Anti-Racism as Religion: Bad Faith or Good Analogy?

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John McWhorter knows a duck when he sees one.

His most recent book "Woke Racism" considers the recent preoccupation with race among progressives and concludes that it is best understood as a new religion. Lest one object that the analogy is a strained one, he wants to be very clear: Woke anti-racism is not "like" a religion. It really "is" a religion in all but name, complete with its own scripture, prophets, priests, holy days, creeds, and collective rituals. Simultaneously given to both missionary and inquisitorial impulses, it embraces certain myths about the past as well as hopes and fears for the future. It features distinctive ways of speaking among members of the congregation, peculiar notions of purity, an acute sense of heresy, and, above all, a robust sense of sin, though not much in the way of absolution or redemption for unbelievers or those who remain lukewarm in their devotion.

In short, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it just may be a duck.

For McWhorter, calling current manifestations of anti-racism a religion is a form of guilt by association. He makes no secret of his own general antipathy toward religion for what he sees as a propensity for irrationality and a Manichaean tendency to view the world in starkly black-and-white terms as divided between good (those "doing the work" of anti-racism, understood in very specific ways) and evil (everyone else).

Many scholars take issue with this line of attack. At this week's national conference of the American Academy of Religion, research presentations and panel discussions devoted to race enjoy a high profile on the four-day agenda. So much attention paid to events "ripped from the headlines" is conspicuous in a setting where, like many disciplines, scholars often debate subjects understood by – or of more than passing interest to – perhaps only a few dozen people in the whole world.

As many as ten thousand scholars attend this annual gathering, which will be held this year in San Antonio. The attendees are more diverse now than a generation ago (think less tweed and fewer beards). Whereas many practice one religion or another, just as many do not, and the organization is aggressively non-sectarian. The AAR's official policy statements tilt leftward, as do the views of the membership, most of whom teach at colleges and universities where the fervor of the "Great Awokening" is most palpable.

Many scholars object to comparisons like those of McWhorter, a linguist, as facile and uniformed, coming as they do from someone who is not an expert in the field. (Rarely does one hear criticism of McWhorter because he is hostile toward religion.) This rejoinder can come off as prickly and concerned primarily about defending professional turf, especially when one considers the list of things that have been labelled "religions" in the academic literature. Sports fandom, "Whiteness," tourism, tantric sex, climate change denial, environmentalism, Twelve Step programs, capitalism, Marxism, theater, vegetarianism, art exhibits, video games, psychoanalysis, and, most recently, QAnon have all been analyzed as religious phenomena. Many more examples could be cited.

It is customary among scholars to quote the late Jonathan Z. Smith, a revered professor at the University of Chicago, who wrote that "religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study ... created for the scholar's analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization." To define religion as an artificially-constructed category with "no existence apart from the academy," however, only to reject claims like McWhorter's on the grounds that the person making the comparison is not a specialist in "religion" sounds like a game of "heads I win, tails you lose" to the non-specialist.

Identifying the problem is one key to solving it, and provocative analogies can be of great diagnostic value. Is woke anti-racism a religion, a political ideology, or something else entirely? Its proponents contend that woke anti-racism provides a more accurate assessment of American society and yields more benefits for African Americans than McWhorter believes. McWhorter suspects the cure may be worse than the disease.

Ultimately, however, "is it a religion?" is a less important question than "is it true?" Different people can have good faith disagreements on this fundamental point. But "stay in your lane" is not a persuasive argument.

Patrick Gray is professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and author of The Routledge Guidebook to the New Testament (2017).

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