The following is a list of ideologies, beliefs, theories, and activities that are sometimes categorized as religions, both by prominent intellectuals and by people shouting at each other on the Internet: Evolution. Science. Being pro-vaccination. Being anti-vaccination. Marxism. Libertarianism. Capitalism. Socialism. Global warming. Environmentalism. Peloton. CrossFit. Veganism. Keto. Modern American work culture. Modern American sports fandom. Wokeness. Trumpism.
The list is remarkable not only for its diversity (CrossFit and socialism in the same category?) but also for its inaccuracy. None of these is a religion — and even if it were allowed that some might qualify, calling them “religions” rarely accomplishes what the intellectuals and Internet shouters hope it will, namely, to level a devastating and definitive critique.
Nonetheless, classifying one’s latest bête noire as a religion commands immense persuasive power. And admittedly the arguments in favor can seem decisive at first. Advocates of the “Trumpism as religion” thesis, for instance, will cite as compelling evidence the golden statue of Trump — ready for a Zoom meeting in its suit jacket, overlong red tie, and American flag board shorts — that worshippers installed at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference. Unsurprisingly, religion analogies immediately made the rounds, and I must admit that as a religious studies professor I enjoyed watching the nation discuss golden calves and the meaning of idolatry.
Likewise, the “wokeness as religion” thesis is superficially plausible. Its most prominent advocate, the Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, lays out what appear to be undeniable parallels between features of traditional religion and the target of his ire. He sees white privilege as the woke version of original sin in that both are “unremovable stains about which one is to maintain a lifelong concern and guilt.” He claims that wokeness, like religions, has its own “catechism couched in an elaborate jargon being imposed almost as sacred: privilege, decentering, hegemony, antiracism.” There’s even excommunication: Nonbelievers are “cast out,” though the preferred term is “canceled.” He refers to Ta-Nehisi Coates as a “priest” and cites (in understandable horror) a professional theologian who talks about Michael Brown, shot to death in Ferguson, Mo., as if he were a modern Jesus. McWhorter goes so far as to say “The Antiracist Research and Policy Center that Boston University has provided Ibram Kendi with is, in focusing on a religious frame of mind, a divinity school.”
McWhorter insists he’s not analogizing; he’s classifying wokeness as an actual religion. “If this kind of thing is just ‘like a religion’ rather than being one,” he writes, “then I assume that those who feel that way would comfortably classify Roseanne Barr’s likening of Valerie Jarrett [a Black woman] to apes as ‘like racism.’” Once this classification is established, it provides support for other associated theories, such as the idea that declining participation in traditional religions creates a market for new political fundamentalist religions, from Trumpism to wokeness.
However, parallels do not always identify essential similarities. After all, the parallels to religion that McWhorter draws with wokeness can be drawn with a wide range of disparate ideologies, including those in the list above.
Consider science, which McWhorter contrasts with religious belief. Science has its own original sins: human irrationality and bias, ineradicable flaws that must be systematically corrected with the catechisms and rituals of the scientific method. The rituals (call them “experiments”) take place in churches called laboratories and universities, in purified (“sterilized”) workspaces. Instead of robes, the priests of science wear lab coats and worship Saint Einstein, teaching their disciples from holy scriptures like “The Origin of Species.” Is there excommunication? Absolutely: Suggesting a supernatural causal force will get you canceled.
Who knew? Science is a religion too!
Of course science is not a religion, so perhaps a series of parallels to religious terms isn’t a reliable approach to classification. Instead, it would be better to come up with a narrow definition of religion, narrow enough that it excludes science (and CrossFit).
Unfortunately, definitions of religion are hotly contested. Religion as we understand it is a relatively modern concept, developed in the 16th century to help distinguish between the supposedly good beliefs and rituals of European explorers (religion) and the supposedly bad beliefs and rituals of the Indigenous people they encountered (superstition, witchcraft).
Definitions have improved since then, but they remain controversial and suffer from a variety of shortcomings. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Religion, under the entry “Religion, Definition of,” identifies the central problem as the issue of extension, a technical term for what a definition picks out. An overextended definition will identify science and wokeness and sports fandom as religions, while an underextended definition — say, one that insists on belief in spiritual beings — could leave out some Buddhists and Jews.
Despite remaining agnostic about the correct definition of religion, the author of this encyclopedia entry, the philosopher Patrick Casey of Holy Family University in Philadelphia, has little patience for McWhorter’s approach. In his essay “Stop Calling Wokeness a Religion,” Casey argues that McWhorter’s implied definition of religion is badly overextended: “In Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, one couldn’t discuss lots of things — dogmas that were taboo to question. But the Stalinist and Maoist regimes were militantly anti-religion. Should we now consider them devoutly religious?”
At this point I know some readers will insist that yes, actually, Maoism and Stalinism are religions, and so is Trumpism, and maybe science too — which is why it might be a good time to simply concede the definitional question and ask, instead, what it is that calling something a religion is meant to do.
The most obvious answer is that it is meant to function as a slur. The word “religion” in “X is a religion” statements usually connotes closed-mindedness, intolerance, irrationality, exclusivity, and refusal to change one’s mind when presented with empirical evidence. Such characteristically religious forms of thinking, goes the implied argument, are dangerous. Calling an ideology a religion is a warning.
This definition of religion will be familiar to anyone who has followed the work of New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, for whom religiosity really is synonymous with “bad thinking.” But not everyone who calls Trumpism a religion is an atheist, and it’s likely that most people eagerly sharing McWhorter’s wokeness-as-religion articles are also quite friendly to other, more traditional religions. For such people “religion” in itself is not a slur, which means calling something a religion is not necessarily a warning.
Another possibility is that the classification is meant to illuminate features of an ideology that might otherwise remain undetected. But is it really illuminating to point out that an ideology has important figures (saints!) and important texts (scriptures!); that it has non-negotiable first principles (dogma!); that certain bad beliefs (heresies!) and activities (sacrilege!) can get you kicked out (excommunication!); that there are official places for conducting business (churches!) and sets of standard practices (ritual!)?
The problem of extension looms large: It’s hard to imagine any ideology that wouldn’t qualify. (Try it with American patriotism. You can start with the Constitution as scripture and “human rights” as unquestionable dogma.) Using religious terms to describe standard features of an ideology creates a flashy veneer that covers up rather pedestrian and obvious truths.
So if calling something a religion is neither necessarily insulting or illuminating, then what is it?
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked that justificatory arguments must always come to an end at some point: “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’”
The same, I would suggest, is true of explanations. When we encounter an ideology we find repugnant or incomprehensible, our instinct is to explain why others might believe in it. But explaining why someone believes in things and behaves in ways you find irrational and immoral is difficult. Deploying “X is a religion” is what happens when you hit bedrock. It’s not unlike calling a serial killer “crazy.” Calling someone crazy — or evil — ends the task of explanatory work. Why would someone kill a bunch of kids? Why would the Nazis exterminate Jews? Answer with “They’re crazy” or “They’re evil” or “It’s a cult” and you can put down your spade.
But just because we feel like putting down our spades doesn’t mean we should. A rushed job always leads to problems down the line, and this particular one is no exception. Those friendly to the “wokeness is a religion” thesis, like Atlantic writer and Brookings Institute fellow Shadi Hamid, are also likely to embrace another, similarly incoherent position, the “religion-shaped hole” thesis. Wokeness and other forms of “religious” political extremism, they argue, are substitutes for the traditional religion that’s gone missing in increasingly secular societies. Without Mother Mary, people are inclined to worship Robin DiAngelo!
If you think that any strongly held ideology is an exclusive religion, the thesis makes sense. You can’t follow two mutually exclusive religions at the same time, right? But it takes only a moment’s thought to realize how ridiculous this position really is. How does one explain the Taliban, for instance, who combine religion and political extremism? Or Hindu nationalists? Or Christian nationalists? It isn’t just atheists who seek out political fundamentalism.
And for that matter, how would you explain Martin Luther King’s strongly held, non-negotiable — shall we say “dogmatic”? — belief in civil rights? The man was a reverend! How could he embrace two dogmas at the same time? Wouldn’t he have needed a religion-shaped hole to make room for the orthodoxies of his political activism?
Fortunately, McWhorter himself offers a way out of the difficulties he creates. At the end of a blog post about “The Elect” — in this context a stand-in for wokeness — he makes a remarkable concession:
“The Elect make a pretense of being about activism when what really gets them going is shaming people and virtue signaling, while exploiting black people they don’t truly respect as tools for the former — as actual black people join them unaware of the profound dismissal that pity entails. So the problem is not that The Elect is a religion. It’s that it’s a shitty religion.”
He’s right. The problem isn’t with religion; it’s with bad religion. Opponents of wokeness or Trumpism may be tempted to identify the badness of those ideologies as uniquely religious: collections of inflexible dogmas. But dogmatism, like religion itself, can be either good or bad. Dogmatic certainty about the evil of dehumanizing our political opponents is surely a virtue, as is insistence on the sacredness of mutual respect despite the existence of deep ideological divides.
Here the religion analogy is finally useful, because it points to neglected resources that could help heal our festering cultural wounds. In 1964, the Catholic Church established the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The council has three official goals:
1) to promote respect, mutual understanding, and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of other religious traditions;
2) to encourage the study of religions;
3) to promote the formation of persons dedicated to dialogue.
Slurring our ideological opponents as closed-minded zealots works against all three goals. It promotes disrespect, forecloses on nuanced understanding, and makes us thirsty for victory instead of understanding. It’s high time we abandoned the desire to convert those who do not share our dogmas — and yes, we all have them — and started to form ourselves as people genuinely dedicated to dialogue.
An easy first step? Not calling wokeness and Trumpism religions.
Alan Levinovitz is associate professor of religion at James Madison University and the author of “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science.” Follow him on Twitter @alanlevinovitz.