July 22, 2015

Proactive Activism: Taking on Religious Privilege

Virgen del Carmen
By Jorge Barrios, via Wikimedia Commons
If public declarations of faith grant one access to benefits one considers desirable and to which one would not otherwise have access, we would have to expect to witness many such declarations. Viewed this way, public declarations of faith seem quite rational. Even false declarations of faith seem rational, albeit morally questionable.

And if pushing one's faith on others through unconstitutional government action brings similar benefits, we'd have to expect to see quite a bit of this as well. It occurs to me that those of us who would like to see fewer public declarations of faith by elected officials and who value the separation of church and state might want to give more thought to how we can erode the religious privilege that makes these things so appealing to so many.

Admittedly, this is not normally how we think about secular activism. Our approach tends to be far more defensive in the sense that we generally end up reacting to perceived threats as they surface. What might it look like if we were to embrace a more proactive approach to secular activism? What might it look like if we sought to gradually remove the motivation many have for promoting faith and violating church-state separation?

Reducing religious privilege seems like a massive and long-term task; however, it also seems like one with many benefits. As far as what it might look like, the good news is that there are already models available we might be able to use. Think about other forms of privilege that are still with us to some degree but to a much smaller degree than they once were. Is there anything we can learn from those who have helped them erode?

Raising Awareness

Based on what I have observed from efforts to erode other forms of privilege, I'd suggest that raising awareness of the privilege is likely to be an important first step. Religious privilege is something one rarely hears about from the mainstream news media. The U.S. news media ignores the subject of Christian privilege even more than they ignore Christian extremism. But is it fair to blame them for this? After all, the subject of Christian privilege in the U.S. is not one I see being addressed much by atheists either. If the topic hasn't gained traction among us, it may be unrealistic to expect the mainstream news media to pick up on it.

To raise awareness of religious privilege, we need to talk about it. We need to expose it, help others see it, and explain how it affects us. We need to make it much harder to ignore, and that is likely to mean pointing it examples of it again and again. Helping others start to recognize it is almost certainly a necessary first step.

Highlighting the Unfairness of Privilege

As awareness of religious privilege builds, we might find ourselves focusing more on its negative impact. We might frame it as unfair, exclusionary, inconsistent with democratic values, and so on. These are things most people will at least claim to value. By showing how religious privilege is not consistent with these values, we might be in a better position to help people begin questioning it.

Why should what one believes about gods confer special privileges? Would we want to live in a society that decided people who believed in a different god were entitled to similar privilege rather than us? These are not the sort of questions Christians in the U.S. are used to asking themselves. Maybe they should be.

Enhancing Empathy

As more people are able to recognize religious privilege, recognize it as unfair, and begin to question it, I could imagine us promoting perspective taking and empathy. What might we do to encourage receptive Christians to put themselves in the shoes of non-Christians and imagine what it would be like to have a religion other than theirs be the privileged one. What would this feel like for them? Can they imagine what the current system feels like to those of us on the outside of it?

I realize it is tough to imagine this gaining much traction. Were we to start here, I'd expect little impact. But it seems like it might be worth trying after making real progress with the previous steps.

What Else?

What else might we do to undermine and erode religious privilege? What else has been helpful in other forms of privilege? Alternatively, do you think there might be anything unique about religious privilege that will require a different sort of approach?

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