One way of gauging the power and impact of a social movement is to observe the sort of popular reaction it evokes, whether among its followers or its detractors. If we use this as the measure of impact, then there is no denying that the “woke” movement has made a real impact across much of the West, making its presence felt quite forcefully on social media and on university campuses.

A relatively small but vocal minority espousing woke beliefs has managed to attract international attention to their causes, in some cases ending the careers of those who violate their rules.

As described by Wikipedia, “woke” is an English adjective meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination” that originated in African-American Vernacular English. By the second decade of this century, wokeness had come to be associated with a broader gamut of causes, in particular the identity and rights of a range of different groups seeking social acceptance and recognition, such as gays, transgender communities, and women.

The woke movement, while presenting itself as the voice of modern leftist progressivism, has supported legal measures to restrict certain categories of speech and political measures to penalize those who do not use the sort of language favoured by woke activists. This brings the woke movement into direct conflict with traditional ideals of modern liberalism, most notably toleration and freedom of speech.

The Jordan Peterson debacle

It is thus hardly surprising that the woke movement has sparked heated controversy and met with significant opposition. For example, a (now retired) University of Toronto professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson, came out publicly in 2016 to say that he would emphatically not be obeying any legal rule requiring him to use the preferred pronouns of transgender individuals, even if his refusal landed him in prison. Before long, he became an international best-selling author and a lightning-rod for opponents of the woke movement, in particular citizens who resented being pressured, or even required by law, to adapt their language to a set of norms surrounding “inclusiveness” and recognition of minority identities.

Wokeism as a secular religion

It is not uncommon to hear woke ideology described as a sort of secular religion. After all, it has a set of dogmas, presented to its adherents to be unconditionally assented to; it treats dissenters from its teachings as heretics who must be marginalized, excluded, and made a public example of, in order to keep the faith of the “true believers” strong; and it has a sort of “priestly class,” who enunciate its doctrines from the pulpits of Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, the Guardian, The New York Times, and CNN.

There are different categories of woke sins, deserving different types of treatment. There are venial sins, that may be overlooked or quickly forgotten, such as getting a person’s preferred pronoun wrong and correcting it; but there are also mortal sins, for example, persisting in “mis-gendering” someone even after being repeatedly corrected. Mortal sins cut off one’s ties with the woke community, but this need not be definitive, since one can re-enter communion with the body of believers by publicly confessing one’s sins and making atonement for them, for example, by making a generous donation to an LGBTQ charity.

Wokeism is an unsuccessful emulation of transcendent religion

It is quite telling that the woke movement, in spite of presenting its principles as quasi-divine edicts that are beyond question, and treating dissenters from within its midst as heretics, has no internally coherent story to tell about how these principles came to acquire the feature of infallibility.

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which at least makes claims of infallibility that have some internal coherence, appealing as they do to God’s grace at work in the Church, the woke movement has no such story to tell. It essentially treats secular tenets as if they were divinely guaranteed and beyond debate, without appealing to any divine source to underpin them.

Thus, wokeism is, at bottom, an unsuccessful emulation of theistic religions, in particular the Abrahamic religions that have some more or less well defined shared creed and a set of truths communicated, in the name of God, via sacred scriptures, tradition, and religious authority. I say unsuccessful, because instead of demanding a leap of faith in the divine, or promising to bring its adherents into a closer relationship with God, it demands a leap of faith in a political sect defined and led by human beings speaking on their own authority. In this way, wokeism represents an immanentisation of transcendent religion.

The immanentisation of transcendent religion involves a confusion between divine and human authority. The woke movement raises certain moral principles, including principles that are extremely novel from a historical perspective, such as the notion that “binary” gender identities deserve formal social recognition, to the level of unquestionable dogmas, and treats dissenters as morally impure enemies to be shunned and driven out of “polite society.”

In this way, wokeism effectively wields the secular equivalent of a papal bull, declare dissenting views “anathema” to the “true church,” and a threat to the faith and morals of true believers. However, it does not attempt to ground its dogmas in anything other than the opinions of a political movement that emerged in the early years of the third millennium. Thus, a merely human ideology is elevated to the level of a divine teaching, and any form of rational mediation or dialogue is shut down as a form of impiety or heresy.

Wokeism gives a sense of meaning and purpose

The language and behaviour of the woke movement seem to mimic those of traditional theistic religion, yet do not pretend to be grounded in any divine authority. So it is worth asking, how has this movement managed to gain such a vocal and enthusiastic followin? One cannot help but wonder how such a movement has managed to gather so much support that it has left university professors afraid to ask questions about gender, race, ethnicity, or social diversity; and left journalists terrified that their careers might be ended by a Twitter woke mob for saying the wrong thing.

One explanation could be that the woke movement provides its adherents with a sense of meaning, purpose, and even faith, that are difficult to come by in the absence of traditional religion. Human beings, for the most part, cannot bear to live in a completely disenchanted world bereft of faith and hope in something bigger than themselves.

When people lose the reassuring structure of religious traditions and norms, they tend to feel anxious and uncertain about the ultimate meaning of their life. Foregoing the possibility of living in communion with a traditional faith community, or seeking forgiveness from a merciful God, does not completely remove the sense of guilt or the need for some reassurance that one is on the right path.

When we lose faith in theistic religion, human movements that preach absolute truths, a recipe for personal righteousness, and a sense of unswerving conviction, can become extremely seductive. Historically, societies stripped of religion tend to put their faith in some cheap substitute, be it utopian communism, militant imperialism, radical environmentalism, transhumanism, national socialism, or idolatry of the nation-state.

The woke movement is not just a whimsical invention of a few disgruntled individuals: it is the expression of a desperate need for meaning, purpose, and personal redemption, that cannot be met in a secularised, disenchanted world.

This article has been republished from David Thunder’s Substack, The Freedom Blog.

David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society.