[culture|religion] The wonders of religious privilege

I broke one of my own rules and got involved in a lengthy back-and-forth on Facebook with some folks over religious questions. (No link, because I don’t want anyone to feel called out or embarrassed — they are welcome to come link themselves in comments if they so choose.)

In all fairness to everyone involved, including the friend whose Facebook page this all unfolded on, for the most part it’s been fairly civil and interesting, rather than degenerating into a swamp of name calling or accusation. However, I was very struck by something one commenter said to me in challenging my assertion that freedom of religion necessarily means freedom from religion.

To me, this statement is so self-evident as to be axiomatic. Without freedom from other people’s expression of their religion, how is any citizen going to able to find and express their own faith? Protecting everyone from anyone’s individual form of religious expression is precisely how everyone’s freedom of religion is protected.

I don’t mean you can’t have a Nativity scene on your lawn, or a parade on your favorite saint’s day, or whatever. Freedom from religion means freedom from state-sponsored or state-sanctioned religious expression. Which does mean you cannot have a Nativity scene at City Hall, or teacher-led prayer in school. Because those things lessen the status of people who are not Christian, and force them to conform to something they do not believe.

For any Christian who is now thinking I’m a full-of-shit atheist, consider this: How would you feel about teacher-led Islamic prayer in schools? Or all school cafeterias keeping kosher and halal? Or a Menorah on the lawn at your City Hall? If you’re not fully comfortable with that, then you now completely understand why other folks are not comfortable with officially-sponsored Christian piety.

So in the flow of this discussion, another commenter pointed to the Mt. Soledad Cross in California, saying:

“The man who filed the suit did so because he felt “oppressed” whenever he saw that cross. That’s it.”

It’s very clear from the wording that to this commenter, it’s inconceivable that any reasonable person could be offended by a memorial cross. They view the cross as a benign symbol, value-neutral at worst in the larger scheme of things, and cannot understand why anyone else might feel differently. That someone else does feel differently is threatening and enraging.

That is religious privilege in a nutshell, right there.

For the past two thousand years, the cross has been a symbol of bigotry, oppression and pogrom to Jews. Why shouldn’t the cross be offensive to some of their modern descendants?

In both the Middle Ages and the modern era, the cross has been a symbol of wholesale slaughter and the destruction of entire nations to many in the Muslim world. Why shouldn’t the cross be offensive to some Muslims today?

For nearly the first century of the history of this nation, some Christians stood firmly on the Bible to justify the chattel slavery of millions. Why shouldn’t the cross be offensive to some of those slaves’ descendants?

For most of the history of this nation, some Christians have treated unwed mothers and single mothers with a profound cruelty, punishing them and their bastard children in ways large and small. Why shouldn’t the cross be offensive to some of those women and their descendants?

In contemporary America, as well as throughout history, some Christians have treated their LGBTQ relatives and neighbors with unspeakable cruelty, persecuting them, severing family ties, denying deathbed visitation and inheritance rights. Why shouldn’t the cross be offensive to some LGBTQ people?

In other words, angrily assuming only a trouble-making nut could object to the erection of a cross on public land, with all the official endorsement that implies of the cross and everything it symbolizes, is a profound and unthinking act of religious privilege. It’s the same religious privilege that leads contemporary Christians to make self-valorizing claims of persecution because their absolute cultural supremacy has eroded to merely overwhelming cultural dominance.

If you stand outside that frame, this is both a sad and frightening attitude. Sad, because of the profound lack of self-awareness it betrays. Frightening, because the power of religious conservatives to harm everyone in the nation in their panic at their sense of decline is demonstrated over and over again every day in the media and at every election cycle.

The wonders of religious privilege, indeed. This is the anger of the mighty at being called in the smallest measure to account for their words and deeds.

15 thoughts on “[culture|religion] The wonders of religious privilege

  1. An unconscious religious privilege is inevitable among Christians, who have been told for two millennia they are right and everyone else is wrong. This was translated by a church hierarchy determined to be the only game in town to mean everyone else MUST be brought into the fold. It went downhill from there. And this despite the fact their Founding Father specifically told them they weren’t to forcibly convert people.

  2. Jacob Engstrom says:

    These things don’t just go one way either.
    I personally hold displays such as the Mt. Soledad Cross side-by-side with Mount Rushmore.

  3. Laurie Mann says:

    This is a particularly Catholic/conservative Christian attitude. I was raised in the United Church of Christ which is more liberal and generally more tolerant.

  4. Ron says:

    The beginning of your statement was about separation of church and state, but it quickly descended into a rant about people’s feelings. Today I read an article about a Muslim community donating money to keep a synagogue open for a small Jewish community. Were the Muslims offended by the presence of the Jews? Were the Jews offended by the donation from the Muslims? No. Oftentimes I observe nonreligious or out-and-out atheists trying to make cases on behalf of religious minorities. It’s patronizing and deceptive. If the atheist wants the cross down due to separation of church and state, there’s a good case to make. If the atheist wants the cross down because it’s a symbol of negative events that happened a long time ago, that’s a poor case to make. A person born 40 years ago who identifies as a Christian does not bear any responsibility for what happened 2,000 years ago, 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago, or even 40 years ago. People express their faiths differently, and the events that transpire as a result of faith do no necessarily become an indictment against it. That guy who wanted the phrase, “In God We Trust” removed from American currency was an atheist and prominent member of an atheist organization, standing in front of Congress and claiming that the phrase was exclusionary of Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and Muslims. Why doesn’t he stand up for himself rather than pretending to care about other religious minorities? The tobacco executive who stands in front of congress and laments that anti-smoking laws are infringing upon freedom doesn’t give a shit about anyone’s freedom but his own. He wants to make money and sell cigarettes, so he appeals to other people’s desire to be sovereign and autonomous. In the same way, many of these atheist activists try to appeal to a bunch of people that they not only do not care about, but actively lambaste and ridicule on the internet. They call Muslim beliefs silly, dangerous, and delusional, but still pretend to give a crap about religious inequality just to make a case against a cross on a hill or a word on a dollar. That’s offensive.

    1. Jay says:

      Actually, your rather angry response precisely reinforces my point about privilege and self-awareness. Especially the part about modern Christians supposedly bearing no responsibility for the historical conduct of the church. Thank you for helping other readers understand what I was saying!

      1. Ron says:

        I’m not even a Christian, nor angry. I just don’t like slimy people pretending like they’re part of a group they actually detest just to get their way.

    2. Jay says:

      My apologies. I misunderstood the point of your question. If you’ve read very much of my writing, you’ll know that I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of both worship and conscience.

  5. Cora says:

    All this strikes me as a very American issue, because here in Germany atheists are rarely bothered by religious display in public.

    For example, I work at a university which used to be affiliated with the Catholic church and where crosses and crucifixes are prominently displayed around campus. In order to get there, I drive through a heavily Catholic region, where roadside shrines and crucifixes on public land are common. I live in a city where the ten commandments are displayed on the facade of the courthouse. I just posted photos of a nativity display set up on a public marketplace. Now I’m not religious, but none of these things bother me. Nor does the giant menora set up on Bremen’s market square (next to the cathedral) bother me or the fact that school and university cafeterias offer halal and kosher food for those who want it as well as fish on Friday to accomodate Catholics. I don’t have a problem with people wishing me either Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays and do wish people a Merry Christmas, unless I know or strongly suspect they are of some other religion.

    I do have a problem with the political influence of the Christian churches in Germany, but that is confined to issues like closing down shops and entertainment venues on Christian holidays and Sundays, restricting abortion and stem cell research because of Christian beliefs. I have an issue with enforced crucifixes in classrooms and religious services tied in to school events. I am bothered by tax payer money poured into sponsoring religious events. I am opposed to religious organisations ignoring labout laws and forcing people to join their respective churches to work in positions like kindergarten teacher or nurse. Because these things do limit my own freedom not to be religious. But a crucifix by the roadside or a nativity scene on the market square do not bother me. Instead, I find them charming and quite often interesting pieces of artwork. I’m also happy to see mosques, synagogues and temples springing up and very vehemently against any attempts to push non-Christian houses of worship out of the public view.

    I think why American atheists are so bothered by things like crosses on public land or nativity displays or shop assistants saying Merry Christmas, which IMO are non-issues, is because many of your Christians are so aggressive about their faith and – to put it bluntly – arseholes. Whereas here in Germany, most Christians are pretty reasonable.

    1. Cora says:

      Regarding Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays, I have actually had people I know are Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist wishing me a Merry Christmas in return to my Happy Holidays. It’s simply not such a big issue here, because our Christians aren’t out to convert everybody to some extremely fundamentalist version of Christianity.

      1. Matt Kressel says:

        Because you happen to know some folks who are not offended by the default “Merry Christmas” who don’t happen to celebrate that holiday does not mean that it is a non issue for everyone who is “Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist” in your country.

        Your assumption that it is “not such a big issue” is exactly what Jay is getting at. If you are not a member of the groups who might take offense, how can you say with authority how those groups might feel? You can’t, and presuming you can is exactly the kind of privilege Jay is speaking of.

        1. Ron says:

          What is the point that you are trying to get across? Are people not allowed to say “Merry Christmas” because some other people will be offended by it or feel excluded by it?

          1. Jay says:

            The point I am trying to get across is that if you think routine Christian practices are so normal and mundane that only an angry nut could object to them, then you are enmeshed in unexamined privilege and lack of awareness of the meaning of Christianity to billions of non-Christians in the world today and throughout the past two thousand years. Saying “Merry Christmas” is fine, but don’t take offense if it makes others uncomfortable. They have sound historical and contemporary reasons. Likewise, things many Christians consider so normal and to be unremarkable, but can have a huge impact on other people, include opening meetings with a prayer, having Sundays off from work, and putting a little fish sticker on your car.

            For my own part, if it brings you joy to say “Merry Christmas”, then by all means do so. But if it brings you anger that others object to such, you probably need to spend more time both with your Bible and with a few history books.

            1. Ron says:

              I understand all of that. Opening a football game with a prayer (or even the national anthem) makes me uncomfortable. On the other hand, I no longer think it is strange that a professional football player would pray for victory. Playing football is his job, after all. If he does his job well, his contract is renewed, he is remembered, and this gives him the opportunity to have a better future, financially speaking (endorsements deals, early retirement, etc). So I have examined the nature of prayer in public. I do think it’s strange that politicians vocalize their religious beliefs. I think it’s offensive because it’s usually pandering. Maybe I even get a little uncomfortable when I see so many Catholic Mexicans where I live and work because it reminds me of the conquistadors who came to this land and forced the natives to convert to that religion. But that kind of stuff doesn’t tick me off as much as more contemporary issues, (global warming, unhealthy dietary trends that afflict billions, poverty in the developing world and right here at home, failing education systems, apathy to the homeless, etc.) You know, a former friend of mine and I were once walking across the university grounds to the parking lot when my friend suddenly stopped and stared at a couple of guys wearing yarmulkes, sitting on a bench. He turns to me and says, “I can’t believe religion still exists.” And the look on his face was one of utter disgust. It was strange because during this time his father was ill with heart problems and one would think he would have other things on his mind. Point is, some people have a lot of free time on their hands. Telling me that I haven’t examined the world thoroughly enough is wrong. I choose very carefully what to be offended by and what to focus on.

  6. Ed says:

    As one who as an innocent child was brainwashed with Christian nonsense, I resent the difficulties I had to endure in order to deprogram myself of my indoctrination. It is a form of child abuse to fill the minds of children with fears of hell.

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