I’ve mentioned a few times that there is a moral and religious dimension to The Woke that, while sensed by many on the outside—and also many who finally throw off its dogmas—is rarely actually interrogated.
I’m reminded of a particular short essay which first brought this to my attention and that of many others, back from 2017: “Excommunicate Me From The Church of Social Justice.” While generally supportive of the ideas of The Woke, the author (a self-identified queer and trans person) critiques several of the ways in which social justice activism seems to be replicating evangelical religion.
…as someone who has spent the last decade recovering from a forced conversion to evangelical Christianity, I’m seeing a disturbing parallel between religion and activism in the presence of dogma…”
I was still deeply in the throes of The Woke—and counted myself one of them—when that article came out. I recall myself and others tepidly acknowledging maybe there were possibly a few parallels, but as it was published just a month before the events of the “Unite The Right” rally in the US, it seemed to be poorly timed. Yeah, there’s some truth there, I and probably many others thought. But it’s just a small problem.
Trump—and the apparent rise of the alt-right—provided a ready excuse for most of us to avoid any deep consideration of how unhinged we’d become. There was a “war” to fight, and that “war” easily justified any excesses that we might engage in. I mean, as long as there was a rising “fascist” menace, self-reflection was really just “inaction.”1
A few anarchists and Marxists later echoed these critiques about the religious dimension of woke ideology as well, but they quickly fell victim to the very mechanisms they had questioned. In each instance that I witnessed (and I imagine there were many more), any criticism about social justice, identity politics, Antifa, and woke ideology from the left was furiously shut down by casting aspersions on the political beliefs of the questioner.
The arguments generally followed the same line: anyone who would criticize the movement from within had obviously been infected by some other ideology. Anarchists who critiqued this religious turn were often labeled “crypto-fascist,” while Marxists who made similar (and sometimes identical) criticisms would get smeared as “third-positionist,” “Nazbols2,” or even as Russian stooges.
In all these cases, the ultimate accusation was that the critic had lost their original belief and instead gone over to the (imagined) other side. And as such, this made the person particularly dangerous and therefore deserving of extreme attacks.
The particularly brutal and rage-filled crusades against such critics always seemed a bit odd to me, as they were often more virulent than crusades against right-wing or even far-right critics of The Woke. Those people were supposedly the enemy, yet the attacks (sometimes physical) against critical leftists often made it look as if they were the real fascist threat instead. Antifa, in particular, reserves some of their most extreme actions for such leftists.
What’s actually happening here? It took me awhile to understand, and I didn’t put it together until I recalled that essay. Those leftists who question the Woke ideology? They’re apostates.
To understand why that it and what this means for the rest of us, I need to take you on a little trip through religious theology and religious history, and in particular into a unique feature of monotheism.
First of all, monotheism is of course the belief in one single, all-powerful, unitary god. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all monotheisms, and as such they all share a peculiar focus on right belief that isn’t found in other kinds of religions for a reason I will explain in a bit.
All three major monotheisms divide the world into two kinds of people: those who are believers and those who are not (for instance, the Gentile, the Infidel, the Pagan, etc). Though it may seem otherwise, the actual divine laws in these three religions regarding the treatment of these outsider groups are relatively tolerant. For the most part, though you are not allowed to mix with them, outsiders are to be treated as neutral, given hospitality when they visit, and generally not warred against (unless they happen to be living on land that the one-god ‘gave’ to his people). Of course, in actual practice, all three monotheisms have long histories of slaughtering unbelievers, but we’re talking only about the actual laws of the religions here.
However, for the people who were believers and then no longer believe, all three religions are quite clear on how they should be treated. In the Torah, for example, such a person must be killed, with the first blow coming from their closest family members. In both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, the punishment for such a person was the same as those for witches: death by fire. And to this day, eight Islamic nations continue to punish turning away from your faith by hanging the person in public.
To re-iterate this point: monotheistic law (whether those laws are from scripture or from priests/ministers/rabbis/imams) calls for the murder of ex-believers, and this is a harsher prescribed treatment than for people who have never believed.
The specific term for such a person is an apostate, derived from the Greek word for revolt, apostasía.3 An apostate is differentiated from a heretic in all three religions by one crucial aspect: whereas a heretic might still be considered redeemable, an apostate is too far gone to brought back into the true faith and is now an enemy.
The fact that monotheisms describe the act of no longer believing as a form of revolt and see such people as traitors who must be killed is a unique feature of monotheism, almost entirely absent in other types of religion. Neither Buddhism nor Hinduism, for example, have an equivalent punishment, and Buddhism doesn’t even have a term for such a person. It is also not a feature found in animist or ancient polytheist religions.
The reason this idea is exclusive to monotheism is because of that belief in a single, unitary, all-powerful god. When there is only one god who made all the universe, there is only one ultimate source of truth. Though religious judges or priests within that religion may debate and disagree on what precisely the truth is, there is never any questioning about the existence of an ultimate truth.
In religions where there are multiple gods, or where the divine is a more diffuse rather than present and singular entity4, there are multiple possibilities of truth and even equally valid contradicting truths. By nature, such religions are pluralistic, because the gods themselves are plural or the divine manifests in a plurality of forms.
Monotheism, therefore, tends to be uniquely concerned with correct belief and observing correct practices which manifest that belief. Praying five times a day, observing the Sabbath and Passover, going to mass or asking Jesus for forgiveness: these are acts which inscribe and constantly re-affirm the correct belief (that there is one god who has instituted these practices) into the life of the believer.
Not believing the correct things and not repeating the correct practices, on the other hand, brings the believer closer to a state of rebellion against the one-god. However, the rebellion of the believer is not the only problem, as all three monotheisms—especially Judaism—have holy writings which narrate what happens to an entire community when even one believer rebels. The one-god, it would seem, is quite fond of collective punishment.
That’s part of why apostasy is punished so severely. One person turning their back on the faith is not seen as a merely unfortunate event, but rather an act which threatens the entire community of believers. A heretic (someone who believes something wrong but generally still believes in the one-god) is in a state of error and must corrected. An apostate—someone who now believes something that contradicts the singular unity of truth—has rebelled against the one-god and will bring calamity upon the community if not eliminated.
Of course, there’s something else going on here, clearly visible when we look at the problem without all the ideological overlays. In monotheism, conformity of belief is how the political order sustains itself.
We can see this clearly in the early days of Christianity. Starting as a heretical sect of Judaism5, the small communities of believers—scattered throughout multiple Roman provinces—were obsessed with conformity of belief, because it was their particular belief which distinguished them from the polytheistic peoples of Rome and the Jewish communities from which they drew most of their early members.
The Pauline and other apostolic letters—in fact the entire New Testament—provide a historical and literary record of the attempt to create this new conformity. We find in the epistles constant exhortations towards correct belief, an insistence that Christians keep themselves separate from non-Christians, and especially an obsession with limiting the influence of heretics and ex-believers.
Paul, especially with his previous training in Judaic law and Stoic philosophy, was particularly suited to this task. Before his conversion, Paul was a member of a relatively small fundamentalist sect of Jews called the Pharisees (the name meant “those set apart” in Hebrew), who were obsessed with purity of belief and keeping Jews separate from foreign (especially Greek) influence.6
Paul applied the Pharisaical obsession with purity and separatism to this new religious movement to great effect, ultimately gaining more influence over the shaping of Christian belief than anyone who had actually met Jesus. Crucially, it was Paul—again, previously a member of a fundamentalist Jewish sect—who defined this new religion as a fulfillment of Jewish belief, rather than a mere heretical off-shoot.
This codification is what enabled Christianity to grow so fast and to create a new political identity for themselves. Christians saw themselves as the true successors of the Jews and their one-god, while also defining themselves constantly in opposition to the pluralistic polytheism of the Roman Empire. 7
Lacking political power or wealth in those early days, they were held together entirely by these beliefs, and thus needed to strictly police those beliefs. They did not always succeed, of course: multiple heresies arose that divided the Christians, especially Arianism. Arianism taught that Jesus was not actually part of the One-God, but rather subordinate to him, a rejection of the doctrine of the trinity which now defines Christianity.
By the time Arianism had become a significant threat to doctrinal unity though, the Christians had managed to spread their new belief to the ruling class of Rome. The most famous of the Roman elite Christians is of course the Emperor Constantine, who, after his conversion, called together the Council of Nicaea to settle the problem of Arianism.
A few things are worth mentioning about the council. First of all, it occurred in the year 325, more than 200 years after the birth of Christianity. Before this event, conformity of belief was policed internally by local Christian leaders (bishops), rather than a central authority. Second, the Emperor’s involvement in settling the Arian heresy marks the moment that Christian monotheism evolved from an oppositional sect to a state ideology. It had finally become the “successor ideology” to Roman polytheism.
Third, it’s worth looking at Constantine’s proclamation on what to do about those who still held to the Arian heresy:
if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death.
Up to this point, Arianism had been merely a heresy. Followers of the teachers of Arius were previously seen as still part of the community of belief (though in error and in need of correction). Now they were considered apostates, rebels against the one-god and deserving of death.
A final point to note about the Arian heresy and Constantine’s involvement is that it codified a continuation of the punishment for apostates seen in Judaism. Wrong belief—even possessing writing that argued for wrong belief—was now a capital crime within Christianity and the Empire it had converted.
Though the criminalization of Arian belief was on the surface a theological matter, the theological differences were secondary to the political problem that Arianism represented. Ultimately, Arianism was a competing interpretation and therefore a competing belief system, and that threatened the very basis of monotheistic belief.
Remember: once there is only one god, there is only one universal truth. Arianism represented a competing belief about that one-god, which ultimately results in a completely separate universal truth. You cannot have two universal truths and only have one universal god. The moment truth becomes a plurality, god (which is the source of truth in monotheism) necessarily becomes plural. In monotheism, only one conception of the one-god can be sustained, otherwise the very basis of monotheism falls apart.
Unity of Belief
This is why monotheism must police belief so thoroughly, and this fact also answers a peculiar paradox about monotheism’s one-god. Though in all monotheisms he is believed to be all-powerful and capable of meting out terrible punishments (firestorms, turning people into salt pillars, flooding the world, torturing sinners for eternity), it is nevertheless entirely up to his faithful to punish his apostates.
The reason for this is because it is singular belief which holds monotheistic religions together. When someone begins believing something else instead, their heresy threatens the unity of the community (a unity, remember, that is derived from belief in a single, unitary god/truth). When the heretic is then deemed so far gone that they can no longer be argued or reasoned with, they must then be ejected or physically destroyed.
In the earliest legal prescription of punishment for an apostate in Jewish law,8 we see how far unity of belief is expected to go:
If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, 'Let us go and serve other gods…’ you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. And you shall stone him with stones until he dies, because he sought to entice you away from the Lord your God…
That the holy laws specifically single out family members, lovers, and close friends (“the friend who is as your own soul”) is crucial here. The unity of belief in monotheism must supersede even close friendships and love itself: for the one-god you must reject even your best friend, your own child, or your lover if they ever hold another truth, lest they entice you into that truth as well.
That is, no matter how well you know the person, no matter any love or loyalty they may have shown you, and no matter even if they are as close as your own soul, their false belief trumps all that because their existence now threatens the universal order. But the real threat of course is that you might be convinced as well, because they are people you care about and who care about you.
What’s really happening in this command is an attempt to supersede the tribal/familial9 ways that truth is mediated and the general tolerance of differing opinions we show to those whom we love. Our partners, our children, our parents, and our closest friends might hold radically different political ideas than we do, and without an external social pressure we’re quite likely to just accept that and avoid talking politics with them.
This kind of tolerance is inimical to monotheist belief, but it is also inimical to any totalitarian ideological system as well. Both state communism and fascism (the really-existing historical kind, not the sort of stuff Antifa calls fascist) demands the same supremacy of belief over familial and friend relations. Concealing a political dissident or someone hiding a Jew—even if they were your own lover or family member—was a capital crime just as concealing a believer in foreign gods was a capital crime in Judaic law.
We can see something of this sort operating now within Woke ideology. Consider how, especially on social media, people are constantly told they need to stop talking to their parents, disavow their friends, and even break up with lovers who voted for Trump. That aunt of yours who doesn’t think trans women are “real” women, the brother who said “All Lives Matter” on a Facebook comment, the close friend you’ve known since kindergarten who thinks Antifa is going too far, and even the husband or wife who isn’t completely convinced about the efficacy of a COVID vaccine—to be truly Woke, you must cut them out of your life.
“Cancellation” here becomes an obvious reproduction of the monotheist logic, which as I noted above is also a totalitarian logic. Regardless of what else a person might have done or might mean to you, they must be silenced and punished for their differing beliefs because they threaten the unity of belief that Woke ideology needs to cultivate in order to grow.
If there are historical parallels that can accurately be drawn, I think The Woke are in a development stage close to the early Christians, just around the time of the Arian heresy.
Those early Christians saw themselves as persecuted bearers of a liberating truth, just as The Woke do. During those early days, there was no central authority to determine what true belief really was, only a handful of core texts and a decentralised network of charismatic leaders recognized for their devotion, just as for the Woke now.
Those early Christians could have truthfully pointed to acts of persecution by the society in which they lived, just as the Woke can now. Of course an outside observer might also have pointed to some of their violent acts (defiling shrines and attacking pagans, for example) as proof they are equally violent, just as an outside observer now might point to the attacks on political opponents by Antifa and the destruction of homes and shops during Black Lives Matters protests as proof that the Woke are equally violent.
Another parallel between that period and now is worth exploring as well. While still seeing themselves as a persecuted minority, the early Christians had managed to convert many members of the ruling elite to their beliefs. At first, those elites were often not part of the core ruling class, but rather those who had sought power and found themselves constantly sidelined. As the decades continued, however, conversion to Christianity brought with it a populist base that could be relied upon in the struggle to claim authority over Rome.
This could explain—better than I think any other theory I’ve yet seen—why we are seeing more and more corporations, universities, banks and other financial institutions, and politicians themselves10 adopt cultural signifiers of Woke belief, if not Woke belief itself.11
In the United States, the Democratic Party has increasingly aligned with the ideas of the Woke while abandoning older alignments (such as with labor unions), correctly identifying the Woke’s demands for social justice as a much easier promise to pretend to deliver than worker’s demands for higher wages. This isn’t all that different from the Roman elite recognizing that it would be much easier to rule an Empire if everyone believed in the same god, rather than the fractious pluralism of polytheism.
Consider especially how intersectionality differs from more traditional leftist conceptions of struggle. In older forms, class conflict is the primary struggle, pitting the wealthy elite against the masses of workers. Intersectionality, on the other hand, makes class merely one aspect of oppression, so that a rich black woman can be just as oppressed—or even more—than a homeless white man. In this way, capitalism as the unitary truth can remain unchallenged, while the priests of democracy write new moral laws to ensure the sin of oppression is propitiated.
This explains quite well why leftists who question the Woke are now seen as apostates, though of course the word the Woke use for them is usually some variant of “fascist.” It is not just that they believe something different, but were considered at one point part of the same movement for liberation. But now a new consensus has arisen and a new dogma instituted, one which looks nothing like the liberation the rest of us were hoping for.
In fact, it looks nothing like liberation at all, but rather just the same religious fundamentalism that monotheism always creates. If you do not say the right words, repeat the correct mantra, recite the approved credos, you are now seen as even more evil than the banker, the factory owner, or the CEO. You must be silenced, and those closest to you must disown you to prove themselves worthy in the eyes of the invisible, singular god of the Woke.
Later I’ll write about how completely wrong we were about that menace and how we the we conjured that threat from our revolutionary fantasies, but for now it’s enough to say that we were mostly just warring against our own shadows. What’s relevant for now is how this imagined enemy became our sustaining fantasy, the story we told in our head to keep us from ever questioning ourselves.
In Hebrew the primary term means the same, though other words for the same kind of person translate to “destroyed” and “transgressor against Israel.” In Islam, such a person is a murtadd, which translates roughly as “betrayer.”
As in Buddhism, or in some animist religions.
Christianity is not the only Jewish sect to have believed the long-promised messiah had arrived. In fact, even as late as the 1600’s, there have been rabbis and others who declared themselves messiah.
Their opponents were the more cosmopolitan Sadducees, who mixed Greek philosophy with Jewish law and were opposed to the authoritarian influence of Rabbis over communities.
This separatism was a continuation of the Pharisee’s extreme separatism via Paul.
This quote is from the Torah (Deuteronomy). Lest anyone suspect this is only a problem in Judaic law, see also Matthew 10:34-38—“Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me…”
Not mediated by the state or ideology; organic.
Biden and Harris both liberally pepper their speeches and policies with woke references, and Kamala Harris’s personal Twitter account lists her pronouns…
Of course many of the woke might suggest that this is mere co-option of intersectionality and other woke doctrines, or that these are merely cynical ploys by the powerful. The assertion here is that they are not “true believers,” which is an irrelevant point. To understand why, consider how much it really matters whether the Emperor Constantine was actually a “true believer,” or just cynically using Christianity to consolidate his power. The end result was the same.