There is no longer any doubt that the phenomenon sometimes identified as “Social Justice,” and the identity politics at the center of it, have taken on a certain religious quality. This thesis has seen much development in the present feature, and it has also come from frequently luminary minds like Jonathan Haidt, Andrew Sullivan, and John McWhorter, among now countless others. I have given the topic considerable treatment myself—at some length, potential readers be warned—ultimately concluding that the only thing disqualifying Social Justice from being a new religion—in fact, the fundamentalist religion of progressive activists—is a technicality.
Religions are, strictly speaking, complex phenomena reliant upon premodern mythologies, usually but not always involving deities or other spiritual forces. Social Justice is a similar complex phenomenon reliant upon a postmodern mythology. That’s it. That’s the only difference—a premodernist view of the universe versus a postmodernist one. In the sociological sense and most others, Social Justice can be considered a (fundamentalist) faith system, and in place of mysterious spiritual forces in a dualistic spirit-and-material world, it offers us mysterious “systemic” and “structural” forces in a purely material one. That’s my conclusion, anyway.
Taking this view as valid, as many now are wont to do, a natural and likely hypothesis emerges. That hypothesis, in its crudest form, is that Social Justice is a substitution for other faiths, especially Christianity. I’d like to call this view the Simple Substitution Hypothesis, which posits essentially that people involved in Social Justice cleave to this new political faith as a substitution for the religious faiths (usually Christianity) that they, as individuals, and we, as a society, have largely left behind. As Joshua Mitchell recently phrased it here in The American Mind, “America has not lost its religion. America has relocated its religion to the realm of politics.”
There is much to be commended not just in such a hypothesis, but also in the deeper hypothesis that Social Justice is a godless evolute of Christianity, most likely some derivative of a relatively strict and puritanical Calvinism. (Such comparisons are blatant in Mitchell’s essay, as well as in Spencer Klavan’s contribution to this feature—and in others to which I link throughout this article.) The parallels suggesting this are too copious to miss, not least the way in which the concept of privilege works as an almost perfect reformulation of the Calvinist doctrines of Original Sin and total depravity. It certainly presents us with an Augustinian construct, at any rate. Mitchell observes:
The language of stain and purity, of transgression and innocence, is Christian language. Other religions are concerned with these categories as well, but our long familiarity with Christianity in America means that the invocation of these categories by the practitioners of identity politics derives from Christianity, and from Protestantism in particular.
It is not surprising, then, to find out that a great deal of what has become Social Justice today has roots buried in the Baptist tradition, specifically the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch (grandfather of the mostly postmodern American philosopher Richard Rorty). Neither is it shocking that similar ideas developed within the Catholic Church in South America under the name liberation theology, though this was decidedly more economic and Marxist in its orientation than the Social Gospel. Later movements, including black liberation theology, womanist (black feminist liberation) theology, and postcolonial theology, likewise fit the mold. Even the failed experiment to create an emergent church for the postmodern condition finds its home in this context.
Not a Substitution but an Evolution
In light of all of this, we have to conclude that there is a great deal of reason to treat the Simple Substitution Hypothesis with some seriousness, as Mitchell does in his essay. It’s relatively easy to see how any of these socially oriented faith programs could, with the simple deletion of the deity from its center, easily provide the psychological and sociological scaffolding necessary to produce a faith of Social Justice and identity politics, not to mention most of the ideological infrastructure such a religion would make use of. Therefore, it’s not a huge leap to conclude that people who otherwise have abandoned their faiths might, in an effort to replace them, cobble together the same sort of thing from the sociocultural milieu of an emerging post-Christian European and American, not to mention postmodern, context.
My own guess would be that while something like what is described above is exactly what has occurred, the Simple Substitution Hypothesis itself is likely to offer a facile explanation of the phenomenon. The best evidence that I can provide for this is in all of those parallel religious movements that arose in service to similar worldviews: the Social Gospel, the various liberation theologies, the emergent church, and so on. That is, whether or not those on the identity-politicking left have developed Social Justice as a faith system that replaces ones they might otherwise have, we have at least a century of developments of the same ideological frameworks evolving within Christian contexts as well. This muddies the waters and points less to a substitution dynamic than to something more fundamental.
As to what that more fundamental thing might be, I hope to offer some clues. I came to the study of Social Justice out of the study of religion. I am not religious myself: in fact I began studying the psychology of religious belief in hopes of furthering the Atheism Movement, of which I was a part. But as I proceeded in that research, I happened to notice the same dynamics playing out within various sectors of my own movement. In certain ways, and among certain groups, the Atheism Movement was definitely behaving every bit as religiously as its faithful critics were liable to insist. I couldn’t unsee it.
The empirical study of the psychology of religion doesn’t attempt to assess whether or not the contents of religious beliefs are true or false, but instead investigates psychological phenomena related to religion and belief in religion. Among the topics within its purview is the question of what psychological benefits religion can provide to someone, as well as what psychological motivations or features are associated with or otherwise related to religious belief. This course of study allowed me to understand when a movement is behaving in ways that can be associated with religious adherence. It also gave me some insight into why that might occur as part of what it means to be human.
Thus without making any claim about the truth or falsehood of any religion, we can see that religious belief in general is an attempt to meet three interrelated types of human psychosocial needs (that is, needs that are psychological and social, in themselves and as they interact with one another). These are: meaning making, a sense of control, and belongingness within a community. I therefore believe that, in every religious practice, some general psychosociological phenomenon must be occurring that a) addresses these needs in some measure for its adherents by b) employing some sort of mythological construction.
Social Justice provides such a framework. Its adherents largely follow it now in order to satisfy the same psychosocial needs that religions exist to meet; it serves as the fundamentalist religion of the progressive left; and as such it bears uncanny resemblance to (and may well be significantly evolved out of) various forms and features of Christianity.
A more complex “Substitution Hypothesis” might account for this in part, but in actuality the source of the isomorphism between identity politics and religion isn’t substitution at all: it’s evolution.
Social Justice did not replace Christianity: rather, the former grew out of the latter through an unlikely process that fused its better impulses with a terrible—and godless—ideology derived from Communism.
If true, my claim neuters the argument that revitalizing belief in traditional religions provides some path away from the divisive madness of Social Justice. It is clear enough that more traditional religions and sects can go “woke” too—even the Southern Baptist Convention itself as a whole is currently headed that way.
Political Religion and Religious Politics
The Simple Substitution Hypothesis is sometimes presented with the additional guess that people make this substitution in the attempt to find meaning in life, as this crucial dimension of human experience is lacking among the godless and largely nonreligious. This, too, is facile. But there is something commendable in it: it’s not unreasonable to guess that the human search for meaning has something to do with Social Justice and the overall turn toward politics we presently observe in our culture (wars).
One plausible suggestion, for example, is that as our basic material needs are in general more widely and successfully met, people will tend to move up the hierarchy of needs toward a search for meaning, connection, and self-actualization. This could be called the Life’s Not That Hard Anymore Hypothesis, and there’s probably something to it. Theoretical, academic, and social pursuits all become more accessible as the pressures of bare survival decrease. A strong sense of meaning and purpose can now be derived from making a difference in combating major societal problems instead of one’s own obstacles to survival.
But the Life’s Not That Hard Anymore Hypothesis may also partially explain our present decline in religious belief, at least if the doxastic trajectory of most of Western Europe and Australia are any guides. There’s a great deal of reason to entertain the hypothesis that people are less likely to turn to a religious architecture or deity if we have other ways of explaining the world and exerting some level of control over it as a society.
If all of the above was going on under the banner of Social Justice, I think the argument that identity politics arises from desperately seeking meaning in a post-industrial, post-Christian world might have stouter legs under it. As it happens, though, Social Justice is a fundamentalist religious phenomenon, and fundamentalism—whether religious or political, whether oriented to the left or the right—cannot be adequately explained by a search for meaning. Fundamentalism implies a further belief that there’s only one way to make meaning, and all competitors are unacceptable.
Fundamentalism seems to arise mainly in two circumstances: when one feels out of control in a perceived emergency, and when one’s identity status as a “good person” is credibly called into question because of a significant disagreement. Thinking about it in this way, the most relevant features of the religious behavior in Social Justice are likely 1) a response to feeling out of control—particularly in ways that flare up underlying moral intuitions like fairness and caring—and 2) a bid to understand oneself as “good” in a (not-unrelated) moral panic.
In fact, I would extend this further and guess that the primary reason why so many people, both in the United States and globally, are turning recently toward political tribalism as an apparent substitute religion, is not to find faith or meaning in a world where God is dead. It’s because they feel out of control in our hyperpartisan, existentially polarized society, and they’ve reconceived what it means to be a “good person” in terms of this unfortunate political circumstance. For them, politics is a means—and one that reaches beyond prayer—to feel a sense of control which simultaneously puts them on the one true side of Good. In circumstances like these, extreme partisanship is seen as the sole means to save society from the other side and serves as a token of one’s righteousness within the cause.
This understanding, in some sense, turns the Simple Substitution Hypothesis on its head. It suggests that Mitchell’s thesis is accurate, but not for the reasons commonly assumed. “America has not lost its religion. America has relocated its religion to the realm of politics,” he writes, and this is because in our hardlining partisanship, in which no social or political capital is to be had by crossing the aisle, our politics have become all-consuming enough to eclipse almost everything else.