Sunday, March 4, 2018

Is Intersectionality a Religion

Over this last year I've been quite happy to see more and more people and academics addressing intersectionality as a religion.  Recently James Lindsay, Helen Puckrose and Peter Boghossian have even held public lectures on this question. The analogy is apt.  More than this though, I think this approach gives the movement space to exist and flourish based on its own merits.

Here's my quick take on why identifying intersectionality as a religion is apt.

It's the Dynamics
How is religion different from traditional political belief (say liberalism)? From position based beliefs (say gun rights)? From weakly moral based belief systems (environmentalism)?

The difference is mainly the level of feedback the group has on the individual. This is largely expressed through

  1. norm and boundary enforcement, 
  2. Moral Big Brother (group agent) roles, and, 
  3. fervency around utopian social states.

Of course lots of other dynamics and behaviours emerge from these big three factors. But they are usually sub-sets.  For example, identity fusion is usually stronger in religious groups than in other groups. But this is probably an emergent property of "big three" interaction.  Ritual is probably a behavioural solution because of how it resonates with these "big three".

It's Not Supernaturalism
Supernaturalism emerges from slight preferences for counter-intuitiveness and Moral Big Brothers.  Supernaturalism mainly makes it easier to learn, understand, predict and enforce group values. The physical embodiment of Moral Big Brothers is one solution to group coherence, moral prediction, and transmission.  And while it may a near inescapable well over long time periods, over shorter time periods strong fervency and norm enforcement may offset the value gained from Big Brother embodiment & visibly wielded supernatural power.

For instance, the New Atheism of the late 2000's was most certainly mimicking the dynamics of evangelical religion. Once it pulled back from zealous proselytizing its utopian state and dropped its polarizing moral judgments, it stopped being religious.  It turned into a weakly moral system.  The dynamics had changed.

Judged on the big three, intersectionality is definitely a religion.

1: Norm Enforcement
Norm enforcement is incredibly high. The demonization of non-intersectionalists is very strong. Over the last year we've seen non-supporters go from being merely naive to being privileged and systemically racist to being white supremacists to being full on nazi's.  Judgements have moved from sins of "commission" (you did something wrong) to sins of "omission" (you didn't support something enough). This is a big change. It also reflects not just simple religious dynamics, but cultish dynamics.

For example, if you fail to acknowledge God at the start of a speech, does that mean you are Godless? Probably not. But for some radical religions, perhaps Islam, it certainly might. Cults typically require frequent admissions of the group's uniqueness and/or key beliefs. Intersectionality falls into the cult spectrum here (as do many new religious movements....)

Another point to look for with norm enforcement is how they treat apostates. Intersectionality is pretty nasty here. You typically lose your "race card" (or sex, gender, etc.) when holding the wrong political/moral positions.

2: Moral Big Brother
Intersectionality definitely nails moral big brother dynamics. No expansion seems necessary.

3: Utopian Fervency
Intersectionality definitely nails this too. There is a definite expectation that past balances need to be offset. A focus on equality of outcomes over equality of opportunity is most definitely classical utopianism. The transformational change assumptions of the movement also clearly reflect classical utopianism. Speaker de-platforming, mob-like marches & protests reflect fervency.

Costly sacrifices, often in the form of "virtue signals" clearly reflect high levels of fervency.


Andrew Sullivan has a popular, but definitely non-academic take on the topic.

Lauren Nelson takes the opposite view of Sullivan. 

Her critique mainly centres around a tight interpretation of intersectionality rather than the broader moral movement circumscribed by adherence to intersectional dogma. Thus her rejoinder is mostly moot and largely a strawman. It is also interesting to note that her major foci seem to be on intention, and supernaturalism.  Just because you don't want something to operate a certain way doesn't mean it does not.  She omits any real discussion of dynamics. This is the real crux. Antifa as an non-aligned outlier.  Ironically though, she ends with an accusation of taboo and blasphemy. This is probably more telling that her fairly weak arguments.

At best she is arguing necessary and sufficient definitions of religions (it must have all these factors) rather than the more appropriate necessary but not sufficient definition (it should have a number of these factors). Of course I, like I suspect Lindsay, take a dynamical rather than factor approach. Religion is anything which has certain dynamics which clearly emerge from the "big three".

Brydum & Derkacz
An even weaker critique by Brydum and Derkacz is here.  Here is an example

"But after taking stock of one’s privilege and identifying the ways it functions in day-to-day life, intersectionality challenges us to find ways to leverage that privilege in the pursuit of greater social justice and not, as Sullivan seems to believe, to simply feel badly about it or to self flagellate. " 

So you see, intersectionality can't be a religion because it has good intentions....

It also can't be a religion because it makes "factually correct" statements against Charles Murray's Bell Curve....

A quick summary of some of Haidt's points which tend to focus on dynamical similarities

A very good analysis at, MTV of all places.  The main point is to think about intersectionality's/social justice's desire to do good and serve just as much as you worry about tight norm enforcement.

Fringe Moderate
From the twitter thread.  This is obviously very superficial stuff...

[1] Original sin - privilege/whiteness Haram/sin - "problematic" Fatwas/disfellowships - public shaming campaigns Special revelation - standpoint theory, "listen & believe" Blasphemy - unPC words, cultural appropriation Caste system - progressive stack or "Oppression Olympics"

[2] Asceticism/legalism - constant reflection on privilege, "everything is sexist, racist...", the "personal is political" The Devil - The Patriarchy, white cis men Holy/sacred place - safe spaces High priests - diversity officers, media personalities, activists, academics

[3] Proselytizing - infiltration in institutions, subcultures Born again - "woke" Self flagellation - whiteness & privilege workshops for "allies" Heaven on earth - Brave New World-esque anarchic utopia Public expression of piety - virtue signaling Infidel - problematic person

[4] Crusade/holy war/jihad - campus protests, Antifa riots Theology - critical race theory Antiscience/creationism - postmodern rejections of empiricism Hypocrisy of thought leaders (Jimmy Swaggart) - prominent male feminists caught in sexual harassment/misconduct scandals

[5] That's all I can think of for now. Perhaps we'll see new parallels in future SJW generations. Maybe they'll appoint a Supreme Matriarch (like a Caliph or Pope) from someone high on the progressive stack to arbitrate disputes or dictate norms or something...

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