The religion of the Woke

Danie Goosen writes on the revolutionary purism that is consuming the West

A revolutionary spirit is blowing across the Western world today. At its core, it is fuelled by the desire to do away with the very Western world and, in particular, its cultural heritage.

Although the historical origins of the revolutionary spirit can be traced back to the French Revolution, the immediate sources lie with the 1960s. In many ways, today’s revolutionary currents are a cushioned version of the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. ‘Cushioned’, as it is conveyed by academics in protected positions at affluent Western universities, but also by the media, the upper-middle class, leftist politicians and – irony of ironies – big business.

Groups like Black Lives Matter act as the storm troopers of the academic, media, political and business elites. The way cities in the US are looted and turned into chaos is handled by these elites with velvet gloves.

How should these events be understood? Although different explanations are given, we dwell on one explanation, namely a ‘religious studies’ explanation. On closer inspection, the left-revolutionary movement shows remarkable similarities with certain movements in the history of religion.

We start from the idea that the left-revolutionary spirit fills the void that accompanies the church’s withdrawal from the West. Before discussing some of its religious characteristics, first a broad background:

A religious emptiness characterises the Western world. This is evident from the now decades-long withdrawal of the Christian churches from the West. Both in the US and Europe, members continue to resign from established churches on an unprecedented scale. Anyone interested in the US figures can easily locate it in the latest PEW report. It was published under the heading “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at a Rapid Pace” (October 2019). In Europe, the picture is even gloomier.

However, because man is by nature a religious being (homo religiosus), spiritual emptiness is not tolerated. It is always filled with other religious forces. Christians who leave the church do not necessarily leave the religion, but rather join non-established churches or (more importantly) a new secular religion. The left-revolutionary movement of today is an example of such a secular religion. It fills the spiritual void with their own religious ideas.

Well-known conservative sociologist Mary Eberstadt confirms this point when in a recent interview with Public Discourse (14 July 2020) she made a direct connection between the crisis of the churches (but also the crisis of the traditional family) and the so-called ‘identity politics’ of a left-wing revolutionary pull:

... many people in the West are gripped by a profound identity crisis. Our post-revolutionary, unnaturally atomized way of life has robbed people of the usual ways of answering the universal question, Who am I? … Today, though, secularization means that many people no longer identify themselves first and foremost as Christians and other religious believers do … In this familial and metaphysical void, identity politics serves as a rough substitute for natural and supernatural communities. 

In our own local context, the ANC and its allies on the left of the political spectrum are unreservedly joining in. The ANC compensates for the spiritual emptiness (as evidenced by the collapse of traditional families, community structures, cultures, etc.) by putting on the cloak of a religious saviour.

Because the secular religion of today does not, as in the Christian heritage, succeed in conceiving faith and reason in their coherence, it is almost impossible to answer their points of departure with rational arguments. Religious fanaticism rather than openness to other views is their hallmark.

We dwell on only a few religious features of the left-wing revolutionary movements. Most of them testify to the fact that the new puritanism parasitizes on the Christian heritage. While it uses concepts, symbols, and rituals from the Christian heritage, it also gives it a different meaning, namely a secular political meaning.

Firstly, as in the Christian faith, history is understood by left-wing revolutionaries using central concepts such as creation, fall, and redemption. However, a different meaning is given to them.

According to leftist groups, man (under the influence of the eighteenth-century Jean-Jacques Rousseau) is characterised in her initial state of nature by a paradisiacal state of complete equality, happiness, and an unprecedented abundance.

With the advent of the modern European colonial era, however, the Fall of Man is ushered in. An end to the paradisiacal state is announced. From now on, colonialism rules (as if there were no colonies on the world stage before the arrival of Europe); but also racism (as if there had never been racism); patriarchal violence (as if there had never been fathers who abused women and children before); xenophobia (as if there has never been a fear of the threats of others); poverty (as if there had previously been abundance only), and so on.

Happily, salvation awaits us all. This will happen when the Western colonial heritage, intrinsic to every Western institution, is overthrown and the original state of equality, happiness and abundance is restored.

Secondly, the left revolutionaries are utopian by nature. Imitating the Christian representation of the end times, it strives for a utopian end time of total equality. Such an end time, however, is not a function of God’s providence, but the revolutionary overthrow of the Western heritage. Through revolutionary change, the sinful past will be cleansed, and a utopian future will be ushered in.

Thirdly, the left revolutionary is purist by nature, following the example set by puritanical deviations in the history of religion. Under the new purism, the entire Western past is evil and impure. Consequently, it must be subjected to processes of purification. Revolutionary, on the other hand, represents the avant-garde of the pure and the good.

A typical local example is a call made by the chief executive of the National Museum in Bloemfontein that the colonial West should be subjected to “ethical purification”.

Left revolutionaries are not necessarily ethically decadent, but rather super-moralistic. As G.K. Chesterton has already written in Orthodoxy, when Christian ethical views are cut off from their sources, they go insane: “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.”

‘Forgiveness’ also plays a role. Unlike in the Christian faith, however, forgiveness is repeatedly postponed – and subject to the condition that total equality must first be achieved. Forgiveness is not given unqualifiedly from a gracious source; forgiveness is subject to radical economic and political change.

The more the revolutionaries are frustrated in their expectation of equality (a necessity, because it is an unrealistic expectation), the more strongly the West is urged to confess its guilt. At the same time, the urge to identify the West as a scapegoat is growing stronger. It is all based on the age-old misconception that if the scapegoat is cast out, a state of blissful equality will descend upon all.

Under the purist scheme, the Western past is readily identified with the evil and the revolutionary future with the good. A consequence of this is that rational attempts to reflect on the past comparatively are simply censored.

Comparisons between how different cultures (including in Africa) practised slavery or colonisation are simply Ichabod. So too comparisons between postcolonial Africa and the postcolonial East; South Africa before and after apartheid with the rest of Africa, and so on. A rational conversation about the past is rather replaced by a one-sided moralistic condemnation.

Concepts such as good and evil are thus stripped of their theological meaning and given a secular meaning. According to the Christian faith, reality itself is flawed. No political and moral act, project or revolutionary plan can cure it. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, argue that evil can prevail politically and economically and that a heavenly kingdom of equality can indeed be established on earth.

Fourthly, the state as a substitute god. As in the Christian faith, the left-wing revolutionaries also rely on an absolute force in which the whole of reality is anchored. Unlike in Christian thought, however, this power is not the transcendent God of the Bible, but the immanent god of the (ironically) Western modern era, namely the modern sovereign and centralist state. By the way, the concept of ‘sovereign’ has deeply religious undertones.

Eventually, the left revolutionary is driven by the religious ambition to place the state as a substitute god in charge of every aspect of daily life. If allegiance to this god is sworn, the promise of equality will be fulfilled.

A characteristic of the modern state is the intimate religious bond between itself and the individual (in the liberal state); between himself and the working class (in the old socialism) or between himself and the marginalised identities (in the contemporary revolutionary socialism). In this intimate bond, there is no place for the multitude of local and cultural communities and their intermediary institutions.

Fifthly, as with purist currents in the history of religion, revolutionary purism is characterised by an intense hostility to images. Western images are therefore equated with idols that must be destroyed – with religious enthusiasm.

ISIS’ destruction of art treasures from Classical times is a recent example of this hostility to images; but so is the worldwide movement to destroy symbols of Western culture. As well as the statues of Afrikaner heroes like Pres. M.T. Steyn in Bloemfontein and Pres. Paul Kruger on Church Square.

Finally, left-wing revolutionaries are also characterised by religious rituals. Western universities to be purified of colonial symbols become ritual spaces of purity (and not of academic questioning and cultural transmission); BLM’s ritual kneeling repeats ancient ritual customs; while Etienne van Heerden in his latest book, Die biblioteek aan die einde van die wêreld, describes how the Fees Must Fall movement slaughtered and sacrificed a sheep on the steps of the main building of the University of Cape Town so that the sins of the past can be washed clean.

How to respond to these events? Here are a few suggestions that specifically relate to the Afrikaners as a cultural community.

Rediscover the grandeur of our pre-modern heritage as symbolically summed up in the three great cities of the West, namely Jerusalem (our religious heritage), Athens (our intellectual heritage) and Rome (our political, administrative, and legal heritage). Despite the enormous distance, they still stamp our everyday experience in many fruitful ways.

Rediscover the grandeur of the modern Western world, without being uncritical about its numerous flaws. Also identify the many tensions and contradictions in revolutionary thought, such as the fact that they are dependent on modern Western intellectual traditions in the humanities and social sciences; that they rely on modern Western natural sciences, technologies, economic and governmental traditions to obtain their objectives; and that they are mostly characterised by modern Western expectations, lifestyles, etc.

Rediscover the greatness of Afrikaner history, without denying the many mistakes. (In fact, acknowledging one’s own mistakes is typical of the greatness of our own cultural heritage). At the same time, use central impulses from our own history (such as our republican heritage) to develop a critique of both colonialism and the hidden colonialism at work within the framework of the new revolutionaries themselves.

A version of this article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.