Friday, July 15, 2011

On privilege and...

I’ve alluded to this in at least one comment and an earlier post, and someone else is still making an effort, so I’ll expand. (While it’s not my job to educate everyone on the internet, it is my compulsion to try. :)) It’s not a perfect analogy, but it might help some atheists who still read mentions of privilege as indictments or blanket accusations.

Religious people in the United States have privilege. This is different from privilege based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or sexual identity in that it’s largely rooted in beliefs.* Comparing and contrasting the axes of privilege is difficult: sexual orientation is like religion/atheism in some ways and like gender in others, religion is like class in some ways and ethnicity in others, and so on.

But there’s no doubt that the religious in the US have privilege. “People of faith” are granted more respect and seen as morally superior. Religion is seen as necessary to a good and full life. Government is overwhelmingly comprised of (so-claimed) religious people. Religious people have access to powerful social networks. They’re seen – and largely see themselves - as better parents and leaders. Religious views shape culture and public policy. Religious people might with reason fear that their particular denomination won't be acceptable to other religious people in power, but generally have no reason to fear that being religious itself will be a problem for them. For nonbelievers, a pretense of belief carries benefits. Histories and narratives highlighting (or falsely claiming) religious virtue and heroism, including those stressing the role of religious people and religion in social justice movements, predominate. Rarely the subject of discussion, this state of affairs is regarded as natural and inevitable.

Challenges to belief, in turn, are greeted with hostility, and face an uphill battle. Critics of theism are caricatured - viewed as strident, hostile, and a variety of negative stereotypes. Atheists are excluded, actively or passively, from political events dealing with morality and public policy, and often hated and threatened. Incursions into religious privilege are frequently viewed as rooted in an intent to destroy and dominate or an implicit belief that all religious people are evil. This is all found as much in day-to-day interactions as it is in public debates and institutions. People in many places reasonably fear being open about their atheism with their family, friends, and colleagues, and are even more apprehensive about becoming activists.

There are some atheists who, from ambition or fear or whatever complex mix of motives, choose in various ways to concede to and reinforce religious privilege. Accommodationists often cater to stereotypes of atheists; refuse to challenge negative comments about them; misrepresent other atheists, especially gnus; rush to give the religious and their sympathizers the benefit of the doubt while denying it to atheists; make excuses for the religious; argue that atheists' approaches are counterproductive or alienating; seek to distinguish themselves from other atheists, especially gnus; and at times openly disparage other atheists (especially gnus) for refusing to be sufficiently deferential…though of course they don’t put it in these terms.

None of this means that we think all religious people are fundamentalists or crazed, malicious, intolerant, and out to get atheists. We (with few exceptions) know that’s not true. But we want – as a corollary to other goals - to do away with religious privilege, at all levels of life. And we rightly criticize other atheists who act in ways that perpetuate religious privilege, making it harder for atheists – especially the most vulnerable among us – to make progress.

For religious substitute men. For fundamentalists or crazed, malicious, intolerant, and out to get atheists substitute MRAs, rapists, and raging misogynists. For atheists substitute women. For gnus substitute feminists.

For accommodationists substitute, oh, tools of the patriarchy. :P

*Related to this, our problems with religion are of course not limited to religious privilege.


  1. nice, I like it. Especially the networking thing (old boys club//church, depending on the topic); the boyfriend has experienced this especially strongly, having been unable to find a job in the things he's trained in/good at because he lacked connections. Shortly before moving, he actually asked me (because his family has never been church-going, so he lacked experience with this) if I remembered enough of Catholic ritual for us to be able to join and pass for proper Catholics, so he could use the church to network himself into a proper job. I was not amused, but understood the sentiment.

    Also, thanks for the link-love ;-)

  2. Oh, shit.

    For years, I have intended to write a lengthy post explaining the nature of and problems with religious privilege. I've kept putting it off, partly because the project seemed so big and partly because I don't have a blog. Well, now you've gone and done it. I guess there is more to say about religious privilege, but probably not a lot more. Oh, well—I snooze, I lose.

    This is centrally important stuff, I think; it seems to me that religious privilege is at or near the core of just about every disagreement that atheists have with wider society, and even a large proportion of controversies between atheists ourselves. Shame that it took an explosion of (overt expressions/defenses of) male privilege among atheists (facepalm) to elicit it.

  3. Thanks!

    Oh, man - I hear you. The list of posts I've planned to write that others got to in the meantime is long.