August 19, 2011

Letting Go of Religious Privilege


There is nothing quite like reading atheist blogs to provoke thought. While reading a recent post by Mark (No Godz) about some of the things atheists are not required to do, one in particular caught my attention:
Godless people are not required to respect superstition, prophets or religious acts performed or directed at them. If you say “I’ll pray for you” to me, I may laugh in your face... Don’t expect me to bow my head during a prayer, public or private. It’s your fallacy, not mine.
Of course, a big part of the reason that some of us get grief or even feel guilty for failing to show respect for these sort of socially sanctioned superstitions is religious privilege. We have had the need to respect this stuff instilled in us for most of our lives.

Atheist billboardIf religious belief was neither irrational nor harmful, it might be perfectly acceptable to teach that we should go out of our way to respect it. Doing so might reduce conflict, and if religious belief was a genuinely positive force, then respecting it would indeed be appropriate. Yet, this is simply not the case. Religious belief is both irrational and harmful. It deserves no respect.

Consider for a moment a scenario where showing respect and even changing one's behavior is warranted. One of the many ways that feminism has influenced those of us in academia is quite easy to spot: how we write and speak has fundamentally changed. I would never dream of delivering a lecture in which I used only male pronouns, pretending that doing so was somehow "generic." And I would never write a paper that way. Not only do I understand why doing so is unacceptable, but I know that my work would be rejected if I did so. This is not to say that some of my older colleagues might not still complain about the linguistic awkwardness that may sometimes result, but even most of them now seem to grasp why this is important. Equality matters.

But in the case of religious belief, we are hard pressed to come up with any rationale for how modern society benefits from the continued reverence given to such superstitions. It is not a matter of equality; it is a matter of religious privilege. It is time to treat religious beliefs in the same way in which we treat all other beliefs.

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