How to Improve Our World: One Stone for Many Birds

Religion causing genocide

We all realize that the world we inhabit is far from perfect, right? Even on a good day, there are some things we'd like to improve. We won't necessarily agree on what they are, but each of us could come up with a list without too much difficulty. If we compared our lists, we'd find that they had some items in common.

People who value the separation of church and state are still quite diverse. Some are religious believers, and others are atheists. Some favor liberal politics, while others are more conservative in their political views. Valuing secularism gives us something in common, and many of us will share some goals.

But it would be a mistake to expect too much agreement. We can still differ in many important ways. After all, the fact that we value secularism could indicate that we are thoughtful people. It could also mean that we are willing to adopt perspectives that are sometimes unpopular.

Consider the following goals:

  • Reduce costly military conflict
  • Promote LGBTQ equality
  • Promote atheist civil rights
  • Promote the equitable treatment of women around the world
  • Reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS
  • Improve quality education for all
  • Reduce unwanted pregnancies

I'm not here to claim that everyone who values secularism shares these goals. Instead, I have a question in mind. Wouldn't it be great if there was something we could do that would lead to progress in each of these areas, as well as many other worthy goals? What if I told you that there was indeed something we could do that would have that sort of impact?

We can work toward ending the special status enjoyed by religious belief. This is not going to happen overnight, but it is a worthy goal. We do not need to call for the abolition of religion. We can focus our efforts on ending the privileged status currently attached to religious belief.

As AC Grayling wrote in The Guardian back in 2006,

It is time to demand of believers that they take their personal choices and preferences in these non-rational and too often dangerous matters into the private sphere, like their sexual proclivities. Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others; but no-one is entitled to claim privileges merely on the grounds that they are votaries of one or another of the world’s many religions.

His point remains valid today. People are free to believe that they want. This doesn't mean they are free to push their beliefs on others. It also doesn't mean the rest of us need to go along with giving their preferred religion privileged status.

Religious freedom does not seem to be what many religious believers are interested in. Some want to force the rest of us to conform to their beliefs. Many others are reluctant to give up the privilege they have enjoyed for generations. But as we all know, change is inevitable. Religious privilege has caused too much harm to ignore. It continues to stand in the way of equality for atheists.

What can we do about it? I'm glad you asked! Here are some ideas:

This post from 2009 was revised and expanded in 2023 because religious privilege continues to be a problem worth solving.