July 30, 2020   5 mins

“Wokeness is a religion”. How many times have we heard that recently? White officials washing the feet of Black Lives Matter protest leaders, kneeling groups reciting pledges to renounce their privilege, ritual chants, not to mention public punishment of heretics and a growing body of fiercely-defended and not particularly logical doctrine.

The comparison is always meant as a criticism. The people who wield it see the story of the West as one of Reason advancing inexorably against ignorance, superstition, repressive morality and hidebound tradition. In other words, against religion.

The secular rationalists who champion this view have been winning for some time. Church attendance is cratering; Christmas and Easter are mostly about shopping; Catholic-run healthcare providers in the US are dragged through the courts over the provision of contraception or transgender surgery. So ‘Wokeness is a religion’ is a secular rationalist’s ultimate dunk: from a perspective that’s been dominant for centuries, it amounts to saying woke beliefs belongs in the dustbin of history.

Wrong. Or at least, only half right. Wokeness is a religion, or at least a re-emergence of religious impulse. But this is not a bug, it’s a feature.

The Emperor Constantine is said to have embraced Christianity after a dream told him to adopt the chi-rho symbol as part of Roman military insignia. Constantine ordered this Christian symbol to be painted on his armies’ shields, and won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge the next day. That he did so under the sign of the chi-rho was the founding moment of the Holy Roman Empire, the hinge event that turned Christianity from a minority sect into a power both spiritual and political.

Today we’re watching something similar: the transition of wokeness from fringe cult to mainstream public morality. It’s happening both in our plague-racked and protest-riven urban public squares, and also in a digital public square whose rulemakers are largely already converts to the new faith.

Some might protest that Twitter isn’t the real world, and it doesn’t matter what people do in its bubble. But the story of Constantine shows how mass adoption of a new worldview can owe as much to elite champions as deep inner conviction. Plenty will embrace whatever seems to be the new status faith, because they don’t care much either way and don’t want to miss out on promotion.

Imagine you’re a centurion in the Roman army. Your legion has been commanded to paint over your shield insignia with the chi-rho symbol, thanks to an edict from your new woke emperor. You, a regular worshipper of household gods, Caesars and other deities, will most likely shrug your shoulders and do it, because it doesn’t much matter either way and orders are orders.

Similarly, where the celebrities, politicians, billionaires and tastemakers on Twitter go, the rest of the world follows. Because of this, Twitter arguments over what you can and can’t say in fact matter a great deal. But the defenders of Reason have already lost, because they’re arguing from sacred values that wokeness has long since abandoned.

In our Roman legion, a few stubborn hold-outs might complain. How can you only have one god? Who’s supposed to guard your household? No one listens, though, because that sort of thing can get you in trouble, and besides, didn’t you know household gods aren’t even a thing nowadays?

There are analogous hold-outs against wokeness, including not just conservatives but sincere liberals too. The recent Harper’s letter decrying ‘cancel culture’ gathered just such worthies, to mount a defence of open debate and objective standards that should apply to everyone.

Then in the last week, the fact that it took Twitter nearly a week to permanently ban grime artist Wiley after a bilious anti-Semitic rant mobilised much the same constituency in a boycott of Twitter to protest the site’s seeming tolerance of racism against Jews. In the latter case, the defenders of the old faith eventually won – but such protests, while they may win the odd battle, are still likely to lose the war=

This is because from the vantage point of wokeness, being criticised for not treating all groups the same is like a monotheist being told off for not honouring the household gods. If you don’t hold something sacred, you won’t care if someone accuses you of sacrilege against it. And for the woke, objectivity and even-handedness are not just impossible, they’re stalking-horses for privilege. So the old-school liberals of both left and right can only stare with mounting outrage, as people carry on professing wokeness despite the fact that its doctrines aren’t reasonable, or fair, or even trying to be objective.

For secular rationalists, especially the conservative ones, this is prompting a fear that we’ve hit Peak Reason. And indeed, from this perspective it’s not nice to contemplate the possibility that we’re not advancing at all, but instead sliding down the other side of the arc of progress back into the mire of Belief. But really, these grumblers should get over themselves: it’s the secular rationalist worldview which is the flash in the pan.

It’s been barely half a millennium since we first started trying to dethrone God, and barely decades since we mostly succeeded. But if you take a longer view, morality and religious doctrine have been fused in human cultures for as long as humans have had cultures. Far from being a devastating own, the more religion-like wokeness is, the more seriously we should take it.

This also means debates about what does and doesn’t get you banned on Twitter are not idle at all. Rather, they’re debates about an emerging and increasingly powerful faith’s moral orthodoxy, and what will get you excommunicated. In other words, debates about types and degrees of sin and blasphemy.I’m not saying wokeness is Christianity in disguise. As Antonia Senior argued in January, the new faith does lean heavily on Christianity – but it borrows as syncretically as the Romans did. Its vision of the good is far from clear, if it exists at all. But regardless, it should be obvious by now there’s no point trying to resist the apostles of wokeness with the tools of secular reason.

No one who saw the internet go bananas last week because ‘baby witches hexed the moon’ can agree that all we need to deliver a rational, moderate and tolerant world is to chuck religion in the bin. Christianity is on its last legs in the West today, but it’s not obvious that the world is becoming more objective, rational, moderate and tolerant as a result. Rather, these days it’s secular reason that’s looking a bit cringe.

The triumph of Reason over Faith proved short-lived. Like water that’s been dammed, the religious impulse found new channels. As Tara Isabella Burton argues in her book Strange Rites, religiosity is reappearing in strange places, such as gym culture, Wicca – and, with growing dominance, wokeness. Woke liturgy is disjointed and its doctrines still fluid, but my bet is that the woke struggle sessions Gavin Haynes calls ‘purity spirals’ are in truth theological debates, and will solidify to a proper catechism within a decade or so.

To survive the transition back to a religious world, we should study the one that existed before Faith ebbed away under the sign of progress and enlightenment. We’ve already gone some way toward mob punishments for heresy, so we should also dust off the medieval era’s more sophisticated approach to theological debate: disputation. This scholarly art allowed sensitive theological issues to be discussed, even sometimes between faiths, with some protection against being too vigorously cancelled. If religious passions are back, we’ll need all the scholastic tools we can get.

We could do with some medieval pragmatism too. Consider, for example, King Canute, an 11th-century monarch praised by sycophants for his absolute power, who responded by commanding the sycophants to watch as he ordered the ocean’s tide to stop coming in.

Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum reports that when the tide, predictably, came in anyway, Canute then said: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”

Canute was clear-sighted about what was or wasn’t in his control. Those secular rationalists protesting the returning wave of Faith might take a leaf from his book. Instead of ordering the tide to withdraw, it’s time to learn to swim — which means, in practice, that none of us will have the option to be unbelievers for much longer. Instead we’ll all need to embrace one faith or another.

My suggestion is: pick a good one. If you refuse, you’ll end up having to profess wokeness anyway.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.