February 1, 2008

My Conflict Over Religious Bigotry, Part 1

I begin most of the posts I write for this blog with a clear message I want to impart to the reader and a fairly clear idea of where the post will end up when I am finished. However, there are times when I write more for myself, beginning in a somewhat muddled state and hoping for clarity to emerge through the writing process. This is just such a post. In fact, I intend this to be the first in what will probably turn into a multi-part series (perhaps that reflects the depth of my ambiguity on this topic). The general topic will be that of religious discrimination and bigotry.

I begin this topic with no clear idea of where I will arrive and in full recognition that I am deeply conflicted over much of what I will say. For the reader to appreciate why this is a difficult topic for me and to understand the source of my conflict, I will start by attempting to describe the scope of the problem and then attempt to probe the heart of my confusion.

Religious Discrimination and Bigotry

In a general sense, I think we can agree that discrimination involves the restriction of opportunities or benefits to which one might otherwise be entitled. When we hear about employment discrimination, we think about someone being denied employment or promotion on the basis of race, gender, physical handicap, religion, etc. Thus, discrimination can be viewed - at least in the legalistic sense in which we often mean it - as involving concrete negative outcomes on the basis of one's status on any of the many protected demographic classes.

Unlike discrimination, which has this legal connotation and generally involves the loss of something which we can identify, bigotry is more ambiguous. It might be safe to say that discrimination is an action or a behavior while bigotry refers to an attitude or mental state. I see little difference then between bigotry and prejudice, although I suppose one could argue that bigotry involves the expression of prejudice. Still, I'll treat them as synonymous for now.

Religious discrimination (i.e., discriminating against someone on the basis of religion) would involve the loss of something identifiable on the basis of one's religious belief or lack thereof. A Christian who is fired simply for being Christian is a victim of religious discrimination. An atheist who is fired simply for being an atheist is also a victim of religious discrimination. I am generally comfortable with this notion and do not experience much conflict over it, although I can certainly construct some illustrative cases (and may do so in later posts in this series) that make me uncomfortable.

My feelings about bigotry are far more conflicted. If a Christian hates someone he or she has never met, dismissing them as immoral, destined for hell, unworthy of citizenship, and the like, simply because the person is labeled an atheist, this is anti-atheist bigotry. But it also happens to be a part of the Christian religion insofar as the Christian in question intends to follow his or her bible. Does this change things, and if so, how?

If an atheist hates someone he or she has never met, dismissing them as unintelligent, hypocritical, delusional, and the like, simply because the person is labeled a Christian, this is anti-Christian bigotry...or is it? I want to say "yes," but as soon as I do, I end up feeling that the situation is actually far more complicated than this. On one hand, I feel obligated to be consistent in that what is religious bigotry in one direction should be religious bigotry in the other direction. On the other hand, something about this gives me pause.

Can I oppose religion without being a bigot, and if so, how? If opposing religion entails bigotry, do I abandon my path in the interest of tolerance or find some way to live with bigotry?

Source of My Conflict: Religion and Culture

I think that the primary source of my conflicted feelings is what I have been taught about the relationship of religion and culture. As someone who has undergone (yes, I do feel that this is an appropriate word) extensive multicultural training at the graduate level, I have been indoctrinated in contemporary multiculturalism to a degree that will be unfamiliar to many readers. I absolutely detested most of this at the time, but rejecting completely has never been a viable option.

I was taught that cultural differences are to be understood, valued, and respected. Attempting to impose one's culture on others was unacceptable, and increased cultural awareness was held up as a desirable path toward increased tolerance. Religion was presented as being one of many components of culture. In this context, religious differences are to be afforded the same respect and tolerance as racial differences, differences with regard to sexual orientation, physical abilities, gender, etc. Saying something like "Christians annoy me" was argued to be no easier to justify than saying "African Americans annoy me."

I know what you are thinking - these are extremely different and should not be equated. A person does not choose their skin color (Michael Jackson to the contrary), but religious belief is voluntarily chosen and maintained. I know. I'm not trying to defend this position. I am pointing out that I was systematically indoctrinated by a largely secular system to believe this and that I am currently surrounded by professional colleagues and belong to professional organizations who advocate such a perspective. In fact, you should know that this perspective is now an integral part of graduate training in all of the helping professions (e.g., counseling, psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy, etc.). It remains a source of conflict for me and is something about which I think on a near daily basis.

Even getting to this point makes my head spin, and I realize that I will need additional posts to accomplish anything approaching clarity. Maybe I won't get there at all. But I have to try, following this thread wherever it takes me.

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