17. The Great Awokening

You have to laugh at Extinction Rebellion

Column for the Spectator on the religious aspects of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Published on 12th October 2019.


I ventured out into Westminster earlier this week to take a look at the Extinction Rebellion protest and it reminded me of the Edinburgh Fringe. I don’t just mean the sheer number of people in fancy dress, such as the Red Rebels with their red robes and white face paint, or the men in gas masks. I mean it was like a huge piece of political street theatre written by a brilliant satirist.

Wherever you looked there were little comic vignettes. At one point, having become slightly numb listening to one activist after another condemn ‘western consumerism’, I popped into Pret a Manger, only to be confronted by protestors politely queuing up to buy vegan baguettes. I could have sworn some of them were the very same people who’d been holding up signs saying ‘End Capitalism’ moments before. Then there was the hearse parked in Trafalgar Square, complete with a coffin in the back labelled ‘Our Future’, which immediately got a parking ticket.

Apart from that over-zealous traffic warden, the reaction of the authorities was a model of restraint. At first I found the police’s failure to enforce the law irritating — I joked to James Delingpole that if it were a group of Catholic nuns protesting about changes to the Gender Recognition Act, the riot squad would have been straight in with the tear gas. But I came around to this policy as the day wore on. Rather than turn the demonstrators into martyrs by arresting them en masse and dragging them into paddy wagons, the police stood back for the most part and let them make fools of themselves.

On the day I was there, first prize went to Mark Rylance, who gave a speech saying he’d been inspired to resign from the Royal Shakespeare Company by Greta Thunberg. Apparently, the 59-year-old actor hadn’t realised BP’s £7.5 million sponsorship deal with the RSC, which has enabled 80,000 young people to buy tickets for £5, was immoral. The 16-year-old oracle had opened his eyes (and the RSC has severed ties with BP).

For all the demonstrators’ talk of ‘science’ and their insistence on telling ‘the truth’, it could not have been clearer that this global movement is a religious cult. Several of the protestors seemed to be in an emotional fugue state, their eyes burning brightly, like evangelicals possessed by the Holy Spirit.

Many people have made this observation before, but the protestors’ apocalyptic moralism — their absolute conviction that the world will end in our lifetimes if we don’t purge ourselves of sin — is a textbook hallmark of millenarianism. It has a good deal in common with Christianity in its febrile, late medieval phase, with Saint Greta as Joan of Arc, but it’s also post-Christian in the way predicted by Chesterton. I’m not thinking of his supposed comment about people believing in anything rather than nothing when they stop believing in God, although there was some evidence of that, with different groups embracing paganism in various forms. I’m thinking of another quote: ‘The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.’

The odd thing is that none of the protestors was aware that they were in the grip of these religious ideas, even though it was obvious to any outsider. And this too gave the affair a rich comic dimension. The highpoint of my day was witnessing a speech given by the Guardian columnist George Monbiot on Millbank. It was dusk and he was surrounded by hushed congregants sitting in a circle. He stood on a small box and delivered what was, in essence, a religious sermon. He talked about how he and his fellow eco–warriors were kind, altruistic people, rebelling ‘with love in our hearts’ against an ‘avaricious’, ‘vampiric’, ‘necro-philic’ economic system kept afloat by ‘neo-liberals’ and ‘psychopaths’. ‘If we love ourselves, we must purge this toxic system built around capitalism from our souls,’ he said. The talk ended with some call and response, with George shouting out ‘Extinction!’ and the crowd replying ‘Rebellion!’ It was like a scene from a 21st-century equivalent of The Life of Brian, except in this version the protagonist has embraced his messianic status.

Am I being too flippant about what could metastasise into a violent doomsday cult in the same mould as Aum Shinrikyo, the group that carried out the Tokyo subway sarin attack? Probably. But for the time being it’s hard not to laugh.

The Great Awokening

Column for the Spectator exploring whether the Social Justice movement is a religious cult (answer: yes). Published on 5th January 2019.

Is the social justice movement that’s sweeping British and American universities a secular religion? The core beliefs of the members of this cult certainly seem to play the same psychological role as the central tenets of the world’s major religions. They furnish their adherents with rituals and blasphemy laws, a way of distinguishing between the sacred and the profane, a vision of what it is to be a good person and live in a good society, and they enable them to engage in tribal sorting, dividing people between members of the in-group and the out-group. No doubt the same could be said of most political ideologies, but there’s one aspect of left-wing identity politics in which it reveals itself as more cult-like than other belief systems. I’m thinking of its magical component.

This was brought to my attention by the psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander. In a post entitled ‘Devoodooifying Psychology’, he compared the concept of ‘stereotype threat’ to a voodoo hex. Stereotype threat holds that if a person is expected to perform badly in a test because she’s a member of a particular group, she will perform badly. It is invoked by the social justice left to explain the under-performance of women in Stem subjects, as well as other group discrepancies. Alexander means two things by this. First, that the effect of stereotyping someone, according to the theory, is similar to that of a voodoo curse, negatively affecting their performance. Second, that the effect isn’t real. Stereotype threat is one of the casualties of the ‘replication crisis’ afflicting psychology, with researchers unable to replicate this finding.

Another example Alexander gives is ‘unconscious bias’. This is the idea that people, particularly straight white men, are influenced by biases they aren’t aware of that lead them to discriminate against women and minorities. Informing people of their biases, usually by making them take an implicit association test, is one of the key elements of diversity training, which has become an $8 billion-a-year industry in the US even though study after study has shown it doesn’t work. A belief in unconscious bias isn’t confined to members of the intersectionality cult, but they have latched on to it, partly because it enables them to claim racism and sexism are responsible for a host of outcome discrepancies in spite of the evidence that bigotry and prejudice have declined significantly in the past 30 years while many outcome discrepancies have remained stable. Again, there is something deeply irrational about this: a belief in an unseen force that is responsible for many of society’s ills.

In Psychology Today, the sociologist Jason Manning expanded on this theme, pointing out that blaming stereotype threat and implicit bias for the underperformance of certain groups has something in common with the belief in the ‘evil eye’. This is the idea, widespread in Mediterranean cultures, that if someone gazes jealously at another person it can cause that person to suffer. As with stereotype threat and unconscious bias, the ‘evil eye’ is believed to be capable of having this effect even if the jealous person doesn’t intend it to. They are all malevolent, invisible forces that originate in some mysterious, non-rational realm.

The same belief in magic reveals itself in the claim that certain words or ideas associated with ‘white privilege’ are a form of ‘epistemic violence’, capable of wreaking untold psychological damage on women and minorities. When a group of LGBT+ activists at a university claim that giving a platform to a ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist’ will ‘erase’ the identity of trans students, it is tempting to dismiss this as hyperbole. But maybe we should take what they say at face value. If we grant them that courtesy, we have to conclude that the members of this cult attribute a terrifying supernatural power to those in possession of ‘white privilege’. They really do believe that the people at the top of the intersectional hierarchy can literally ‘erase’ people by uttering certain words, almost like magic spells. In this context, the ‘safe spaces’ that have been created in universities, in which students are protected from the harmful effects of these spells, are a bit like churches — holy places where evil cannot penetrate.

What’s distinctive about members of the social justice left is not that they don’t believe in magic — they clearly do — but that the supernatural forces that govern their universe are all malevolent. Theirs is a religion bereft of a divine being. There are only white Devils.


America’s White Savoirs by Zack Goldberg, The Tablet, 5th June 2019

The Great Awokening by Matthew Yglesias, Vox, 1st April 2019

Social Justice is a Crowdsourced Religion by B.J. Campbell, Medium, 31st October 2018

2013: A Race Odyssey by Steve Sailer, Taki’s Magazine, 10th October 2018

The Preachers of the Great Awokening by Bo Winegard and Ben Winegard, Quillette, 21st September 2018

“Hidden Forces and Essences” Psychology as Magic by Jason Manning, Psychology Today, 22nd February 2018

The Identity Politics Death-Grip by Joshua Mitchell, City Journal, Autumn 2017

On Leaving the SJW Cult and Finding Myself by Keri Smith, Medium, 13th May 2017

Is Everything a Religion? by Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex, 25th March 2015