Razib Khan, Anti-Woke Mage Of Old Religion
Razib Khan is one of the most interesting people to follow on Twitter (@razibkhan). His Substack, Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning, is compulsively readable, especially if you care about science, which is his main focus (Khan is a geneticist). This most recent post, about 15 books that changed him, is a good introduction to the mind of Razib Khan. Khan is on the cultural and political right, which has caused him some grief within liberal academic circles, but he is fearless. I like fearlessness.
I follow him on Twitter, and was surprised recently to see him refer to someone as “Pagan,” in distinction from “Christians” — but it didn’t really sound like he was talking about actual Pagans and actual Christians, either historically or in a contemporary sense. When I contacted him about it, he explained that these were his code words to identify the non-woke (Pagans) from the woke (Christians). As Khan sees it, we are living through a time analogous to the triumph of Christianity, in which the paganism was smashed by the creed of the new god, and infidels (the pagans) had to live under the rule of followers of a jealous deity.
As we talked, Khan told me that because he is an out and proud “Pagan” — that is, someone who is identified as a follower of the rationality and science — a number of fellow “Pagans” throughout science, academia, and elsewhere, reach out to him constantly for sympathy and advice for how to live out their beliefs under the new woke dispensation. I told him he sounds like a mage of the Old Religion, and that he should write a short book of advice for beleaguered “Pagans,” in the Khan sense (of which I, a practicing Orthodox Christian, would be one).
Khan agreed to do this short interview via e-mail.
RD: On Twitter, you often talk about “Pagans” and “Christians” in conflict, but you aren’t really talking about actual Pagans and actual Christians. What do you mean?
RK: Academics in the 20th century came to their maturity in a pagan world. A world which valued truth, independence, and liberty of thought, in the ideal if not practice. There was an objective world out there, and
no matter how hypocritical scholars were, they acknowledged that at the end of the day that was the measure of all things. Reality would judge their hypocrisy. They could not escape its all-seeing-eye.
True, in the 20th century prophets like Michel Foucault preached to the unsaved heathen a new message, a message of power, of the bending of reality to will. To him, this was “good news,” with the human mind
ruling over nature. Whereas the Confucian rectification of names aligned the names to reality so that reality might be well-ordered in our minds, the new deployment of names resembles ancient magical powers. The names themselves shape reality. The law of gravity exists because we say it exists. It does not exist outside of our will.
This is the great inversion. A reversal of Copernicanism. Man, who was removed from the center of the universe, becomes the creator of the cosmos once more! In the late 20th century, and into the 21st, there
were early flare-ups between the prophets of inversion and those who held to the old ways. During the “Science Wars” of yore the heralds of inversion were turned back, even laughed at. After all, only cretins thought to bend reality to their will!
But various forces in 21st century culture resulted in the triumph of the inversion, of the subordination of reality to will.
First, there was the ideological and cultural polarization, which impacted the whole spectrum. The development of the liberal “reality based community” in the 2000s reflects a natural reaction to a certain strand in right-wing political practice which emphasized rhetoric, framing, and information manipulation. George W. Bush’s administration aimed to wield physical and informational power. Initially, the reaction on the left was a flight to objectivity, even scientism. Richard Dawkin’s espousal of “New Atheism” in the period
between 2005-2010 reflects this.
But in the years after 2010 the old ways collapsed on the left. One might conjecture that these currents were unleashed due to the Great Disappointment of Barack Obama’s presidency when his election did not
usher in an era of utopian racial and religious harmony. On the contrary, Obama’s first term was characterized by cautious center-left neoliberalism.
The rise of the new religion, of the woke, comes out of the sense of betrayal and disappointment. Their victory came not due to their delusional epistemology, but because they saw in the subordination of reality to their will the path out of the cold world which rejects their utopianism. Human flourishing is no longer constrained by nature in any manner, but only limited by imagination. The idea that any non-representative distribution in any field by race, sex, or sexual orientation, might have to do with preexisting aptitudes or preferences is rejected in favor of the idea that this is the outcome of a malevolent will. Systemic racism, systemic sexism, systemic heteronormativity. Demons. Anti-Christs.
Just as the early Christians were radical cultists who were on fire for their savior, so the early wokists espouses views that were mocked and dismissed by the pagans all around them. But where the early Christians found their Constantine, the woke have captured and scaled every major institution in American society: the academy, journalism, and industry.
In the academy, the new religion was long restricted to a few departments. But over the past ten years, it has marched from strength to strength. Men and women who five years ago scoffed at the idea of a “sexual spectrum” privately now speak of it reverently in public. Are they frauds? Or do they now sincerely believe in the new order? Does it matter?
First comes false words. Then public practice. Finally, private sincere belief. Read 1984 and its conclusion. This is what I have seen.
Tell me more about why you see this conflict as essentially religious?
Though I am personally an atheist and have always been so, I have come to the belief that humans, on the whole, are fundamentally religious. I do not believe that religion is a thing “out there.” Rather, I believe it is a thing “in there,” in our minds, and in our social practice. I believe “religion nerds”, believers or atheists, need to be careful not to reduce it to one thing. It is a multitude. A belief in powers in the universe. A sense of community. Adherence to rituals which order one’s life and give it meaning. A metaphysical and metaethical framework to bind together a society into a civilization.
Religion as a social force rises and falls. But it is also there as a potential. Always.
Communism and Nazism were labeled “political religions,” and they had many aspects of traditional religion. But traditional religion has outlasted both these ideologies. It turns out that the old systems were more robust. Stalin died. God does not. But the political religions nevertheless can burn brightly for a time.
We old pagans adhere to simple views. Some of us are believers in the old religions. Others are believers in no religion and live in a starkly material world of coldness from which most would shrink in horror. We believe in an objective reality. Also, most of us have tacitly accepted the Calvinist position that there is no magic in the
world, even if we disagree on whether God exists.
The new “Christians”, the believers in the woke sect, are on fire to convert to the world. They see that it will be reshaped in the image of their wills. And they see in the recalcitrant stubborn beliefs of the old pagans the greatest barrier to the redemption of this world, of the attainment of cosmic justice. Our disbelief is an abomination to them, for that disbelief disorders reality. Racism, sexism, and the overall marginalization of many groups emerges out of our disbelief in the power of will, in the primacy of feelings, and the necessity to
“read the room.”
We reject the power of the “room”, and assert there is a world beyond the room whose dictates we will never escape.
You say that younger people in science often come to you looking for help. Do you consider yourself a kind of mage of the Old Religion?
I reject the power of will in public repeatedly and without hesitation. The rejection of the power of will is privately a common, likely dominant belief, but the believers in objective reality are not fanatics. Their enemies are. The aim of science, the aim of scholarship, is knowledge. Its aim is not justice, for there is no justice or injustice in the cold dark universe. The universe is.
I refuse to say the words that they demand, and that is becoming far less common.
There are many who agree with me. Multitudes. But they are silent. But through various channels, they reach out to me and tell me that they hold true in their hearts to the old ways. Because of their silence, they don’t know the names of the others. But I do. So if they are at the same institution, I tell them. There has even been an occasion that pagans are found in the same laboratory, but presume that the other is a new “Christian.” Sometimes this belief is a consequence of a false profession of faith.
What are some of the problems your correspondents have? What do you tell them?
White males in particular are asked to self-flagellate in a ritual fashion. This is done in such a practiced manner that this is not a great discomfort for most, but the hypocrisy grates at some. Additionally, white males cannot express any dissenting opinion without bringing attention to themselves, leading to suspicion that
they are a crypto-pagan.
You can imagine the standard professional consequences, but I will give you a concrete example to illustrate the reach and sensitivity. University departments are removing the Graduate Record Examination in the interests of social justice. Some academics believe this will have an opposing effect. Here they are expressing the old pagan belief that objective truths should be measured, and removal of the measurement instrument does not change the truth. A friend of mine who tacitly supported this view “liked” a tweet from someone pointing out this pagan belief. My friend’s spouse was asked about this act by a colleague in the department in a negative manner.
The point being that punctilious adherence to belief and practice is necessary. My own belief based on watching the evolution of many friends over the years is that the easiest way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to accept the new savior in your heart, accept its truth as your truth, and denounce your own pagan colleagues as devil-worshippers. Doing this out of sincerity is much more psychologically satisfying than doing this out of self-interest.
You mentioned earlier to me that there are a lot of people embedded within the system who are not believers in the New Religion, but who don’t say anything. How do you feel about this? Do you think they should speak up, or are there instances in which it wouldn’t be worth it, and they could be more helpful to the cause by remaining silent? I think about this kind of thing a lot because Solzhenitsyn and Havel both said that the system of lies that they fought existed because most people were too afraid of the consequences of living in truth.
Most humans are sheep. They will bend before power. So I am not surprised. The hearts of men are weak, and the time of wolves is at hand! More seriously, Simon Peter was a good person, but he betrayed one who believed to be his savior. Should we be surprised that common human beings will be silent to protect their jobs? Their families? It’s human nature. The problem is systemic. I have seen the hardest of men crack and cave before the new dispensation.
I believe some being silent and quiet is useful. Perhaps the time will come for them to speak? They will find courage when courage is not required! Again, they are good people. But they are truly cowards, so if the new religion collapses of its own weight, they will come back to the fold without shame, for it is their nature to bend like the reed in the wind. Many of the Orthodox Christian politicians in Russia were once ostensibly zealous atheist persecutors. They are what they’ve always been.
In regards to Havel and Solzhenitsyn. I grew up in the 1980s and had a certain view of the people in the Eastern Bloc due to what we were taught. That view was not a high one. But now I see that they were no
different than we are. Americans have done great things, but we should attribute it less to who we are than our circumstances.
Back to the mage thing. What qualities does a mage of the Old Religion like yourself need to have? What kind of vocation does he or she have towards the community of anti-woke infidels struggling within science today?
I assume my own nature is a combination of “nature and nurture.” I was a brown-skinned atheist who grew up in Northeast Oregon, so I was used to being different. I was used to arguing with whole rooms of people
who believed I was going to hell. This is probably partly just by nature, I’m extremely disagreeable, and perhaps a bit egotistical. I dislike backing down and don’t have a taste to bow low before people who I perceive to be my inferiors. Many of the people who lie and grovel in front of woke inquisitors are brilliant and capable human beings who are abasing themselves before those who are as nothing. This act of degradation is itself an inversion of what should be the order of things. Those who open God’s book bow down before the blind.
I have spent much of my life exploring what I thought were true things. Reading books. Analyzing data. I refuse to deny what I’ve learned and lie so that the priests of the new religion won’t persecute me. So far I have managed to make a go of it in the world. I will tell you I was physically assaulted twice at scientific conferences, so the hostility can get pretty intense from those who believe they have the crowd behind them (I’m not a pacifist, I fight back). And of course, there are periodic denunciations of me, as well as attempts to “cancel” me.
But, at the end of the day, this will end. Lies always do. Pagans need to survive. History is on their side. Reality is.
Don’t forget to check out Razib Khan’s Substack.