Social Activism: The Religion for the Non-Religious

For a long time, I wrestled over the title of this post. My first thought was to call it, “The Cult of Social Activism”. I decided to tone it down out of the realization that one person’s cult is another person’s orthodoxy. Although, I must say, having attended sever social activist meetings, there is definitely a cult-like vibe in the air. Cult-like or not, it is most certainly a religion by any definition I can come up with.

Religion is one of those words that is greater than its entry in any dictionary. Defining it becomes a personal matter. Just consider how we use the word. We might say that a person is religious about this or that, or she practices her music religiously. Neither of these uses have to do with epistemology, or creeds, or ancient texts. They have nothing to do with gods, or priests, or parishioners. It has to do with a fervent dedication to some goal or cause. It suggests a sort of imbalance. It is one thing for a person to be a supporter of something or someone, or serious about a task; it is quite another to be religious about it.

Escaping formalized, bible-based creeds does not free one from religion; it just opens the door to different options. Being religious has no more to do with the bible than being addicted has to do with drugs. It is more a personality disorder. Clean the drugs out of a person, and they will soon find another addiction. With luck, it will be less destructive. Take away a person’s bible and he will replace it with other sacred texts. Take away his church and he will find another kind of assembly. Take away heaven and he will create a new one. Religion is something we carry within us; it is not external to us. Yes. I’m looking at me.

Without that realization, it is possible to exit one religion while falling, headlong into another, without realizing it. It is a bit like waking from a dream and starting your day, only to realize that you are still dreaming. These can be among the most disturbing types of dreams because they challenge your ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. This type of nested dreaming can be recognized while in progress, but it takes practice and intentionality.

I have attempted to apply some of these methods to my dance with religion, and found that it is no less difficult to break away from religion than it is, a nested dream. In the case of dreams, one must recognize he is still dreaming. Sometimes, just asking the question is enough to break the spell. When assessing my progress beyond religion, I finally asked myself if I wasn’t still within the framework of religion. I found that I had made much less progress than I thought.

Social activism has all of the earmarks of religion. There are tenets of faith: doctrines, if you will, that are almost as inviolable as any creed. There is a definite priesthood who are keepers of the vision, and interpreters of the doctrine. There are most definitely prophets who herald the message. There are important texts, stories, and songs that make up the sacred liturgy. Remember, though, religion is not something external to you, but something that you bring with you. Perhaps this is a good time to examine the contents of that bag of religion we schlep around so mindlessly.

First, there is the obeisance we pay to something greater than ourselves. God is not the only candidate for this role. There is humanity as a whole, some great cause, and even the universe. All make great god substitutes when trying to identify the irresistible something that is greater than ourselves. Then, there is the mission. Every religion needs a mission and a calling. You are not just a crusader; you were destined for this great work. Some would call this sense of mission a messiah complex. You are convinced that something or someone needs saving, And without you, it just wouldn’t get done.

There are a few other bits in the bag, but the big one, I think, is the sense of elitism. If elitism was detectable by the olfactory senses, then you could smell religious elitism from a mile away. It is that note of superiority and moral certainty. I am suspicious of anyone who exudes too much moral certainty. This should come as no surprise since I do not accept the traditional view of morality. The religious of all stripes believes themselves to be in the know. They have discovered some truth about the world that feeds this sense of moral certainty.

This certainty leads to evangelism. A person can engage in direct or indirect forms of evangelism, but even the quiet evangelist gives herself away in time. They can’t help it. Their messiah complex requires them to fix something, most likely you. Sooner or later, they will give themselves away. You will be confronted for the greater good, by someone who is convinced that they have a better version of it than you do. When you apply these tools to social activism, you have one powerful religion.

It is easy to fall sway to the religion of social activism. I find that having awaken to its true nature, I am left with many of the same misgivings that I had with the religion of creed and faith. The thing is, I am genuinely interested in participating in activities that bring about change for the greater good. I have to remind myself, though, that my idea of the greater good cannot be elevated above anyone else’s vision of our utopian future.

And there lies part of the problem. Everyone has their own ideas about how things should be for everyone else. Everyone’s vision is a little different, and no one can accomplish any significant part of it alone. That is why the religion is made up of loosely held coalitions of people with special interests. I have met three types of people along the way. The first is the specialist who only cares about one or two things. But collectively, the list of things one needs to fervently care about is much too daunting for one person with one lifetime. Unfortunately, spreading your efforts over too many activities means you get nothing done. The specialist, however, is not very good at forming lasting coalitions because they really only care about the one thing they care about.

Another type of person who is numbered among the faithful is the generalist who is zealous about everything. This is the person who counts the number of times one has been arrested in the name of civil disobedience, as the true test of worth. The issue doesn’t seem to matter, just as long as there is an issue to rally around. They live to protest, and they can never protest too much. If utopia was ever achieved, they would be most miserable in it.

The last type of person is the seeker. Sound familiar? This is the person who is wandering from one group to another in search of a cause. I suspect this person is also searching for themselves. I have befriended a few in this category, and am most comfortable among their number. But a perpetual seeker is seldom a long-term finder.

In other posts, I will talk about some of the doctrines of social activism. I will wrap up this series by taking an introspective look. I will try to figure out exactly what it is I believe and care about the most. That is a lot harder than you might suspect.

David Johnson


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