The anti-religious religion of Peter Boghossian and Michael Shellenberger

Some people reading this might have some idea who Peter Boghossian is. He’s an atheist philosopher, of the New Atheist school in particular, the kind of atheist who loves getting self-righteous about their beliefs in a way that outmatches even many religious moralists. He’s also a conservative ideologue, in fact he’s pretty notorious for submitting intentionally absurd hoax papers for the purpose of “debunking gender studies”, which his employer, Portland State University, determined to be a violation of its ethics guidelines concerning research on human subjects. Like other New Atheists, Peter Boghossian is enamored with ideas about opposing vague constructs called “wokeness”, which he believes to be a threat to liberal democracy. Often times you find that “wokeness” is a thing that people struggle to define. Personally, I really hate the term “woke” as a way of describing anything. It’s a vague term often meant to describe any political position you happen to despise. But on November 11th, Peter Boghossian posted on Twitter a spreadsheet detailing the characteristics of what he called “the woke religion”. Ironically enough, I think it also exposes his own inner “religious thinking” for lack of a better term, as well as the true content of the manufactured “war on wokeness” now peddled ruthlessly by the mainstream of politics. So, let’s take the opportunity to dissect it.

Apparently compiled by both Peter Boghossian and Michael Shellenberger, himself a self-described “eco-modernist” and noted conservative contrarian, the table is divided between seven vertical categories and ten horizontal categories. The categories of the vertical axis consist of “Racism”, “Climate Change”, “Trans” (as in trans people), “Crime”, “Mental Illness”, “Drugs”, and “Homelessness”, all of them seemingly pet issues for conservative culture warriors. To be honest, I’m surprised “Immigration” and “Islam” aren’t sections here, considering where this is going. The cateogries of the horizontal axis consist of “Original Sin”, “Guilty Devils”, “Myths”, “Sacred Victims”, “The Elect”, “Supernatural Beliefs”, “Taboo Facts”, “Taboo Speech”, “Purifying Rituals” and “Purifying Speech”. Some of these sound like song titles from a shitty glam rock album. But, more importantly, they sketch out what Boghossian seems to think a religion is, and how “wokeness” supposedly works. First there’s the “original sin” doctrine, or rather what we’re supposed to take as an expy to the original sin doctrine of Christianity, here meaning basically the idea of a crime or transgression taking place which is responsible for the current problems of the world. Then of course there’s the people who are responsible for it. Then you have “Myths”, which apparently are supposed to be a creation story, which will seem all the weirder when we analyze what these “myths” are. There are “Sacred Victims”, who continue to be affected by “Original Sin”, and there are the “Elect”, a chosen few gathered to right the wrongs of the world. The “religion” is equipped with a set of “supernatural beliefs”, here defined as “beliefs beyond scientific understanding or known laws of nature”, and, of course, has attendant categories of “forbidden speech”, which attacks the “religion”, as well as counteracting categories of “purifying speech”, which upholds the “religion” while alleviating guilt.

So, Boghossian’s construction of “the woke religion” is apparently a salvationist religion in which there are, judging by the table, multiple original sins that need to be redeemed by an enlightened Elect, supported by purportedly non-scientific beliefs, origin myths, purification rituals and speech, and, of course, the persecution of heretics. Boghossian here is trying to frame all of his critics and opponents as being religious fanatics, or just given over to religious thinking in general, and it’s very obvious that Boghossian’s idea of the nature of religion is informed almost entirely by Christianity. The whole concept is essentially a caricature of Christianity, the religion most defined partly by the concept of “original sin”, though unlike Christianity or any other religion it also involves the presence of an “Elect” to be set up to correct society, which actually sounds a little more like Plato’s Republic than Christianity or any religion. Then again, perhaps “the Elect” is meant to have the same meaning as “the Church”.

At this point I believe it’s worth bringing up that Boghossian’s understanding of religion is, like that of many other atheists, a very narrow understanding of religion, one that only really responds particularly to a generalized set of claims made by or about Christianity, as well as maybe Judaism and Islam. It is entirely inadequate when addressing the diverse reality of religion, both historical and present, or many claims made by non-Abrahamic religions. Ideas about original sin, the temptations of devils, spiritual elects, and the like are all absent in the polytheistic religions of the world, and in the historical context of the pre-Christian world, Christianity actually seems unique, perhaps even “eccentric”, in this regard. Hinduism has one God, expressed through many deities, and Hindu class society does affirm a sort of elite spiritual caste at the top, but there’s no original sin in Hinduism. Nor is there original sin in Buddhism, with suffering merely being a product of continuous arisings of craving and ignorance that don’t seem to have an obvious starting point; there is no descent from purity to impurity. Shinto does emphasize ritual purity, very strongly indeed, but it has no concept of original sin. Finally, the nature of the gods of polytheism seems distinct from the One True God imagined by the monotheist faiths and likely the same God that is the sole focus of atheist responses. They are powerful, but not omnipotent, nor omniscient, or even omnibenevolent, they do not deal in the sort of divine command that God is known for, and in some belief systems they are not even immortal.

With that out of the way, let’s examine what Boghossian and Shellenberger seem to think is the “woke religion” in terms of what its apparent beliefs are, and this is where things get truly bad.

One thing I should note right out of the gate is that Boghossian uses the term “supernatural beliefs” not to refer to any actual supernatural claims but instead to claims that very much pertain to worldly society, often with scientific support, but which he himself happens to disagree with. For example, one of the “supernatural beliefs” he lists is “humans are causing sixth mass extinction”. Putting aside the obvious problem that the scientific community seems to suggest that this is indeed happening, it beggars belief to suggest that this might be interpreted as a “supernatural” claim. Do mass extinctions happen only because of a God flashing a magic wand, or like lightning bursting out from another dimension? No, they are very much naturalistic phenomenon, and until today they were all caused solely by extant, uncontrollable natural phenomenon. Or how about “prisoners aren’t guilty, the system is”. Again, we might well ask questions about the system that makes sure that non-violent drug offenders, often African-Americans, spend years of their lives in prison, while allowing millionnaires who literally committed murder to avoid incarceration, but how in the world are we to take that as a “supernatural” claim, or even a particularly extraordinary one? I also fail to see how decriminalization as a means to prevent addiction and overdoses qualifies as a “supernatural” claim. These are just a handful of examples of Boghossian’s absurd labelling of whatever claim he dislikes as “supernatural”.

The “Racism” section of the table begins in predictable fashion. Slavery, referring mainly to the Atlantic slave trade, is the “original sin”, the machinations of mercantile slavery here are somehow given a cosmic status that perhaps was never afforded to it by actual anti-racists, and white people and the police are the “guilty devils”, the implication being that Boghossian assumes that white people are assumed to never be capable of being allies in the struggle against racism or of dismantling racial hierarchy. The “Myths” section is ostensibly supposed to refer to “creation myths”, but contains nothing of the sort. Instead it contains strawmen such as “Asian success is due to Asians participating in white supremacy” and “structural racism is the cause of all racial inequality and the only explanation possible for disparate outcomes by racial group”. The “Sacred Victims” are of course non-white and indigenous people, and the “Elect” meant to save them are Black Lives Matters, critical race theorists, and basically a selection of anti-racist intellectuals that he doesn’t like (not that I’m a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates or Robin DiAngelo either, just so we’re clear). Black Lives Matter here is supposed to be taken as a kind of elite movement, an appendage of the establishment meant to scold white people, when in reality they seem to repeatedly criticize mainstream Democratic politicians, such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and have more recently earned the ire of the establishment for their declared solidarity with Cuba against US imperialism. The “supernatural beliefs” section here is just a joke. It consists almost entirely of strawmen, and the otherwise not incorrect claim that racism is as bad as ever. The “taboo facts” section would imply “things forbidden to say”, but claiming that racism is declining and that interracial marriages are broadly accepted is not the edgy, rebellious, or controversial statement that Boghossian thinks it is. If anything it just shows he understands very little of the subject, as is demonstrated by his claim that racism can simply be wished away through a single legislative act (surely “magical thinking” if I ever saw it) and that “black wealth” supposedly rising is somehow proof that African-Americans do not experience systematic incarcertation and brutalization. “Purifying rituals” here seems to mean essentially any policy intended to address racial inequality that isn’t the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as more performative measures that don’t actually address it, while “purifying speech” seems to include obscure phrases no one uses as well the concept of intersectionality itself. All in all a truly baffling mixture.

I kind of stress the implications of Boghossian’s apparent beliefs on racism. Based on what we’re looking at here, Boghossian might be a racist. He opposes the idea of any structural barriers explaining the prevalence of racism and the negative outcomes of black people, and it is my suspicion that when he hints at “other possible explanations for disparate outcomes by racial group”, he’s trying to hint at something more essential, like IQ, genes, or phenotypes. And if he isn’t, he will likely assert that the problem is cultural, that African-Americans partake in a culture of violence and the glorification thereof, while of course conveniently ignoring similar cultures among white men or even the very existence of “white trash”. Either Boghossian believes that black people are genetically predisposed to crime, or he simply believes that black people have a uniquely violent culture, and in either case, this clearly is racist, and so Boghossian has irrational racist beliefs. It’s also quizzical how he maintains the idea that rioting is inherently apolitical as a means to denounce it. What does he think the Rebecca Riots were? How does he think Stonewall fought for gay rights? In certain contexts, rioting can take on political significance as political actions. But of course even this is hardly relevant since he’s clearly referring to the 2020 “riots”, after it was found that 93% of the so-called “riots” were actually peaceful protests. You know, for someone who might claim to advance evidence-based beliefs over faith-based ones, Peter Boghossian certainly doesn’t seem interested in any evidence that might contradict his racist faith. I suppose this is the first proof that not believing in a god of any kind doesn’t actually make you any better at evidence-based critical thinking.

The “Climate Change” section is no better. In fact, it’s one of the clearest proofs that Boghossian has no idea what he’s talking about when he tries to discuss science. Here the Industrial Revolution and fossil fuel use are “original sins”, and the “guilty devils” are climate deniers, the Koch Brothers (who often fund them), and huge multinational corporations. Yes, Boghossian and his friend are actually defending corporations through their implication as persecuted heretics, and yes, the implication of climate deniers as the same type of heretic shows their sympathies towards climate change denial. The “Myths” section comprises of entirely scientific and factual claims about climate change, the “Sacred Victims” section is essentially a way of belittling indigenous people who might have their lives completely destroyed by the worst effects of climate change, and “the Elect” consists of an absurd mixture featuring climate scientists, the United Nations, Greta Thunberg, Vandana Shiva, and the long-dead economist Thomas Malthus, never mind that Malthus tends to be despised by many progressive thinkers as a racist because of his ideas about overpopulation. The idea that man-made climate change will make humans as well as the majority of Earth’s lifeforms extinct is inexplicably dismissed as a “supernatural belief”, as is the study of tipping points and the idea that prosperity does not equal happiness. Nuclear power advocacy is somehow framed as “taboo”, when in reality it isn’t, as are certain talking points about renewable energy, which are in reality anything but fringe, while “taboo speech”, meant to imply true but heretical ideas, consists of a string of delusional nonsense and non-sequiturs. “Purifying rituals”, yet again, consist mostly of any attempt by state policy, society, or the individual to address climate change whatsoever, although I will say: “net zero” really is just a buzzword.

This section is also, in my opinion, a good glimpse into the inner religious thinking of the otherwise secular atheist Peter Boghossian. If, as the common atheist does, we define religious thinking as meaning faith-based beliefs, not based in evidence or critical thinking, then to be perfectly honest Peter Boghossian embodies this in spades, even in just this one topic. One example of “taboo speech” is “wealth is good”. Why? How much wealth? For whom? Evidently not for everyone. Wealth is apparently so good that most of the world isn’t allowed to have it, and instead it must be concentrated into the hands of an abject minority of the global population. This is a value judgement that is never questioned. By his terms, it is an assertion of faith over reason. The idea that fracking actually reduces carbon emissions flies squarely in the face of basic facts about fracking and the methane gas it releases. The idea that human civilization, in its current trajectory, can continue to exist, at least without a significant reduction of prosperity, is quite possibly the most faith-based position you can have on climate change. If you think that humans can keep consuming the earth’s finite resources ad infinitum, destroy the ecosystems that sustain life on earth, and continue perpetuating anthropogenic climate change, and not expect that civilization will collapse or be significantly imperiled, you have way too much faith in the status quo and its power to resolve our situation.

More scientific ignorance and arguably faith-based talking points comprise the “Trans” section, and this one sure is a doozy. The “original sin” here seems to be the reduction of gender to the traditional sexual binary, which is then conflated with gender, and the “guilty devils” who perpetuate it are TERFs, as well as people who oppose trans athletes competing in the games of that correspond to their gender identity as well as “mandatory use of pronouns”. I think we can tell who’s side Boghossian takes here. The two “Myths” listed are either a strawman (“trans women or trans men are identical to biological women or men”) or actually a proven fact (“Violence against trans people is on the rise, disproportionate, and due to being trans”). The “Sacred Victims” are of course trans and non-binary people and the “Elect” are essentially any individual or group advocating on their behalf. The idea that puberty blockers and gender affirmation surgery have any effect on your gender or your sex is dismissed as a “supernatural belief”, yet another abuse of the very concept, and the other claim is simply s strawman.

It’s when we get into his idea of “Taboo Facts/Speech” that the depths of this ignorance extend even further. He claims that social acceptance of trans people is increasing. This is despite the fact that more trans people are being killed each year, and there seems to be an entire media apparatus dedicated to defending transphobes and never facing any political challenge because of it. He claims that trans kids “often benefit from parental involvement”. The truth of that claim really depends on what he means by “parental involvement”. We have evidence to suggest that strongly supporting trans kids in how they want to live, just letting them be themselves while accepting their validity and not withholding parental love because of it, dramatically reduces the overall risk of suicide for trans people. If that’s what we mean by parental involvement, then yes, trans kids do overwhelmingly benefit. But I suspect that this is not what Boghossian means. It’s clear that he in fact despises trans people or sees being trans as a purely ideological construct rather than an age-old reality of the human species. In which case, parental involvement for him would mean that the parents of trans kids repeatedly deny the validity of their identities and raise them to deny themselves. There’s no evidence that trans kids benefit from it, and in fact we have evidence that this is actually more likely to lead to trans people committing suicide. And, of course, like any died-in-the-wool transphobe, he brings up “detransitioners” as a “forbidden” subject, the supposed heretical status of it being a way to delegitimize trans people as tyrants. Putting aside the fact that J K Rowling can be defended for using “detransitioning” to justify transphobia, if you actually cared about evidence, you’d learn that “detransitioners” consist of less than 1% of the trans community, who themselves are a group that already consists of around 1% of people, and if you actually cared about logic, you’d realize how stupid it is to ban people (including children) from having gender affirmation surgery or getting puberty blockers on the basis that the tiniest possible minority might want it banned, especially if you’re OK with children going through other body-altering surgeries if it means saving their lives. Once again, by Boghossian’s own standard, his claims about trans people are in fact “faith-based”, since they are not evidence-based and reject evidence-based conclusions.

Before we get into the next section, are you beginning to see the big picture so far? So far the “woke religion” seems to consist of anti-racism, or at least any anti-racism that does not accept the liberal-conservative faith that believes racism has already been resolved, the acknowledgement that man-made climate change is a real and tangible thing which threatens the continued existence of human civilization and life on Earth, and the basic scientific reality that trans people are real and valid as well as the basic moral position that you should accept them for who they are and let them be themselves. “Wokeness”, then, seems to just mean any vaguely progressive position you can take: or more accurately, it means any scientific or social reality that you dislike and thus have to rationalize as a totalitarian conspiracy.

In that spirit, let’s examine the “Crime” section, which shows his fundamental deference to authority. It’s very clearly his way of whining about people who acknowledge capitalism at the root of any social frustration that might culminate in criminal behaviour. The “Myths” here consist of the almost universally acknowledged fact that the American police force descended from slave patrols, and that large numbers of black people are slaughtered by the police. At his most shockingly out of touch, he also claims that black people killed by police officers are considered sacred. Yes, in Peter Boghossian’s fucked up mind, there are people in America who, when they see a black man pass them by, they will immediately prostrate themselves in worship. Again we see evidence of Boghossian’s possible racism, as to be completely honest it sounds like something a white supremacist might say. Another possibile indicator of this strand of racism is his claim that the “Elect” of the “woke religion” on crime consists of Black Lives Matter, progressive district attorneys, police abolitionists, and George Soros. I trust that I don’t need to explain what’s anti-semitic and white supremacist about blaming all social and racial unrest on one rich Jewish man.

In yet another abuse of the concept of a supernatural belief, he defines “Supernatural Beliefs” to include the idea that “Prisoner’s aren’t guilty, the system is”, which is just a strawman directed at anyone who thinks we should address structural inequality in order to resolve the problem of crime, as well as the idea that “Jails and prisons aren’t necessary”. The “Taboo Facts” include the dizzyingly mainstream and common belief that the police reduces crime, and that the “taboo against cooperation with police and prosecutors is a barrier to successfully prosecuting criminals”. That’s doing all the work isn’t it? What matters to Boghossian is not necessarily justice in itself, but rather just “prosecuting criminals”, which in itself could just mean arresting and incarcerating more people. You merely want a justice system that meets arrest quotas, not necessarily a justice system that resolves crime. He also blames anti-police protests for increasing criminal emboldenment through police pullback. Again I would point to the ACLED data for 93% of the George Floyd protests being peaceful as evidence to disprove his claim. And of course, he’s one of those people who still hasn’t figured out that nobody actually believes “all lives matter”.

I mean, think about it. Let’s go back to the logic that Boghossian would like to talk about. The only thing to understand about saying “all lives matter” is that it’s meant as a response to Black Lives Matter, on the grounds that Black Lives Matter is somehow an exclusionary statement on the value of human life in the abstract. “All lives matter” is thus, in theory, an axiomatic statement that every human life has the same value, defined in terms of a kind of individualistic egalitarianism. If that’s the case, then guess what? You don’t believe it, and in fact I’d even argue that nobody does. Or, if you/they do, then you/they certainly are willing to make a lot of exceptions to that rule. How many people who respond to Black Lives Matter and their supporters with “all lives matter” actually care the lives of people settling in camps and crossing the ocean to flee their countries of origin? Certainly not enough to oppose them being labelled “migrants” and either getting shot or interned by the state. Sticking to Boghossian, the lives of trans people, indigenous and non-white people, and, as we’ll see, the mentally ill and the homeless don’t seem to matter to him, at least since he is willing to disregard their needs for failing to conform to his moral ideology. And what about in a more everyday sense? Does the life of someone who invaded your home and either abducted or killed your family matter as much as the victims? Does the life of a dictator matter as much as the lives of his oppressed subjects who might be about to violently overthrow him? Our willingness to put up with countless imperialist wars might suggest that the lives of the people of the countries we invade don’t matter, no doubt because they are strangers and foreigners. And what if we extend that to non-human life forms? Clearly, our attitude towards climate change suggests that human comfort matters more than the survival of countless non-human life forms. And even older, perhaps more animistic cultures, clearly didn’t think all non-human lives were sacred enough to not devour them. And if you’re squishing flies, spiders, and ants to death for the high crime of being creepy crawlies, or defend industrial factory farming because it gives you the meat you eat, then yes, something tells me all lives don’t matter that much to you. I sincerely wish people would give up the pretence.

Moving on, we come to the “Mental Illness” section, which is certainly an unexpected endorsement of conformity from an atheist complaining about enforced conformity. The premise he establishes is that “the woke religion” believes that psychiatry and the Enlightenment are responsible for inventing mental illness as a way to control neuro-atypical people. Of course, the “Sacred Victims” are neuro-atypical people and non-conformists, already suggesting that he ridicules and hates anyone who doesn’t conform to society (except himself, of course), and the “Elect” meant to save them consists of “advocates of mentally ill” as well as a motley crew of intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Thomas Szasz, and R. D. Lang. Never mind for a moment that Michel Foucault was just this year accused of raping young boys in Tunisia based in the testimony of people who immediately retracted or walked back their claims, and the media or parts thereof just uncritically parroted those claims as objective truth. So much for darling of the establishment. As opposed to the “supernatural beliefs” that mental illness is made up and that mentally ill people should self-medicate freely, he advances the supposed scientific truth that mentally ill people are disproportionately violent and that many mentally ill people need or claim to benefit from “involuntary treatment”. The part that does all the work is “involuntary treatment”. What kind of “involuntary treatment”? What does it involve? Considering that he views neuro-atypical people as “Sacred Victims”, an inherently derisive category, and believes the word neuro-atypical is itself a mere buzzword meant to signal virtue, I suspect that Boghossian would be fine with taking autistic people away to have electroshock treatment to control or “cure” their autism. Another case where all lives don’t matter to the guy who says all lives matter.

The ” Drugs” section is yet another instance where Boghossian’s attempts to define progressive and/or libertarian positions on drug policy as faith-based superstition fly directly in the face of empirical reality. He attempts to portray the idea of decriminalisation and legalization of drugs as vital to preventing addiction and overdose as a “supernatural belief”. Aside from the obvious abuse of the very term, what Boghossian won’t tell you is that it’s actually true. In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the personal possession and consumption all drugs; those found to have a supply, rather than being arrested, were expected to appear before a local commission about treatment, harm reduction, and support services. This was accompanied by a broad cultural shift in attitudes to drugs, and resulted in a dramatic decrease in drug addiction, substance abuse, and related deaths. This, keep in mind, was after decades rampant drug abuse and deaths from overdose. Portugal is thus a shining example of how rehabilitation over punishment is the more effective way to resolve the problem of drug abuse than the other way around, and to claim the contrary would, again by Boghossian’s own standards, be a faith-based claim, not an evidence-based claim.

It is also apparent that Boghossian blames George Soros for widespread proliferation of drugs, since he appears as one of the “Elect”, along with the Harm Reduction Coalition and the Drug Policy Alliance, set up on behalf of drug users, who are the “Sacred Victims”. Again Boghossian is perpetuating an anti-semitic conspiracy theory in which Jews are accused of spreading drugs everywhere, which white supremacists believe is an effort to weaken the white race. Yet more racism from Boghossian and his friend. Boghossian then claims as a “taboo fact” that liberalisation, decriminalisation, and normalisation of drug use increases drug addiction. The evidence points to the contrary, but that won’t matter because it contradicts Boghossian’s faith. Distributing clean needles and providing services for homeless drug addicts is dismissed as a “purifying ritual”. I suppose it’s purifying in at least one sense; namely making sure the needles are sterile so that you don’t get infected with something and die. Oh look, more lives that don’t matter to the guy who says all lives matter!

And in that spirit we come to the last section of the table: “Homelessness”. It seems to be yet another way of whining about people who think capitalism causes problems by dismissing it as an “original sin” doctrine. The idea that homelessness is caused by poverty and high rents is classed as a “Myth”. Again, any available evidence on the subject suggests that it’s not a “myth”, but that doesn’t matter, because Peter Boghossian just religiously despises homeless people. The idea that people live in tents and sidewalks because of poverty is dismissed as a “supernatural belief”, and it is misleadingly presented as something people might “decide” to do. You wouldn’t “decide” to live under a bridge if you had the choice, you only do it because you’ve lost everything and have nowhere else to go. Logic might tell you that, but for Boghossian, his faith, albeit a godless faith, overrides logic. This faith also seems to override the facts about homeless people experiencing more violence, since Boghossian dismisses this as a “supernatural belief”. Instead he asserts that homelessness is caused principally by addiction and mental illness despite all evidence to the contrary and claims that trauma and abuse have declined. He also argues that subsidized housing should be contingent on abstinence. While he might consider that to be “taboo speech”, his ideas are already mainstream policy: it’s called means testing. Unsurprisingly, free housing and any programs focusing on homelessness that aren’t punitive in nature are dismissed as “purifying rituals”.

By now we have a clear picture of what “the woke religion” looks like, and by extension what “wokeness” is. It seems to just be a collection of progressive policies and ideas that Boghossian and his friend don’t like, and in particular policies and ideas that seem to involve criticially addressing the current structures of power. To call something “woke”, then, is to attack it for daring to challenge existing laws, norms and power structures on the subject of race, crime, gender identity, drugs, homelessness, really any issue, or for more generally questioning the status of quo of “Western Civilization”. That, I think, is one of the other almost religious ideas found among some sectors of the New Atheist. The more palatable form of this embraced even by non-reactionary atheists is the cult of the Enlightenment. It all starts from this idea that we progressed from being backwards apes in the throngs of religious superstition to being people who conducted their lives and thoughts based on rationalistic logic and reason. The more self-aware atheist is usually prepared to acknowledge the fact that this all came with a bucketload of colonialism and attempts to justify racism through science and even philosophy, though I suspect many New Atheists will simply gloss that over. That’s because the Enlightenment, or its twin phantasm called “Western Civilization”, are both functionally a kind of sacred center, a sort of ground of being for the worldview they would prefer to be dominant. The ideas they oppose have but one thing in common: they challenge a set of ideas that have been crystallized as the social basis of “Western Civilization”, which are justified through what seems to be the rationalist’s version of what is otherwise the typically faith-based thinking they might claim to oppose, and so they amount to blasphemy. You might say it even counts as “taboo speech”, ironically enough. Instead of an unshakable faith in one God and the promise of eternal life in heaven, these people have an unshakable faith in the order and progress of “Western Civilization” and its culture (often in the sense of a particularly homogenous culture if you know what I mean), and will bitterly defend that faith against anyone who criticizes their beloved civilizational order.

In the end, all this talk of “wokeism” seems like a cargo cult, an article of faith in itself, and just to show you that, let’s briefly, and only briefly, dip into Michael Shellenberger’s article on why “wokeism” is a religion. In it he mentions having met Peter Boghossian, who he describes as his new friend, and claims that Boghossian resigned his post at Portland State University “in response to Wokeist repression”. What Shellenberger won’t tell you is that Boghossian has been doing his “anti-wokeist” liberal-conservartive schtick for years now, and Portland State University kept rehiring him each year, for a decade, and before his resignation he was scheduled to teach philosophy for the next term, even after he was found to have committed ethics violations through his hoax paper. The university didn’t ask Boghossian to resign and there was no major campaign to get him fired. The “Wokeist repression” that Shellenberger and Boghossian are referring to is nothing more than the fact that Portland State University wouldn’t play ball and accept Boghossian’s hoax papers to prove his point that they would publish anything if it sounded “woke”, not to mention that Boghossian himself is unpopular and despised by his students for his nonsensical and bigoted political views. In fact, he hasn’t been particularly well-liked even by many atheists over the years. And for all his bullshit about being silenced and repressed, he has openly praised the Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban for silencing his critics by defunding gender studies courses. This isn’t even the only time Boghossian has defended fascism. He defended violent neo-Nazi thugs from being referred to as Nazis, has appeared with the white nationalist Stefan Molyneux to accuse the left of being “the new racists” while announcing a broad trend of people calling guys like Molyneux out for their often cartoonishly misogynistic views as “the death of rational discourse”, and more recently has done a sitdown with far-right ideologues who think colonial violence was a good thing. Boghossian himself also likes Viktor Orban’s ideas about academia so much that he openly called for the defunding of Portland State University, a move widely suspected to be motivated by not giving him tenure. Meanwhile mainstream media seems to uncritically support his claims to being repressed by “woke” academics, while big name atheists like Richard Dawkins defended him for his attempt to submit a feminist version of Mein Kampf as a hoax.

Incidentally, it also turns out that Shellenberger and Boghossian got their concept of “the Elect” and many aspects of their “taxonomy of woke religion” project from John McWhorter, a conservative intellectual and the author of Woke Racism, who uses the term to refer to a class of progressive “neo-racists” and, well, perhaps anything else; seriously, McWhorter never adequately defines the term for himself. Shellenberger just summarizes it as “people self-appointed to crusade against evil”, which is meaningless. But apparently this junk philosophy can be endorsed by big-name skeptic atheists like Michael Shermer (who, by the way, is a sex pest) and fans of people like Sam Harris will simp for his work anyway, thus the New Atheist movement continues its reactionary drift.

This is the truth behind Boghossian’s and Shellenberger’s claims about “wokeist repression”. It’s all a big lie, a grift concocted by Boghossian to try and gain sympathy from idiots who might be inclined to believe his philosophy, and judging by the fact that Shellenberger endorsed him and became his friend after the fact, the grift seems to have worked. It’s nothing more than a pathetic manifestation of ressentiment that disguises rank failure, abject ignornace, and petty malice as common sense rationalism and skepticism, while framing the people opposing it as totalitarians, authoritarians, illiberals, what have you, which then justifies his own proposed actual authoritarian suppression of critics. But what’s really interesting and which I feel the need to stress more than anything is that his views, if we take them seriously, are fundamentally faith-based in the very sense Boghossian means when he condemns faith-based thinking. So much of what Boghosssian believes is proposed in direct contrast to evidential reality, and often seems to consist in what might otherwise be called “magical thinking”, or at least follows a similar logic. The way that the modern atheist movement, or at least certain sectors thereof, are defining themselves or have been defined by starkly reactionary tendencies, especially to the extent that they are supported by pseudo-science that presents itself as science, will never cease to fascinate me, between Peter Boghossian’s absurd attempts to frame everything he doesn’t like as a superstitious religion that must be purged and Lucien Greaves with basically everything he’s been doing up to this point. I’ve honestly been beginning to wonder what they’re even for over the last couple of months.

Strange bedfellows?: Peter Boghossian appearing on Fox News to complain about the nebulous spectre of “woke ideology”

2 thoughts on “The anti-religious religion of Peter Boghossian and Michael Shellenberger

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