March 12, 2005

Political Correctness and Religion, Part II

In the first part of this analysis, we saw the PC movement rise to prominence in U.S. academia. We saw how what started as an attempt to protect diverse viewpoints evolved into a tool for restricting the free exchange of ideas (i.e., socially conservative viewpoints were dismissed as intolerant bigotry). Now we turn to the inclusion of religion in the PC movement, which is of particular relevance to atheists.

Around the time the PC movement was becoming synonymous with diversity and multiculturalism, an important shift was taking place within multiculturalism itself. The social sciences initially viewed multiculturalism as involving race, ethnicity, and gender. However, the scope of multiculturalism was now widening to include sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and eventually even religious and spiritual beliefs.

This expansion makes sense given definitions of culture as "socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought" (Dictionary.com). However, the historic role of the PC movement as opposing social conservatism and fundamentalist religion was at first difficult to reconcile with this new expanded view. The PC movement was so used to criticizing fundamentalist religion, how could it suddenly afford religious belief the same "off limits to criticism" status that it had previously reserved for gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.? Moreover, how could conservative Christians who had previously been attacked for their racism and homophobia suddenly enjoy this protected status where their religious beliefs could not be criticized?

The initial solution was for the PC movement to distinguish between dogmatic religion (bad) and open-minded spirituality (good). For obvious reasons, this distinction was never clear and soon collapsed. The next attempt to reconcile the apparent contradiction involved a full embrace of religion but attempted to distinguish between real (intrinsic) beliefs and those adopted just for show (extrinsic). This approach was much more popular because it could be used to say that intrinsically religious persons were open-minded and tolerant while extrinsically religious persons were intolerant, conservative, ignorant, etc. Despite this appeal, the distinction was not without problems. Conservative Christians argued that their religious beliefs were part of their culture. As their numbers grew during the Reagan and Bush I eras, they could no longer be ignored.

In Part III, the implications of the inclusion of religious belief in the PC movement will be examined.

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