Wokeism as godless, anti-ascetic neo-Puritanism
The new semester begins, and I take up my sword once more...
I wrote this a few years ago and then it sat around for a while while I was busy with other things. If I were to write it again today, I’d perhaps change some things, but I still think the parallel is “good for thinking” even if there are plenty of problems in the comparison. (Yes, God and asceticism are pretty important components of historical Puritanism, I know!) All comparative efforts are imperfect. The proof must always be in the pudding: does it help us better understand the nature of Wokeism?
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It’s an evolutionary phenomenon I’m trying to describe. As an earlier primate predecessor gave rise both to us and to gorillas, among other species, Puritanism has given rise to contemporary Reformed Christianity and (in admixture with many other things) to Wokeism. Humans and gorillas are very different from one another, and very different from that common ancestor, but nonetheless close examination reveals the shared lineage.
I hope it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that noting the evolutionary connection is not indicting the founder (which I find in this case worthy of admiration in numerous ways) for the crimes of the descendant. Puritans of the 17th century would be at least as horrified by Wokeism as I am. It’s just an effort to understand where the thing under examination came from.
In general terms, I am in agreement with thinkers such as Peter Berger (who humbly denied having any claim to originality in the idea, which Max Weber elaborated before him) in believing that Protestantism instigated processes that led directly to the wave of secularization we are now seeing in the US, and which happened earlier in Western Europe, and this secularization was an important fertilizing ground in which Wokeism, among other things, can grow.So, those faiths helped in significant measure to produce the trajectory we’re currently on, even if they did not consciously intend to guide us here. (Their intention was quite the contrary, in fact—they desired the reinvigoration and purification of Christian practice).
Things are complicated…
The reason I revisited this piece and sent it out to publish now is that I’m teaching my “Wokeism 101” course again this term. Here’s the image from the first page, which is from a Chronicles Magazine cover from last year:
[©John Koch, from Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, August 2021]
Will try to provide some updates and material from that course as things roll along. Among other things, we’re reading superb books by Gad Saad, Joshua Mitchell, Mark Mitchell, and Peter Wood (all but one of which—the American Awakening review is forthcoming in Modern Age—I’ve reviewed in various venues) on aspects of Woke ideology in the intellectual classes, and a number of those authors will be visiting class via Zoom to talk with students. My students often don’t fully fathom just how lucky they are to get to have these interactions with such top-level heterodox thinkers and writers.
One part of the course consists of a critical read of some of the resources listed on the Bucknell Antiracism webpage. I make sure that they know we are not talking about an abstract phenomenon when we talk about Wokeism. It is now the dominant worldview at the very university in which they are enrolled and I work, and so we have good practical reasons to be concerned about its advance.
I’ll be sure to let you know if Public Safety officers or local sheriffs are at any point called in to shut things down…
Berger is also well-known among scholars of religion for having changed his mind on the secularization theory, moving from a belief that the process was more or less inevitable with modernity to the view that religion could and would survive even in a modern world fundamentally hostile to it.
I hope he is right about this. I fear the evidence is at best mixed. Much of the survival of religion in the formerly Christian West takes the form of mostly meaningless and toothless private ‘spirituality’ (what Bob Bellah called “Sheilaism”), old religious frameworks stripped of the supernatural and transformed into leftist politics such as Wokeism, popular cultural practices like sport and music fandom elevated to forms of celebrity worship, and other such stuff, rather than collective bodies of ritual and belief centered on the transcendent plane.
Here’s the entire reading schedule for the semester (I give them pdfs of many of these—should you want more information on where to find any of them, email me and I’ll be happy to give you more details):
Intro to course: the study of the intellectual classes and how and why they believe what they believe
Randall Collins, “Coalitions in the Mind”; Thomas Molnar, “The Emergence of the Intellectual”; Alvin Gouldner, “Introduction”
Intellectuals in a sociological lens: who are the intellectuals? What makes an intellectual?
Alvin Gouldner, “The New Class as a Speech Community”; Edward Shils, “The Intellectuals and the Powers”
Intellectuals, religion, and secularization
Alvin Gouldner, “The Alienation of Intellectuals and Intelligentsia”; Eric Voegelin, “Ersatz Religion”
Utopianism and intellectual religion
Thomas Molnar, “Secularized Religion: Pantheism,” “Man-God,” and “The Intellectual as a Progressive”
Marxism/communism/antifascism as intellectual religion I
Raymond Aron, “The Intellectuals in Search of a Religion”; Paul Hollander, “Themes”; Tony Judt, “America Has Gone Mad”
Marxism/communism/antifascism as intellectual religion II
Paul Hollander, “Stalin, Rakosi, Communism, and Intellectuals”; Tony Judt, “We Must Not Disillusion the Workers”; Paul Gottfried, “Antifa and the Mainstreaming of Antifascism” and “Afterthoughts”
Black Power and the New Left as intellectual religion I
Lewis Feuer, “The New Student Left of the Sixties” and “The Berkeley Student Movement”
Black Power and the New Left as intellectual religion II
Paul Liberatore, “Introduction,” “A Revolutionary Hero,” “Freedom Summer,” “August 21, 1971,” “Bullshit Talk by Dilettante Revolutionaries,” and “The Last Visitor”; Peter Collier and David Horowitz, “Requiem for a Radical”
Wokeism and the intellectuals I (class guest: Gad Saad)
Gad Saad, “From Civil War to the Battle of Ideas,” “Thinking vs. Feeling, Truth vs. Hurt Feelings,” and “Campus Lunacy: The Rise of the Social Justice Warrior”
Wokeism and the intellectuals II (class guest: Peter Wood)
Peter Wood, “What is the 1619 Project?,” “August 1619,” “1776,” and “1775”;
Wokeism and the intellectuals III
Mark Mitchell, “Nietzsche’s Puritan Warriors,” “My Truth, Your Truth, God and Values,” “Protest Trumps Debate,” “Democracy as Decadence,” “Identity Politics: There Will Be Blood,” and “’Higher’ Education and the War on Reason”
Wokeism and the intellectuals IV (class guest: Joshua Mitchell)
Joshua Mitchell, “Identity Politics: Transgression and Innocence
Wokeism and the intellectuals V
Assorted items from Bucknell’s Antiracism Resource Page
Wokeism and the intellectuals VI
Assorted items from Bucknell’s Antiracism Resource Page