With characteristic hilarity and insight, a recent Onion article discusses an upcoming video game’s character creator that is gender-fluid but forces players to be Christian: “We wanted to give gamers maximum customizability as they explore… except in the category of religion. That question has been answered by Jesus’ ascension.”
The cultural revolution that is sometimes called “wokeness” is a good thing, ambiguous though the term may be. It has rightly shined a light on systemic injustice in our criminal justice system, the abuse of women by powerful men, and our failure to uphold the rights of members of the LGBTQ community.
But wokeness has been nearly silent regarding religion, aside from a bit of hand-wringing over the transgressions of Catholic priests. In fact, not only does wokeness rarely bump heads with religion, but it is sometimes considered ignorant or bigoted to criticize it at all.
While I fully support being tolerant of people of different faiths, this doesn’t mean we can’t honestly and consistently confront significant aspects of belief systems that are blatantly not inclusive.
Some of Religion’s Problems are Systemic
It is true that many religious folks don’t adhere to all the doctrines of their holy texts. As I’ll point out later, when properly guided, religion’s strengths — like engendering an attitude of awe and wonder at God’s creation — overshadow its weaknesses. Unlike John Lennon, I am not arguing for a world without religion.
But in some ways, if we want to target systemic problems through the lens of wokeness, religion is a prime offender. For example, from Buddhism to Christianity to Islam, these belief systems were created by men and are sustained by men. All the notable theologists are men (St. Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna, Augustine), some of whom wrote quite dismissively of women. Which books would be included in the Bible and what general practices would prevail were decided by men — and men of status, at that — in historical councils like the Council of Nicea.
But beyond the sexism, built into many major religions is the idea that you are part of God’s chosen group (or, you are closer to enlightenment). If you learn this at a young age, you will be more likely to see a whole chunk of your fellow humans with pity or, worse, hostility.
This exclusionary attitude, resulting in part from a deeply ingrained belief system, is exactly the opposite of the better world that woke culture is trying to create. It is the ultimate failure of inclusion.
To be clear, I am not presenting the above points as arguments against religion per se; I’m merely saying that, by the standards of woke culture, these count as worse problems than some of the problems that are typically targeted. In other words, if you’re outraged about old tweets (and perhaps you should be), then you should be at least equally outraged that the holy texts for both Islam and Christianity proliferate an origin story in which the first woman is literally created out of the rib of the first man, who was created by God independently.
Judging the Full Moral “Character” of Religion
Much attention has been paid to the current aspect of woke culture that seeks to dethrone or cancel powerful people for something they may have said or done many years ago. When arguments against these dethronings usually appear, they seek to refocus the conversation on the person’s full moral character rather than an isolated event from the past. However, these sorts of counterarguments don’t hold much water for the woke, who would rather focus on what you said, rather than why you said it.
A case in point is the firing of a Netflix executive who used the full n-word in service of explaining why the r-word was harmful to disabled people. Maybe he’s a racist, or maybe he was just a bit naive — nobody involved seemed very interested in that question. All that mattered was that he had used the word.
Yet, this logic gets reversed when it comes to religion. When people like Richard Dawkins point out the dangers and harms of religion, sometimes quoting from the Bible or Qur’an, they are told that they’re being naive and that you can’t take quotes out of context. They are told this not just by religious fundamentalists but by intellectual members of woke culture — perhaps especially by the latter.
But if we’re going to hold individuals accountable for small transgressions without concern for their full moral character, to be consistent, wouldn’t we have to hold religious folks accountable for their association with sometimes vile and sexist scripture? I could point out passages that justify slavery from the Old Testament or justifications for beating your wife from the Qur’an, and we could go from church to church and mosque to mosque demanding that the practitioners delete passages from their holy books to be more woke.
But ultimately, I don’t buy the argument to begin with.
We should judge the full moral character of people, as well as the full “character” of any given religion. But just as people who are accused of past transgressions should deal with them appropriately and honestly, religions should so deal with their beliefs and scripture.
A World of Better Religion
Woke culture has done a lot of good, but it hasn’t yet reached the moral high ground that it purports to be standing on. To be fully woke, we want a world where people truly see each other as brothers and sisters (or whatever label they prefer), sharing this planet together. We don’t want a world where maybe people of different faiths smile and hold hands for a photo op, yet each secretly believes that the other is going to hell.
I am of course not suggesting that we tell people what to believe, but we can refocus religion on a more authentic sort of tolerance (not just the photo op kind). We could encourage influential religious leaders to emphasize a shared sense of love of God’s creation and all the creatures in it, and to downplay the role of scripture. We could encourage them to change the teaching so that God’s chosen people includes everyone.
The benefits of properly-guided religion cannot be underestimated, and have helped to shape my life’s path.
When I spent several months in Jordan and Egypt, I felt completely taken aback by the sense of religiosity that pervaded the cultural spaces, from mosques in airports to Qur’an readings flooding the airwaves. There was a daily, sometimes hourly, communion with the divine that put my experience as an American to shame. In my own spiritual practice and life — I am a follower of Advaita Vedanta, a belief system stemming from Hinduism that emphasizes the divinity of consciousness — I strive to match this level of religiosity.
A friend of mine converted to Christianity a few years back, and it changed his life. He was lost, now he was found. His relationship had suffered, now it was repaired. His life had no center, now every day had a sense of purpose.
And yet… it all came with a price. Whereas before he had no problem with homosexuality, now he thought it was wrong and unnatural. Where he had been quite tolerant of different religions before, now he believed that there was only one path to salvation.
This is precisely the problem: religion is not like software, but like an operating system. It takes over one’s entire psyche because it attempts to answer all of life’s deep questions in one fell swoop. Again, it is not individual practitioners that are the problem but religion’s systemic nature. When the system encourages inclusive attitudes, it’s a good thing.
But what do we do when aspects of religion are clearly not inclusive? What happens when religion itself is not woke? Is it still not woke to criticize it and call for reform?
As humans, we especially need to get away from the teaching that is core to many religions — including my own in some ways — that by virtue of the religion we follow we have the only access to spiritual truth.
There are many religious reformers out there already, of course, who are doing some of the work I’m suggesting. But can you imagine the boost it would get if woke culture really sunk in its teeth? Maybe when the next women’s march is planned, we can plan a better religion march as well?