June 18, 2019

Political Correctness and Religion

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According to Dictionary.com, politically correct is defined as follows:

marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology.

I'm not sure that is a particularly helpful definition. "Progressive orthodoxy" seems to change over time. What was considered progressive 20 years ago probably wouldn't be accepted by many of today's progressives. Hell, progressive orthodoxy from 20 years ago would probably get one publicly shamed today!

Still, I think most of us grasp the basic idea. It does seem to be a fairly accurate characterization of the early days of the PC movement in that the focus was on marginalized groups. In the academic context where I first encountered PC and with which the development of the PC movement is closely linked, this meant that professors and students were discouraged from expressing attitudes thought to be racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise demeaning to various minority groups. For example, consider the use of gender-neutral pronouns or the replacement of "sexual preference" with the more accurate "sexual orientation."

Since academic settings have long sought to encourage the free exchange of ideas and the questioning of dogmatic traditions, it was not surprising that the PC movement was initially viewed as a liberal force for social change. Social conservatives were associated with the established power base of wealthy White males, and their viewpoints were routinely dismissed as intolerant and bigoted. Of course, it soon became apparent that the free exchange of ideas was only acceptable if it excluded ideas that might be potentially offensive. And this is where the phrase "progressive orthodoxy" in the definition above becomes so important.

Social conservatives were gradually excluded from the discussion and faced increasing marginalization. Thus, the PC movement came to limit the academic forum by preventing non-PC views to be presented. Conservatives began to rightly protest their exclusion, and the PC movement started to become the butt of jokes outside the academic community (despite continuing to dominate many academic settings).

In recent years, a new trend has emerged in the PC movement that has made it more open to some socially conservative viewpoints: the inclusion of religious belief as a component of culture and the prohibition on criticizing it.

Religion Gains PC Protection

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 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; see Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Religion). 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.

The Implications of Including Religion Under the PC Umbrella

The inclusion of religious belief under the PC umbrella along with gender, race, ethnicity, and other traditional areas the PC movement has embraced has important implications. The most serious implication for atheists is that religious belief is now off-limits to criticism. Returning to academia, the birthplace of PC, professors can no more get away with criticizing someone's religious beliefs than they can with saying something negative about someone's race or gender. A student who makes a homophobic comment may be attacked as non-PC, but the second this same student defends his/her comment as having religious grounds, they are off limits to further criticism. Why? Criticism of one's religious beliefs is no longer acceptable. The critic is now regarded as a close-minded, intolerant bigot.

We now regard religious belief as belonging to an entirely different category of belief, more akin to one's ethnic identity than to one's belief in scientific theories. Scientific theories and a host of other beliefs about the world are routinely criticized, and the critic suffers no repercussions. Religion is afforded an entirely different status and is not subject to this sort of thoughtful inquiry. "But that is part of my religion" is now an effective tool for ending critical inquiry.

This is a problem because religion makes claims about the nature of our world. Many of these claims can be (and have been) evaluated on the basis of their correspondence to reality. However, we need to do much more of this, and we need to be free to do so without incurring PC wrath. For many atheists, religious beliefs are no different from any other set of beliefs about the world. Some beliefs are better than others, and this is determined by the concordance of a particular set of beliefs with reality. This is why evolutionary theory is superior to creationist theories.

Until we become comfortable subjecting religious belief to the same scrutiny and criticism as any other belief system, it will limit our scientific, social, and moral progress.

This post was part of a three-part series that appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005. The posts in this series were revised and combined into this post in 2019.