorts (a postmodern one, as I laid it out at considerable length; a nominally “anti-racist” one, as Columbia University professor John McWhorter is tackling it currently, at book length) and must be thought of as such, at least by everyday citizens—though not by the law. Those were simpler times.
Now things are quite different and much more serious, so a much more serious inquiry is demanded of us. This escalation arrives not so much due to the externally obvious reasons like how profoundly parallel to religion Critical Social Justice and its practice have become—literally washing black people’s feet in the streets through tearful apologies against whiteness—but more because of its rapid and seemingly unstoppable penetration into our public institutions, including government at every level and, more importantly, our public schools.
It is nearly always a question of considerable importance and some urgency when an ideology, especially when it comprises a totalizing worldview, decides that it is to be the fundamental basis for how we organize society and educate our children, to say nothing of other legal concerns. This, to be certain, is happening now with astonishing rapidity. The overwhelming majority of our schools systems’ teacher training over the summer of 2020, to prepare teachers for the new mostly-online educational demands for the coming fall term, have been heavily, if not exclusively, about issues pertinent to Critical Social Justice. Our government agencies at all levels are taking on the basic principles and tenets of this belief system as matters of both policy and recommendation.
With astonishing speed, a shocking number of our nation’s school systems have taken up explicitly critical—as in Critical Theory—educational approaches that focus on teaching identity politics, “anti-racism,” and about the systems of power that the Critical Social Justice worldview assumes exists in everything. States like Washington, California, and New York are openly adopting “Ethnic Studies” programs that revamp their entire educational systems in line with Critical Social Justice so extreme that they seek to replace math with “ethnomathematics” and history with critical “hxstory.” These changes come alongside other equally questionable practices with even more jargon-heavy descriptions, all dedicated to awakening a “critical consciousness” of “anti-racism” through “cultural awareness” in our nation’s children. Our curricula, we’re told, have to be “decolonized.” New curricula are explicitly based not only in Critical Theories of identity, but upon the critical historiography of the infamously revisionist (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) 1619 Project and the explicit dictates of the radical Black-power activism organization Black Lives Matter.
Meanwhile, a veritable war is going on regarding whether or not assessment (like standardized testing) is “racist,” and excellence programs are being scrapped for being “inequitable.” As parents react to this (often very negatively) by seeking to pull their kids out of our public schools in favor of homeschooling them, calls to abolish homeschooling are coming to the fore of the discussion from the priestly of this new faith, insisting that it is “racist” to teach one’s own children at home because the state has a duty to teach them subjects like “Social Justice.” These changes should facilitate the elimination of objective standards that will enable an increase in the ability to execute and hide rampant problems of applying discriminatory admissions policies at elite schools and universities, all in the name of “equity,” which people are led to believe is a hallmark of group fairness.
Simultaneously, many of our government agencies and departments are taking on the tenets of Critical Social Justice, especially Critical Race Theory and its derivative, “anti-racism,” as a matter of mandate. These entities include state and federal “departments of” as well as myriad government contractors and state funded entities, like National Public Radio (NPR). Even NASA, which is widely regarded as synonymous with scientific rigor, hosted “anti-racist” historian Ibram X. Kendi to lecture its employees on tenets of this Theoretical view of the world. This invitation is remarkable given that Kendi’s explicit ambition is to pass an “anti-racist” Constitutional amendment that would permanently create and empower a de facto fourth branch of the American government dedicated to critically examining and unmaking any “racist” policy, defined as anything that ends up having certain (but not other) disparate outcomes by race. This invitation is even less alarming than the fact that Kendi’s argument is being used in support of a California initiative to remove the anti-discrimination language from its state constitution in accordance with achieving equity and “anti-racism.” Equally, if not more alarming, are that the Center for Disease Control has institutionalized tremendous quantities of this Theory (during a pandemic, no less), even while states officially declare “systemic racism” a kind of “public health crisis” that obviates any reasonable measures for pandemic mitigation if done in the name of “racial justice.” Even large government contractors, like Sandia Laboratories, which handles extremely high-tech weaponry (including nuclear weaponry), have taken on this ideology deeply enough to have fallen into an internal “civil war” after a brave employee blew the whistle.
The matter of understanding Critical Social Justice, as the ideology is formally called, is, in some sense, no longer a mere philosophical issue (if it ever truly was). It’s now an emergency, and as more and more people are noticing (or, it seems, hoping, as it would provide them with recourse that currently seems not to exist), it’s likely to be a legal emergency. Unfortunately, very little legal architecture currently exists to do anything about the problem of this imposition of one particular belief system upon society via its most susceptible demographic—children. Further, perhaps due to failures of people like myself in the past few years, there has been very little push to generate this legal architecture in what is likely to be one of its strongest and most fruitful directions: identifying the Critical Social Justice worldview as a functionally religious worldview. This is required to open it up to the full machinery of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and its famous Establishment Clause, and would, at least, get it out of our school systems very quickly.
The argument, I think, needs to be opened up in earnest because we now face two incredible perils against the American ideal where it collides with the Critical Social Justice worldview, and these merit taking the issue and the risk that comes with it (legally protecting Critical Social Justice as a system of faith) very seriously. The first of these is the one I’ve already spent some time on pointing out: Critical Social Justice has already encroached deeply into our public education system and halls of government in the United States. In fact, this trend is accelerating to a pitch so extreme that complaints that schools are operating in the service of political indoctrination rather than as houses of a basic and liberal education, as they were initially conceived, are rapidly becoming plausible. The second is that a time may come in the not-distant future in which this totalizing and totalitarian worldview could be installed as the de facto state religion, even while it elides categorization as such. The state endorsement—or worse, enforcement—of any faith falls directly afoul of the protections the U.S. Constitution was written to ensure to individual citizens, and, in fact, to other systems of faith that would disagree with it. The question is, which totalizing worldviews that are not traditionally recognizable as faiths should be treated in the same way for the same reasons? While the answer to this question is not immediately clear, it must have to do with how they function in society and in the lives of those who believe them.
Therefore, to put it directly: It is my belief that the contents of the Critical Social Justice worldview should be protected as matters of private conscience only, and they should also be limited as such. That is, I want to contend that the Free-exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment apply to Critical Social Justice. It is therefore not merely a philosophical exercise to ask whether or not Critical Social Justice constitutes a religion but also a serious legal one that gets to the very core of what the American Experiment has always been about—freedom of belief and from state religion. It is my intention here to make this case as briefly as possible, which means it will still be very long.
Though I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here and redo that which I have already done at length (again, in parallel to others), I do want to take a moment to outline the key features of what makes me think that Critical Social Justice is, in fact, a religion. Readers (with a couple of hours on their hands to consider it) are encouraged to read my previous essay on this topic in full before proceeding, because I wish to expand upon and simplify its central arguments here. Though that essay does not focus particularly on the blatant parallels between other religions, especially like Christianity, and Critical Social Justice—for examples, that “Woke” and “born again,” “privilege” and “depravity,” “complicity” and “sin,” “cancellation” and “excommunication,” and “colonialist, imperialist, white supremacist cis-hetero-ableist patriarchy” and “the world after the Fall”—such points are made throughout that piece.
It may be worth pausing for a moment, however, to point out that the shape of the Woke faith is what some theologians refer to as “Augustinian,” as in Augustine of Hippo, better known as Saint Augustine. What this means, in brief, is that the faith is based primarily upon the notion and relevance of Original Sin and how atonement for the stain of the Fall might be found, notably relying upon a combination of inner work (meditations) and critical self-reflection (confession). Many complicated soteriological stances have been developed from Augustine’s doctrines about the relevance of the Grace of God and how one is to qualify to receive or accept it. Typically, various pieties and duties of conscience are defined within a particular faith tradition by elaborating upon the role of human agency, as is said to be granted to us by God in the form of freedom of will.
All of this construction is unmistakably present in Critical Social Justice. The discovery of the full relevance of rationality and empiricism marks the moment of having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and, by thus developing the capacity to enact systemic oppression (by virtue of being able to find out right answers about the world systematically), a sin was committed against the order of the world. That is, the Woke Original Sin, just like in Genesis, is the acquisition of forbidden (paths to) knowledge, and so humanity fell. The mark of that sin (as with Cain) was using the knowledge to colonize the world, both physically and intellectually, and to use it to enslave, conquer, and marginalize. We often hear the premises that slavery is America’s “original sin” and, following the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project (a critically revisionist historigraphy), its fundamental organizational principle—one that has removed it from any possibility of salvation by works and that requires a fundamental, if not millenarian, remaking of the nation.
From the sin of rigorous knowledge production follows power and thus privilege, and privilege is the depravity of wanting to sin in this way so that one’s access to systemic power is maintained. The call to Woke faith is to awaken a critical consciousness—which the Theorist and black feminist bell hooks sometimes refers to as “enlightened witness”—through the study of scripture and a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique (meditations) in which one is to “interrogate” yourself to “do better” (confessions). Indeed, as we read from “anti-racist” historian Ibram X. Kendi, “the heartbeat of racism is denial, and the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.” Agency is afforded in a kind of critical grace to those who have awakened (become “Woke”) to the “true” nature of systemic power and its relationship to knowledge, which is to say those who have become aware of the truth of their inherently sinful nature, depravity, and need for absolution from these evils from something bigger and transcendent to themselves, be that the collective judgment of society or, as Marx might have had it, History, with a capital H.
As a general note that was central to my preceding piece, it is crucial that one understand Critical Social Justice as a fundamentally postmodern phenomenon. As most religions that we are familiar with present in a genuinely premodern way by invoking literally believed spiritual forces that exist in a separate plane of reality or as imperceptible-but-causal “energies” and engage in worship and practice in ritualistic ways that are, in turn, recognizably holdovers from premodern liturgical contexts, it can be difficult to see a postmodern faith for what it is. In a postmodern faith, God is dead, and the forces that work in a mysterious way in the world are necessarily sociological as a result. Formalized liturgical modes have been deconstructed and replaced with something more decentralized, chaotic, and even ironic. Because the central object of interest in all postmodern thought is social power, postmodern “deities” are systems of social power and the “social” phenomena that construct them.
In the Woke faith, as in many polytheistic and pantheistic faiths, people are but the playthings of these discursive power gods. They are called by these gods to act for the cause of liberation, and to be Woke—to have a critical consciousness, or any of its subspecies of awareness, such as feminist consciousness, black (political) consciousness, and/or queer consciousness—is to be aware of the call. The power gods determine our courses, but those who are awakened in the spirit know how to discern how they might be used for righteous good rather than depraved evil. It is no longer spirits and demons on the other side of the dualistic veil but systems of power and the discourses that produce and maintain them.
It’s easy to get lost in this kind of discussion, so I will mostly leave it here because there’s another purpose to this essay, which is to discuss its relevance to First Amendment law in the United States. Before proceeding with the legal argument, however, there are a few points from my previous work I’d like to present here and expand. They are understanding religions in terms of (1) a Durkheimian sociological order equipped with liturgical forms, (2) an underlying mythology and complete metaphysics, and (3) a system of moral law, which in turn gives rise to duties of conscience. To these frames, I also want to add a fourth point about religious fundamentalism, a fifth about puritanism, and a sixth about the organization of churches and religions themselves, as these are relevant. All of this “philosophical case” should set up the more difficult argument in the “legal case.”
In very brief, the great sociologist Émile Durkheim sought to describe and succeeded at describing religions sociologically in a way that has not yet been, to my mind, superseded despite the century that has passed since he took up the project. For Durkheim, religions are sociological phenomena that are, at their very bottom, a particular kind of moral community. This means that religions are, sociologically, phenomena that organize a community around a shared sense of morality and, relatedly, purpose in life.
This view has been developed since to articulate clearly that religions are, in the most general description, moral communities that provide three basic types of psychosocial (combined psychological and social) needs for their adherents and participants: meaning-making, a sense of control, and the capacity to establish, police, and understand one’s place in a community of people with shared (religious) values. While the precise definition of a religion may remain fuzzy and elusive, speaking functionally, these properties seem to form an identifiable skeleton upon which the meat of the matter is organized.
It should be almost immediately obvious that the worldview of Critical Social Justice satisfies all of these criteria. Life in the community gains meaning in the (almost cosmic) battle for “liberation” against systemic oppression, and individual meaning (and agency) are defined almost entirely in terms of this struggle. The point of the struggle is obviously to achieve liberation from all systemic oppression, which can be achieved by gaining control over the machinations of society and the harms that an improperly managed society will mete out to some of its members, often the most vulnerable. A hierarchical community is set up by the doctrine of intersectionality around this view of the world, and policing of one’s status within it (as assessed under the term “positionality”) is famously vigorous within Critical Social Justice-run communities. A volume could be written on this topic, and yet even these few sentences are enough to convey the point that “Woke” communities are moral communities to most readers even passingly familiar with the ideology.
As Durkheim’s clearly hasn’t been the last word on the subject, something more than just this bare-bones sociological view seems to be needed to really outline what makes a moral community religious. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has provided a significant part of this puzzle by pointing out that if one is going to live in a moral community, we need some system of “psychosocial valuation,” that is, a means by which we can tell how we and others stand in relation to one another within the community.
Of course, human beings evolved to be exquisitely sensitive to social valuation of self and others, and as Haidt points out, it seems to be that it is (at least) a three-dimensional process for us. We tend to value people according to “closeness” (of kin or friendship), “reputation” (something like how famous one is), and “divinity” (which sounds overtly religious and is probably best understood as adhering to the prevailing moral framework in the relevant Durkheimian moral community in play). It is important to understand that Haidt chose this terminology to describe a psychosocial feature as it exists in the world of human interactions and behavior. It is a way that human beings understand ourselves and others, not a specifically spiritual quality (hence the scare quotes, which are used to distinguish it from the usual spiritualist meaning of the word).
This last dimension, “divinity,” sets up a particular point about religions that is essentially defining of them: religions have something inseparable to do with a recognition of the sacred and its being set apart from the profane. Whatever one’s view of spiritualism, functionally speaking, an individual can be evaluated positively in the “divinity” dimension by how well one keeps piety with regard to that which is considered sacred to the moral community at hand. Maybe it is keeping one’s speech clean of vulgarities and profanity; maybe it is abstaining from certain foods or sex; maybe it is undergoing ritual bathing before entering the holy place; maybe it is pronouncing declarations of faith and sinfulness; maybe it is believing all victims of certain kinds of systemic oppression about their interpretations of their own experiences in life, taking a picture of your middle finger pointed toward Trump Tower and sharing it on social media, knowing everyone’s pronouns and announcing yours, avoiding problematic words, or finding ways to disrupt “white comfort,” even as a spiritual act of making oneself, if white, “uncomfortable.” These displays of virtue, at least when organized, define the liturgical forms of a practice of faith, and performing these behaviors (at least ostensibly sincerely) credits individuals with social status in the “divinity” dimension, in the eyes of self and others.
That which is held as sacred is that which has been assigned something like infinite moral value, so that it is in nearly all circumstances inappropriate to fall afoul of sacred beliefs, teachings, or commandments. Thus, and most importantly, the sacred cannot be questioned, and it cannot be contaminated by the profane. A moral community that exists to satisfy the basic psychosocial needs for meaning-making, sense of control, and sense of community that sets certain moral precepts aside as sacred would be in essence a religion, as Durkheim might have it.
As I have argued before, in some sense following Aquinas, “God” is the name that “all men” give to a deified abstraction that satisfies and ontologically grounds all of these features, as well as those listed below. God is that which grounds the meaning and infinite value of the sacred, in some sense, at least in significant part, for those who believe in Him. Many, but not all, religions have deities or, in monotheistic faiths, God, and the question of what “God,” if any, Critical Social Justice has (in the sense stated here—a quasi-deified abstraction, as above) is a profoundly difficult one. I will contend that in some respects, such an abstraction exists for Critical Social Justice, and in others it does not, which is not a problem for its generally postmodern orientation, though I will not detail what that is here, saving it rather for when it fits in each specific context.
Religions tend to do more than just define and ground religious belief and experience, however. They tend not just to hold certain beliefs and establish community around them. They tend to practice those beliefs as well, and they tend to teach them.
Practices and teachings will, of course, arise organically within moral communities that begin to regard certain values as sacred. When the group is small, this values structure can be maintained by mere social enforcement of the few dozen members of the group. As such communities grow or persist over a long period of time, as a matter of solving the obvious problem that might be called “herding cats,” teachings that articulate those values and practices, and their worth, tend toward being codified. Thus, the organic sense of morality that binds the community starts to become a doctrine because, without doctrine to be taught and read, it becomes too difficult to communicate the morality in play. Priests are established who understand this canon and can transmit it to others.
Put otherwise, something happens when a moral community reaches a specific size: a canon and priests become necessary to keep the whole group in tune with the emerging moral orthodoxy. Somewhere in this part of the process, a moral community can begin to transition into something resembling a religion, and one of the surest signs that this is occurring is when this need to define a community functionally grows into a doctrinal application of moral law. Because humans tend to think most naturally in stories with emotional relevance, the canon often is communicated through a mythology, which is a cohesive and totalizing set of morally resonant stories about the world, its function, and the people in it that defines how a group sees itself in relationship to the machinations of the world it inhabits. Thus, the development of a mythology that communicates the nature of the world and its inhabitants, typically in complex themes of good and evil that are personified or otherwise reified in complex ways, is another hallmark of the development of a religion out of a growing moral community.
The point of a mythology, besides communication of relevant themes in a totalizing way, is to provide a sense of attribution for various phenomena, including numinous ones, for those who accept it. That is, a mythology is core to the meaning-making project at the heart of religious communities. Once a mythology is devised around this new moral code to give it a (meaning-making) anchor for moral attribution—that is, a way to explain how the moral law is real and binding, not merely a loose system of values—and enough weight to give rise to purpose-conferring duties of conscience around articles of faith, it is probably fair to say that the moral community has become a religion, speaking sociologically, and its doctrine, mythology, and liturgical forms have come to constitute a religion in the sense of being a body of beliefs and activities of a certain, identifiable type.
The question of liturgical forms—most generally, a call to commune with the sacred and to do the work that accords with its vision for the world, usually in some structured way—is what many observers would agree forms the genuine hallmark of religious practice and belief. A liturgy arises around a set of beliefs when there is an identifiable practice that “calls” people to do the work of the faith and recenters them within its mythological belief structure and doctrinal positions. Of significant importance, a liturgy, by definition, implies duties of conscience to the prevailing moral order.
In usual (premodern) faiths, liturgies take the form of various rituals, like church services, and the term tends to describe the specific structure of the services themselves (e.g., the Easter liturgy might be specific and somewhat different than the common liturgy in a particular church). In a vaguely modernist faith like Scientology, it would take the structured form of the “audits” that adherents are expected to undergo. In a postmodern faith, the liturgy may be profoundly harder to describe and identify because any clear and identifiable liturgical structure would be, by definition, subject to immediate deconstruction (lest it fail to be postmodern in character). Critical Social Justice is not entirely postmodern, at least not in the purists’ sense of the term (that is, it sets aside from deconstruction certain articles that the “high deconstructionists” of the 1960s and 1970s certainly did not). Accordingly, Critical Social Justice has a mostly identifiable liturgical form, though it admits far more variation than earlier religious models and mostly lacks clearly ritualistic structure.
The liturgy of Critical Social Justice would be to “do the work” to bring about Social Justice through critique. This “work” would, in general, take the form of educating oneself in the doctrine then engaging in self-reflection, self-critique, and social activism to bring about “group justice” rather than just individual justice. Thus, when activist-scholars like Robin DiAngelo call for precisely these practices, they are calling for participation in the Critical Social Justice liturgy.
Each of these elements takes a specific form. Educating oneself means reading and engaging with specified doctrinally consistent media and attempting to understand it in the fashion of a critical consciousness—the spiritual mode of Critical Social Justice. Self-reflection and self-critique are described as types of “interrogation,” particularly of one’s own “complicity” in systems of power and feelings of defensiveness that arise when confronting that. The required social activism tends to take particular forms as well, such as group confessions of racism or other bigotries in diversity training sessions, engaging in activist social media and petitioning campaigns (as a form of prayer to the systems of power and people who maintain them), bowing down and apologizing to members of minoritized groups, announcing one’s positionality or pronouns (or putting them in one’s social media bio), acknowledging one’s positionality and privilege in most or all interactions, promoting the literature of Critical Social Justice scholars (especially of members of marginalized groups), engaging in certain types of symbolic performances (like twerking in front of police), and engaging in highly recognizable forms of symbolic action in protest environments.
These activities do not form a usual, formal liturgy like one would see in, say, the Catholic Church because it’s a postmodern liturgy that derives its power from adopting certain discursive stances, performing symbolic actions, and, sometimes, approaching the issue through parodic forms. More formal Critical Social Justice liturgies are plainly apparent in meeting environments, where “points of personal privilege” are raised before speaking and land acknowledgments and other statements of penitence are made before engaging in meeting activities. Generally, the liturgy of Critical Theory takes the shape of a variety of easily recognizable calls to faith either to recognize one’s privilege, to act in solidarity with the “oppressed,” or to “disrupt and dismantle” some system of power. In that sense, the invocation of positional standpoint thinking, calls to solidarity, and acts of “strategic resistance” are all broad liturgical forms of Critical Social Justice belief and practice. (And in more specific Antifa-related activism, “bloccing up,” which refers to donning the characteristic black clothing, masks, and helmets, and engaging in disruptive protest would constitute an “antifascist” liturgy that is separate from but consistent with the general Critical Social Justice faith.)
As the Critical Social Justice worldview is centered upon a particular kind of victimhood that is alleged to arise from systemic injustice, a specific liturgical form in Critical Social Justice is—as it is already being called in some “justice”-oriented churches—a “liturgy of lament.” This liturgy does its work by creating a structure by which the people can connect to the sacred through appeals to the pain of systemic oppression. This pain has to be understood in its full context because not any pain—not even any oppression—will do. The pain that plays into Theory and that defines the liturgy of lament is sacred suffering because it taps into historic, and group-level suffering that transcends the realm of the individual. It is therefore a particular kind of suffering that members of dominant groups (like white people) can see themselves as having been complicit in by association or conferred “privilege,” which reaches into an existential-level sense of guilt. Any suffering that falls out of line with Theory, on the other hand, does not operate in such a grand, metaphysical scale and therefore is trivial—or venial—suffering.
In a liturgy of lament, lamentations against the systems of power are offered by those aggrieved by the system or those seeking to speak authentically upon their behalf, and this serves as a call to engage and to act. These are common in administrative settings, particularly where offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion (ironically, DEI—Latin for God) have institutional power. Land acknowledgements must be made. One’s own complicity must be interrogated. The systems must be denounced, and, if possible, disrupted and dismantled. Solidarity must be offered, displayed, and acted upon. Problematics must be called out. Counterstories must be told. Protests must be attended, and disruptive action must occur. Acts of “strategic resistance” must be employed. A liturgy of lament is a spiritual call to “speak truth to power” about the “lived realities” of systemic oppression, and its purpose is to awaken and reinforce a critical consciousness in those it reaches. Critical consciousness must be awakened, and this is the spiritual frame of the entire enterprise.
Again, there’s no need to belabor the point about how the Critical Social Justice worldview operates in this regard. The victim of systemic oppression or any harm mediated through or amplified by systemic power is sacred, as is their testimony, so long as it agrees with the “critical” interpretation of how power contributed to the relevant claims to harm. All that upholds or maintains systems of oppression, as the Critical Social Justice worldview defines any and all of this, is profane and utterly verboten. Nothing that upholds oppression, as they conceive of it, can be permitted to contribute to the pervasive victimhood of any of its protected classes (note that oppression by the Woke of insufficiently Woke members of “minoritized” groups doesn’t count because that isn’t oppression, and it can’t be seen as systemic, by their definition of the system).
In the Woke worldview, then, even virtuous concepts like responsibility become profane because to assign any form of responsibility to a (systemic) victim in any regard whatsoever, no matter what their own contributions to their lot, is to desacralize their claim to victimhood and drag it within the spheres of the world and, more to the point, into their own agency (through a process called “responsibilization,” no less). This would deny that the victimhood is systemic and wholly the fault not of others, but of the system itself. The victim is sacred, and thus the victim must be a wholly pure victim of a world that mistreated her in toto, for this kind of victimhood, and this kind alone, is that which sanctifies.
As a poignant aside, the reliance upon a liturgy of lament makes more clear that a certain kind of pseudo-therapeutic mindset is a mark of “divinity” in Critical Social Justice circles. The holy, apart from the systemically oppressed, are those who care about the systemically oppressed enough and in the “right” ways. True “divinity” in the faith is derived in Gnostic form from the subjective “lived experience” of suffering systemic oppression and thus injustice, and thus identity markers combined with the right interpretations of their experiences become the marks of “divine” status, which cannot be questioned or doubted. Working to remedy this pain in turn becomes a spiritual experience for those with the privilege to do so. Ritualistic “feel-ins,” taking turns sharing emotional testimony (and then boarding an imaginary canoe in solidarity to remedy the ills that evoked it), and pledging to “do better” as allies are hallmarks of this spiritual practice, and the spiritual mood around these activities is palpable in the rush to bring comfort to the oppressed. Therapeutic language is explicitly employed. It is, in its own way, the giving of alms, an act of virtue in a falsely therapeutic faith.
Thus, the needs for meaning (and purpose) making, a sense of control, and a definable community that can be policed and that the individual can understand herself within can be established by these values. Moreover, they are given a fuzzy but identifiable liturgical form for the community of believers. The values system is clearly comprehensible: that which disrupts or dismantles systemic oppression is good, which makes activities meaningful and renders social activism as a kind of teleological fulfillment of righteous behavior. The relevant, meaning systemic, harms of society can be controlled to an exquisite degree by critiquing and cancelling anything that causes them. A community is established and maintained in service to these ideals and values, and inclusion and social standing are easily discerned by the way one talks about or regards the relevant issues of systemic importance. Lastly, people can understand themselves in this community through their positionality with respect to the systems of power in play and the sensitivity to them—critical consciousness—they are able to exhibit in shows of virtue to others.
A theory of sanctity and profanity like the one just described as being at the heart of Critical Social Justice is far too totalizing and simplistic to weather even cursory scrutiny from skeptical minds cognizant of anything resembling facts of the world. Therefore, such an artifice must be conveyed not through appeals to an understanding of a shared reality but by means of a mythological construction that simplifies it and packages it up in story and parable. That is, a worldview like this one requires being understood and communicated mythologically, not factually.
This approach to myth is, perhaps, most comprehensible via the philosophy of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, notably as he developed the concept in The Presence of Myth. In shortest summary and broadest expression, Kołakowski argued that there are two modes of human thought, one totalizing and one atomizing. The totalizing line of thought is mythological, and the atomizing form is technological. His argument is that the technological process is the picking apart of propositions on their own standing, to check and see if they are true or false, and building a view of the world from what survives this process, whereas the mythological process is the opposite, true or false in total, as it is.
As an important aside, it is in this sense that postmodern faiths like Critical Social Justice and premodern faiths can both be understood as being illiberal—liberalism is, in some regard, the preference for the atomizing technological approach over the totalizing mythological one, which may or may not be wholly psychologically satisfying to our particular species of ape. The bridge we have established between these worlds, which allows totalizing worldviews to be embraced only in the confines of private conscience and volitional subscription and communion, is called “secularism,” which is ultimately the point of this essay. Faiths which are subject to secularism can be called “liberalized” faiths, in the sense of, say, American Constitutional law and thought, whereas those that have not represent something more provincial and anti-pluralistic. These latter present a significant problem because they lack any capacity to enforce themselves, often quite literally by force, over as much of society as they can grab, which is the stuff of the profoundly illiberal Inquisition.
To elaborate briefly on Kołakowski in our specific Woke context, a “technological” approach to understanding racism and whether or not, or to what degrees, it is systemic would examine various propositions, institutions, policies and their effects, and an awful lot of data that has been parsed as carefully as possible and controlling for as many confounding variables as can be identified and measured. It would then report upon this in a means that is as circumspect as it is possible to be and continually report upon the limitations of its own methodological rigor and thus conclusion-drawing power. Its goal would be to “pick racism apart” and find out exactly what racism looks like, how it arises, and how it can best be mitigated where it still remains, mostly in a data-driven fashion that is profoundly interested in real-world causes and effects.
A “mythological” approach would do no such thing. It would begin with a proposition like “racism is ordinary, not aberrational in society” and then advance a corollary like “the question is not ‘did racism take place?’ but “how did racism manifest in this situation?’” It would then look for “evidence” that highlights the plausibility of this sweeping claim in any form that it could find without any regard for parsing variables or controlling for anything. It would, in fact, look at any inequality in society as proof of the underlying mythological claim that racism is systemic within it and then work to explain how the racism manifested in that situation. Real-world data and explanations would be vigorously discounted when they contradicted the mythological narrative—say, like when a police shooting turned out to be wholly justifiable under any reasonable standard—and genuine causes and effects would be ignored. Racism would be a matter of myth, not fact, and that myth would persist even in the absence of any factual basis or in the face of countervailing evidence. Asking for evidence of racism would, in fact, be construed as proof of racism wholly on the grounds that the question itself denies the mythological narrative and the “lived realities” it allegedly contextualizes. This is, as it happens, explicitly the approach advocated by Critical Race Theory, the race-oriented facet of the Critical Social Justice worldview.
Mythologies are not concerned with data. They are instead, and it is, in fact, instead, more narrative-driven and centered upon storytelling. Stories convey their point much more effectively, while testing the claims implicit or explicit within the story undermines its flow and communicative capacity. For example, facts might tell us that claims about police killings of certain people are not, in fact, always murders, nor are they very prevalent, but this, to a mythologist, would contradict how people feel about the issue of police violence and its intersection with racism. The realities of the issue don’t matter, but how people feel about it—which is conveyed through the mythology and its storytelling—do. In fact, disagreeing facts are not welcome in such an environment because they would undermine the basis of the narrative that’s doing the mythological work for its believers. That is, picking apart the claims of the mythologist’s story undermines their ability to convince people of its moral, and the mythologist is primarily, if not only, concerned with the moral of the story, for which the story itself is but a vehicle. Mythologies are meant to convey through affective imagery who is right and who is wrong—morally, not factually—and why, and they are designed to communicate the underlying metaphysics of the belief system they serve.
In the case of Critical Social Justice, that metaphysics is a bit complicated because the worldview itself is the fusion of three distinct worldviews: “social justice,” Critical Theory and postmodernism, none of which lend themselves to quick and clear understanding.
Put briefly, social justice is the belief that society should be made fairer on the level of identifiable social groups. This admits two difficulties right out of the gate: which social groups are meaningfully identifiable, and what is meant by fair? As a result, a wide variety of theories about social justice have been developed over the last two centuries, starting with religious approaches, finding deep development within liberal circles, and also admitting approaches via various critical theories, whether deriving from Marxism, feminism, neo-Marxism (liberationism), or some combination thereof. To speak broadly, its metaphysics views a fairer world with less unfair discrimination, prejudice, and disenfranchisement as possible, more moral, more desirable, and more just, importantly by investigating the meaning and relevance of various categories of identity and conceptions of fairness.
Of the remaining two, Critical Theory is somewhat simpler, including where it is applied to the project of social justice (here: “Social Justice,” capitalized). It proceeds upon a metaphysics of critique, which, in most charitable explanation, seeks to expose, unmask, question, and interrogate the underlying assumptions of which categories and circumstances are “natural,” and which are a result of entrenched political biases and ideological assumptions. To be more honest about this objective, this willingness to critique it imports from liberal analysis—which does this by definition—while taking criticism to a “ruthless” (Marx) extreme that is often cynical and openly hostile to the liberalism that it deliberately perverts.
Specifically, Critical Theory sees the world fundamentally in terms of social conflict waged across lines that position “oppressors,” who have the power, against the “oppressed,” who are oppressed by that application of power. The questions it raises about categories and their connection to natural facts of the world are therefore all brought up with this view of the world in mind. Thus, the metaphysical occupation of Critical Theory is to call into question any category, structure, belief, or understanding that enables a certain mode of social power, called “hegemony,” to manifest and exert itself upon society. That is, the critical metaphysical disposition is a metaphysics of hegemony, which seeks to critique the role of ideologies (roughly, coherent sets of beliefs about how society should be ordered, like conservatism, liberalism, Marxism, progressivism, or white supremacy) in shaping social, political, and thus material reality for human beings who live within it.
To this more general set of metaphysical dispositions, Critical Theory adds a moral ontology, which we will later see gives grounding to a partial conception of a God-construct for the faith. It conceives of an ethical paradigm of liberation defined in terms of the conflict it reads into all facets of the world, whereby right belief and activism can overthrow the powerful and unmake their hegemonic systems of oppression. The result of dismantling oppressive hegemonies, as they see them (in an oddly many-in-one construction under intersectionality), results in an indisputable moral good: the people who are oppressed by them might be freed from their oppression.
For the Critical Theorists, power resides in the control of the bourgeois elites of society who set the standards for culture, first high (for themselves) and then middle (to control the masses) with little regard or patience for the low culture of the “deplorables” at the bottom of the societal pile. Power is therefore ultimately cultural in Critical Theory, and the purpose of the ideological program is to offer ruthless critiques of everything in society that produces, upholds, or maintains the cultural hegemonies of the elites, by which they maintain their social status, power, and privilege. Beneath this belief is that if the elites can be deposed by awakening enough of the falsely conscious masses—who are believed not understand just how bad they have it in their mostly pleasant middle-class lives—a revolution that happens to be mostly Marxist can finally be achieved, after which liberation will be permanent in the communist Utopia.
Originally, the Critical Theorists thought of the bourgeois elites in similar terms as did Marx, socioeconomically, although they disagreed with Marx that a single proletariat consciousness could be awakened and led to initiate the desired communist revolutions as he had predicted. This view of who the cultural elites were fragmented in the early school of Critical Theory and turned an eye toward various facets of cultural life, though it still saw “culture” in a largely homogeneous way, once the simple strata of high, middle, and low were accounted for. This view did not last.
After the developments of the post-War neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse and the postcolonialist Frantz Fanon, who wrote his most influential works around the same time (1950s–1960s), the cultural conflict theory within Critical Theory became explicitly oriented toward identity politics. For Fanon, it was the identity of the “colonized,” which extended not only into geographic considerations but also into racial ones. Marcuse made the identity politics much more explicit however, writing in his blockbuster One-Dimensional Man that some combination of the various minorities (especially racial minorities), societal “outsiders” (presumably meaning radical activists who were often violent), and the radical intelligentsia needed to form a coalition to effect the liberationist revolution for which he agitated.
These works shifted the cultural analysis of the radical left out of mass culture and into illiberal identity politics, which inspired a generation of radical activists and scholars who went on to lay much of the groundwork that became Critical Social Justice. That is, the Critical metaphysics of hegemony began to see many interacting hegemonies, each existing along an axis of identity-based systemic oppression like racism, sexism, or homophobia. (Though very early, this multidimensional line of thinking laid the foundation upon which the “practice” of intersectionality would be built roughly a quarter century later.)
The postmodern metaphysics is much harder to communicate because it is just so damn strange. Far more than Critical Theory, it describes a functional break from the entire Enlightenment worldview, which the neo-Marxists were never quite able to achieve (one might describe them as left-wing reactionaries against the Enlightenment project, instead). The metaphysics of postmodernism is a metaphysics of discourse, which views the chief functional substance of human existence in society—power—as being caught up in the “discourses” of society. Discourses refer to a specific way of thinking about language: ways in which it is considered legitimate to speak about things and, in particular, what propositions are to be considered true, false, and, especially, “crazy.”
The specific view of discourses in postmodernism ultimately derives from the French structuralist school, which believed that the structures of society derive in a very profound way from the way it constructs and uses language. The starting place of the postmodern metaphysics is therefore that knowledge itself is socially constructed out of and as a conveyance of sociopolitical power that works through all of us all the time, perhaps unless we’re particularly aware of the phenomenon and take pains to resist it, mostly through a rather hopeless approach to irony, parody, and linguistic play. Where Critical Theory was concerned about something like indoctrination into false consciousness by the hegemonic ideologies of society, postmodernism focused upon how we are socialized into maintaining hegemonic systems of power by our all-but-necessary interactions and reliance upon the dominant discourses of society.
In fact, the metaphysics of discourse sees the discourses as almost self-contained, superhuman entities that define what does and does not have meaning within a system of language. These, in turn, shape people’s subjective “lived realities,” which postmodernism further goes on to indicate is the only legitimate “reality” that exists. This is a genuinely metaphysical claim about the (unknowable) nature of reality and ontological status of meaning-making constructs like words and sentences. Indeed, it beliefs that all knowledge is socially constructed, and that the prevailing discourses lead people to be socialized into a particular view of the world that, by the presumed universality of the dominant discourses, exerts a kind of hegemony that operates through everybody all the time, rather than as an imposition from the elite (who merely have unfair access to and influence on this grid-like power structure). Thus, the metaphysics of discourse is capable of subsuming the metaphysics of hegemony, as seems to have happened in the 1990s. It is very difficult, no matter how many examples one sees, however, to comprehend that the postmodernist worldview genuinely does consider language to have the power to structure reality almost completely.
That said, remember that meaning-making is one of the chief psychosocial reasons that leads people to be religious, and so meaning-making is one of the chief occupations of religious architectures. Here, the mythological aspects of interacting with the world obtain salience, as technology is, for all its wonders, oddly mundane and tends to be mostly divorced from some grand, or even narrow, sense of meaning. Of central importance to understanding meaning, however, is the question of how meaning is made and communicated to others (within a moral community, say) in the first place. This is what the postmodernists had a peculiar view of and radical skepticism about, and it is upon this profound “incredulity” that the metaphysics of discourse has been built.
Jacques Derrida believed, in fact, that meaning was wholly trapped within the discourses and thus the meaning of the words we use is infinitely deferred but profoundly important. This gives language a kind of mystical quality by divorcing it from the real things it is meant to signify. Following Derrida, I might tell you about a tree, but I would convey no clear meaning by doing this. The word “tree” doesn’t mean anything except in terms of how it relates to other words, like “plant” (which it is), “animal” (which, though it is alive, it is not), “oak” (which it might be), and “paper” (which it might become).
Nevertheless, argued Derrida, the relationships between words often carries with them power that defines structures of power in society. “Female” and “homosexual” only exist as words in relationship to “male” and “heterosexual,” and these hierarchical binaries in language, contended Derrida, are value-laden and favor the male and straight. (Derrida would teach under the heading of “phallagocentrism”—word-oriented thinking that overvalues the penis and the masculinist society it symbolizes.) Thus, meaning exists only in the relationships between words, and power is baked into the relationships between words, which are never adequate at conveying meaning at all and yet nevertheless transfer their power into shaping society. This is a metaphysics that applies to discourses, though, and, as it posits that meaning in language is infinitely deferred, lived experience is forwarded as a means for understanding the world more directly, as a bypass.
Michel Foucault, for his own part, believed that discourses convey meaning in another way, particularly by authenticating various statements as “true,” “false,” or “mad.” Since discourses are the legitimate ways to communicate, that which is considered “true” gains special status within the discourse (knowledge); that which is false is to be recognized and loses status; and that which is mad is to be excluded from the discourse.
Foucault was not very interested in truth, though, through most of his career. Instead, he was very much interested in how such designations as “true,” “false,” and “crazy” are made, though, and concluded that the processes are not just social but intrinsically political. Power decides which statements are able to be considered true, in one way or another, and thus we ought to be radically skeptical of all truth claims. To be concerned with whether a truth claim is actually true is to miss the point that a political process determines its truth value, and that political process is going to be inherently biased and corrupt in favor of the powerful entities in society who have the power of knowledge authentication. Thus, knowledge and power are literally the same thing and are the true source of hegemony, and this, like everything as Foucault had it, is dangerous. Only that which we experience directly and interpreted in as disruptive a way as possible to our socialized conditioning, can be trusted.
Under the term “biopower,” Foucault explained that the acceptance of scientific discourses as sources of truth constitutes a kind of social control, a form of power that shapes society. Further, he contended that this acceptance of both scientific claims and the power that entails tends to happen insufficiently critically of the underlying biases and advantages it produces for those whose hands are on the levers of truth (or truthiness). Thus, power—the metaphysical core of the relevant worldviews—is intrinsically bound with the prevailing discourses of the extant “truth regime” or “episteme” in operation, and so a metaphysics of discourse emerges from Foucauldian thought as well.
To draw out the relevant point, in both of these worldviews, the common element is that the object of mystical and perhaps even spiritual interest is power. In fact, “power,” whatever is meant by that, becomes in postmodernism a numinous quantity that shapes all of society and human life within it. As such, it isn’t merely the overwhelming object of interest in the resulting Critical Social Justice approach and its antecedents. It is the sole object of interest. The Critical Theorists were most concerned with the ways elite shaped culture to exert and thus maintain their own power, and this, over time and for matters of practical political utility under the guidance of revolutionaries like Marcuse, eventually sank to the bottom of the slush pool and landed on matters of group identity. The postmodernists were most concerned with the ways that power and language are so closely intertwined as to be effectively the same thing, and in this sense, the postmodernists’ contribution to the Critical Social Justice metaphysics is more significant and important to understand.
In fact, this mythology even provides an approximate creation story, as described in brief very early in this essay. Systemic power, an evil of the same sort as sin, entered the world when certain human beings in a certain geographical and historical context identified rationality and empiricism, then individualism and universal humanity, as founding principles for a new system of thought and governance. That is, the Enlightenment was the Fall, and the Garden-like pre-Enlightenment world is as remote and inscrutable as the Garden of Eden in Genesis. The introduction of Enlightenment rationalism and all the rest led to long-justified conquests, colonizations, enslavement, genocides, and other horrors that asserted “Eurocentric” dominance in all spheres of life in the world, even just by changing how people think about the world and relate to one another with, say, scientific inquiry and certain among so-called Western values. Whiteness and Eurocentrism, together in lesser effect with maleness, masculinity, heteronormativity, and so on—that is, the markers of privileges—are the Marks of Cain that indicate having adopted complicity with the sin of systemic power for selfish gain. That which has been conquered, colonized, and enslaved are, against it, Abel, who was killed with a rock and left lying in the field.
Critical Social Justice developed by cherry picking from all of this, mostly through the importation of Foucauldian and Derridean thought into radical feminism (the personal is political!), then black feminism, by such luminaries of the 1990s as Judith Butler, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. They did not import these ideas in total, though, but as a kind of new and very ad hoc hodge-podge that worked to their particular activist purposes. Their Critical Theory they mostly lifted from various sources, including Angela Davis, who had learned it from Herbert Marcuse directly, having been radicalized by him. Their postmodernism they took from their own appropriations of the relevant ideas of, especially, Foucault and Derrida, seemingly without fully understanding them (especially Derrida’s poststructuralism), as they were useful for the arguments they were making within the emerging queer Theory and, in parallel, critical race Theory and their link, intersectionality. By adopting a metaphysics of discourse that sets aside the lived experience of systemic oppression from the general poststructuralist “deconstruction” project, which would be turned on systemic power and its cultural antecedents, Critical Social Justice was born with a critical metaphysics of discourse. Systemic oppression could now be taken on discursively.
This development seemed of little consequence outside of the academy until the internet came along. The internet provided people who believed in a metaphysics of discourse with a heretofore unimaginable means of interacting directly with the discourses—indeed, the internet is the playground of postmodernism. Indeed, the role of the internet plays in a world that accepts a metaphysics of discourse is profound.
Much of the behavior of Critical Social Justice believers when considered through a lens that would show it as religious is best comprehensible by understanding the how a metaphysics of discourse shapes and is shaped by social media. For example, social media activism and even making social media posts (especially when “disruptive”) can immediately be interpreted as a form of high-tech prayer by which a person can in a very direct sense petition the discursive deities (from which the poster can expect to hear back, often in real time). This development represents a profound shift in the way the underlying psychological religious software will perform. At essentially any time, almost any person can speak directly to the deities of the discourses and, in a process of watching likes, retweets, shares, replies, and pile-ons unfold, come to understand and even shape the will of the new discursive gods. These gods are understood to have dominions over the various systems of power that they maintain, and so it is, from within the metaphysics of discourses, now almost completely believable that someone’s online behavior can shape the structure of the world in a profound way.
Shaping the narrative through social media—including by “meme warfare”—therefore would be intelligible as a practice of faith to those whose mythology has adopted a metaphysics of discourse to connect it to reality, as is the case in Critical Social Justice. Prayers and petitions must be made to the discursive gods, whether in maintenance or disruption of the status quo—a phrase that seems from within the ideology to refer to the organization of the world since the epistemic fall into injustice. We see an almost fanatical obsession with social media discourses, particularly around polarizing figures like Donald Trump, and the way their interactions with the discourses are sure to create damaging, harmful, or violent actions in the real world. Little else short of genuine conspiracy could explain half-baked critical tweets receiving hundreds of thousands of direct interactions than an underlying belief that somehow such tweets have petitioned the new gods in the right ways. For those who have adopted a metaphysics of discourse, the causal line between words shared in a social media network and concrete effects in material reality is both straight and short, even when it’s a total fabrication that falls well within the ranges of delusion or outright propaganda.
So, today we find Critical Social Justice with a peculiar metaphysics, in which the world is constructed of intersecting systems of power that are maintained primarily through discourses (that is, language), which render words and their meanings almost magical. These discursively produced systems of power maintain dominance and oppression, or, when appropriately critical, disrupt, dismantle, and deconstruct them in service to a Manichean moral struggle of cosmic proportions to liberate the oppressed not from their specific circumstances but from oppression as a kind of disembodied essence. These discursive systems, thus this oppression or potential for liberation, works through everyone all the time as a function of how things are spoken and thought about, and they result from socialization in systems of thought and power that people fail to critique sufficiently due to internalization of their underlying assumptions. Thus, the metaphysics of discourse implies that she who controls the language controls the systems of social production and socialization and thus orders the world, toward righteous liberation or sinful maintenance of oppression.
If religion, taken as a system of thought with sociological implications, had to be boiled down to a single feature that differentiates it from other philosophies, it would be that a religion provides moral law. Moral law is not the same thing as moral guidance or moral instruction, as we might find in philosophical approaches to life like Stoicism or philosophical Taoism (or even atheistic Judaism), which concern themselves with how one can live a good life. It is possible, of course, to establish a community or sect around a living philosophy like Stoicism, but once that happens, we rather readily begin to associate that sect with being cultish or religious.
This is because the role of moral law goes further than mere recommendation; it issues edicts and commandments. Moral law provides not only moral guidance and instruction but also moral duty and something resembling a punitive system for when those moral duties are failed. Moral law demands moral accountability, which is often expressed in terms of articles of faith (like God or History, as Marx might have had it). Religious moral law positions God as Moral Lawgiver and (Moral) Judge, and if we were to follow Aquinas again, we could say something like that there is something that gives moral law and is the ultimate judge of moral wrongdoing, and this all men call God.
In this respect, though not necessarily in others and in not all regards, Critical Social Justice quite plainly has a God-concept, and it might be called (following but extending from Marx) “the Eye at the End of History,” which is something of a metaphor for that which looks back upon all of history from its end with the capacity to judge that which was on the right side of history and that which wasn’t. The Eye at the End of History will be able to tell the abolitionists from the slavers, the colonized and decolonizers from the colonizers, and the oppressed from the oppressors. As with the ideas of Ibram Kendi’s formulation of “racism” and “anti-racism” in “policy,” which is to be known after the fact by its effects, righteousness and evil will be determinable by the omniscient Eye that can look back on all of History and see what bent its arc toward liberation and what bent it toward the maintenance of oppression.
Adherents of Critical Social Justice do not believe in such an entity literally, as do most religionists in faiths like Christianity, nor do they posit that such a supernatural omniscience exists at all. They merely act as though such a scorekeeper on the legacy of all their actions must, in some sense, be. As with deities more generally, it is something like a real idea that has been kicked out beyond “the infinity point” that defines the limits of human comprehension. That real idea is the judgment of an increasingly seeing and judgmental society, especially as it creeps ever close to a social media Panopticon. Just as the Woke judge past generations by this standard, they imagine themselves judged by future generations and their standards. Taking this idea “to infinity” results in the Eye at the End of History—the great and omniscient judge to which one is constantly morally accountable. That imaginary judge of History, all the way at its long end, sets the context, relevance, and ontological stability of the moral law of liberationism via deconstruction of all unjust powers.
In liberal, secular societies, moral law is to be distinguished from civil law in the obvious way: moral law tells you how you should be, including at times how you should think, in matters of right and wrong, which should be felt, whereas civil law provides ordinances that are merely to be followed regardless of how you feel about them. That is, civil law cannot assign meanings such as sacred or profane to its ordinances and, instead, seeks merely to be as mundane and procedural as possible. As such, civil law cannot compel or instruct any individual in what should be left as a matter of personal conscience. You are free, if you are an American, to hate America and all that it stands for, and American civil law cannot prosecute you for that or any act consistent with such a belief short of sedition or treason, which have practical functional elements that takes them well outside the realm of mere matters of conscience. Thus, civil law cannot assign, nor can it adjudicate upon, duties of conscience. Religions can and do, and, on a functional level, exist in part to do exactly this. A particular faith does this by codifying and enforcing a system of moral law for those who follow it.
In particular, the moral law in religion creates moral duties—which in certain cases will be duties of conscience—that describe how adherents should act in various contexts. That is, religion is not content to give (or describe) moral law and enforce it, religions are also a practice. This designation is of extreme interest where Critical Social Justice is concerned for two primary reasons.
First, there is the matter that intersectionality is explicitly described, including by its creators, not as a theory or set of ideas but as a practice of “interrogating” identity and its relationship to society in particular ways related to systemic social inequalities. What that practice looks like when engaged in the world would constitute the intersectional liturgy, which we have already discussed at length as taking the form both of a liturgy of (positional) lament and “doing the work.”
Intersectionality, as a practice, therefore gives rise to specific moral duties: “If we aren’t intersectional, some of us, the most vulnerable, are going to fall through the cracks,” as Kimberlé Crenshaw has it. It’s therefore a way of engaging with the world and a set of willful acts that one must train oneself in, improve at, and put into action in the world. There is a moral duty not to allow systemic oppression to continue and to harm “the most vulnerable,” as it defines them. Intersectional practice demands that we raise up the voices of marginalized scholars and activists and take a seat in situations in which we have privilege. These are clear duties of conscience for people who have adopted the Woke worldview. The judgment of History is waiting for those who fall short, and Hell is being remembered badly. (One might imagine the images from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in which white people are seen screaming viciously at black Civil Rights Leaders; Hell is being remembered by History in such a way.)
Second, there is the matter of the obscure term “praxis,” which is the way a theory is put into practice, specifically the putting of theory into the practice of changing society. Praxis was, for Marx in particular, where the rubber met the road for theory—the birthplace of “revolutionary praxis” as laid out in his famous thesis, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This concept was inspirational to the communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, appearing in his famous Prison Notebooks, and was also for the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, both of which recognized Marxism as “the philosophy of praxis.”
Praxis—the idea of putting theory into practice to achieve particular normative ends—also defines moral duties for adherents to Critical Social Justice. One must awaken to a critical consciousness, and then one must take up praxis in its service, including social activism to change the world. The asleep must also be awakened to their own critical consciousness through “consciousness raising,” or—as it’s more often termed now—“raising awareness.” Those with social privilege must always use it to interrupt any systems of oppression that are causing harm, systems of power must be disrupted and dismantled, white silence in the face of oppression is complicity and violence, and people must take up “anti-racism” as a matter of spiritual self-improvement and with a “lifelong commitment” to social activism. These, too, are Critical Social Justice duties of conscience.
Religious duties of conscience tend to codify the messy shoulds and should-nots of life in society that secular societies leave outside of the reaches of civil law. Maybe there are good material reasons why the Sabbath is best observed, or why good results arise from forgiveness being granted to anyone who sincerely asks for it three times, but civil law tends not to occupy itself with such adjudications. Transgressions against moral law are typically handled in-house, inside the faith, and penance of some sort is the typical sentence. This means that making right against moral law is a spiritual matter that tends to involve both inner work and getting right with the community that upholds that particular moral law. Ultimately, this spiritual work is done against some moral standard or systemic moral force like God (of Judgment) or karma, which will be the ultimate source of justice for moral transgression (which only extends to the realm of civil law when it is considered a religious duty to uphold it).
This reliance upon transcendent ideas is a feature that is particularly interesting with regard to religious moral law. It is typically posited in systems of faith that the object of attribution for morality exists outside of human relations. God, or any other immanent moral fabric of the universe, is the locus of meaning for moral law and, as a result, justice. Perhaps surprisingly, given that it is simultaneously atheistic (in its specific orientation), partly morally relativist, and largely subjectivist in orientation, to say nothing of its Marxian roots, we see this trait clearly in Critical Social Justice—even beyond the Eye at the End of History construction. In Critical Social Justice, reality is remote and has therefore replaced by “lived realities,” which are in turn utterly under the sway of the prevailing systems of power in operation throughout society. Those systems are wholly independent of humans, in that the system itself is believed to be able to be racist, sexist, homophobic, white supremacist, misogynist, or any number of other sins of systemic oppression even if no bigots or bigoted attitudes exist within it at all. The system is transcendent to the people who (performatively) create it, and people’s orientation against this transcendent standard is what determines their moral standing.
Together, all of this means that Critical Social Justice, as an ideology, isn’t content merely to consider and, to the degree it can, understand the world. Its purpose is to engage in a practice of social activism that can change the world by bringing it more in line with the Critical Social Justice worldview. The system and its harms are simply bigger than any of us, and so we have no individual choice beyond a willingness to position ourselves against their evil or to indulge in the sin of maintaining them.
As the Theory has condensed over the last decade or so and reified various aspects of its beliefs about systemic power and its relationship to discourses, these duties of conscience have come to believe education and activism aren’t enough. Its duties of conscience have also turned increasingly inward. If, following Foucault, power works through us all, producing systems of socialization through our participation, thus validation, of the systems themselves, and this creates systemic harms, then we have a new duty of conscience that is almost wholly spiritual in nature. We must also be willing to look inward and as well as outward at the systems to discover their features and our complicity in them. That is, we have to get right with God, in a sense. Everything short of actively dismantling systemic oppression, including especially in ourselves, in this way becomes a kind of sin, and we are to interrogate ourselves and our society for any manifestation of it.
This feature of Critical Social Justice highlights another feature of religious moral law. Religious moral law doesn’t just intervene on how people act in the world. It also intervenes on what they can believe and how they should feel (and act) if they believe wrongly. In all regards, this, if anything, is what must be meant by spiritual work in the individual, meditative sense. God knows the full contents of your heart, and by your alignment with His moral law will you be judged in all things. Moral transgression is therefore a spiritual concern in the religious context, and no matter how many people one may fool, you cannot fool the moral lawgiver. For this reason are adherents to the “anti-racism” dimension of the Critical Social Justice faith called to confess to their racism, even at the level of biases said to be implicit and unconscious, and to constantly work to do better. “No one,” we’re told, “is ever done.”
Because of the totalizing nature of religious mythology, this moralization of everything extends to—well, everything. Kołakowski was clear that mythologies cannot be picked apart on this point or on that as a means of testing whether or not their various propositions are true. A moral mythology will not be satisfied with whether or not statements are true because their valence as right or wrong—defined in terms of how they impact the moral mythology and its credibility—must also be taken into account. This is a hallmark of religious thinking. Moral law must be totalizing. It must apply to every aspect of one’s life and turn all such adjudications into matters, and often duties, of conscience. Thou shalt not, as we have heard, put thy God to the test.
To take the general argument further, in faiths, the moral implications for the faith of all ideas have to be checked against the prevailing moral law, and this evaluation is considered important (often central) to determinations of their worth. For example, conservative Christianity has been very much convinced that the biological theory of evolution is morally degenerate, even referring to it at times as “evilution.” Many Christian (and Islamic) criticisms of the theory of evolution are, in fact, moral appeals that it debases humanity, denies special creation, or will justify sin or lead people to godlessness. Any of these might be true enough, so far as they go, but they are still moral adjudications, not factual ones. We are all familiar with traditionally religious examples of this kind of thinking.
Less familiar is that Critical Theory was devised explicitly for this same purpose. It was first laid out in detail in 1937 by Max Horkheimer, who was concerned that “traditional theories” are only concerned with what is true, not what is right and wrong. This is an explicit admission that a “technological core,” as Kołakowski would have it, is insufficient to a moralist to weigh out the worthiness of ideas. A moral judgment, he insisted, is also needed. “Problematic” ideas, as they came to be called, have to be removed from society for being morally wrong, even if they are true. A common place within Critical Social Justice that this belief manifests is in its tendency toward total social constructivism, and many scholars, including Ibram Kendi, have explicitly said that even if there are true and fundamentally biological differences between men and women, or between the races, those ideas should not be considered acceptable.
Horkheimer and his comrades in the Frankfurt School were not so coarsely mythological as today’s Critical Social Justice adherents, of course. They believed they were offering a necessary refinement to epistemology that brought social responsibility into the evaluation, and in the shadow of fascism, from which they wrote, there’s something reasonable to this impulse. Nevertheless, they also did so with the explicit intention of marrying the thoughts of Karl Marx to those of Sigmund Freud and to the nascent fields of sociology (especially Max Weber’s), and their definitions of moral rights and moral wrongs were heavily influenced by Marxian conceptions of society and carelessly appropriated Freudian mind-reading. (Some of this moral concern for social responsibility was, again, quite reasonable in the shadow of the World Wars and what happened between them, but some of it just meant that society wasn’t Marxist yet.) Still, their injection of morality—and the perfectly unfalsifiable idea of false consciousness—into analysis was the birthplace of a mythology that has evolved and matured over the last 80 years, and in that time it has firmly established itself as the purveyor of a totalizing moral law that cannot be challenged even in the details. Critical Social Justice would maintain that every facet of human activity must be problematized and made consistent with Critical Theory as it exists now, for this is the command of the moral law and the duty of critical conscience.
Thus, if we think of religion as a giver and enforcer of moral law—that which reaches beyond the state’s capacity to compel in terms of how to be, think, believe, or act—it is immediately clear, yet again, that Critical Social Justice meets the minimum standard for consideration. As mentioned previously, Critical Social Justice exists to tell people how to be, which is more or less dictated by the critical metaphysics that sees every human being entirely in terms of his or her relationship to systemic power in society and the effort to liberate those who are oppressed by it by dismantling the existing system. There is a right way to think about literally every issue of human activity that one can imagine, and there are wrong ways to think about them. Every possible circumstance or idea must be checked against the system of moral law at hand to determine if it is problematic or provisionally in line with the faith.
This is made more perilous as adherents are incentivized to continually expand their understanding of what is problematic and can obtain status by recognizing that something that had not previously been highlighted as problematic can, in fact, be argued to be so according to the growing orthodoxy. Any revelation of wrong action or even thought will lead to swift punishment—call-outs, demands to “do the work,” being cancelled and defriended, and other such social “consequences” of one’s free speech. Critical Social Justice establishes and strictly enforces a liberationist moral law, and it increasingly seeks to apply it to everyone in all situations (because it must—the logic of the ideology demands it because otherwise the system would not be sufficiently changed). It is a genuinely totalizing system of moral law that has adopted its own mythological view of history, not just reality, that might be called “the right side of history.” (Their postmodern forebears would rightly identify this as their metanarrative and recommend incredulity, not faith.)
As a last note to this section, most important in this regard is that systemic power and its abuses (oppression) takes on the role of the transcendent standard against which morality is to be determined. This has been mentioned in brief but requires drawing out. The Theory of Critical Social Justice is now quite clear about this. We find Critical Race Theory making the point that the system itself is racist and could be so even if there were no racist people or, even, no people with racist intentions whatsoever. Feminist philosopher Kate Manne argues explicitly in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny that the same is true of misogyny, which is to be thought of as a system that depends upon no misogynistic people, attitudes, or actions.
These claims might seem mysterious, but the metaphysics of discourse and the critical metaphysics of hegemony both allow for these stances, and they render systemic power transcendent of all human cultures. Thus, systemic power becomes the objective standard against which right and wrong are to be determined. The lived experience of systemic oppression becomes the needle of one’s moral compass, which must always point toward the lodestone of liberation to be righteous, and therefore the only authentic experience of oppression is that which is described by the liberationist worldview, i.e. Critical Theory. Thus systemic power becomes the basis for the giving of a moral law that is comprehensible only through the scriptures of Critical Theory.
To see that this is not merely some theoretical claim about Critical Social Justice, consider the following excerpt from a recent email sent out to the entire campus community of an American university:
Last week, we made an important announcement regarding a new approach to campus safety. Next week, we will welcome [redacted] as [our] new Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion. I wanted to take just a moment today to share with you my commitment that our collective work to address structural racial inequity extends well beyond either of these headlines.
In recent months, as I listened to your experiences and took time for my own learning and reflection, I have wrestled with how to authentically lead [redacted] closer to our equity aspirations. Recognizing that systemic racism is entrenched in every aspect of life, it is important that we amplify our efforts across campus to dismantle systems that oppress Black people and other people of color and attend to the healing needed in our community. We need to respect and appreciate indigenous cultures and address the injustices suffered by indigenous people. (emphasis added)
For many [redacted] faculty, staff and students, equity is their everyday commitment. Every action we have taken toward diversity, equity and inclusion is highly valued, but it is not enough. Dismantling systemic racism is the responsibility of everyone in the [redacted] community. (emphasis in original)
It must start with me, as president, and with all of the university’s leaders. The executive team will be trained to apply an anti-racist lens to all decisions and we will build an interculturally fluent leadership paradigm. Across [redacted], we need to review policies and practices and work to identify and ameliorate implicit biases and racism that perpetuate oppression. Further, we need to develop policies and programs that promote equity and create a culture that supports everyone in our diverse campus community.
Aside from the rather telling confessional tone, epistolic form, and clearly liturgical language, the view that systemic racism (and other bigotries, we should assume) “is entrenched in every aspect of life” is a totalizing mythological view of the issue that springs from a clear commitment to a prevailing moral law. From it, clear duties of conscience are outlined. These duties are described as people’s “everyday commitments,” which are held against an exalted standard such that “every action taken … is not enough.” No evidence for any of these claims or mandated actions is even offered; the community being spoken to must do better by faith.
Further, these expectations are connected to duties, which can be discerned from the fact that they are repeatedly expressed as “commitments,” “needs,” and “musts”—they are not optional, and they are not negotiable. The stated objective, to reach equity (along with diversity and inclusion), is one answer Critical Social Justice offers to the problem of systemic oppression. Equity holds this status by mere virtue of the way “systemic racism” is defined. Equity is the absence of systemic racism (the spiritual evil of the world), which is to say more accurately that anywhere equity is not, systemic racism is the given cause. This understanding of equity is expressed plainly in this epistle in an explicitly transcendent way. It is explicitly described as an “aspiration,” with the implication that one can only move closer to it, not necessarily ever achieve it. Such aspirations toward godliness, which the sinner knows she will always fall short of, are a frequent hallmark of religious moral duties. Even further, a stated goal is the vague idea of “healing.” This, though, is the pseudo-therapeutic answer to the liturgy of lament which it evokes and to which it is a response.
Finally, taking upon himself the burden of moral exemplar, the university president answers his own call to faith in a symbolic show of shouldering its burdens. This leads him to say that an “anti-racist lens” will be applied “to all decisions” going forward. Again, the moral framework is totalizing; it must be the moral North Star for all actions that they might become duties of conscience for the faithful. Near the end of this letter, the president calls upon another vague concept, “change,” which has no clear meaning in reality aside from making things different but abundantly clear meaning within the faith—it means the ending of systemic oppression, as though this is the only thing “change” could mean, even in principle. Regarding “change,” he states, “Change must, and will, happen.” History will see; History will remember; right action is imperative.
This commandment to “change” is followed by an explicit ask to bring it into being: “I ask that the whole campus community work together to make [redacted] truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive.” In that this is a letter of encouragement and correction to the faithful in his university, this letter is, as I claimed, an epistle, which sets up the president as moral exemplar as an apostle. It’s very hard not to read this sort of plea as being anything other than religious in quality, and it is now typical, not aberrational, of statements being made in almost every institution one can think of in the Western world.
This brings us to an important note on fundamentalism, which can be defined in two ways, and I think that the activist class and its activist-ish orbiters in Critical Social Justice meet one or both of these. The two types could be referred to as “narrow,” meaning the religious extremists we normally associate with the term “religious fundamentalists,” and “broad,” meaning something more technical and academic that defines the relationship that the relevant religionists have with their Scriptures. “Narrow” and “broad” are fitting characteristics because it is extremely likely that all religious fundamentalists in the narrow sense are also fundamentalist in the broader sense.
Obviously, religious fundamentalism doesn’t have good branding, being associated with lunatic cults and sects that kill people, harass them, or scream at them for the intolerable act of mere disagreement. They’re also rather famous for attempting to force entire societies and their governments to adopt the faith as a matter of both civil and moral law. This well-deserved terrible branding is what defines the narrow, extremist meaning for religious fundamentalism. It is nearly universally reviled outside of the specific cults who embrace it, often even among religionists who are fundamentalists by the broader of the two meanings of the term.
Little needs to be done to develop the narrower definition of fundamentalism further, which is essentially synonymous with extremism. It would view the specific and extreme interpretation of its Scriptures as fundamental to the functioning of the entire society or the meaning of life for any individual, and therefore it will be completely intolerant of any dissent from its views. I only want to point out that it represents a kind of, depending on how it develops, either authoritarianism or totalitarianism. (Here, by totalitarianism, I mean authoritarianism that has extended its reach further into the very mindsets and thoughts of the people it controls.) This justifies a short diversion into authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is characterized, in particular, by a handful of traits that can include urgency, submission to authorities who are perceived to be legitimate, aggression on behalf of the ideology or those perceived authorities, and a drive toward a trait known as conventionalism, which means making belief in the ideology conventional for people within it and, ultimately, universally applicable to everyone.
It may not be obvious that Critical Social Justice satisfies all of those points, but I’ll briefly elaborate. Conventionalism was just discussed in sufficient detail in the preceding sections. People are given no options but to adopt a critical consciousness and do the work of the Critical Social Justice faith or find themselves complicit in the evil of systemic oppression. “There is no neutral.” Their urgency has also become clear. Although oppression is defined pessimistically within the belief system as ordinary and almost impossible to change, that it is happening now, and that it is still happening, are perceived to be utterly intolerable (the current year is often given to stress its intolerability “in 2020,” as though it should have been sorted out completely at some point in the past). The critical mindset believes that all oppression is intolerable for those who suffer it, and so oppression must be unmade now. In fact, one of the chief forms of critical “proof” of the failure of liberal society is that all forms of oppression weren’t unmade in the very instant liberalism began. This ridiculous notion is, to be clear, the core line of all non-literary strands of critical theoretical social thought.
Next, once one understands that the legitimate authorities that Critical Social Justice adherents defer to are the authentic victims of systemic oppression, as defined by Critical Social Justice Theory, what the literature refers to as “authoritarian submission” and “authoritarian aggression” are immediately discernible in their program. Even the greatest thought leaders in the field, along with everyone else, needs to “shut up and listen” and “listen and believe” when Theoretically authentic victims of systemic oppression are pontificating about the oppressive features of their “lived realities.” Their testimonies, approaches, claims to truth and knowledge, demands, and even behavior have to be accepted exactly as they are without any judgment whatsoever. If you don’t, you’ll be made to (sometimes violently). Keep it up, and you’ll be cancelled.
In this sense, Critical Social Justice in its pure form, and even in lighter variants that have been taken up by many in its radicalized orbit, constitutes a fundamentalist program in the scarier, narrow sense. This would imply that, if it is a religion too, at least its radical activist core constitutes a fundamentalist religion comparable to the sects of Islam who take jihad literally and Christian churches like Westboro Baptist who protest military funerals because, apparently, “God hates fags.”
The broader definition of fundamentalism is also applicable and thus worth considering, although its definition is quite technical. Religious fundamentalism in this broad sense—which many perfectly reasonable and likable religious people who would never act as extremists proudly satisfy—is a matter of what some scholars call “intratextuality.” This means that the religious text that they use as a Scripture is taken as the wholly sufficient source to answer all questions the religion touches upon (which is usually all questions, as most religions are totalizing in their perspective—God being a universal sovereign and Creator of all that exists would imply that, after all).
So, religious fundamentalism in the broader, technical sense is a kind of presuppositionalism that asserts that the Scripture itself is wholly sufficient as a reference to answer all questions or expressions of doubt. The faith itself, and its articles, are presupposed to be wholly sufficient and, in fact, necessary to proper understanding and engagement. Obviously, Christian fundamentalists would feel this way about the Bible, and Islamic fundamentalists would feel this way about the Quran. In neither case is it guaranteed that a “fundamentalist” will also be an extremist like described above (and, in fact, it is probably relatively rare for the broad sense of fundamentalism to imply the narrow, extremist sense). You probably won’t easily change their minds about their faiths, though. There is simply no external mechanism by which to do so.
Within the scholarship of Critical Social Justice, but not necessarily within most of the laypeople who have become quite invested in and often extreme about it, the “intratextual” definition of religious fundamentalism very clearly applies. Theory must be interpreted critically, which means from within Theory.
Engagement with Critical Social Justice materials is frequently defined as only having been legitimate when it comes from a position of “critical consciousness,” which means it already thinks in the relevant “critical” way and interprets the text according to the critical mythology. One’s lived experience is only considered authentic and a “way of knowing” when it matches how someone with a similar positionality and critical consciousness would describe that lived experience. Thus, only someone coming from a perspective of Critical Social Justice—thus speaking from and back into the text—is conveying its ideas clearly. It is very difficult not to see this as a form of intratextual fundamentalism, and thus this lends credence to the argument that the worldview of Critical Social Justice is likely to be more religious than not, as this is a trait that’s so identifiably religious in nature as to be rare in other contexts (excepting cults, which work the same way).
Puritanism was, speaking formally, a particular religious movement of the 16th and 17th centuries that derived itself from Calvinism and had a very peculiar and strict understanding of its faith. Doctrinally , it sought to “purify” the Church of England and make it more fully Protestant and less contaminated by Catholic thought and structure, explicitly calling for greater purity of worship and doctrine and thus putting low emphasis on liturgical structure and high premium on improvised and impassioned preaching and prayer. Puritanism unabashedly declared its interest in moral law—ius divinum—and as a result adopted what is known as the regulative principle, in which very strict guidelines and taboos (often associated with strict religious conservatism) were explicitly codified and checked.
Befitting its name, however, Puritanism was also a religious ideology that was particularly concerned with a kind of spiritual purity being a necessary condition to election—a predetermined and irresistible bestowal of God’s Grace and thus salvation. This spiritual purification is believed to take place through a process of “conversion,” often that results in the elect for whom it happens being “born again” into a “life in Christ” that symbolizes having transitioned from “spiritual death” to “spiritual life.”
The parallels within this view to becoming “Woke” aren’t just obvious; they’re almost uncanny. The idea of applying strict behavioral codes in the relevant domain—speech, as the metaphysics is ultimately of discourses—are perhaps its most famous and defining feature. To understand further, however, we can turn to the spiritual aspects of puritanical belief. As described by Francis Bremer in his book Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction, conversion might be sudden (a kind of Damascus Road event) or, more commonly, would unfold in stages:
The clergyman Thomas Goodwin suggested that most men were unaware of God’s working in their souls, a troubled conscience being replaced by a sense of God’s comforting presence, bringing confidence in one’s election. Others thought the elect were customarily drawn to God through a series of discernable [sic] steps. A common schema saw the process beginning with introspection, examination of the Scriptures, and listening to the preached word, all of which would prepare the individual to recognize his sinfulness and feel contrition for his sins. Contrition was followed by humiliation when the sinner came to terms with his inability to break away from sin. The individual recognized that he owed a debt to God that could not be repaid by any amount of good works.
This description is not only virtually synonymous with the Woke approach to adopting a critical consciousness (as a member of any group that has dominant positionality), it is effectively a description of Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book White Fragility, which might best be understood as a puritanical spiritual guide in the same kind of spirit as Arthur Dent’s The Plain Man’s Path to Heaven (1601). Consider several excerpts from DiAngelo.
To say that whiteness includes a set of cultural practices that are not recognized by white people is to understand racism as a network of norms and actions that consistently create advantage for whites and disadvantage for people of color. These norms and actions include basic rights and benefits of the doubt, purportedly granted to all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people. The dimensions of racism benefiting white people are usually invisible to whites. We are unaware of, or do not acknowledge, the meaning of race and its impact on our own lives. Thus we do not recognize or admit to white privilege and the norms that produce and maintain it. It follows that to name whiteness, much less suggest that it has meaning and grants unearned advantage, will be deeply disconcerting and destabilizing, thus triggering the protective responses of white fragility.
Then, engagement with the Scriptures and the preached word:
When white people ask me what to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing I ask is, “What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?” It is a sincere question. How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us? When people of color have been telling us for years? If we take that question seriously and map out all the ways we have come to not know what to do, we will have our guide before us. For example, if my answer is that I was not educated about racism, I know that I will have to get educated. If my answer is that I don’t know people of color, I will need to build relationships. If it is because there are no people of color in my environment, I will need to get out of my comfort zone and change my environment; addressing racism is not without effort.
Next, humiliation, the realization that complicity in sin is unavoidable (which is even more obvious in Barbara Applebaum’s book-length development of the idea, Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy), here in DiAngelo’s White Fragility:
I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system. And in light of so many white expressions of resentment toward people of color, I realized that we see ourselves as entitled to, and deserving of, more than people of color deserve; I saw our investment in a system that serves us. I also saw how hard we worked to deny all this and how defensive we became when these dynamics were named. In turn, I saw how our defensiveness maintained the racial status quo.
And more humiliation:
Many people of color have assured me that they will not give up on me despite my racist patterns; they expect that I will have racist behavior given the society that socialized me. What they are looking for is not perfection but the ability to talk about what happened, the ability to repair. Unfortunately, it is rare for white people to own and repair our inevitable patterns of racism. Thus, relationships with white people tend to be less authentic for people of color.
And still further humiliation:
I know that because I was socialized as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it. To the degree that I have done my best in each moment to interrupt my participation, I can rest with a clearer conscience. But that clear conscience is not achieved by complacency or a sense that I have arrived.
Through this process, Bremer says that the puritan will “experience justification, the infusion of God’s saving Grace,” which, in turn, leads toward sanctification (and eventual glorification):
Some puritans believed that most men and women could reach this stage of awareness. Salvation, however, was possible only through God’s mercy, which was bestowed only on the elect. At this ponit, the person would experience justification, the infusion of God’s saving grace, which announced the individual’s salvation and rehabilitated his or her faculties. As noted, for some this experience was a dramatic transformation, which they referred to as being, in essence, born again. The result of this change was sanctification—the progressive growth in the saint’s ability to better perceive and seek God’s will, and thus to lead a holy life.
Puritans were deeply skeptical that this had occurred for anyone, however, no matter how profound the religious experience of conversion, and so a great deal more introspection (and subsequent humiliations against any failures) would be necessary to claim justification. Again, then, we turn to Robin DiAngelo to see that this is precisely how she views her notion of “anti-racism”:
And while speaking up against these explicitly racist actions is critical, we must also be careful not to use them to keep ourselves on the “good” side of a false binary. I have found it much more useful to think of myself as on a continuum. Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime. But I can continually seek to move further along it. I am not in a fixed position on the continuum; my position is dictated by what I am actually doing at a given time. Conceptualizing myself on an active continuum changes the question from whether I am or am not racist to a much more constructive question: Am I actively seeking to interrupt racism in this context? And perhaps even more importantly, how do I know?
The call to continuous, lifelong introspection (and cycles of humiliation) in an ongoing process of conversion is precisely how DiAngelo views her philosophy. In fact, the demand for further introspection is typically a lifelong commitment, as God alone knows who is among the elect, and the Devil has many wiles. As Bremer observes,
The devil could possess an unwary soul and live within that person to control his ever word and action. The devil could also draw individuals to his service, tempting them with promises of power and pleasure as related in the story of Dr. Faustus as told by the playwright Christopher Marlowe. Those who succumbed to the temptation were witches, to whom the devil gave the ability to harm people and their livestock. But most puritans believed that they were most likely to encounter the devil as the tempter who urged them to seek their own good rather than God’s, or who injected blasphemous thoughts into their minds, sowed seeds of despair in their soul, or led them away from the moral life.
This should put us back in mind of Ibram Kendi’s characterization, as quoted earlier: “the heartbeat of racism is denial, and the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.” Robin DiAngelo views “whiteness” in exactly this way, too, explicitly:
Whiteness embodies Charles Baudelaire’s admonition that “the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Or, as an alter ego of the character Keyser Söze says in the film The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world that he didn’t exist.” The Devil. Racism. Another metaphor. Same difference.
DiAngelo also channels this spirit (downward-looking, sin-oriented faith) almost explicitly in all of her discussions of white privilege, white comfort, white complicity, and in the temptations for people of color to be willing to choose to act white (as it is called) and uphold the dominant system (for their own benefit—her treatment of black men turning to comfort white women when they cry in chapter 11 of White Fragility (“White Women’s Tears”) stands out—or in their possession by internalized oppression as a form of false consciousness). She is particularly scathing about the issue for “white progressives” like herself, however, about whom she writes:
This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color. I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.
It’s almost impossible not to understand DiAngelo’s framing of Critical Race Theory (and whiteness) as a puritanical vision, which means it’s nearly equally difficult to understand how anyone would fail to see it as religious in its basic structure and orientation. Bremer reminds us for the puritan that “the work of salvation was God’s and not man’s.” So it is for Theorists like DiAngelo as well, who are forced to recognize that the Eye at the End of History will be the determiner of their justification, sanctification, and glorification or, instead, the eternal damnation of their legacy and works for its complicity in upholding systemic oppression.
Churches are messy things, admitting a very broad range of beliefs within their membership, all of which might be understood to be in one way or another adherents to that faith or for religion in general. To put it most simply, there is at one end of this spectrum the theologian, who understands as much and as many details of the relevant theology and its competitors as he is able to comprehend. On the other end are those members or friends of the church who basically never go to services or read the Scriptures, know next to nothing of the theology, and yet remain mostly convinced that the most impressionistic features of that theology are generally true and applicable to their own lives. In between, there are many characters, including pastors, deacons, and the likes, who are very well-versed, those who engage very seriously and attend most or every service and read the Scriptures regularly on their own (and, perhaps, take notes at church), and lay congregants who have the general picture but not much more, mostly in the broad-brushed strokes of the underlying mythology and metaphysics, about which they’ll be unclear in most details. Moreover, religions, even in the sense of certain broadly categorical denominations (e.g., “Baptists”) will also admit much diversity from any particular subdenomination to another while still recognizing many points of theological commonality (and much interest in hashing out the differences essentially indefatigably.) What all of these people will share in common is a general acceptance of and sense of community in the prevailing religious moral law.
The reason this needs to be brought up is that the faith of Critical Social Justice is the same. There are Theorists, with a capital T, who are the equivalents of the theologians, who know the jots and tittles of Critical Social Justice and its application in extraordinary detail. There are also liberal progressives who have taken up a bit too much of the “systemic” (read: Woke) way of thinking about the world and the critical hot-take approach to analyzing it but who wouldn’t have the faintest idea that Theory openly problematizes science, objectivity, productivity, loyalty, reliability, civility, niceness, and many other virtues as “white supremacist” and more, nor would they agree with it. In between are people who avow themselves as queer activists but who support marriage equality, not realizing that queer Theory problematizes this huge civil rights achievement as “normalizing” LGBT statuses and thus makes them decidedly not-queer. Likewise, there are Theorists who focus on race, sex, gender, sexuality, disability status, body weight status, colonized status, and every other conceivable facet of allegedly stratified identity who may but don’t necessarily take on all the rest. These would quite clearly disagree with one another in many details, despite the attempt by intersectionality to turn them critically on one another until they all get along as “others” to systemic power dynamics—kind of like being one faith in systemic oppression.
That is, not only is there going to be considerable spread from Critical Social Justice “denomination” to denomination, additionally roughly the same spectrum of depth of understanding and belief manifests in both traditional religions and Critical Social Justice. This fact makes it exceptionally easy to pick up examples of very lay “Wokish” people who believe themselves to be “Woke” while possessing almost no critical consciousness beyond a general and accurate concern that society is actually stratified and that this is a problem worth addressing. This allowance of casual or confused lay believers, to be clear, is a practice that is more or less acceptable, with some exceptions, in religious movements that have been subjected successfully to the ethos of secularism, which relegates their belief to a matter of private conscience and their practice to willful communities that do not have either the legal or social power to enforce themselves on people who believe differently. It is not as reasonable with faiths in contexts that have not been subjected to secular pluralism (and this constitutes much of the controversy about criticizing Islam as a faith given the problem of radical Islamists, for example).
In such “untamed” faiths, if we will—especially when they have the capacity to become state faiths, either explicitly or as a matter of functional fact—the underlying theology is much more important than the typical manifestations in casual lay believers. This is because, to put it as simply as possible, ideas have consequences. Ideas held on faith are, more or less by definition, not checked by other means, such as whether or not the comport with the evidence or even reasoned argument, so they must be checked by other means to prevent the full brunt of their consequences from manifesting in a society that may not want them or that will be better off without their being fully operationalized and institutionalized.
Secularism, in a sense, is a means of checking the potential consequences of religious ideas—or, of making the religious slope less slippery. It does this by one means—relegating faith to a matter of personal conscience and willful participation in a faith community—and in two ways. First, secularism explicitly prevents such ideas from gaining state power in a direct sense and forces them to obtain it by other means and arguments in those indirect senses in which it succeeds. Christians must persuade society to enact a law against abortion, for example, for reasons other than that it might be a commandment of their faith, which isn’t a sufficient argument in a secular society. Second, secularism implicitly empowers people to understand faith-based positions as a matter of private conscience and willful community and thus to reject the imposition of their moral law into their lives. Calling an atheist a sinner, or telling a Hindu to keep Sabbath, means nothing to him and thus holds no power over him or his behavior. Because Critical Social Justice is not recognized as being as religious as it is, neither form of this sociocultural and political machinery is yet effectively operationalized for dealing with it.
The most important point here, though, is that moral movements and moral communities are cloudy things in which there is a very broad spectrum of belief and some fuzzy threshold above which someone can be understood to be a member of the faithful. This threshold is, in fact, in most cases quite low, but this changes nothing about the significance of the problems with the doctrine itself, which will have consequences of greater degree in more sincere and motivated believers. In all cases, especially those in which secular ethics haven’t been put in place as a check on the sociopolitical power of a system of faith, the theology itself has to be examined as it is and taken literally at its own word because those ideas have consequences, one of which is their overimplementation and successful imposition upon people whose personal consciences view life differently. This concern is particularly strong when there are reasons to believe we’re dealing with fundamentalist faiths, especially in the extreme sense.
I think this does a thorough job of summarizing the case that Critical Social Justice, as an ideological worldview, is very similar to religion in most of the relevant ways. It forms a moral community that is designed to meet the same psychosocial needs as religions are, though it is decentralized and disorganized (I have previously called it “disorganized religion,” though “decentralized” might be nearer the mark). It provides a mythology, metaphysics, and moral law that binds the community and enables “divinity”-based psychosocial valuation of adherents and others, and this gives rise to clear “critical” duties of conscience in everyone the system can touch. It ontologically grounds its moral commandments against the long view from the End of History, as a kind of legacy-based moral lawgiver and adjudicator. It possesses its own epistemological framework as well—one rooted in the critical mythology of problematization and postmodern mythology of lived experience and discursive production. Since it proceeds from a mythology with its own creation myth, metaphysics, and moral law, this view is totalizing to those who adhere to it, as is typical of religious belief. This system of belief is, in fact, constructed along the same lines as how Augustine organized Christianity and Aquinas “proved” the existence of God. Finally, it gives way to fundamentalism of both types and manifests in puritanical form, which is something that, while it is not limited to religion, is very common within sects or cults that arise within religious movements and worldviews.
That (unfortunately lengthy) background established, we can now move into the meatier legal question about whether Critical Social Justice is a religion so far as the law is concerned, particularly the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I assert that it very probably is, though I’m content to admit that the case is slightly less obviously established than the philosophical argument above. In what follows, I hope to make this case as fairly as can be done, and what follows will draw significantly on the philosophical argument above while also enriching it.
As it will pertain to law, this discussion needs to be more practical, not merely philosophical or polemic, so I want to trace the argument through a number of excerpts from an article from 1989 in the Cornell Law Review: “Defining Religion in the First Amendment: A Functional Approach,” by Ben Clements. As the title indicates, this article aims to summarize Supreme Court case law in the United States to determine under what conditions a belief system qualifies as a religion, specifically in terms of falling afoul of the Establishment Clause while maintaining the protections of the Free-exercise Clause. My intention will be to walk through the arguments of this paper roughly sequentially in light of the above philosophical case and thus try to make headway into the more difficult and specific legal case.
Summarizing the need for his case in the conclusion to his paper, Clements writes,
The First Amendment’s command that the government “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” requires an interpretation of religion that will allow the courts to distinguish between religious and nonreligious belief. On the other hand, the purpose of the religion clauses—to ensure religious liberty for all—requires an interpretation that will encompass the religious impulses in persons, whether these impulses are expressed in the form of a traditional religion, or in the form of a unique, unstructured, personal religion. These two goals are served by defining religion in terms of the religious function in an individual’s life—addressing the fundamental questions of human existence and providing a guide for how to conduct one’s life.
The last sentence here is, obviously, the crux of the issue. If we follow Clements’ functional definition of religion and use it to explore the question of Critical Social Justice as an ideological worldview, we need to undertake this exploration in terms of the function Critical Social Justice plays in individuals’ lives, particularly how it addresses the fundamental questions of human existence (if it does) and providing a guide for how to conduct one’s life (which it very plainly does). For the purposes of opening this discussion, I want to trace through Clements’ paper and comment in this regard on the various points he raises as he develops his “functional” definition, which appeared at the very top of this essay to frame its goal.
Clements opens his case by discussing the way the framers of the Constitution, who wrote the relevant clauses, were likely to conceive of religion and then outlining the ways this understanding needs to be considered in a world no longer located temporally in the 18th century.
Although the framers probably conceived of religion in a theistic manner, it is not at all clear that they intended the religion clauses to apply only to theistic religions. Moreover, the broad purpose of the religion clauses was not merely to assure the liberty of particular religious denominations, but rather to protect the religious impulses of man from government interference.
If Clements is right, the fact that there’s no deity in Critical Social Justice is not a hindrance to defining it as a religion for First Amendment purposes, even as the framers of the Constitution would have intended. The point that the framers seemed to be making is that religion is ultimately a matter of private conscience (and willful community participation), which are decisions to be made by the individual, who must be protected from the encroachment of faith into his life, at least by the enforcement of the state. Thus anything that the state endorses that interferes with matters of individual conscience is likely to fall afoul of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. Clements notes this explicitly and uses it to make it clear that limiting ourselves to theistic religions with a deity will not suffice for American Constitutional law.
Once we recognize that the concept of religious liberty entails protecting matters of conscience from government interference, it becomes clear that a constitutional definition of religion cannot be limited to the theistic religions recognized by the Framers, or even to a broader class of traditional religions. Such a rigid definition of religion would be inconsistent with the very concept of religious liberty. Accordingly, any proposed constitutional definition should be broad and flexible enough to include changing concepts of religion, thereby protecting new and unorthodox religious beliefs.
Notice that Clements is quite clear that the point of the First Amendment is to protect individuals from infringement of their religious liberty, which includes protecting them when they take up new and unorthodox religious beliefs. It is, of course, necessary that this protection work reciprocally, then, or it is meaningless. A new, unorthodox religious belief cannot be protected from encroachment by, say, Christianity, if all religions, as matters of private conscience, are not protected equally and in the same way. This, of course, implies that new and unorthodox beliefs cannot encroach upon individuals of other conscience either, for novelty and weirdness are not special characteristics that grant additional protections under the First Amendment.
Already we hit the need for an important point to be made about the Critical Social Justice worldview. The purpose of the First Amendment where it speaks of religion is to protect individuals from encroachment on their doxastic and cognitive liberty by mandates of any faith by separating the faith entirely from the civil sphere of the state. It therefore protects a value of individualism upon which the government shall not infringe. Critical Social Justice as an ideology is, perhaps importantly, explicitly hostile to the value of individualism, which it sees as an ideology used to enforce the hegemony of dominant groups by misleading members of oppressed groups away from collective action and critical consciousness. Indeed, the worldview of Critical Social Justice does not even recognize the individual as an individual at all, but rather sees her as a representative of the various socially constructed identity groups that define her intersectional positionalities with respect to systemic power. State adoption of Critical Social Justice is therefore unambiguously guaranteed to fail to protect the individual from encroachment on their own self-determination and values.
The need to protect individual determination of faith is, in fact, the given motivation that compels Clements to seek a clear definition of “religion” that can be made comprehensible under Constitutional law. This issue raises a complex issue, though, about whether or not it is appropriate to adopt one definition for the Free-exercise Clause, which protects individuals and their consciences, and another narrower definition for the Establishment Clause, which, if over-broad, could limit the state dramatically in terms of its humanitarian projects. Clements explains,
Several commentators have argued that in order to provide broad protection under the free exercise clause for the growing diversity of faiths in the United States, without subjecting all government humanitarian programs and activities to establishment clause challenge, “religion” should be defined broadly for free exercise purposes, but narrowly for establishment purposes. For example, Professor Tribe advocated such a dual approach in the first edition of his constitutional law treatise. … [A] dual definition may provide more obscure religions and religious activities with special treatment, by protecting the free exercise of such religions, without placing any establishment clause limits on the government’s ability to promote and aid such religions.
This approach, however, produces a clear problem: special treatment. This needs to be avoided, and so Clements rejects the idea of a dual definition for the two clauses of the First Amendment and seeks a more unified, functional definition instead. He outlines the project as follows:
In light of the preceding discussion, a constitutional definition of religion should meet three main criteria, in addition to the criterion of general compatibility with approaches suggested by the Supreme Court. First, it should be specific enough to circumscribe the concept of religion, and allow courts to distinguish nonreligious from religious beliefs. Second, it should be flexible enough to embrace new and unorthodox forms of religion. Third, it should be applicable to both free exercise clause cases and establishment clause cases.
With this target in mind, Clements turns to the task of considering various aspects of Supreme Court case law and related legal commentary. These precedents he tries to use to guide him toward a definition consistent with the above by highlighting the successes and shortcomings of previous attempts, which are instructive. In fact, for our present purposes of considering the ideology and worldview of Critical Social Justice, these points will be particularly useful.
As we saw previously, one of the first main points needed to establish and apply a functional definition of religion is rejecting the idea that a religion must be theistic. Surprisingly, this seems to have taken until 1961 in the United States, 170 years after the framers wrote the First Amendment with whatever intentions they might have had with the term “religion” (which they did not define). The relevant case is Torcaso v. Watkins, and Clements describes it thusly,
In 1961, however, in Torcaso v. Watkins, the Supreme Court abandoned the use of a belief in God as the touchstone for religious belief, when it invalidated a Maryland law which required all public office holders to declare a belief in the existence of God. The Court stated that the government may not “aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”
Obviously, this is a key observation for the question of whether or not Critical Social Justice can be considered functionally religious for First Amendment purposes, and the Court was clear. “Those religions founded on different beliefs” than God must also be subjected to the full range of protections (to and from) as are religions rooted in a deity. Clearly, if we are to understand Critical Social Justice as a religion, there is not only an argument to be made about the framers’ intentions with the word “religion” in the First Amendment; there is also court precedent.
Much more refinement is necessary to arrive at a meaningful and applicable definition consistent with Clements’ aims, however, and so he then turns to another case, United States v. Seeger (1965), in which Congress’s use of the replacement, “Supreme Being,” came to the Court.
The Act defined “religious training and belief” as “an individual’s belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but [excluding] essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code.”
The pertinent question here is the meaning of “Supreme Being” in place of “God,” which pushed the question of what forms the basis of religious belief back one step from a view that is narrowly theistic to one that is more broadly theistic. This bit of linguistic chicanery needed explication, however, which Clements provides neatly:
The Court then held that the test for “belief in a relation to a Supreme Being is whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its pocessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption.”
This interpretation expands the notion of what constitutes the basis of religion, at least for legal First Amendment purposes in the United States, to anything that fills the role of “God” within a belief system for someone who believes in it. As I have argued at great length elsewhere (here, here, here, here, and here, not to mention above), this refers to creating a particular kind of moral community equipped with various identifiable features that meet the human psychosocial needs for meaning-making, control, and community. I have contended that the additional necessary features are the giving of a moral law that defines the relevant community and attributes its moral framework to something beyond the usual realm of human interactions, provides the same in terms of purpose in life, does this by means of a particular mythology, and, perhaps, provides a unique metaphysics and “island” or “pocket” epistemologies that make use of subjective determinations about the world in ways that are (intratextually) consistent with their Scripture (or Theory). Above, I have made the case that with regard to the ontological grounding of morality and purpose, the metaphor of the all-judging Eye at the End of History acts as such a Supreme Being, though this particular abstraction is not formally deified or credited with the creation of or maintenance of the universe itself or its operations.
That is, I think the case is abundantly made that Critical Social Justice satisfies this definition unambiguously, but Clements is right that this definition isn’t adequate.
Nuance is brought to the “Supreme Being” formulation by Clements’ description of the full interpretation and basis for the Seeger decision:
In Seeger, the Court relied on the writings of the theologian, Paul Tillach, who argues that God is, for each individual, the source of that individual’s “ultimate concern,” and “what [one] take[s] seriously without any reservation.” One student commentator has argued that this concept of ultimate concern should be the sole criterion for religion under the free exercise clause. The Note argues that ultimate concern represents “the essence of religion.” It then explains that “‘concern’ denotes the affective or motivational aspect of human experience; the word ‘ultimate’ signifies that the concern must be of an unconditional, absolute, or unqualified character.” Under this view, whatever an individual regards as his ultimate concern, “[e]ven political and social beliefs,” is his religion.
If Clements were a less serious legal scholar, this interpretation and commentary, taken at face value, would constitute a simple basis for making an open-and-shut case that Critical Social Justice constitutes a religion, at least so far as American Constitutional law is concerned. He is more careful than this, however, and points out a number of problems with the “ultimate concern” approach. Notably, even with the description provided, it isn’t at all clear what an “ultimate concern” is, even if we might make some guesses that include frameworks for understanding life, death, and human purpose and values in the world. Critical Social Justice certainly centers emotion over reason and considers the ways people feel about certain issues, images, and even words to be matters of life or death, or even of genocides for entire communities, and as this moral impulse is totalizing and an imperative for all people, as described above, perhaps it is for them a matter of ultimate concern.
Still, there are problems. Clement notes that other scholars have made a persuasive case that severe drug addiction could meet the definition of something as totalizing to one’s life and behavior as an “ultimate concern” without being an ultimate concern in any way whatsoever. In this sense, the “ultimate concern” definition of religion points to something valuable to which Clements, and we, shall return, but it isn’t sufficient for the purposes of defining “religion” for application under Constitutional law.
In the case of Critical Social Justice, however, there is undoubtedly a matter of ultimate concern, which is that morally palpable sense of how one will be judged by the Eye at the End of History. Future generations, taken out to omniscient infinity, will know which people—or, more accurately, which groups and movements—were on the right side of History, and which were not. They will know who was an abolitionist, for abolition must continue until one of the bitter or Utopian end, and who was a slaver who was against the perpetual fight for abolition. They will know who the civil rights heroes and villains were just as clearly as they, themselves, believe they know the same about the great emancipatory struggles of (mostly recent) history. One’s standing against this backwards-judging Eye is the matter of ultimate concern to all who have a critical consciousness in the Woke faith of Critical Social Justice.
Clements therefore turns to other issues that need to be considered to develop a definition, and first among these is the questions of the meaning of “ultimate concern” and of falsifiability of the relevant beliefs:
The concept of religion is often associated with questions facing mankind that are not subject to rational or scientific proof. This view of religion has led some commentators to suggest a definition of religious belief as “faith in something beyond the mundane observable world-faith that some higher or deeper reality exists than that which can be established by ordinary existence or scientific observation.” A recent Washington Law Review Note advocates this definition as a modified ultimate concern approach. Under this approach, religion is defined in terms of ultimate concern, which is defined in terms of “questions which science cannot objectively answer.” More specifically, the Note states that “‘[u]ltimate’ refers to all values and ‘knowledge’ which cannot be proven true, or even tested, by empirical evidence.”
Certainly, Critical Social Justice’s “systemic” approach meets these criteria. In fact, it does so proudly and explicitly. Critical Social Justice takes unfalsifiability about its core questions to an extreme that is sometimes called “radical subjectivity.” This feature of the worldview is almost impossible to understand from any perspective that values objectivity or truth and can be completely bewildering to encounter.
At the simplest level, radical subjectivity as it applies in Critical Social Justice would insist that if someone claims to have experienced systemic oppression (according to the systems defined by Theory only), then one has experienced it. Such a claim is not debatable by anyone with greater access to or speaking from the systems of power for any reason, as that would deny the lived experience of systemic oppression which is, in turn, another form of systemic oppression (called “epistemic oppression” or, sometimes, “epistemic violence”). The oppressed have “their truth” that cannot be challenged of in any way questioned by any person or methodology that can be associated with positional or epistemic dominance.
Taking this matter a step further, even to ask questions about or for evidence of oppression is, under Critical Social Justice, to prove that you have internalized the dominant system and do not yourself live it (in which case you would know the oppression is there firsthand), and thus you reinforce oppression even in the asking. Raising such a question would “prove” the system is just as oppressive as Theory claims, in fact, as would raising countervailing evidence. Any evidence that contradicts the narratives of Theory has been, itself, produced by dominant methods and by investigators who have internalized the systemic power of the system, which renders them unable to see the oppression that must be there and that can only be found by means of a more critical analysis. Any argument that disagrees didn’t “critically” engage. This is because the framework is religious and mythological, thus not subject to being made profane by technologizing inquiry. In this way, Critical Social Justice has fallen back upon the model of special revelation by prophets rather than the cautious inquiry of professionals, rendering it more religious than scholarly or more theological than technological.
Beyond this, claims about systems of oppression are themselves unfalsifiable. The systems themselves are conceived of as features of reality (whether “higher” or “deeper” applies can remain a rhetorical question) that transcend humanity entirely and yet have immanence in our world—existing everywhere and always just beneath the visible surface and thus interacting with the world in mysterious ways at all times. The system can be racist, sexist, homophobic, or misogynistic, among many other sins of problematicity. Furthermore, the systems themselves have these properties, even absent any racists, sexists, homophobes, misogynists, bigots, or even people who are not those in practice yet harbor beliefs of those kinds.
A number of consequences follow from this belief structure. First, any act of bigotry whatsoever is proof that the relevant system of oppression exists and remains a fully pervasive problem in society. The belief is that a single act of racism, for example, can only occur in a system that allows racism to occur at all, and so anything that can be construed as a manifestation of racism is proof not only that racism manifested but that it manifested from a totalizing system of racism in which it is but a single concrete part. Thus, the system of oppression is its own “higher” entity that exists so long as the potential for any manifestation of a relevant problematic exists, which is always.
Even the attempt to measure these issues admits no falsifiability. The measurement, beyond any concrete manifestation of the mere potential for a problematic, that proves a system of oppression exists is the existence of any discrepancy of outcomes that aligns with the way Theory conceives of oppression in the world. Discrepancies in a world of perfect social constructivism can, according to the worldview of Theory, only occur if there are systems of power that create them, and they indicate systemic oppression whenever a “historically or presently marginalized or minoritized group” lands on the bad side of any appearance of differences of outcome (when these negative discrepancies show up in groups Theorized to be dominant, that is a sign of progress, thus not oppressive, but not evidence that the system of power has been remediated, which requires much more work, always).
In fact, discrepancies don’t even have to exist to claim a system of oppression is in operation. The mere assertion of a system of power consistent with the worldview of Theory is sufficient to “prove” its existence because, as with a personal claim to having experienced oppression, such an assertion cannot be disagreed with (as that would constitute a form of epistemic oppression, which is part of a system of oppression, as claimed). If any Critical Theorists maintain that discrepancies exist or oppression exists, then it does. Unbelievably, this extreme subjectivism goes even beyond this level of unfalsifiability, for even if no one claims systemic oppression exists and none can be detected, it might still be hidden within the system and behind the socialized false consciousness of those it silently victimizes. This, then, is yet another way in which systemic oppression is Theorized to transcend humanity entirely.
As a final point on this matter, not only can science not answer direct questions about the existence of systemic oppression objectively, it is described openly as problematic to think that it can or that it should try. Like individualism, objectivity is explicitly decried as being neither possible nor desirable under Critical Social Justice. Consequently, a system remains oppressive so long as you have even one person who can conceive of a way in which something might be experienced as oppressive, which is utterly unfalsifiable.
Because of its adaptation of postmodern thinking about the relationship between power and knowledge, not only is Critical Social Justice unfalsifiable; it is also positively disinterested in the concept of falsifiability at all. Falsifiability is just one tool among many that has been socially constructed by means of and in service to the systems of power that it seeks to unmask, disrupt, and dismantle so that liberation can be achieved. To ask whether or not a claim about systemic oppression is true in Critical Social Justice is objectively meaningless. It is, instead, said to be wholly subjectively determined but wherein the only subjective determinations that are considered authentic instead of false are those that exhibit critical consciousness and thus reinforce Theory.
Indeed, it must be understood that Critical Social Justice represents a complete departure from the liberal (or modernist) project. In place of using observation, hypothesis, and extending rigorously established theory to advance new ideas (positive epistemology) and falsification and defeasibility to cut down ideas that don’t correspond to reality or that don’t work (negative epistemology), Critical Social Justice forwards “authentic” lived experience as interpreted through Theory (positive epistemology) whittled down by whether or not claims are “problematic” (negative epistemology). That is, it doesn’t just reject falsification; it has a wholly separate way of evaluating the validity of propositions that has fully departed from the liberal modernist approach. Though this may not on its own define it as a system of faith, it is certainly a trait it shares in common with many religious constructs.
Again, here, the case for seeing Critical Social Justice as a (fundamentalist) religion for First Amendment purposes seems clearly made, but Clements warns us against the ways that reliance only upon unfalsifiability might provide an over-broad definition of religion. There may well be unfalsifiable claims, such as that cloaked UFOs visit my backyard every night at 3 AM, local time, that are not at all religious in nature.
Nevertheless, there’s a kernel here worth extracting, and it is the idea mentioned above that religious beliefs tend to define entire alternate (“pocket” or “island”) epistemologies that function to validate their beliefs while discrediting any possible challenge to them. These are a hallmark of fundamentalist faiths, including but not limited to the kind of Gnosticism exhibited by Critical Social Justice. The Christian apologist William Lane Craig is famous, for example, for arguing that the “internal witness of the Holy Spirit” is a properly basic belief that is, in turn, and “intrinsic defeater-defeater.” What this means is that he believes that he can detect the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit (something of a sensus divinitatis), and that subjective perception of the Spirit of God is more powerful than any argument against his faith. Thus, any potential “defeater” to his apologetics or belief is intrinsically defeated by his sense of the Holy Spirit.
Critical consciousness (“Wokeness”) forms a functional parallel to this within the context of Critical Theory. This idea (which operates as a kind of sensus oppressionitatis, if we may) refers to the ability to perceive the systems of power in society as they “really are” along with the oppression they cause, where “really” refers to as described by the relevant Critical Theory. People who have obtained this consciousness are referred to as “Woke” because they’ve been awakened from the false consciousness of having been socialized into accepting the dominant system. The black feminist Theorist bell hooks even calls them “enlightened witnesses,” as previously noted. Thus, anything that disagrees with Theory can be rejected as having failed to engage with its ideas from a position of critical consciousness (usually, “failed to engage critically”). This, though, is identical to William Lane Craig arguing that if one believes in God and the power of the Holy Spirit correctly, then one will immediately accept the truth of the claim that the “internal witness of the Holy Spirit” overcomes any challenge to the faith. Believe, and you will believe. Beliefs in one’s critical consciousness and the systems of power it detects in the world are, apparently, also properly basic.
Still not satisfied that he can establish a suitable and comprehensive definition for “religion” in the context of First Amendment law, Clements turns to other sources, raising in particular the idea of “extratemporal consequences” following the thought of Dean Choper.
In his article, Defining “Religion” in the First Amendment, Dean Choper offers a definition of religion that focuses on whether the allegedly religious belief involves “a belief in the phenomenon of ‘extratemporal consequences.’” Under this view, a person’s beliefs are religious, for First Amendment purposes, if “the effects of action taken pursuant or contrary to the dictates of a person’s beliefs extend in some meaningful way beyond his lifetime.”
It seems pretty obvious, at least to Clements, that Choper is referring to beliefs in the afterlife, which renders it pretty obviously a bad definition as it would exclude all religious beliefs that don’t accept such a thing. Even interpreting the clause otherwise is insufficient, however, as this approach would then exclude philosophies that seek long-term goals reaching beyond one’s own life, or even the notion that one’s work can have a lasting legacy (which could render the Constitution itself a religious document that must be separated from the state but then couldn’t be because the mandate is in the Constitution itself). Again, there’s a nugget to pull from this, however, and it is Utopianism.
Utopianism is the belief in a perfect society, usually in the future and obtainable by right action in the present and throughout one’s life. Heaven can be understood as the Christian (and Islamic) Utopia, and access to the Utopia can be achieved in various ways, usually described as either being “by Grace” or “by works.” Some sects believe specifically that Heaven refers to a Godly remaking of the literal Earth, however, and they see it as a religious duty to prepare themselves and the Earth in accordance with God’s commandments so that “God’s Kingdom on Earth” might be established. This belief can range from a quite literal remaking of the world by God or, in some cases, as the world being remade by human hands through which God works, so thus by right action and right living might people build the Utopia of God’s Kingdom here on Earth. Of course, not all Christians believe this, but some have and do.
A “liberated” Utopia in which the systems of oppressive power don’t exist is precisely the objective of the Critical Social Justice project. They are quite explicit that they seek a revolution that will unmake the current system and thereby end racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, and all of the other systemic oppressions. Because these systems of oppression are defined as intrinsic parts of the existing system, however, unmaking them requires a complete reordering of the existing world to remove the previous “biased” and “dominant” discourses, ways of thinking and knowing, institutions, laws, and social constructions and replace them with new Socially Just ones. This belief should not be mistaken for the liberal ideal of (incremental and informed) progress, which is meant to be achieved optimally, not totally, via what Kołakowski would describe as technological means. It is, instead, consonant with the Critical Social Justice mythology and envisions a complete remaking of the world once certain conditions are met (the right kind of revolution occurs), and thus has far more in common with millenarian faiths than liberalism.
This Utopian objective unambiguously constitutes an “extratemporal consequence” sought by Critical Social Justice and its adherents, more or less on every level. This belief follows because Critical Social Justice perceives (through Critical Theory) a fallen world in which systemic oppression exists and envisions a liberated world in which it has been ended finally. The proper duty of conscience of every individual is therefore to wake up to a critical consciousness and start to build the Liberated Society.
Utopianism, it should be noted, is very frequently accompanied by totalitarianism because the belief tends to imply that anyone who isn’t on board with the Utopian project both is against the idea of the Utopia and thus prevents its coming to fruition. Such people clearly therefore don’t deserve to be a part of the Utopia when it’s realized. This kind of thinking is the seed of a genocide and therefore should not be planted or watered.
The line of thought that extends from a deity into something more vague that fills the same role to matters of “ultimate concerns” and “extratemporal consequences” all seem inadequate, in and of themselves, to Clements—probably rightly and for good reasons. He therefore turns to other approaches to see what can be gleaned from them with regard to making sense of a religion in a functional sense, so far as First Amendment law in the United States is concerned. This leads him to consider definitions by analogy to other religions we already understand.
In his article, Religion as a Concept in Constitutional Law, Professor Greenawalt rejects both the “ultimate concern” approach, and the “extratemporal consequences” approach, claiming that these and other “dictionary approach[es] are wholly inadequate to produce acceptable results in a wide range of religion clause cases.” Arguing that “any dictionary approach oversimplifies the concept of religion,” Greenawalt proposes that “religion should be determined by the closeness of analogy in the relevant respects between the disputed instance and what is indisputably religion.”
Of course, as has been alluded to and done here and elsewhere (by my hand and others), analogies between Critical Social Justice and “what is indisputably religion” are overwhelmingly clear and easily made. If nothing else, the idea that being “born again” is adopting what might be called a “Christian consciousness” and being “Woke” is adopting what is called a “critical consciousness” might on its own be sufficient as a parallel, in that each confers upon its convert a wholly new way of viewing the world that is in all ways consonant with the underlying faith that has been taken up. Once we extend the idea of religious duties and services to social (and social activism) and congregations in protest of the dominant systems of society, the analogy becomes even more clear, and this can be done without overtly dipping into the claims now being made that “anti-racism” is a spiritual matter. Still, it shouldn’t escape our notice how frequently and consistently “anti-racism” is also characterized as a “lifelong commitment to an ongoing process” and that “no one is ever done” with the demand for “self-reflection,” “self-critique” (these being inward spiritual commitments), and “social activism” (this being participation in the works of the nominally “anti-racist” faith).
Once someone adopts a “Woke” consciousness by conversion to the Critical Social Justice faith, the world and everything in it is to be viewed through the various lenses provided by its Theory, which, at a minimum, classifies Critical Social Justice as a worldview. The parallels to “what is indisputably religion” are again obvious, however, because this is exactly what Christian religionists do when they seek to find God’s Hand in everything that He Created and to give Glory to Him for the perfection of his Creation. The only difference here is that the Christian looks up to God and His perfection and Glory (a matter of faith in Christianity), and the Wokester looks down at systemic oppression and how imperfect and terrible it has made the ordinary, not aberrational, state of the world (a matter of faith in Critical Social Justice). In both cases, there is looking off to a transcendent reality and using that as a basis for one’s view of the world and duties of righteous belief and action that accord with it.
As discussed above, it is also clear that, in quasi-postmodern fashion, Wokeness has a clear set of liturgical forms across its varied churches (Antifa, social media activists, and anti-racist bureaucrats certainly call to worship differently), which is to say that it behaves in ways that are clearly religious in structure and practice. Its adherents who hold administrative positions write endless epistles as calls to faith to the communities they seek to shepherd. Ritual and symbolic behaviors follow from these letters as faith is renewed within them.
Belaboring the point about the parallels between “what is indisputably religion” and Critical Social Justice is tedious and a bit beside our point, though, because Clements rightly points out the shortcomings in such an approach to establishing a functional definition of religion for First Amendment law. It may be the case that Critical Social Justice looks like a religion, acts like a religion, talks like a religion, and to all appearances—save the obvious lack of theism—is a religion, but this isn’t sufficient to generate a functional definition because it is too vague on its own. Fraternal orders, political parties, and many other manner of non-religious phenomena may also in ways and at times present with the outward forms of religion without being religious in any meaningful way. It would take something like really nailing down the establishment of moral law and an underlying metaphysical conception of the world that, together, form the basis for a mythology that cannot be questioned in its particulars (only accepted in its totality) and gives rise to duties of conscience for such a case to be made, I think.
The objection Clements gives, drawing off Greenawalt, is, however, profoundly interesting and instructive. In fact, it cuts very close to the question in front of us.
The approach does not explain, for example, whether a political philosophy such as Marxism, which has some of the religious attributes set forth by Greenawalt, would qualify as a religion. Greenawalt indicates that Marxism “is usually not considered religious,” but he does not explain how one would reach this conclusion relying solely on his analogical approach.
The close cut here is obviously in the fact that while Critical Social Justice may or may not be Marxist, Marxian it certainly is—and this may, in practice, be a distinction without much difference. As Greenawalt elaborates, however, as noted by Clements:
Marxism does present “a comprehensive view of the world and human purposes,” it has “a particular perspective on moral obligations derived from a moral code …” it arguably makes “use of sacred texts,” and at least in some modern manifestations, it has an “organization to facilitate the corporate aspects of [its] practices and to promote and perpetuate beliefs and practices.”
This raises the question: does Clements’ use of Marxism as a specific objection apply to Critical Social Justice just because the latter has clear Marxian elements? The answer, in light of much of the above, seems to be no. Critical Social Justice appears to be a religious faith that has grown out of certain appropriated elements of Marxism and abandoned the material and political world for a much more obvious transcendent and spiritual one. In particular, this point, to my mind, is where the “lifelong commitment” to an “ongoing process” on which “no one is ever done” gains poignancy. It is also where the concept that the systems themselves can be fully oppressive even absent anyone participating in the sins of oppression—thus a clear element of transcendence that goes beyond Marx’s ideas about superstructures and bourgeois ideologies—becomes significant.
Critical Social Justice, in having adopted the critical ethos and a wholly lived-experience–based epistemology has moved itself within the realm of revealed wisdom. By using Marxian ideas about false consciousness in a new way that focuses upon socialization and internalization of oppressive discourses that permeate these systems of power (which, again, transcend human intention and are a feature of the entire social system itself) and characterizing these as relevant to all human interactions and processes, Critical Social Justice has taken the issue further than Marxism. Marx’s concern was with the material realities of the world—particularly alerting the working class to the (largely true in Marx’s day) point that the capitalist class was screwing them over—and thus, arguments for and against Marxism (and, indeed arguments for and against capitalism) can be made and evaluated by everyone without the need to accept any indemonstrable premises. Marxism may have generated mythologically inspired moral communities, but the plane of their fight was institutional and materialist, not mental and spiritual, and their metaphysics were, at heart, modernist and thus confined to the circles of the world. Critical Social Justice has a far more numinous and transcendent metaphysics that identifies in every possible phenomenon the vestiges of vague, unfalsifiable, systems of power that operate more like demonic influences than the machinations of powerful and tricky elites.
Maybe this goes too far, however, and maybe the shift from the material realities of the world and the people suffering in it into the unfalsifiable domains of undefinable systems of everything and the confines of the unconscious minds of the socialized isn’t sufficient to distinguish Critical Social Justice from Marxism, proper. I find it increasingly difficult to see how this can be the case, but we shouldn’t be hasty with this consideration.
Clements, wanting to be thorough about the possibility of defining religion functionally by analogy, offers another perspective on the matter that, at last, gets us closer to his goal of providing a workable definition for religion, which I also think is informative.
Another possible method of definition by analogy would be to focus on the external manifestations that are generally associated with traditional religions. For example, Judge Adams of the Third Circuit has proposed a test for religion consisting of three indicia, the third of which is the presence of “any formal, external, or surface signs that may be analogized to accepted religions.” Among the external signs that might be considered in determining whether a belief or practice is part of a religion are, “formal services, ceremonial functions, the existence of clergy, structure and organization, efforts at propagation, observation of holidays and other similar manifestations associated with the traditional religions.” The primary advantage of such an approach is that it provides more objective and tangible elements for courts to focus on in assessing whether a belief or practice is religious.
This approach Clements criticizes for being too superficial and missing the personal aspects of religious beliefs along with manifestations of non-traditional forms of religious practice. In the form of feminist spirituality, for example, these features manifest in a decidedly feminist (and, sometimes incompatibly, queer) interpretations of astrology, Wiccan magick, and various rituals to the sacred feminine (or queer). A kind of capital-B Black spirituality is often connected on the ground with “anti-racism” work, and while black churches might form a portion of this, it is in fact the transcendent capital-B Blackness that is viewed in these cases with clear spiritual reverence (and pitted in Manichean struggle against the intrinsically “anti-Black” influence of “whiteness,” which lures into anti-Blackness other racial minorities who are seduced by the wiles of whiteness to adopt it in their own self-interest). These overtly spiritual aspects within Wokeness are not necessarily central to the Critical Social Justice project, and not all Woke people accept them, but they certainly give an indication that overt spiritualism can be a part of the kinds of identity politics that define the Woke project and, by extension, being Woke.
Here is a good time to remind the reader that “intersectionality is a practice” is an oft-repeated mantra about that particular concept, and so by examining how that practice operates in practice (or through praxis), we can get some sense of what religious practice within Critical Social Justice looks like. Aside from the self-reflection, self-interrogation, self-critique, and application of these activities to one’s friends and relations, mainline Woke rituals, services, and ceremonies almost undoubtedly take the forms of attending symbolic marches, participating in social movements, and engaging in protest against the “dominant systems” of society. These acts are the liturgy of the Critical Social Justice faith. If intersectionality is “a practice,” then intersectionality is a liturgy, and that makes it distinctly religious.
This is why we see activities like a “Women’s March” that has no particular political goal in mind except to remind the world that women exist and, ostensibly, don’t like patriarchy, misogyny, or conservatism, which are systems so vague that many of us aren’t able to detect the need for such wide-scale symbolic marching. The endless protests against “fascism” (thanks, Herbert Marcuse), which one must note are not only not shut down by the allegedly fascist state but are protected as free speech and free assembly by its police, even as they engage in the destruction of property and violence, would fall within the same category. It is spiritual, not real, Womanness they march for and spiritual, not real, fascism they protest, largely through certain types of performances (like engaging in acts of performance art including posting “fuck [something]!” dance videos online and twerking in the road in front of the police protecting them) and the chanting of mantras about how fascistic and racist the society that tolerates their obnoxious gyrations must be. These are manifestations of the Critical Social Justice liturgy.
Given the wont of the Woke not to allow anyone to have too much success for too long, individual members of clergy are harder to identify—though clergy Wokeness definitely has. Certainly, there are the thought leaders—characters like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi who say useful things about the magical systems of power (Kendi calls them “policy” while meaning “systems”) to be parroted, weaponized, and elaborated upon—but there’s very little sense that these people are in any way venerated or protected in the way we would usually think of clergy in relationship to their flocks. That is because they are not the clergy. They may be oracles or prophets of a kind, but they have no special status in the Woke system outside of their identity and their temporary utility.
As noted previously, the clergy of Critical Social Justice are the systemically oppressed, meaning specifically those saints of the movement who are able to express the “lived realities” of their systemic oppression in the officially sanctioned critical theoretical terms that indicate having awakened to the critical consciousness necessary to understand them properly. (This is part of why thought leaders like DiAngelo won’t remain clergy for long: significant success clearly complicates the credulity of the oppression narrative.) Once it is understood that anyone making a Theoretically consistent and construably plausible claim to victimhood by systemic oppression becomes clergy to the Woke, to whom even Robin DiAngelo must (and explicitly says she would) defer, the decentralized nature of the faith becomes clear—both in being decentralized and in being a faith. These clergy—or rather, prophets—in their Wokeness, are bestowed with the ability to engage in special revelation about the “realities” of systemic oppression, and they are to be believed (Marxism, I hasten to note, seems not to have any such feature). It is a sin of the highest order, in fact, to challenge or question their revelation (by comparison, institutionalized Marxism punishes Party disloyalty and anti-revolutionary sentiment in this way, but not revelation).
Whether or not Clements would be convinced is not clear, so he dives more deeply into Judge Adams’ analysis to address the issue of sincerity on the part of the would-be religionist.
That external manifestations should not be relied on in determining whether something is a religion does not mean they are irrelevant to First Amendment analysis. To be entitled to free exercise protection, a claimant must demonstrate the sincerity of his alleged religious beliefs. The fact that a claimant can show that he has consistently taken part in the ceremonial aspects of an organized religion will certainly be probative as to the sincerity of his beliefs. Nonetheless, the absence of any ceremonial aspects connected with a claimant’s asserted religious belief should not have any bearing on whether the belief qualifies as religious.
Clements, here, makes it clear that a decentralized religion that doesn’t offer ceremonial aspects as a means for testing sincerity of belief could still be considered religious for First Amendment purposes, so long as sincerity of belief can be established. Of course, ceremony is just one means of demonstrating such a thing, so even if we disregard showing up to protests, engaging in hashtag campaigns, taking on symbolic actions on social media that demonstrate one’s commitments to the cause of Critical Social Justice, giving money to sanctioned causes and publicly declaring that one has done so, buying and wearing signaling paraphernalia, and so on as not-ceremonial, they could certainly be understood as demonstrations of commitment and sincerity of belief and thus potentially indicative of underlying religious commitment to the worldview in question.
The functional core of such features, which the ceremony ritualizes in some sense, is what is known in the literature as “costly signaling.” Showing up to church every Sunday and participating in what amount to holy, or magic (depending on one’s perspective), rituals (like Communion, Baptism, or Wiccan covens) is one form of costly signaling. Rituals are symbolic, and to the technological, rationalist mind, silly, thus requiring some level of humility—or humbling—to participate in. They also take up time that could be spent in more productive or leisurely ways. These costs are borne because they signal to the community at large, which may in fact be religious, that one is committed to the cause and the belief system that informs it. They also signal the same to the self and thus can redouble commitment while providing what moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes as “elevation” for the participants and surrounding community.
Obviously, I hasten to add, taking on costly signaling to a group is a perfectly normal and widespread human behavior that applies to sports teams, movements, social and professional fraternities and sororities, and even New Discourses, so it isn’t nearly enough to classify something as a religion. They are, however, clear displays of sincerity of support for the underlying belief and moral community that has formed around that belief (even when they are not sincere, they are displays of sincerity). In other words, though it is far broader a matter than religious, demonstrations of the sincerity of belief of those who support Critical Social Justice—from theologian level down to casual congregant or “cafeteria” religionist—are readily identifiable features of the worldview. Even the specialized language is a signal of who is and who isn’t part of the club, and as the language is complicated, academic, and jargon-laden, mastering it is, indeed, a costly signal of commitment to the cause.
Certain kinds of signaling and contexts in which signaling arises are clearly more religious than others. Liturgical signaling, for example, would be more religious than secular, as it is a call back to the articles of faith, not merely the principles that underlie a community. In turn, signaling that takes a liturgical form, say one of lament, falls into this category as well, because signals made in answer to a call to faith are, by definition, actions of faith. Put in the language of the law, they are identifiable as religious practices.
There is, however, an additional signal of sincerity of belief that is prominent within Critical Social Justice: the inability to conceive of alternative explanations or accept them as coming from a place of genuine difference. Like religionists who see God’s hand in every rainbow or crepuscular ray, the Woke see systems of oppression in every difference of outcome that in any way (even partially) favors groups they’ve Theorized as having dominant social positions while disfavoring groups with relatively oppressed or marginalized positionality. Ibram Kendi and other Theorists make this explicit: systemic racism is the ultimate cause of any racial disparities that work as Theory predicts, whether the result of historical racism, subtle influences of culture, microaggressions, actual discrimination, having been socialized to believe in one’s identity-based inferiority, or being disadvantaged by being a minoritized race within a “white” system. “The question is not ‘did racism take place?’ but ‘how did racism manifest in this situation?’” It is inconceivable that any differences between groups—including between men and women, who have clear biological differences—could be the result of anything but vague systems of oppression.
Moreover, when differences with Theory arise, they are discounted unless they are critical disagreements, which therefore may not agree with some specific detail or point within Theory but are nevertheless still Theoretical. To fail to engage critically, according to Critical Social Justice, is to have engaged on the wrong terms or inauthentically. It may be described as an attempt to preserve one’s privilege or as a refusal to understand (willful ignorance), or it may be described as a profound failure of integrity born of one’s comfort in occupying a privileged state. Allowing absolutely no possibility for legitimacy of disagreement, however, and no possibility of admitting one’s beliefs might be false or in error are certain signs of not just of sincerity of belief but of absolute conviction to them.
So far, however, I’m merely making a very strong case that Critical Social Justice meets the definitions of religion that aren’t the definition of religion in question—the ones that Clements rejects in the formulation of his own. In the end, though, I think this will show that the proper definition derived from these points will be met in full by these arguments. To bring it to the table, he has one more type of concern to address, that of “fundamental questions” about life and its meaning.
Clements then rightly circles back to the issue of how religions answer “fundamental questions” of life for their adherents. He therefore begins building the case for his own definition by treating this matter with all due consideration:
The very concept of religious liberty suggests the inappropriateness of an overly content-based definition. In order to embrace new forms of religion, religion should be defined in a flexible manner that reflects the general purposes of religious liberty rather than the specific practices or beliefs of traditional religions. An approach that focuses on the function of religion in the adherent’s life performs this task far better than an approach that focuses on the more tangible physical manifestations of religion. The Supreme Court offered the bare skeleton of such a functional approach in United States v. Seeger.
In Seeger, the Court held that to qualify for a military service exemption under a statute that required a “belief in relation to a Supreme Being,” a claimant must have a “belief that is sincere and meaningful [and] occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption.” This definition focuses on the function of belief in God in the life of a traditional religionist. Since the First Amendment protects religious belief rather than “belief in relation to a Supreme Being,” the focus should be on the function of religious belief, rather than the function of belief in God. Accordingly, applying the functional approach to the religion clauses, religion might be defined as a set of beliefs that occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the religious beliefs of an adherent to something that would clearly qualify as a religion within the meaning of the First Amendment.
To Clements, then, a functional definition of religion that focuses primarily upon the function the worldview plays in the adherent’s life, not merely its philosophical or sociological structure. Those other features clearly matter somehow too, however. He therefore supplements this “fundamental questions” perspective by considering how that role of a belief system is accomplished in the life of its believer. His conclusion is that they must be embedded in a sincerely held comprehensive belief system.
Explaining his “definition by analogy,” Judge Adams has identified the role of religion in the life of the religionist, as providing a comprehensive belief system that “addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.” Such fundamental questions include “the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the Universe, [and] the proper moral code of right and wrong.”
The core, then, of a functional definition of religion is that it must work analogously to a “comprehensive belief system” that “addresses fundamental questions.” It is implied that these fundamental questions seem to be ontological and existential in nature, so “imponderables” gain relevance, like “what is the meaning of meaning itself?” This question has much significance within the postmodernist paradigm. Derrida might tell us that it is, in language, unanswerable, thus inviting us into his phallagocentric metaphysics of discourse. Other postmodern philosophers like Jean Baudrillard would say that it is lost in the endless reproduction of images that bear decreasing resemblance to the real and that replace it with a hyperreal. Yet again, we find ourselves invited into a dissatisfying metaphysics of discourse, at which point Foucault’s ideas about the ways discourses mediate power shift the matter back into focus: the meaning of meaning is caught in how the very act of meaning-making produces, transmits, and enforces social power.
Another postmodernist imponderable would derive itself from its underlying existentialist roots: “what is the meaning of a life with no ultimate purpose?” The answer arrived at by Foucault, in particular, is again, power—understanding and grasping sociocultural and, as a consequence, political power. As Theory evolved and became increasingly critical, the reduction of life’s imponderables to calculi of power simplified meaning into a paradoxically singular yet multidimensional totalizing struggle for “liberation” from all “systems of dominance and oppression.” As this view became increasingly concrete and confident over the last decade and a half, it finally happened upon a big answer to the imponderable questions of life and meaning in it. The Critical Social Justice answer to the existentialist’s nihilistic despair is to create the Utopia by finding a way to create “group justice” for socially constructed categories of people that have transcendent relevance under neo-Marxist liberationism.
This means that Critical Social Justice does, for its adherents, offer an answer to the imponderable: “what is the meaning of life?”, which might alternatively be phrased, “what is man’s role in the universe?” It is to understand and control power so that systemic oppression can be unmade from the world and the liberated Utopia can be brought to fruition. Given a meaning to life, there is also a meaning to death. Death, as the ideology’s existentialist sinews remind us, is the final end, and so all that has lasting meaning is the legacy of one’s work in the unending struggle for liberation from all systems of oppression—as will be judged by the Eye at the End of History. This view is overtly religious, though, in the sense that one’s service to the transcendent reality beyond the human (systems of power and their unmaking) gives life meaning and thus makes death poignant instead of hollow. It is the shift from denial of death and transcendence of death to doing work that, itself, lives beyond the reaches of death, and the judgment of future generations awaits.
Man’s role in the Critical Social Justice universe is therefore no mystery: it is to achieve the Liberationist Utopia by purifying the discourses and disrupting and dismantling all systems of oppressive power. How this is to be achieved, in that it is impossible in practice, is left unsaid and as a matter of faith, for the discourses work in mysterious ways. Less ambiguous, though, is the moral law of right and wrong, which dictates that every righteous person must be on the right side of all of this—the “right side of history,” as we always hear—while being duly penitential about every misstep that upholds systemic oppression along the way. Again, the functional hallmarks of religious faith are unmistakable. But here I risk getting ahead of myself.
Pulling back to Clements, as a final step in formulating his definition, he needs to bring the conversation back to the point that started much of his deeper inquiry: the establishment not merely of mindsets but of actions—duties of conscience that arise from the sincerity of belief in the totalizing worldview at hand.
The requirement of a comprehensive belief system addressing fundamental questions provides a good first criterion for the concept of religion. Taken alone, however, it fails to capture the generally accepted notion of religion as giving rise to duties of conscience. This notion is captured in the language of the conscientious objector statute which refers to belief “involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation.”
This particular point—“involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation”—is key. It is, to Clements’ argument and, I’d agree, the crucial defining feature of a religion, given all the other architecture. It is, in fact, a point that further disqualifies Marxism in its older, narrower, Industrial-economic sense from being shaved down by the First Amendment razor, which I contend can no longer shave away the much more spiritual and much more deeply convicted successor ideology, Critical Social Justice. Still, the question of Marxism introduces an important point we need to address more clearly before continuing.
Marx conceived of an ideology that is wholly rooted in human relations, particularly the bourgeoisie and their relationship to the proletariat. As Clements notes (further down, after establishing his definition),
Dean Choper also argues that “many comprehensive beliefs are not necessarily religious.” He illustrates his overinclusiveness argument by suggesting that “atheistic Marxism may be fairly described as comprehensive because it supplies answers to profound questions and denies the significance of other issues.” One might apply this overinclusiveness objection to the proposed approach, by further claiming that a philosophy such as Marxism gives rise to duties of conscience in its adherents.
Although Marxism and other comprehensive political philosophies may indeed address profound questions, it is not clear that they address fundamental questions as defined in the proposed definition. Their concerns tend to be more mundane than the fundamental questions suggested above. For example, rather than addressing “man’s role in the universe,” most political philosophies address man’s role in some political community, such as a city-state, a nation-state, or under a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Moreover, with the possible exception of natural law theories, political philosophies do not usually address the nature of good and evil in a normative sense; they generally attempt to define “good” in a descriptive sense, and then advocate means to obtaining that good or goods. And few, if any, political philosophies, Marxism included, attempt to explain the meaning of life and death.
This, however, has now been addressed. Goodness, in a descriptive sense, in Critical Social Justice, is that which seeks permanent liberation from the systemic oppression generated by Enlightenment liberalism, which is considered a system of oppression that transcends any and all human relations, even though it clearly applies to them and manifests within them. Man’s role in the universe, rather than society, is irrelevant because the Critical Social Justice ideology takes as “the universe” the social order that wholly conditions people’s experience. Nonetheless, the Eye at the End of History—the abstract omniscience of the judgmental reflections of future generations—will know. That Critical Social Justice is a narrow and provincial faith that is only concerned about the magical effects of systemic power as generated by Enlightenment liberalism and cynical resistance to it should hardly disqualify it from due consideration of being a system of faith. Certainly, there can exist systems of faith that are wholly religious and yet limit themselves to the circles of the world and the mysterious forces believed to shape it for good and for evil.
A point that is failing to be grasped in this discussion is that we typically are only able to conceive of religions in premodern ways, where the spiritual forces are genuinely spiritual in a traditionally dualistic way. Critical Social Justice is a postmodern faith, however, though this makes it no less dualistic, as the spiritual world is that of the discourses and their relationship to power. Both premodern thinking and postmodern thinking are alike in their rejection of modern thinking, which is ultimately materialist and technological—and this is the key difference between Critical Social Justice, which has taken on postmodernist spiritualism and applied it to the Marxian paradigm, and Marxism, which was firmly rooted in empirical reality, which it was merely at least partly wrong about.
It is of tremendous importance to understand the effect of the relevant strand of postmodern thinking that indicates that truth and falsity are unknowable in any absolute or universal sense because everything is culture and the power dynamics that define cultures. All that is knowable is power, and power exists and is mediated (in mysterious ways) through the discourses. That is, postmodernism localized the universe into “regimes of truth” that dictate all features of material existence with them and that can only be understood by living them. That less-mediated “lived experience” generates “lived realities” that are comprehensible only in terms of how the person living them stands in relationship to the prevailing systems of power in play. If we just called these systems of power by names like “Demeter,” “Freya,” “Şiva,” “Quetzalcoatl,” and “Lucifer” (the bringer of Enlightened knowledge), rather than “systemic” bigotries and various “phobias,” the religious nature of these relationships would be perfectly clear. (And, yes, these deities of various faith traditions represented various real-world objects, forces, and phenomena, so this is a legitimate comparison).
This makes the idea of “man’s role in the universe” comprehensible as man’s role in understanding the prevailing episteme and, once Critical Theory got involved, figuring out how that produces, maintains, legitimizes, effects, and positions the individual with respect to systemic oppression so that it might be dismantled in all regards. Utopia—a materialist’s Heaven of perfect Social Justice—lies beyond this mysterious horizon of de-Enlightened thought where Lucifer’s Promethean gift has been quenched and there are no longer any shadows because the light in which they are cast has been put out. That this ambition will bear fruit is maintained as a matter of profound and personal faith, and it gives rise to the duty of conscience that all one has to do is evangelize cynicism until everyone has a critical consciousness. Then, via the metaphysics of discourse, Social Justice can work in Mysterious Ways, and Liberated Heaven on Earth will be achieved. The Eye at the End of History will be pleased.
Perhaps this hiccup raises a genuine sticking point, however: should a principled denial that life has any intrinsic meaning whatsoever (even when this denial is, paradoxically, a source of meaning) be taken as a disqualification of being “religious” for a totalizing belief system that otherwise meets the definition in literally every other regard? I don’t claim to know. This hiccup, though—not Godlesness, not organization, not any of the usual trappings of faith—becomes the crucial question of consideration.
We now find ourselves very close to the heart of the matter, which is ultimately the question of whether or not a belief system plays a particular role in a person’s life and what that role must look like to qualify as religious. Clements takes us through the crucial point as he approaches his own functional definition:
When we consider the second requirement of the proposed approach, that the belief system give rise to duties of conscience, strictly political philosophies are even more removed from the definition. Although political philosophies generally provide guides to action, these guides, for most people, are better characterized as prudential maxims, than duties of conscience. A duty of conscience serves as an end in itself, which cannot be compromised to serve some more mundane duty (such as the duty to obey the law). A duty arising from one’s political philosophy generally serves as a means to some other end, and lacks the compelling nature of a duty of conscience. For example, persons who believe strongly in democracy may feel a duty to vote, but few would view this duty as too compelling to be outweighed by other considerations, such as a family or professional obligation that would make it impossible to vote.
For some people, however, a political philosophy does give rise to imperative duties of conscience. For example, persons advocating civil disobedience often view the duty to disobey unjust laws as a duty of conscience. Under the proposed approach, this would not necessarily make that person’s political philosophy a religion. The person would also have to view their political philosophy as addressing the fundamental questions. But if a person views a certain political philosophy as providing imperative duties of conscience, perhaps even duties he would sacrifice his life for, then that person may also view the philosophy as addressing such fundamental questions as man’s role in the universe, the nature of good and evil, and perhaps even the meaning of life and death. If a philosophy does play such a role in a person’s life, then it should be treated as a religion with regard to that person. Similarly, if a public school were to present philosophical teachings as a comprehensive belief system addressing fundamental questions and creating duties of conscience, it might well violate the establishment clause.
(NB: “moral or patriotic views are not by themselves ‘religious,’ but if they are pressed as divine law or a part of a comprehensive belief-system that presents them as ‘truth,’ they might well rise to the religious level.”)
Clearly, most of these issues have been answered thoroughly by this point, but it’s worth driving the nail in just a bit deeper in light of this more specific explanation. The duties of conscience in Critical Social Justice are duties with regard to how one’s conscience orients with regard to systems of power and privilege, which are Theorized to be ubiquitous and immanent in all human societies. Because of Manichean demands that “there is no neutral” and that “to refuse to take a side is to take the side of the oppressor,” everyone is forced into a good or evil role by the Theory of Critical Social Justice. Again, these systems of oppression are viewed as ubiquitous and universally relevant, so this demand is in turn universally applicable. There are, therefore, the faithful and infidels with regard to Critical Social Justice, with no ground in between. It is the duty of all who believe to convert those who can be converted and to control those who cannot, and this is an absolute an inflexible demand that, I argue, gives rise to clear duties of conscience that are so sincerely held that they routinely override the affective ties between friends, siblings, spouses, and even parents and their children—lest the Eye at the End of History see one’s complicity in oppression through association, even through the human frailty of affection.
These are also not mere real-world human concerns because they barely deal with human beings at all. Critical Social Justice conceives of individuals wholly in terms of their group identities, as those intersect in complicated and mysterious ways. That is, Critical Social Justice is not concerned with humans but with socially constructed identity groups that stand in as proxies for the people Critical Social Justice claims to represent. Ask yourself: What happens to a black or gay person who disagrees with Critical Social Justice? Are they even still considered legitimately black or gay? Not always. Critical Social Justice uses doctrines of critical versus false consciousness and Wokeness versus willful ignorance to divine when someone is authentically a member of the socially constructed identity group in question. Following the liberationist metaphysics, a person’s identity is authentic when it duly observes the correct critical pieties about the relevant systems of power and those groups’ relationships to them. The practice of getting this “right,” is known as “engaging one’s positionality,” which is quite literally the intersectional means of divining one’s spiritual standing in the Critical Social Justice faith. It is the practice of intersectionality, and its declaration in writing or speech is part of the relevant liturgy of the decentralized worship of Critical Social Justice.
One will notice, of course, that this view of the individual person manifests in turn a clear ontological ponderance about what it means to be an identity at all, and it gives rise to a theory of agency that is no less theological than the various religious doctrines on free will. False agency is provided by dominant social groups to those who act in accordance with upholding the dominant status quo through the production and maintenance of hegemony; true agency is obtained by adopting a critical consciousness and, ironically, seeing the world only through a set of narrow critical lenses. One might as well be under the influence of the devil as having been socialized by the dominant discourses into internalized dominance or oppression, but by getting right with the Lord (Social Justice) and adopting a critical consciousness, the scales can fall from one’s eyes, and freedom of will (agency) can be bestowed. The grace of the Eye at the End of History is accepted by turning one’s back—and fist—on all that creates and maintains unjust systems of oppression (perhaps while enforcing the “Socially Just” ones).
At this point, at last, we can turn to Clements’ functional definition of religion, and I think enough argument has been made so far that little or no elaboration afterward will be required to convince the reader that it is either met or very plausibly grounds for serious discussion about whether it is met. Clements gives the following definition (emphasis added):
Supplementing Judge Adams’ idea of a comprehensive belief system that addresses fundamental questions with the notion of duties of conscience provides a workable definition of religion for purposes of the First Amendment. Taking these two ideas together, religion can be defined as a comprehensive belief system that addresses the fundamental questions of human existence, such as the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the universe, and the nature of good and evil, and that gives rise to duties of conscience.
I am, given my background in mathematics and all I’ve written so far, tempted here to type only “quod erat demonstrandum.” Clements, however, is more prudentially circumspect than that and offers a number of potential objections to his definition, some of which might bear relevance. The Objection for Marxism, discussed above, is one such argument. The one below, which in the case of Critical Social Justice I might call the Objection to Nihilism, remains:
Moreover, the proposed approach does require that the alleged religious belief play a certain role in the claimant’s life: it must be part of a comprehensive belief system that addresses certain fundamental questions and gives rise to duties of conscience. Thus, the issue in a free exercise case is not simply whether the claimant sincerely believes that the belief or practice in question is a religious belief, but whether he sincerely believes that it plays the religious role in his life. The definition of that role provides a basis for the factfinder to question the nature of the belief, and to assess the claimant’s sincerity, thereby reducing the likelihood of successful fraudulent claims.
It is clear that some faiths look upward to God while retaining awareness of sin, temptation, and evil, and their faithful tend to be enriched by this habit. Other faiths—particularly, puritanical ones—tend not to do this and look downward at sin that needs to be called out, temptation that must be avoided or repressed, and evil that must be destroyed. Their awareness of their God is remote and distant, a secondary feature of their faith, and they tend to see their God as a stern judge who will, in the end, adjudicate on the moral worth of their struggle against the evils of the world. Critical Social Justice is such a downward-oriented faith. The Eye at the End of History will know, as will the future generations between now and then, whether they stood for liberation or oppression. In this sense, while postmodernism might have been nihilistic, Critical Social Justice has taken up only traces of this blind negativity (particularly the blindness). For them, it is not that everything must be destroyed, just everything that maintains systemic oppression.
This extraordinarily nonsensical set of beliefs about the world and willing embrace of self-serving double standards produces perhaps the most common difficulty I encounter when trying to tell people about Critical Social Justice: people really do believe it. It should be sufficiently clear to people, as families are literally being torn apart as a result of falling on different sides of the relevant issues, but perhaps more argument than this is needed.
The difficulty arises because to an outsider, the Theory of Critical Social Justice is simply unbelievable, if not blatantly self-contradictory, flatly ridiculous, and transparently unethical. It isn’t clear how anyone could truly believe ideas like that there is no truth, only your “truth” and mine (communicated, no less, by smartphones equipped with GPS). Given the cartoonish conflict theory it inherited from late-stage, Marcusian neo-Marxism, which was made even more cartoonish by the identity-politicians who took it up in earnest (including black feminists like Angela Davis, radicals like the Weatherman Underground, and other Liberationist revolutionaries within the so-called New Left that emerged after One-Dimensional Man and the Vietnam War) and the ridiculous and unsustainable postmodernist break from truth, doubts the sincerity of Critical Social Justice advocates seem always at the heart of liberal and conservative reactions to descriptions of the worldview. Yeah, but does anybody really believe that?
I think the answer to this question, though, is undoubtedly in the affirmative—sincerity of belief and conviction to the faith are undeniably real—and the theologians of the movement, at the least, tell us this in the clearest possible terms. To them, objectivity is, as Robin DiAngelo has put it, “undesirable” and “an impossible goal.” Thus, truth, in the objective sense that it could be shared as true by all people in all places and times regardless of their cultural milieu, does not exist (or is, at least, entirely inaccessible). Our comprehension of reality is wholly and radically subjectivist, so that reality becomes “realities,” which are not comprehensible on shared terms but lived and interpreted through cultural paradigms that either align with systemic dominance or the attempt to liberate people from dominance.
This leads Critical Social Justice scholars (theologians) to compose and compile lists of tenets, which, in articulating just the “systemic racism” aspect of this belief system (while other dimensions of Theory admit other, parallel expressions), read like this example from DiAngelo, et al. One will notice that they form something of a creed:
Racism exists today in both traditional and modern forms. Racism is an institutionalized, multilayered, multilevel system that distributes unequal power and resources between white people and people of color, as socially identified, and disproportionately benefits whites. All members of society are socialized to participate in the system of racism, albeit in varied social locations. All white people benefit from racism regardless of intentions. No one chose to be socialized into racism so no one is bad, but no one is neutral. To not act against racism is to support racism. Racism must be continually identified, analyzed and challenged. No one is ever done. The question is not “Did racism take place?” but rather “How did racism manifest in that situation?” The racial status quo is comfortable for most whites. Therefore, anything that maintains white comfort is suspect. The racially oppressed have a more intimate insight via experiential knowledge into the system of race than their racial oppressors. However, white professors will be seen as having more legitimacy, thus positionality must be intentionally engaged. Resistance is a predictable reaction to anti-racist education and must be explicitly and strategically addressed.
These are the core tenets developed by scholar-activists Heather Bruce, Robin DiAngelo, Gyda Swaney (Salish) and Amie Thurber at the National Race and Pedagogy Conference at Puget Sound University. They went on to be implemented explicitly at The Evergreen State College, presaging its descent into riotous madness in a way that bears every indication of having been implemented by true believers convinced not only of the capital-T Truth of these propositions but of their righteousness. In light of reading this creed and seeing its real-world implementation, perhaps first at Evergreen and now throughout our society, the question of whether this is, in fact, a religious creed becomes pressing. This lends considerable weight to the question of whether or not Critical Social Justice is a religion, not just by philosophical argument by also by legal argument. My case in this essay is that according to a functional legal argument with significant Supreme Court precedent, the answer to that question is yes. It is a credal faith exhibiting clear liturgical forms and epistolic writings that proceeds upon a recognizable Augustinian construct that it has cobbled together from various features of the Western canon, including progressive aspects of faith, the moral but not practical cores of liberal thought, anti-liberal Critical Theory, and anti-everything postmodernism.
Given the situation we find ourselves in, in society today, this matter demands serious debate. If this argument is correct, Critical Social Justice must be protected under the Free-exercise Clause of the First Amendment, so that any who wish to hold this religious view for themselves as a matter of personal conscience must be protected in doing so. That is their fundamental right, and it shall not be infringed. In the same turn, the rest of us have fundamental rights to our own consciences as well, and Critical Social Justice has no standing upon which it can infringe upon them, or us. The Establishment Clause should remove Critical Social Justice from our schools, our administrative state, and the halls of our government, as this faith, like any other, cannot receive state endorsement or become a state religion.
The secularist principle of our free, pluralistic society should also unbind the consciences of any individuals who, understanding Critical Social Justice as the system of faith that it is, have other conscience, morals, and mind, so that they might reject its imposition as inappropriate and unduly intrusive. Just as those who wish to hold to a faith of Critical Social Justice with its transcendent systems of power and its spiritualism of liberation from them are free to do so, the rest of us are free to say no and to believe otherwise. We should feel as confident in this as we would in rejecting the impositions of any other faith we don’t believe in.
In closing, the question that needs answering is whether or not Critical Social Justice meets these criteria: “a comprehensive belief system that addresses the fundamental questions of human existence, such as the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the universe, and the nature of good and evil, and that gives rise to duties of conscience.” I contend that it very well may. If that is the case, it must not be given special status by our American government and must be stripped from public spaces, including our federal, state, and local governments and, especially, our public schools, in none of which it belongs. Wokeness is a matter of personal conscience, and it must be protected as such, just as we must be protected from state enforcement of it.