By David Warden
David is Chairman of Dorset Humanists and humanist advisor to the Faith & Reflection Team at Bournemouth University and Arts University Bournemouth. In this article he replies to James Croft's pro-woke stance in this month's edition of Humanistically Speaking.
An introductory note on terminology
A large part of the difficulty in pinning down exactly what the 'woke' phenomenon is all about is the fact that it goes by a plethora of different technical names. These include Critical Social Justice, Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, Cultural Marxism, Cultural Socialism, identity politics, applied postmodernism, and radical woke progressivism. For the sake of the argument, it may be assumed that all of these terms are roughly referring to the same thing - a radical form of left-wing social analysis and politics - and that they often get collapsed into the four letter word 'woke', either with positive or negative connotations. Jonathan MS Pearce elsewhere in this edition complains about 'woke' being overused as a term of abuse by those on the right of politics, while Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson suggests that the word can be used with a capital letter to denote a specific social phenomenon. I shall try to use it as a descriptive term in this article.
James Croft's demolition of Helen Pluckrose's opposition to 'woke'
Let's start by reviewing James Croft's logical demolition of Helen Pluckrose's opposition to 'woke'. You may find this section a bit heavygoing, but I'll summarise the argument in a subsequent paragraph.
Helen Pluckrose is co-author of the book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity - And Why this Harms Everybody (2020). She identifies as a humanist and, until 2021, was editor-in-chief of Areo magazine which claims to be committed to the ethos of universal liberal humanism. In his article for Humanistically Speaking this month, James claims to be 'woke', by which he means that he is 'committed to the principles central to Critical Social Justice: that Black Lives Matter, that trans people are really who they say they are, that no person is illegal, and that we have a moral duty to dismantle structures of oppression'. Furthermore, he claims that 'wokeness' is the natural implication of taking humanism seriously. He accepts Helen Pluckrose's definition of Critical Social Justice which is that it's about the eradication of oppressive power systems like white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, etc., but he rejects her contention that there is a fundamental contradiction between Critical Social Justice and liberal humanism which is focused on 'freedom, individuality and equality of opportunity'. He explains that if the goal of liberal humanism is to ensure that everyone can pursue their own goals and life fulfilment, provided this does not infringe on anybody else’s pursuit of the same, then the eradication of oppressive systems is a necessary part of the liberal humanist project. For example, if systemic racism exists, then by definition it limits how people of colour can pursue their own goals and life fulfilment, because systemic racism subjects them to discrimination, harassment, marginalisation, and so on. He argues that Pluckrose’s definition of wokeness commits humanists to the aims of Critical Social Justice, as long as these structures of oppression actually exist. He then goes on to provide evidence that they really do exist, which completes his demolition of Pluckrose's opposition to wokeness.
Let's paraphrase all that in the interests of clarity. James believes that 'structures of oppression' exist and that they limit people’s life options. Humanism should, therefore, be in the business of dismantling them. Pluckrose, on the other hand, believes that all this talk about white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, and heteronormativity contradicts liberal humanism, because it detracts from the agency and responsibility of the individual by theorising that one's chances in life are, to a significant degree, determined by the oppressed identity groups you happen to belong to. And the more such groups you belong to, the more oppressed you are.
I think James is making a strong point. Of course we should get rid of 'structures of oppression' in order to emancipate people to live free and fulfilling lives. But I will contend in this article that we need to problematise the whole discourse of Critical Social Justice, not because it is entirely wrong but because it has been reified into an all-purpose explanation for everything we think is wrong with society. In other words, it has become a dogma which is being applied with too much enthusiasm. So much so, in fact, that a number of critics are routinely describing it as a religion. If there is any merit in this criticism, then it will indeed fall foul of humanism, which is the very antithesis of religion – at least religion of the dogmatic variety.
James informs us that he grew up in a nonreligious home and has been a humanist since university days. That's great. Except that people who've never been infected with religion may lack the intellectual antibodies to repel new variants. As an ex-evangelical Christian, it seems obvious to me that Critical Social Justice - 'woke' for short - is a type of dogmatic religion. So for example, when James writes 'I am committed to the principles central to Critical Social Justice: that Black Lives Matter, that trans people are really who they say they are, that no person is illegal...' it looks to me that he is solemnly intoning his adherence to a creed. His confession has the same linguistic structure as the Apostles' Creed: 'I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins.' James is declaring to the church of progressivism that he is doctrinally sound and that there is no taint of error in his mind. But this is not how humanism works. Humanist epistemology is akin to science; it proceeds on the basis of scepticism, doubt, and critical questioning. James himself has written eloquently about this in The Oxford Handbook of Humanism where he states: 'The responsibility of the Humanist is to develop their critical intelligence and turn it on every area of life - including their most cherished beliefs'.
In his recent talk for Dorset Humanists, James said '...a humanist approach to religion in general is vitally important because if we could provide for the spiritual needs people cannot otherwise replicate in a secular society we would be much happier than we are today'. I'm sympathetic to this take on humanism, a humanism which seeks to meet the human needs which religion has tried to satisfy. But I'm not sympathetic to the bad type of religion, the type of religion which is creedal and dogmatic. James seems to agree. He said that ethical humanism in the US is essentially 'an attempt to keep the good parts of religion, the sense of community, the opportunity to grow alongside others, the connection with something bigger than ourselves, without the bad parts – the dogmatism, the belief in unscientific ideas...' So, hopefully, we're not that far apart.
A closer look at woke
Let’s take a closer look at woke. Where did it come from? We know it’s associated with something called Critical Race Theory (a subset of Critical Social Justice) which, in short, is the belief that people of colour, and black people in particular (often capitalised as 'Black'), are oppressed by something called ‘white privilege’, 'white supremacy' or simply ‘whiteness’. The oppression is subtle and ubiquitous because, so it is claimed, it’s embedded in structures (structural racism) and in the attitudes and language of white people (unconscious bias). Critical Race Theory is inspired by Marxist ideas. Marx himself did not teach Critical Race Theory but he did believe in a victim class – the proletariat, and an oppressor class – the capitalist bourgeoisie. This binary and deterministic social analysis remains the bedrock of classical Marxism, but new axes of oppression have been theorised by Marxist or Neo-Marxist scholars for many decades. The race axis of oppression forms the basis of Critical Race Theory. Its evidential basis is that unequal outcomes are, ipso facto, indicative of systemic racism, as opposed to a multivariate analysis which might reveal that other factors could be at play in producing unequal outcomes. Critical Race Theory isn't entirely wrong or useless. It can help to illuminate the subtle ways in which people of colour have been and continue to be oppressed. But if it's the only tool in the analytical toolbox it can become unhinged from reality. The worst outcome of all is that, as it obsesses about race, it can become a new form of racism in itself, not only by stigmatising all white people but also by subjugating people of colour to a theory of racial determinism.
We’re familiar with several more axes of oppression which are theorised by Critical Social Justice: 'the patriarchy' oppressing women and children; the legacies of colonialism and slavery oppressing the descendants of those who were oppressed and enslaved in the long distant past; the genocide of indigenous peoples; heteronormative society oppressing gays and lesbians; the oppression of trans and queer people by transphobes and radical feminists; and, finally, the oppression of other species and the planet itself by Homo sapiens. These strands of oppression can be woven together into something called ‘intersectionality’ whereby any individual can calculate how oppressed they are depending on how many victim categories they belong to. I only belong to one (I'm gay) and so my score is pretty low in the game of victimhood. All of this explains why we now have the liturgical calendar of Black History Month; Trans Awareness Day; and LGBTQ Pride Month, along with instructional courses in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Unconscious Bias Training. Capitalist corporations submit to ethical cleansing under the banner of Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) while radical activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil announce that the Apocalypse is nigh. I’m not necessarily opposed to all of these things. I was a corporate diversity trainer myself and I take part in LGBTQ Pride every year. But the whole package of radical progressivism is pursued with the fervour of a fanatical religion.
At a recent event at Dorset Humanists, two lovely young people turned up and we had a long discussion with them after the talk. They were dressed in alternative clothes reminiscent of 1960s hippiedom. They were vegan, they were activists, they were protesters, and they spoke about everything in terms of 'oppression'. They love the new Pride freedom flag because it aims to represent all oppressed groups. They want to add even more symbolic features to the flag to increase its scope. They hate Tories and everyone who votes Conservative. They denounced TERFs (women who are critical of trans demands.) They were well-meaning, but I knew there would be little point in trying to argue with them, because they were completely immersed in a particular worldview which interprets society as an ongoing battle for 'justice', a struggle between 'the oppressed' and the 'oppressors'. This is a neo-Marxist worldview. Oppression does exist, of course. But to interpret all social reality through this particular lens is to allow ideology to override rationality. Moreover, it dehumanises people by sorting everyone into 'oppressors' and the 'oppressed'. The more oppressor points you have, the worse you are. To be white, male, straight, old, and conservative puts you in league with Beelzebub. There is little chance of redemption, unless you confess to your unconscious racism, sexism, homophobia and diabolical political views, and devote yourself henceforth to social justice activism. Few images are as potent in symbolising this new form of submission as the image of UK Labour Leader Keir Starmer and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner which shows them 'taking the knee'.
Is woke really a new religion?
If you’re a humanist and you still think that being 'woke' is a good thing, you might be hooked on the powerful social and psychological rewards that come from being a progressive activist. Radical wokeism provides the same kind of endorphin hit you get from being an evangelical Christian. Activists enjoy the feeling that they belong to an army of social justice warriors, that they are ‘on the right side of history’, and they derive powerful dopamine rewards from denouncing critics and dissenters as ‘far right’, ‘racist’, ‘fascist’, and ‘transphobic’ bigots. People with the wrong views can be called ‘gammons’ which is equivalent to calling them pigs. If you protest loudly enough about their hateful views, you may succeed in getting them dis-employed. If you run a social media platform, you may be able to take down their social media accounts. If you run a bank, you may be able to de-bank them. In short, by joining this revolution, you acquire enormous power to wage moral and social war against the legions of Satan.
Many critical commentators have noticed the family resemblances of 'woke' and religion. Radical progressivism makes the same kind of social promises that were made by Jesus (‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’ - Matthew 19.30). It may even be a secular version of Christianity itself. Somewhat reminiscent of the way in which Christianity conquered the Roman Empire in the 4th century, radical woke progressivism is very popular among the elite. It’s captured the commanding heights of the liberal media, universities and schools, corporations anxious to display their ‘woke’ credentials to their young employees and customers, most political parties, the Church of England, the National Trust, and virtually every other institution you might care to mention. It has even infiltrated the Conservative Party to some extent. Those who oppose it are in a similar position to heretics when Christianity was in its dominant phase. Most of them will keep their heads down and say nothing for fear of being denounced. The brave few who put their heads above the parapet will be targeted by activists.
If you have managed to escape, as I have, from a fundamentalist religion you may have been inoculated against the religion of wokeism. But if you've never experienced religious euphoria before, and let's remember that Millennials and Gen Z are unlikely to have been raised in a traditional religion, you may be highly susceptible to being unconsciously infected by novel forms of religion. This is one reason why humanists need to develop their religious literacy and understanding about how religious psychology works. The human brain has built-in neural pathways which are very susceptible to religious ideas. In the absence of inoculation and/or religious literacy, the mere lack of religion in the traditional sense is no defence against falling prey to new forms of religion. Religion does not have to have a supernatural god to be a religion. If it meets a sufficient number of religious criteria, such as the existence of a body of esoteric dogma and specialised jargon, an eschatology (the 'Promised Land of social justice'), a zealous band of warrior disciples and activists, a panoply of anathemas and fatwas to hurl at heretics, and a vigorous apologetics industry dedicated to neutralising all criticism, then there's a high probability that you're looking at a religion.
Millennials and Gen Z, just like everyone else, need to have some kind of existential meaning and purpose in their lives. Organised humanism has failed, over the last 150 years, to build an appealing alternative to traditional religion on a large enough scale. We thought that just getting rid of religion was enough. But it's not. In the cultural vacuum, a new, secular, and highly contagious religion has emerged which powerfully appeals to idealistic young people. Radical woke progressivism has been incubating in the universities since the 1960s, with roots going back as far as the 1930s. One of the reasons why it has now escaped from the universities, like some monstrous lab leak, is the rapid increase in university attendance over recent decades. Students are liable to get infected whilst they are there and, when they leave, they go into leadership positions throughout society and the economy, and so the contagion spreads.
There are plenty of intellectuals fighting back against radical woke progressivism, including some who identify as humanists. But the organised humanist movement tends to be sympathetic to, or passively tolerant of, radical woke progressivism. For example, Roy Speckhardt, former CEO of the American Humanist Association, wrote a book in 2020 called Justice-Centered Humanism. This book pretty much aligns humanism with Critical Social Justice. Judging by the conversations I had at the World Humanist Congress in Copenhagen last month, it seems that Critical Social Justice is the default position of many humanists in the United States. But I also met a plucky band of Canadian humanists who are campaigning against it (see article by Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson in this edition). And we should note that there are black American intellectuals, such as John McWhorter, who are arguing against it.
There's an alternative to Critical Social Justice and it’s called liberal humanism. Liberal humanism doesn’t divide people up into victim and oppressor categories. It champions free speech and it avoids fanaticism. Long ago, it gave up the dangerous notion that we can create perfectly fair societies if we also wish to maintain our basic liberties. Liberalism humanism is based on science, rationality, toleration of different viewpoints, and incremental progress rather than revolution. It’s based on the idea of 'our common humanity' and the agency of the individual person. Our life chances may well be adversely affected by the identity groups we belong to, and by instances of structural oppression, but we should avoid being slavishly devoted to such theories. Humanists want to make the world a better, fairer place, a world in which everyone has the chance to flourish. There's plenty of work to be done on that front. And the last thing we need is for humanism to mutate into a new type of dogmatic religion.
So to James and other 'woke' humanists I say this: please consider the possibility that wokeism may be a new and dangerous type of dogmatic religion. Welcome dialogue with critics, and other humanists, who are making the kind of points I have made in this article. Seek justice, of course, and work for a better world. But try not to be seduced by theories which purport to explain all social phenomena, especially when they result in 'othering' those who dissent, and sometimes dehumanising them. Humanists do not have to agree on politics or social theory. But we must remain faithful to the humanistic principles of doubt, dialogue, democracy, and critical thinking.
Not So Black and White: A History of Race from White Supremacy to Identity Politics (2023) Kenan Malik
The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World (2022) by Andrew Doyle
An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West (2022) by Konstantin Kisin
The Oxford Handbook of Humanism (2021) edited by Anthony B. Pinn. James Croft's chapter is entitled 'The Practice of Humanism', in which there is a section called 'Practicing the Epistemic Commitment' (quotation from page 624).
Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America (2021) by John McWhorter
Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity - And Why this Harms Everybody (2020) by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Justice-Centered Humanism (2020) by Roy Speckhardt
Critical Race Theory (Third Edition): An Introduction (2017) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
Image credit: the thumbnail image WOKE is from Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (2019) by Titania McGrath (a pseudonym of Andrew Doyle).