Free Speech Faces a Religious Threat
America is currently experiencing something of a revolutionary mood. The toppling of statues, the "cancelation" of journalists and public figures who stray from the new mainstream in their thought, and the speed with which CEOs and boardrooms have caved to online Twitter mobs indicate that a radical cultural shift is taking place. While much ink has been spilled debating the broader meaning of this moment, the seemingly outlandish suggestion by some that we are witnessing the rise of a quasi-spiritual movement, rather than one that is purely political, needs to be taken seriously, as it may help explain some of the hysterical nature characterizing recent political and social discourse.
The steady decline of religion is one of the most well documented macro-trends occurring in the United States in recent decades. A Pew Research poll from October 2019 reveals the share of the population identifying as atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular" increased from 17% in 2009 to 26%. Those identifying as Christians decreased by 12% to 65% over the same period, and of those who still attend religious services, 54% now attend only a few times a year or less. Supporters of this decline have widely assumed that the result would be a secularized society free from the influence and moral constraint of organized religion. Yet the revolutionary spirit we find ourselves in today could suggest that it merely left a void to be filled by something else.
In comes "wokeness" or any other name used to describe the radical political ideology that has rapidly ascended in the past decade to dominate American college campuses and other important institutions like mainstream and social media. It is unflinching in its disdain for the American experiment and, notably, is especially popular among the more secular younger generations. But while religion, especially Christianity, is on its laundry list of oppressive forces needing to be dismantled, its practitioners themselves engage in actions that are strikingly reminiscent of an actual religion.
Most apparent is the demand for acceptance of a particular worldview and obedience to a set of unwritten laws. America is an inherently racist country that must be destroyed along with any principles associated with its founding. The world is nothing but an existential struggle and zero-sum game between oppressors and the oppressed. Climate change will destroy our planet in the coming decades because science says so, but a male can identify as a female because science is a social construct, among others.
Followers of this ideology hold their views not as a set of opinions to be debated based on facts, but as absolute truths not to be questioned. Thus, those who offer up any critique are wrong, but not in the sense that their arguments are not supported by empirical evidence. They are wrong because they are heretics. They are possessors of a morally unconscionable worldview that is not in lockstep with the indisputable truth the practitioners claim to hold.
Other practices of the woke bordering on religious have recently been on full display as celebrities and athletes have taken to social media to denounce their "white privilege" and to acknowledge their need to "educate themselves." Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility has topped book charts for weeks, and it is now fashionable for young, often progressive white people to take a knee out of shame and guilt. Humans are naturally self-centered beings, so to engage in any act of repentance, of rejecting oneself and acknowledging his sin, is not insignificant. For a person to deny himself on the basis of unchangeable flaws, whether it be his inherently sinful nature and his deviation from the ways of God or the color of his own skin and the racist actions of ancestors of the past, is rare and is an indicator that some type of spiritual awakening is occurring.
Conservatives have loudly lamented in recent years the fraying of American public discourse and the lack of wholesome debate on divisive but important issues. Now centrists and even some liberals are increasingly voicing their alarm about the attacks on fundamental liberties like free speech, as evidenced recently by Bari Weiss's high-profile resignation from the New York Times and the publication of the Harper's Magazine letter signed by 153 left-leaning intellectuals and journalists.
But attacks like these are to be expected if you are engaging in a religious or spiritual rather than a political arena. If you view your opponents as blasphemous and morally wrong rather than factually incorrect, debate becomes an illegitimate practice, as it merely provides a platform to spread untruths and dangerous ideas. Free speech becomes threatening, not something to cherish. The result is the "cancel culture" of today, which destroys careers and livelihoods and silences people for uttering thoughts that are not orthodox. It could also be argued that it provoked a backlash that propelled the most blasphemous of all, Donald Trump, to the White House.
Freedom of speech, as one of the bedrocks of this nation, is the exception, not the norm, of prosperous societies throughout history. It is the most effective way of preventing tyranny and ensuring societal progress. The current threat to its existence at the hands of zealous doctrinaires should be called out for what it is and opposed by all.