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24 August 2022

The “woke” may be dogmatic, but social progress owes a lot to religious fervour

Historically – from the abolition of slavery to gender equality – religious-based activism has been effective in enacting change.

By Tomiwa Owolade

In the last decade of the 18th century, amid the abundance of the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, 300,000 people in Britain gave up sugar. The Quakers were at the forefront of the boycott, which encouraged children to go without cakes and adults to drink tea unsweetened. During the middle of the 19th century and early 20th century, across the world – from the slums of British industrial cities to the estates of Russian aristocrats – many other people supported a ban on the sale of alcohol, which was advocated by the temperance movement. 

These campaigns – to restrict substances that provide pleasure – were united by a fervent form of Christianity. And although their advocates were not Puritans (members of a 17th-century religious sect that sought to rid the Church of England of any vestiges of Roman Catholicism), they were puritan in a wider sense: they spoke out against “indecent” pleasure and championed virtue.

It is commonplace to criticise modern-day progressive activism – what some describe as “woke politics” – by comparing it to a sanctimonious, dogmatic religion. These activists, the argument goes, have strange and objectively untrue beliefs – such as that biological sex is a social construct – and demonise anyone who disagrees with them. They are sectarian by nature: more hostile, for example, to left-wing women with whom they disagree on certain issues than to conservative men with whom they disagree on everything. In these ways, the “woke” are following in the tradition of fundamentalist religion.

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This is the argument of the comedian Andrew Doyle, whose new book The New Puritans arrives soon after the US journalist Noah Rothman’s The Rise of the New Puritans. In 2021 the Columbia University professor John McWhorter wrote Woke Racism, which argued that contemporary social justice, especially when it comes to race, has the character of a revived form of religion that undermines the progress of rational and liberal societies.

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The journalist Helen Lewis explored the link between contemporary social justice and religious faith in a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary, The Church of Social Justice. As traditional religion has declined in both Britain and the US, Lewis argues, politics has taken its place. Many of us now carry our political beliefs with an intensity that previous generations reserved for religion.

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Lewis argues that political conviction can provide a form of consolation – what the sociologist Émile Durkheim described as “collective effervescence”. As society becomes increasingly fractured, faith can bind people together. But this can come at a cost, as Lewis writes in the Atlantic: “Treating politics like a religion also makes it more emotionally volatile, more tribal (because differences of opinion become matters of good and evil) and more prone to outbreaks of moralising and piety.”

Many of the criticisms aimed at today’s progressive activism, then, might also have been applied to earlier religious-based activism: it eschews critical thinking in favour of moral dogmatism, and alienates anyone who doesn’t already subscribe to its narrow and esoteric beliefs.

But the movements that campaigned against sugar and alcohol were not simply motivated by puritanism – in the late journalist HL Mencken’s definition, “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”. These earlier puritanical campaigns were also progressive. The sugar boycott, for instance, was part of the campaign to abolish the slave trade. The cultivation of sugar was an integral part of the trade, and so to refuse it demonstrated opposition to a deplorable industry.

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Just as the sugar boycott was gathering momentum, petitions to stop the slave trade reached a critical mass. Between 1787 and 1792, 1.5 million British people signed anti-slave trade petitions: almost one sixth of the population. Behind the movement were nonconformists such as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and evangelical Christians including William Wilberforce and William Cowper. Cowper’s 1788 poem “The Negro’s Complaint” humanised the enslaved and influenced the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr almost two centuries later.

The temperance movement was similarly aligned with progressive causes. Feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, many influential members of the Chartist movement and the early Labour Party all supported the movement against alcohol, one of the factors in which was alcohol’s role in the incidence of domestic abuse. Those who abstained believed that the pleasures of drinking should not come at the expense of the vulnerable. Likewise, the abolitionists thought that sweetened tea was not worth the degradation of African captives in the Caribbean.

Followers of these movements were sanctimonious and fired up by an abrasive, religious passion. But at a time when Enlightenment thinkers and sceptics of religion such as Voltaire and David Hume considered non-white people to be inferior, the moral universalism of figures such as Cowper is remarkable. 

The argument that the new form of progressive activism incorporates the worst elements of religion is persuasive. But many of the ideas we take for granted today, from the humanity of black people to the equality of women and the dignity of workers, were shaped by people whose convictions were driven by their passionate religiosity. It is not only the Labour Party that owes more to Methodism than to Marxism.

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars