The Tyranny of the Minority

child in school

We're all familiar with the "tyranny of the majority" because this gets to the heart of what tyranny is all about. It refers to the scenario where those in power, due to their majority position, impose their will on everyone else. But if you have had any involvement in secular activism, regardless of whether you are an atheist, you have undoubtedly heard about the "tyranny of the minority" in that context. In the U.S., it is one of the most common complaints heard from Christians who are prohibited from imposing their religious beliefs on others.

Instead of just dismissing it as one more example of the common persecution claims we hear from (mostly) conservative Christians, I thought we might take a closer look at it and see if it has any merit at all. The best way to start is probably with one of the more common examples where we can expect to hear it. Consider the following:

A public school in a small town has had a Christmas play every year for the last 15 years. Although it is not the sort of thing one would expect to see at church, the play contains multiple references to Jesus and none to any other fictional deities. And yet, nobody has ever complained. That finally changes when a Hindu parent writes a letter to the principal explaining that her daughter is bullied by several of her Christian classmates each December and that much of it centers around this play. The letter goes on to describe how the play promotes Christianity while neglecting all other faiths, addresses how this is negatively impacting her daughter, and raises questions about the legality of this practice. The principal cancels the play.

I am reasonably confident that at least some of us would perceive what I have just described as a good thing. I certainly do. The Hindu woman's daughter is unlikely to be the only child at the school who feels this way. But even if she was, she shouldn't have to because this type of thing is not supposed to happen in our public schools. On the other hand, many Christians (especially the more conservative ones) are going to howl about this being a tyranny of the minority.

Why should this one family get to tell us how to live? We can't let them take away our Christmas traditions!

From the perspective of these Christians, this is a disturbing example of a tyranny of the minority because this one family is ending something at least some of them enjoyed (i.e., school-based promotion of some aspects of their religion). They will call this "undemocratic" too because their version of democracy, unlike the version codified into law in the U.S., is pure majority rule. From their perspective, one rooted in Christian privilege, their greater numbers should allow them to impose what they desire on everyone else. You and I might see this for what it is, but they rarely do. This might be one of the reasons some fight so intensely to maintain their privilege.

Atheists are a very small minority in the U.S. As such, I think most of us recognize the importance of protecting minority rights in a democratic society. If the Christian majority were to decide tomorrow that atheists should be denied employment, housing, the right to marry, and whatever else you might value simply because we do not believe in gods, most of us would be upset. We have seen this happen (and are still seeing it happen) to members of other minority groups, and that upsets most of us too.

While I can at times empathize with anyone who has had privilege and is now faced with the prospect of losing it, that does not mean that it should not be lost in favor of equality. And so, the idea that someone could be fired today merely for being transgendered strikes me as thoroughly unacceptable. I see no problem with prohibiting that kind of discrimination even if it interferes with the imagined right of the Christian majority to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove.

When religion enters our public schools, the Hindu parent should complain. So should the Jewish parent, the Muslim parent, and the atheist parent. And so too should each and every one of the reasonable Christian parents. Maintaining Christian privilege at the expense of non-Christian children is not something public schools should be teaching. Losing one's privilege may be distressing, but it is not tyrannical.