John McWhorter: Why electism isn’t just “like” a religion, but IS a religion

June 26, 2021 • 1:00 pm

John McWhorter’s long-awaited new book, which I thought was going to be called The Elect, is actually going to be called Woke RacismHow a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, and you can already preorder it on Amazon. It’s scheduled to come out October 26, published by Portfolio, a division of my own publisher, Penguin Random House. He calls woke racism “electism”.

Given America’s love of religion, McWhorter is already anticipating the most likely objection to his book: “woke racism is not a religion“. (McWhorter maintains that this isn’t just an analogy, but that Woke Racism, known as “anti-racism” really is a religion.) And that criticism would be enough for many people to reject the book in its entirety, and without reading it. Comparing a godless movement to a religion isn’t on these days, even if the movement is one that liberals subscribe to.

Thus McWhorter’s Substack column this week (click on screenshot below) is devoted to defending in advance his claim that Woke Racism really is a religion, quoting some examples. I’m not sure how much purchase this simile will have on the acceptance of McWhorter’s thesis. I worry it may quash interest in some people, especially because I think that in today’s political climate, everyone should read this book, even those who reject its thesis from the outset. It’s not Mein Kampf, you know! From “excerpts” I’ve read, it’s a thoughtful and well written analysis about how “progressive” anti-racism is destructive to its own ends and will wind up being a falling tide that lowers all boats.

Click on the screenshot to read.

A few examples adduced by McWhorter to show that the ideology of “The Elect” really is a religion:

My point about The Elect is that its ideology involves – and actually is founded significantly upon – that type of religious thought. No devoted spectator of the emergence of this way of thinking could miss that it has morphed from a sociopolitical stance infused with religion (as in what I pointed out in 2015 here) into a straight-up religion.

The difference is that believers have actually started saying it outright.

Sometimes it’s where the people don’t think they’re being heard beyond their flock. A memo went around in one department at New York University last summer actually laying out “Our first guiding principle is that participation in political movements such as Black Lives Matter is analogous to a decision to attend a religious or spiritual gathering.”

One might picture this written by a black theologian. But it was an especially rich thing to see coming from a white statistician!!! This was a sign of a new era.

One case of the religious character of “woke” antiracism:

Another example is the status that Michael Brown, killed by white officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, has taken on among some people of this world. The issue is that difference between fact and “belief.”

The fact is that Michael Brown was not killed with his hands up by a marauding white bigot who couldn’t perceive his humanity. Brown tried to take Wilson’s gun, hit him, and then – for reasons we will likely never fully understand – repeatedly charged at Wilson until Wilson finally fired. This has been corroborated beyond any reasonable doubt by the forensic evidence as well as by neighborhood observers.

What, then, do we make of a theologian who thinks Michael Brown was a modern Jesus?

“As with Christ, the flesh of Michael Brown, Jr. made him imminently killable in the eyes of many and mitigated any claim of empathy on the hearts of too many others,” Stephen J. Ray informs us. “Michael Brown Jr. is and will be our shining Black Prince for from his death God has brought Life to us all and in his gaze we are enveloped in its power.”

Now, the Elect defense here is to say “Oh, this guy is just some ….” – but watch it! He’s “just some” black President of the Chicago Theological Seminary, penning a serious article called “Black Lives Matter as Enfleshed Theology” in this book.

And an audio, which speaks for itself:

Listen to this Elect white teacher at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School. Here’s another grand old academy being choked by CRT ideology, while smart media types stand by claiming nothing’s going on because legal theorists forty years ago had no such things in mind and thus it isn’t CRT and thus if you don’t like it, * you’re a racist and … (note that this is religious thought as well, in that sharp break with sequential logic at the point I marked with an asterisk).

Anyway, listen here to this person who openly likens white people to alcoholics, who need to meet and cleanse themselves:

The strong religious component in AA meetings needs no explanation, and this teacher is openly calling for him and his colleagues to, essentially, come together and pray, self-flagellate – complete with dismissing those in disagreement as not belonging in the setting, having no place among them. Just imagine this blithe, tribalist kind of dismissal coming from anyone you had as a teacher in your life, and yet now, zealots like this man are normal in institutions of instruction. This man likely doesn’t realize that he, despite likely happily guffawing at the thought of Jerry Falwell and looking upon Ultra-Orthodox Jewish people as curiosities, is on the vanguard of a religious faith himself.

I know McWhorter’s “hook” for his book involves indicting Kendi-an style antiracism as a religion (McWhorter is an atheist and says it openly), and the comparison goes pretty far, but for most people “religion” involves gods and the supernatural. The most relevant definition of “religion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, is this one:

Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.

Given that there are some godless religions, one could say that “electism” is like Buddhism, and the OED does have this definition as well:

 A particular system of faith and worship.classmysterynatural religion, etc.: see first element.

According to those lights, electism is a religion. And, I suppose, there is a point to the comparison, for McWhorter wants to convince readers that the emphasis on faith in unsubstantiated claims, accompanied by an irrationality that brooks no questioning or dissent, is characteristic of both electism and of religion. But then you’d have to be an atheist or antitheist for this comparison to have weight. So be it; I do look forward to McWhorter’s book.

He ends by telling us what kind of religion electism is:

What we have been seeing over the past year in terms of how serious people are comfortable presenting themselves and their thoughts is analogous to watching creationism taught alongside evolution. It’s scary, whether or not I’m an atheist and whether or not I’m up on my Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and Niebuhr.

However, the this-universe version of The Elect [i.e., forging genuine social change] make a pretense of being about activism when what really gets them going is shaming people and virtue signalling, 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.

Amen, brother.

42 thoughts on “John McWhorter: Why electism isn’t just “like” a religion, but IS a religion

  1. I had read J. McWhorter’s column and made this comment:

    Please don’t back away from calling it a religion one scintilla.

    Much of “wokeness” is in essence a transposition of Christian dogma onto a secular domain. As example, in gender studies, the idea that a mere declaration of being male or female (regardless of biology) is to be respected as making you that declared sex, much like transubstantiation changes wine/ bread to blood/flesh during mass.

    The term “social construction” not only indicates a social phenomenon open to change, but also a way of debunking a thing by placing it in the realm of human volition, i.e. the realm where evil is possible….which may be why indigeneity, which now is synonym for perennial innocence, is rarely, if ever identified as being a “social construction”. There are many, many other parallels.

    But the critical function of “wokeness” is providing adherents an opportunity to exorcise and expiate “white guilt” and render conscious pristine.
    Wasn’t it you, Dr. McWhorter, who wrote that religions don’t need gods but do need devils? And in this case that devil is the straight white male, preferably fundamentalist Christian.

  2. I link to a Twitter thread of an account much worth following: “Wokal Distance”

    It starts:

    “This video is a perfect example of how wokeness acts as a religion.

    When she says “we are living through history, and there’s a right side of history, and a wrong side of history.” What she is saying is not a historical claim, it’s a thoroughly religious claim.”

    https://twitter.com/wokal_distance/status/1408575647467835392

  3. I read McWhorter’s blog post but couldn’t leave a comment there, as I’m not a subscriber and have no interest in being one. Putting aside his criticism of “wokeness” — which barely qualifes as a thing at all, except that right-wing media keep hyping it to make fun of it — I just want to address his definition of religion — “My point is that religion typically includes a wing of belief that must stand apart from empiricism, that at a certain point one must just ‘believe’ … religious belief requires a person to sequester a part of their cognition for a kind of belief that is not based on logic”

    While fervently believing things without empirical proof does describe a lot of religion, it also describes a lot of political ideology (“tax cuts grow jobs”) and much of the clutter in all of our heads, frankly. There are none so deluded than those who believe everything they think is rational and based on empiricism. No one can be genuinely rational without facing up to one’s own irrationallity. See, for example “Zombie Ideas” at the Association for Psychological Science.

    https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/zombie-ideas

    “Religion” in a figurative sense can mean just about anyting. “His religion was stamp collecting.” But if you’re using the word literally instead of figuratively, “wokeness” by itself is not a religion. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines wokeness as “a state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality.” By itself it isn’t even a belief, although whether anyone is genuinely “woke” or not may be where belief comes in.

    But religion is not primarily about believing things, even though belief became a major bugaboo of modern Christianity, so people do get that impression. There are doctrines to be accepted on faith, but “faith” in many traditions more a matter of “trust” than “belief.” Further, the faith in this case is in something supramundane that cannot be empirically observed.. Religon also requires taking steps to somehow actualize or at least connect to the thing in which one has faith, through ritual, prayer, meditation, or other physical practices, like yoga. It isn’t just any fervently held but unprovable idea about anything.

    So no, “wokeness” or “electism” or whatever McWhorter calls it is not a religion. If anything, it’s just a no-longer-trendy buzzword that most people who aren’t flogging right-wing ideologies have dropped already.

    1. I guess we’re all flogging right-wing ideologies, aren’t we. And those doctrines that must be accepted on “faith” are vitally important, like original sin and our redemption though the crucifixion of Jesus. Without those fundamental beliefs, religion is just a philosophy club. The faith, by the way, includes God, for which there is no evidence. It is indeed a fervently held but unprovable idea. Pity you describe it accurately and then deny your own assertion.

    2. If you’ve been reading this website for a while, you would see that wokeness is definitely real, though it’s true that the Right is trying to turn it into an apocalyptic threat. People lose their jobs over trivial comments they made years ago. There are plenty of examples.

      I don’t know that anyone is calling wokeness a religion. Certainly McWhorter is reserving that term for CRT which is something different. I can see ways in which it is a religion but I also think McWhorter is aiming slightly off the mark by spending so much time arguing it. Even if we all agreed with him that CRT is a religion, I don’t think it helps very much in a battle against it. Our world is quite tolerant of religions in fact. At least in the free world, we regard religion as a personal choice. Is that what we are looking for with CRT, that it’s practitioners be left to pursue the religion of their choice?

      1. The first amendment protects students in the United States public education system from religious indoctrination.

        So it is not insignificant, the question what precisely is a religion.

        1. I think this is the danger of focusing on calling Woke Racism a religion. It brings in irrelevant issues. Surely McWhorter wouldn’t be in favor of Woke Racism receiving religion’s protections. If not, then he would be forced to admit that it isn’t that much of a religion.

    3. It takes so little to grow a religion, they practically grow themselves. There is too much credit given to religion and that is a fact – I would argue it is in fact how religion works – that people would ascribe deep, complex sophistication to it, so as to be missed when it shows up.

      Remember – the religious do not view themselves as a religion, but as holders of the truth, marching forward to the great new future.

    1. It is worth quoting a paragraph from this article. It deals with the forthcoming “Woke, Inc.”, about the marriage of convenience between the religion of wokeism and big-time corporate capitalism.

      “The birth of wokeism was a godsend to corporations, Mr. Ramaswamy says. It helped defang the left. “Wokeism lent a lifeline to the people who were in charge of the big banks. They thought, ‘This stuff is easy!’ ” They applauded diversity and inclusion, appointed token female and minority directors, and “mused about the racially disparate impact of climate change.” So, in Mr. Ramaswamy’s narrative, “a bunch of big banks got together with a bunch of millennials, birthed woke capitalism, and then put Occupy Wall Street up for adoption.” Now, in Mr. Ramaswamy’s tart verdict, “big business makes money by critiquing itself.” “

  4. Hmm. I wasn’t expecting some of his evidence. I am not sure, though, that the fact that some people are explicitly entangling Wokeism and religion means that it is actually a religion. It may say more about how those people relate to the world. I certainly think the comparison is worthwhile for highlighting the extent to which people’s political views, broadly speaking, are often based on prejudice and authority (the selection of which is often, itself, a result of bias), and not on considered examination or facts. Interestingly, unlike other religions or utopian political ideologies like Communism (itself often labeled as a religion), I never hear any talk about what the Promised Land of Wokeism is.

  5. Mr. McWhorter’s manful efforts notwithstanding, I’m unconvinced that the relation between “electism” and religion works as more than metaphor. I agree that, like religion, “electism” stands apart from empiricism. But electism lacks the belief in an incorporeal supreme being or in an immaterial spiritual realm that are generally the hallmarks of religions.

    I seriously doubt that the courts would treat “electism” as a religion for either Free Exercise Clause or Establishment Clause purposes under the First Amendment.

    Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good metaphor. But McWhorter pushes it a step too far in claiming more for it than that, I think.

    1. Maybe faith is the better term? Per Bertand Russell, in Human Society in Ethics and Politics:

      ‘We may define “faith” as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. ‘

      He goes on to say, ‘Where there is evidence, no one speaks of “faith”. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence. The substitution of emotion for evidence is apt to lead to strife, since different groups substitute different emotions.’

    2. I agree. It also tends to put too much attention on the religion/not religion question. That it is a religion is not as important as its followers’ attempt to put the subject beyond discussion. In fact, the Elect are worse than the followers of other, more traditional, religions in this respect. Unlike Kendi and DiAngelo, leaders of traditional religions are generally willing to discuss their tenets.

      1. But Electism, or whatever one calls it, features many of the rites of religion: sacred texts, catechism, apologetics, confession of sin, heresy, and punishment.

        1. Yes, I agree. I’m not saying one can’t portray Electism (dislike the term) as a religion. Instead I’m questioning the advisability of doing so. It may be accurate but, if McWhorter’s goal is to discredit Electism, it might not serve the purpose so well.

        2. … sacred texts, catechism, apologetics, confession of sin, heresy, and punishment.

          Those are all subordinate metaphors in McWhorter’s grand, overarching metaphorical scheme. The whole is no less figurative than the sum of its parts.

          One can go on for page after page about the tentacles of, say, the Catholic Church — that don’t make it an actual cephalopod.

  6. I never hear any talk about what the Promised Land of Wokeism is.

    Every and all groups represented in every possible indicator (wealth, education, professions, jail, etc) exactly in line with their fraction of the population.

    Except that “marginalized” groups are allowed to exceed their fraction of the population without that being a problem (e.g. blacks in the NBA).

  7. Religions tend to be a little vague about the Promised Land. Early Christians described it simply as the return of Jesus, without a lot of detail after that. The secular religion of Communism describes the
    Promised Land thusly (according to Wiki): “The inalienable feature of the communist mode of life is a high level of consciousness, social activity, discipline, and self-discipline of members of society, in which observance of the uniform, generally accepted rules of communist conduct will become an inner need and habit of every person.” Since the trainings and workshops conducted by the Church of Woke already attempt to insure that their “uniform, generally accepted rules …will become an inner need and habit of every person “, we can judge that the woke Promised Land will enjoy, above all, Uniformity.

  8. There are such things as secular religions—Christopher Hitchens and several others have pointed out that Communism became a religion for many people. A supernatural figure is not necessary in a religion but ritual is, and the performative dogmas of wokism certainly qualify. Also religious is the wokist belief in the self as a crusader with by an unchallengeable moral imperative to destroy heretics and blasphemers in order to bring out a just and pure world, an “equity” that will be heaven on earth.

  9. This is how Merriam-Webster defines religion, which is similar to the definition in the post:

    Definition of religion
    1a : the state of a religious a nun in her 20th year of religion
    b(1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural
    (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
    2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
    3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
    4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

    McWhorter apparently subscribes to the fourth definition. The problem here is that any strongly held system of beliefs can be classified as a religion, thus reducing the term to meaninglessness. This debate as to whether or not wokeism is a religion is another example of what I call the definition wars, that is, the attempt to stick a label on a movement or type of thought. I see this frequently in the historical profession. Examples are heated debates on whether to classify the original Constitution was pro-slavery or whether it is proper to label Lincoln as a racist.

    Such debates go on forever and accomplish nothing. In the case of wokeism, McWhorter has us debating a definition rather than dissecting wokeism’s good and bad points and discussing its effects on society. In other words, it’s a diversion from what is really important. But, I will throw in my two cents for this discussion: if a system of beliefs doesn’t have a supernatural entity as a core belief, it is not a religion. Otherwise, the term is amorphous meaninglessness.

    1. McWhorter’s claim that the Elect are practicing religion seems to only have value if his readers understand that he’s trying to point out that they are attempting to place their beliefs above rational criticism. IMHO, now CRT is part of the political culture wars, this is going to be missed by most. I hope reviewers of his new book can help readers see this.

    2. McWhorter’s argument stands entirely on its own merit without taking this final step of claiming Electism is an actual religion. It seems a distraction to me. I’m not sure why he went there, unless he felt it would deliver Electism a coup de grâce — you know, metaphorically speaking.

    3. religion stems from a fear of death. simple as that. no need to expend further thought on the matter. consciousness vs. death is water and oil, fire and ice…they don’t mix…metaphors abound. But it’s really THAT simple.

  10. To my knowledge there is no cumulative property to metaphors, whereby if one pushes a metaphor and pushes a metaphor, and then pushes it some more, the metaphor eventually crosses a threshold and its “tenor” and its “vehicle” meld so as to become as one.

    McWhorter is a linguist rather than rhetorician, I know, but I should think he appreciates this distinction.

  11. As McWhorter writes:

    As this kind of thing is just “like a religion” rather than being one, then I assume that those who feel that way would comfortably classify Roseanne Barr’s likening of Valerie Jarrett to apes as “like racism,” Donald Trump’s referring to black people as “the blacks” and regularly assigning the label of “dumb” to black people as “like racism.” Why the binary logic with racism but suddenly an almost aesthetic sensitivity to gradations when it comes to religion?

    I think his point stands.

    1. That’s a bit of verbal sleight-of-hand — a nifty bit of verbal sleight-of-hand, I’ll grant you, but a verbal sleight-of-hand all the same.

      1. To be more specific, McWhorter engages in a category error here. His argument assumes that “religion” and “racism” bear some ontological equivalency. They don’t.

  12. I’m probably one of McWhorter’s top fans since I’ve read so many of his books already. BUT. Wokism / Electism / CRT (whatever you want to label it) is NOT a religion. Trumpism is not a religion either, but it comes much closer to being one that this. Just because something has a “belief” does not make it a religion. If it did, then flat-earthism could be a religion. Capitalism could even be a religion. As a matter of fact, you could twist and turn anything into a religion if you loosen the definition enough.

    I would have preferred a book by McWhorter on “wokism” without trying to convince me that it’s a religion.

  13. Here’s my take, starting with common ‘ways of knowledge.’

    RELIGIOUS: faith -> belief -> religion -> knowledge

    SCIENTIFIC: experiment -> result -> theory -> knowledge

    Religious knowledge, based on faith, is not universal because there are many different faiths.

    Scientific knowledge, based on experiment, is not universal because not every experiment has been done.

    To the extent that we acknowledge this lack of universality, we are open to change. This can be hard, since one way we learn is through repetition of things that don’t change. It’s when we’re not open to change that we try to impose our beliefs on others and tribalism’s atrocities are initiated.

    When woke-ism or CRT claim universality I disagree with them and think they’re dangerous.

    1. The ‘universal’ in science does not mean that every experiment should have been done (and there is more than experiment to science), but that it applies ‘universally’: under the same conditions, your experiment will yield the same result.

  14. Religion, ideology, or philosophy? Definitely not a philosophy. CRT –anti-White academic bigotry– looks like an ideology. But now that it’s becoming dogmatic and sanctimonious, it looks closer to a religion than to an ideology. And it looks very similar to the Catholic Church.

  15. Any moral ecosystem is going to mimic religion, because performative morality is a big part of what makes a religion. Calling it a religion, though, I think elevates moral ideology to religion (sounds very Gouldian) rather than addressing it as a normative moral system.

    Humans are always going to be concerned with how they behave, how they are seen to behave, and how others behave (mainly the latter two tbh), so calling it a religion any time that gets codified to be undermines the humanity of the exercise. We should be able to address it as a moral ecosystem in the same way as many religions have them but not are defined by them.

  16. I’m happy with it being labeled religion-adjacent

    I do think he is labeling this particular set of beliefs a religion more because of what sits under the hood – so if it has the same engine as say Catholicism, then it to be a religion.

  17. There are innumerable official rulings and pronouncements from DEI Committees, assorted academic and corporate Diversicrats, and facilitators of DEI workshops and trainings, which evince a frame of mind exemplified by a venerable agency of the RC Church. This is the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, informally known as the Holy Office, which has as its mission “to maintain and defend the integrity of the faith and to examine and proscribe errors and false doctrines”. There have been plenty of interventions by FIRE, and civil suits against academic institutions, for their attempts to proscribe
    non-woke “false doctrines” and penalize individuals who expressed them.

  18. Never “join” anything. That has always worked for me. I fit in many boxes, but if I stick to myself, no boxes need be filled.

  19. I’d like to try highlighting a feature of many religions that appears in electism : the saving of victims from some force.

    Frequently, one finds religions genuinely doing good works for genuine victims of tragic scenarios : hurricanes, etc, however it is not clear if this altruism (?) benefits the victims more than the religion. Electism also proposes to save victims it has cited from oppressors. Much has been said about the power of victimhood in electism, not the least by McWhorter.

    The common phrase “Jesus saves” illustrates this for Christianity.

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