Dr. Kelly Burton
In an effort to understand the times, I have been spending my semester break reading through a stack of recent books on contemporary cultural concerns often going by the terms Critical Theory, Social Justice, or Progressivism. I favor using the term Progressivism because it captures the Marxist view of the progress of humanity. Progressivism assumes that history is linear and that we are moving towards a perfect society. One of the running themes in these works is that Progressivism functions as a religion for many people. Some colleagues and I explored this notion in a video series based on Rod Dreher’s bestselling book Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3). Dreher has a chapter devoted to “Progressivism as Religion” in the book.
In a video I created a few months ago, I explored Critical Theory as a Philosophy. I am still thinking about whether I want to define Progressivism as a religion as Dreher and other authors do. My hesitation lies in the reality that many people who identify as Progressive also self-identify as not religious (for example, those who say they are spiritual but not religious), as anti-religion (thinking that religion is a source of oppression), or as Progressive and having a traditional religion. There is such a thing as the “Woke Church.” Yet viewing Progressivism through the lens of religion helps us to see how the movement is attractive, meets a human need for meaning, and is an alternative vision for humanity.
While I remain cautious about calling this current cultural phenomenon a religion, if we define religion and look at some comparative categories of religion, Progressivism does supply answers to deep human questions that religions have traditionally provided. Something to be noted about this movement is that it arises at the moment when the Millennial Generation and Generation Z have the lowest rates of religious affiliation. According to research, large numbers of Millennials and Gen Z are considered irreligious. Sociologically, Progressivism could be filling a need once provided by religion. What is the human need that religion meets, and why are young people flocking to Progressivism? If we define religion, we may begin to answer these questions.
Religion is the belief or set of beliefs that humans use to give meaning to their experiences. Given this definition, all people are religious because all need meaning. If a person claims to have no religion, something else is being used to interpret experience and provide meaning and coherence for their life. In addition, religion has to do with beliefs (not merely feelings or social practices). Dreher says that the key beliefs (the set of beliefs) of the Social Justice movement "give meaning and direction to their lives and provide a sense of shared mission." Dreher, citing James Lindsay, calls these beliefs Progressive “doctrines.” Ordinarily, beliefs are evaluated rationally as either true or false. But Dreher points out that to use this kind of evaluation is to engage in power dynamics because reason and rationality have already been rejected within this movement, and so we are no longer able to address these views as either true or false. The evaluative categories for Progressivism have shifted from rational to non-rational feelings or the will to power or power dynamics.
Often in the academic study of religion we use categories for the comparison of religions. It is illuminating to use these categories to examine Progressivism as a religion. Ordinarily, religion has a source of authority such as the Word of God, the Vedas, a prophet, etc. Progressivism seems to place the authority in the self at times, an insight that Carl Trueman documents well in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, and at other times, the authority seems to be placed in the State. Joshua Mitchell captures this seeming duality between the authority of the self and the authority of the State in a chapter of American Awakening called "Biopolarity: Management Society and Selfie Man."
Religions are distinguished by what they view as ultimate reality. Dreher is clear in identifying positivism and Marxism, both of which are materialist when it comes to ultimate reality, as the core beliefs of Progressivism. Once ultimate reality is understood, the next categories for comparison include origin stories and human nature. Progressive views, being materialist, have an origin story rooted in matter and nature. Ordinarily, a Progressive evolutionary account is assumed as the origin of humanity. Progressivism consistently conceives of human nature as changeable and malleable (vs. fixed) and is defined either by the self, or by group identity (or both). Douglas Murray, in his recent book, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity, is helpful for understanding the role of identity politics in the progressive movement.
Once we have a basic grasp of what human nature is in a given religion, we can derive the good life, the human problem, and the solution to the human problem for that religion. Since in a Progressive view, human beings are not primarily rational, human selves usually operate out of feeling and human groups operate out of power dynamics. The self is to be liberated from what "feels bad" (Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind helps us to understand some of what "feels bad" means), and oppressed (victimized) groups are to be liberated from oppressive systems of power (the status quo, Western hegemony, "Whiteness"). The good life, then, is liberation from oppression for the goal of "happiness" as determined by the individual, and liberation of minority groups for greater power in the (re)construction of social and cultural norms. The human problem emerges as oppression and unacknowledged privilege that are maintained by "heresies" and are corrected by "burning careers at the stake" (according to Dreher) or "cancel culture." The solution to the human problem is "wokeness" or the process by which one's eyes are opened to the systemic nature of oppression. The “woke” person then must take steps to confess how they have contributed to oppression and work for Social Justice.
Social Justice is the application of the solution to the human problem to all of culture and its institutional forms. Dreher notes that the State is the primary institution of society that will serve to bring about progress through science and technology. The result will be equal freedom of choice. Each institution of culture must be scrutinized for signs of oppression. This is where the analytic tool of Critical Theory comes in. Its role is to point out lingering assumptions of the "old order," which includes the traditional views of Western Civilization. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay give an overview of how these theories are applied in Cynical Theories.
Lastly, religions usually provide hope through a narrative about human destiny and the continuity of life beyond one's lifetime. Since Progressivism is naturalistic, all that exists is nature (there is no human soul), thus individuals have no personal continuity. Hope for the individual comes as they work for the progress of society, which will one day end in utopia. Dreher helps us understand why Progressivism, as a religion, is being embraced by many in the younger generations when he says, "This is how it was for young Russians of the late 19th century, who embraced Marxism with the fervor of religious converts. It gave its devotees a narrative that helped them understand why things are the way they are, and what they, as Marxists, should do to bring about a more just world. It was an optimistic philosophy, one that promised relief and bounty for all the people of the world." The narrative that Dreher's "young Russians" embraced is not much different from the narrative to which many in the Millennial Generation and Generation Z are devoted.
Does Progressivism function as a religion, given this definition and these categories? It is evident that Progressivism is a set of beliefs, a system of doctrines, that serves to make sense of our experience in the world, as individuals, and for humanity as a whole. It serves as a narrative that tells a story about our origins, our purpose, and our destiny, and gives us hope. In addition, those participating in the Social Justice movement may use this set of beliefs to give their own lives significance. They are committed to a world-changing cause that will eventually liberate all of humanity from oppression.
In order to facilitate further conversation among ourselves and with the young people in our lives, I will leave you with some questions that I have been thinking about: Why should we accept this Progressive set of beliefs? Are there good reasons to make the assumptions Progressivism makes? If so, what are they? If not, why not? Can we have an intelligent conversation, without fear, about these assumptions as we would do in a Religious Studies class? Should we?
1 Dreher, Rod. Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York: Randomhouse, 2020).
2 Ibid., p. 60.
3 Ibid., p. 56, 60-62.
4 Trueman, Carl. R. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020).
5 Mitchell, Joshua. American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (New York: Encounter Books, 2020).
6 Dreher, p. 52.
7 Murray, Douglas. The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (New York: Doubleday, 2019).
8 Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin, 2018).
9 Dreher, p. 56-57.
10 Ibid., (p. 53).
11 Pluckrose, Helen, and James Lindsay.Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity (North Carolina: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020).
12 Dreher, p. 55.