On March 14, I had the exciting opportunity to participate in discussion of the question “Is Identity Politics the New Religion?” on the radio program Unbelievable with Justin Brierley. My conversation partners were Christian author Esther O’Reilly, who runs the blog Young Fogey, and humanist James Lindsay, who is famous for his contributions to the Sokal^2 hoax which exposed the problems endemic to the fields that he and his colleagues dubbed ‘grievance studies.’
Below are my notes from the program. We touched on some of the topic I anticipated and skipped others. I include links for readers who are interested in more information. For those unfamiliar with critical theory, my essay Intro to Critical Theory may be helpful.
What is your background?
Like James and Esther, I have a STEM background. I went to Princeton as an undergraduate; I became a Christian in graduate school at UC-Berkeley, while I was doing my PhD in theoretical chemistry, and did postdocs at Yale and Duke. Then about five years ago, I quit my job to homeschool my four kids, and I’ve really enjoyed that. I’m currently a tutor at our local Christian homeschool co-op and I spend a lot of time reading and writing.
How did you become interested in Identity Politics and religion?
Since grad school, I’ve been passionate about apologetics, so I spent most of my time reading books that helped me engage and dialogue with atheists and agnostics by authors like Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, Sean Carroll, Vic Stenger, and Steven Pinker. Topics like social justice, identity politics, and critical theory were nowhere on my radar.
But a few years ago, I started noticing a theological drift among some evangelical Christians. They would begin by embracing concerns about social justice and I thought “no big deal. Christians should care about working towards a just society.” But then these same individuals started espousing other ideas that were harder and harder to reconcile with orthodoxy. I couldn’t figure out the connection. How do you go from saying “racism is a sin” (which I hope every Christian believes) to saying “Christianity is just one of many paths to God”?
Then about a year ago, I read Race, Class, and Gender, a huge anthology of writings from disciplines like gender studies, queer studies, and critical race theory. When I finished it, I remember posting on Facebook saying “This is the most important book I’ve read in a long time” because it made me realize that people were not merely adopting a few new beliefs about politics; they were adopting a new worldview.
So I’m approaching this question as a Christian. We need to understand critical theory for two reasons: first, to help Christians see the conflicts between this ideology and Christianity and second, to have fruitful dialogue with non-Christians who have absorbed these ideas.
What is the relationship between ‘Identity Politics’, ‘Social Justice’, ‘critical theory’, ‘postmodern Neo-Marxism’, ‘cultural Marxism’, etc… ?
People use many different terms to describe what I think is the same underlying ideology: ‘identity politics’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘intersectionality’. Jordan Peterson calls it: ‘postmodern Neomarxism.’ James refers to it as ‘applied postmodernism’ or by the humorous moniker ‘grievance studies.’ I personally like the term ‘critical theory.’ Academics talk routinely about ‘critical theory’ and self-identify as ‘critical theorists’ whereas I’ve never heard an academic self-identify as a ‘cultural Marxist.’ But ultimately, we shouldn’t obsess about what label we use; we should just examine the underlying ideas.
If I had to summarize this ideology in one sentence, I’d say that it divides the world into oppressed groups and oppressor groups based on hegemonic power (that is, the power to shape society’s norms and values) and aims to liberate the oppressed.” That’s the ideology that all these terms are trying to describe.
‘Social justice’ is a very slippery phrase, but if you look at organizations that proudly wear the ‘social justice’ label, the majority of them are heavily influenced by critical theory. So in a sense, critical theory is the ideology behind the social justice movement.
Do you agree with Lindsay’s summary of the major tenets of critical theory?
Yes. After watching numerous interviews with him and reading through his epic article “Postmodern Religion and the Faith of Social Justice”, I think we’re in nearly complete agreement on the nature of critical theory. I like to think about critical theory in terms of a few main premises:
1. Critical theory emphasizes group identity over individualism.
“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor… I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will” – Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” in Andersen and Collins, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, p. 72
2. Critical theory defines oppression as the exercise of hegemonic power, the ability of a group to impose its values, norms, and expectations of society.
“Concepts of hegemony enable us to appreciate how dominant groups manipulate symbols and images to construct ‘common sense’ and thereby maintain their power. – Jacob P. K. Gross, “Education and Hegemony: The Influence of Antonio Gramsci” in Beyond Critique: Exploring Critical and Social Theories in Education, p. 57, 65.
3. Critical theory dismisses ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ as self-serving justifications for oppression.
“The process of gendering and its outcome are legitimated by religion, law, science, and the society’s entire set of values… Western society’s values legitimate gendering by claiming that it all comes from physiology – female and male procreative differences. But sex and gender and not equivalent.” – Judith Lorber, “’Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender”, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, p. 205.
4. Critical theory sees intersectional ‘lived experience’ as an epistemic advantage.
“The idea that objectivity is best reached only through rational thought is a specifically Western and masculine way of thinking – one that we will challenge throughout this book.” – Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins, “Reconstructing Knowledge,” in Anderson and Collins, Race, Class, and Gender, p. 4-5
Do you agree with James that critical theory is “religion-like”?
Yes. I’m hesitant to call critical theory a ‘religion’, partially because it doesn’t depend on strong social attachments. You don’t need to attend a Critical Theory Community Center once a week to be entirely committed to critical theory in how you think about reality. So I’d rather call it an ‘ideology’ or a ‘worldview.’ However, I agree that it contains numerous elements that are very similar to religion.
Do you see any positive aspects of critical theory?
Yes. First, I agree that systems, laws, and institutions can perpetuate injustice, which is a major focus of critical theory. If we focus only on the immoral actions of individuals we can miss the bigger picture of how laws and groups can encourage and perpetuate injustice. The Holocaust is a good example. We shouldn’t analyze the Holocaust purely in terms of the immoral actions of individuals; we need to also analyze the laws and institutions which fostered, legalized, and encouraged hatred of Jews.
Second, I agree with critical theory that hegemonic power exists and that it can have an insidious effect on our norms, values, and expectations. I like to use standards of beauty and sexuality when speaking to conservative Christians. Think about how hard parents have to work to challenge the objectification of women in advertising and in movies. Hollywood and Madison Avenue shape our norms, values, and expectations, often subconsciously. That’s hegemonic power. So we shouldn’t dismiss this idea as a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.
What are some of the fundamental problems with critical theory, from a secular perspective?
First, one of the most serious problems with critical theory is its epistemology, how it aims to discover truth. Critical theory engages routinely in a logical fallacy that C.S. Lewis christened ‘Bulverism,’ which shifts the focus of the discussion of the truth of the claim being made to the group identity of the person making the claim. So if a person says “On average, men have more upper body strength than women” or “Abortion is immoral” the critical theorist doesn’t respond by asking: “Is this claim true? What is the argument for or against this claim? Where does the evidence point?” Instead, their response is “Oh, you would say that. You’re an old white man, trying to justify oppressing women.”
Second, if large numbers of people adopt critical theory, that will spell the death of reason and dialogue. According to critical theory, truths about oppression are discovered not primarily by both parties appealing to reason and evidence, but by asking oppressed groups about their lived experience. That makes it very difficult if not impossible to engage in a rational discussion. If you disagree with the claims that a critical theorist is making, they will either write you off as ‘trying to protect your power and privilege’ (if you belong to an oppressor group) or as having ‘internalized oppression’ (if you belong to an oppressed group). That spells the end of discourse and will ensure that everyone remains locked forever inside their echo chambers.
Third, critical theory is self-refuting because it is itself a hegemonic discourse that aims to gain institutional power. This is the great irony of critical theory. It claims to want to overturn hegemonic narratives, but merely sets up a new one. Critical theorists have a tremendous amount of institutional power in certain social locations. What happens when you challenge the claims of critical theory on a progressive campus? You get shunned. You get marginalized. Ask Lindsay Sheperd at Wilfrid Laurier or Bret Weinstein at Evergreen or Nicholas Christakis at Yale. Look at Peter Boghossian at Portland State. He’s been censured for daring to challenge the narrative of critical theory. So critical theory has become what it claims to abhor.
Do you think that critical theory is growing in popularity in the culture and in academia?
Yes, but I’m far more concerned about its growth within the church, even among evangelical Christians. Let me provide some examples. Because I want to focus on the ideas and not on the people, I won’t provide identifying information. But if people email me privately, I’d be happy to provide the references.
Here’s an evangelical pastor and author with 12k Twitter followers:
“”[Implicit bias] was the patterns of whiteness I simply had not noticed… Racial blindness was in my DNA” “White people suffer from a malady [called] ‘shriveled-heart syndrome.’ It is rooted in the experience of white people enslaving black people.”
Here’s a professor at a conservative evangelical seminary: “The Bible is written from the lens of the marginalized. If you come from a group or community that is historically not marginalized, you need these voices and perspectives or else your understanding of the Word, the gospel, and the Christian life will be thin and weak.”
Here’s an author whose work is featured on the conservative ERLC website. She writes that:
“male privilege, abled privilege, cishetero privilege, citizenship status privilege, and so on” are privileges granted by “societal systems of oppression and supremacy”
Finally, here’s an evangelical author with 20K Twitter followers criticizing pastor Tim Keller’s recent op-ed in the NYTimes:
“Tim Keller has NO AUTHORITY to teach on justice – NONE.” “[Keller is] a RICH WHITE MAN WHOSE MINISTRY TARGETS RICH PEOPLE… The only ones with divine authority to define the bounds of oppression are the oppressed themselves.”
[More examples are available here]
If you understand critical theory, you’ll immediately recognize its basic tenets and outlook: The world is divided into the oppressed and the privileged. Oppressed people have special access to truth. Privileged people are blind. I could provide dozens more examples. It’s possible to try to argue that this embrace of critical theory by evangelicals is legitimate, but I don’t think it’s possible to argue that evangelicals are not being influenced by critical theory.
What are some areas on which you and Esther disagree with James?
In his essay, James argues that Christians employ ‘pocket epistemology’ which “explains away” and effectively dismisses any possible counterevidence to Christian truth claims. He would point to Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology or William Lane Craig’s appeal to the inner witness of the Holy Spirit to show that Christians are not really open to evidence.
Esther disagrees and takes a fairly strong evidentialist perspective which insists that Christianity is justified by appeals to evidence.
While I certainly completely agree with Esther that faith, reason, and evidence are not enemies, I take a slightly different approach. I agree with Craig that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit justifies Christian belief. That position ostensibly makes me much more vulnerable to James’ charges. So let me point out two major differences between this approach to Christian belief and the epistemology of critical theory.
First, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit applies only to what Plantinga calls the ‘great truths of the gospel’ – things like the existence of God, the deity of Christ, or even the authority of the Bible- but not to more mundane truths. If you asked me, for instance, how I know that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, I wouldn’t say “through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.” In contrast, postmodernism tends to see all truth claims as bids for power and critical theory inherits quite a bit of this skepticism. That’s why you’ll find critical theorists arguing that “biological sex is a construct of the Patriarchy” while you won’t find Christians making that claim.
Second, while I would affirm that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit justifies Christian belief, I don’t expect that fact to convince others. When I talk to non-Christians in the public square, I don’t appeal to my personal, lived experience to show them that Christianity is true. I appeal to objective evidence and reasoned argument. I want to engage them in a rational discussion. Again, that’s very different than critical theory, which would demand that everyone else accept my lived experience as objective truth quite apart from any appeal to evidence.
Is Christian belief falsifiable?
In principle, yes. For example, the apostle Paul lays out conditions under which Christianity would be false in 1 Cor. 15: if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, he says, we might as well all go home. However, when it comes to overturning Christianity in practice, I have to be honest and say that it’s hard for me psychologically to conceive of it being overturned because it’s so compelling as a worldview that makes sense of such a wide range of issues.
Let me just give one example: why should we seek the truth? If Christianity is true, I can explain why I have a moral obligation to seek the truth: because God commands me to seek the truth. So when an atheist says: “Oh, you should abandon Christianity because atheism is true” the first thing I think is: “Well, if atheism is actually true, why should I bother to find out? If atheism is true, am I morally obligated to seek the truth?”
As a worldview, Christianity explains the existence of good and evil, the infinite value of every individual, our moral responsibility, the intrinsic goodness of truth, our moral significance. It explains why the universe exists, why life exists, why consciousness exists. It explains why a itinerant 1st century Jewish preacher could change the course of world history. It explains why I have such evil in my heart and such a strong felt need for rescue and forgiveness. So while I think it is possible in principle to show that Christianity is false, it would take not just one compelling bit of evidence, but an equally compelling worldview. Those are hard to come by.
What are the main problems with critical theory from a Christian perspective?
1. The Imago Dei
First, the doctrinal center of Christian ethics is the Imago Dei, the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore possess equal value and dignity. According to Christianity, we primarily exist in relation to God as his creatures and secondarily in relation to other people or other groups. Similarly, Christians believe that all human beings are sinful and all human beings need salvation in Christ. But to admit that human beings share these fundamental identity markers is to undermine critical theory, which requires us to divide people into oppressed and oppressors.
2. The Bible as a hegemonic discourse
Second, critical theory detests singular narratives and singular sets of values because it sees power as inherently oppressive. But, on this view, God is the ultimate Oppressor. The Bible is just one gigantic hegemonic discourse from Genesis to Revelation. If Christianity is true, then there is one true story of religion, one true story of morality, and one true story of sexuality. We all must simply accept this singular narrative. To a critical theorists, that idea is completely unacceptable.
3. The logical implications of critical theory
Third, I think many evangelicals fail to recognize the logical implications of critical theory as an ideology. They’re rightly concerned about race and are rightly appalled by racism. So they begin to adopt the language and ideas of critical theory and expect it to be confined to race. But critical theory is a worldview; it can’t be compartmentalized like that.
If you insist that we should dismantle all the norms and structures that perpetuate privilege, are you willing to dismantle structures like traditional marriage that promote heteronormativity or cisgender privilege?
If you insist that lived experience should never be challenged, what do you do when a Muslim or a Hindu says that their lived experience tells them that Jesus is not God?
How can you even continue to accept the authority of the Bible, which was written entirely by men? Christians desperately need to think through the logical implications of critical theory instead of blindly embracing it.
4. Critical theory as works-righteousness
Fourth, when compared to Christianity, critical theory offers a competing view of righteousness that is incompatible with a Christian view.
People on the outside often puzzle over the attraction of critical theory. We see the constant infighting, the call-out culture, the self-flagellation, the endless apologies and we can’t figure out its appeal. But I think Christianity offers a very interesting analysis: critical theory is appealing because it’s a means of justification. In Protestant theology, justification refers to a declaration of righteousness. All of us are seeking that. We want to feel good about ourselves, that we are on the right side, that we’re one of the good people.
That’s what critical theory offers: a way to obtain justification. If you retweet the right tweets, if you support the right causes, if you despise the right groups, then you’re “in.” You’re one of the “good people.”
But Christianity turns this idea on its head. It’s not those who are confident that they are righteous who are saved, but those who admit that they’re unrighteous. Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to drive this point home. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like other men: he didn’t steal, he didn’t do evil, he gave generously. In contrast, the tax collector just wept and prayed “have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus said that the tax collector went home justified before God, but the Pharisee did not.
Christianity insists that we find God by admitting that we’re really no different from “those people” we despise: whether “those people” are “those racist, sexist, bigots” or whether “those people” are “those godless, Marxist, Social Justice Warriors.” We’re all moral failures. The only one who truly lived a life of perfect justice was Jesus Christ and he died on the cross as an unjust rebel so that unjust rebels like us can be forgiven. That message creates a new community based not a common experience of oppression, but based on a common experience of grace.
This analysis also explains why the Social Justice Movement tends to be so graceless. You can’t slip up. You can’t mess up. You have to always find new targets for your outrage because otherwise, you might be the next target. In contrast, Christianity says: “we’re all sinners. We’re all bad people and the good news is that there’s forgiveness for us. For us.” The experience of God’s mercy and grace shown on the cross is what ought to make Christians quick to show mercy and grace to others.
Do you have any parting advice for Christians who are thinking about critical theory?
For Christians who find themselves on the conservative end of the social or political spectrum, my number one piece of advice is to jettison the term “Marxism” and any of its cognates. It makes people defensive. Instead of focusing on a label, focus on the ideas themselves. Critique them.
Second, take racism and sexism seriously. Realize that there are real, legitimate concerns about discrimination that Christians ought to care about. Don’t let the errors of critical theory make you apathetic about social concerns.
For Christians who lean liberal, you need to learn to recognize and explicitly reject critical theory. It is false and it is dangerous. There’s no other way to say it. It’s not ideologically compatible with Christianity. I’m not asking you to lessen your concern for the poor or the vulnerable by one iota. But I want you to pay close attention to your ideological commitments.
This advice applies to both groups: read outside your comfort zone. Turn off the TV and Twitter pundits and broaden your ideological exposure. Listen to your opponents. Try to understand them. Take their concerns seriously.
See all content on critical theory here.