THE BLOG
03/04/2014 03:58 pm ET Updated May 04, 2014

The Problem With 'Religious Privilege'

Atheists in America face some measure of discrimination, and we want a way to talk about that discrimination so that it's taken seriously. But our approach thus far is setting us back, and may even be putting us in conflict with identity groups -- indeed, religious identities -- who could and ought to be alongside us in a struggle towards pluralistic understanding.

Many nontheistic writers and activists have selected the theory of "privilege" as a model of the normalized religious identity in America, and to describe their own disadvantage as American atheists. Both The Friendly Atheist and The Atheist Experience Blog have taken this approach. In a piece titled "Religious Privilege and Citizenship," Ed Brayton discussed how nonreligious folks are disadvantaged by U.S. citizenship tests which request that you provide a "religious objection" to any question about taking up arms to defend the country.

Sam Killermann at Its Pronounced Metrosexual recently compiled a popular list of what they deemed "examples of Christian Privilege" in America, writing:

"If you identify as Christian, there's a good chance you've never thought about these things... try and be more cognizant of these items and you'll start to realize how much work we have to do to make the United States a place that is truly safe and accessible for folks of all belief systems." The list included items like the freedom "to worship without violence or threats," "politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith," and "your faith is accepted/supported at your workplace."

But absent in these notions of privilege is a dimension of normalization. Privilege, as a mode of describing social inequity, is rooted in the normalization of oppression, and the solidification of distance between classes. So in some ways, this language might thus seem intuitive, that nonreligious Americans face discrimination in a variety of walks of life, and therefore there should be some identity who enjoys a social security and mobility at their expense. However, not all social disadvantages constitute a notion of "privilege" as the term is typically applied in critical theory--and in fact, our current discourse around "religious privilege" or even "Christian privilege" does quite a disservice to a variety of religious identities that we should align ourselves with in our resistance to discrimination.

Privilege is a way of framing social inequity that carries a lot of baggage: in describing its history in terms of racial oppression, theorist Cheryl Harris regarded white privilege as a "source of protection; [its] absence meant being the object of property." This has naturally changed somewhat since abolition and Civil Rights, yet systems like mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos have been cited by writers like Michelle Alexander to sustain and renew this sort of human-property relationship between two racial classes.

The term is used in another sense with regard to the plight of LGBT Americans, where straight privilege (loosely synonymous with heteronormativity) constitutes sitting atop a hierarchy of sexual orientation and presentation and being "rewarded with certified mental heath, respectability, legality, social and physical mobility, institutional support, and material benefits," as Gayle Rubin has theorized. Consider also male privilege or patriarchy: a variety of social rewards at the expense of those who don't present as male. The term itself is perhaps most conveniently applied as a "check" on those behaving in an oppressive manner, one taking advantage of their social status that upholds these structures.

Important to note about each of these examples is how different, but interwoven, the experiences are. Those disadvantaged by straight, white, and male privilege all face violence, in a very literal sense, and live within social structures that make violence against them acceptable. They can be dehumanized or entirely erased, and are expected to fight or "earn" rights that others take for granted. The privileged benefit from and often take for granted the advantages to social mobility that are stripped from the underclass. These theories explain the structural oppression of far more than just those who might seem to be their opposite -- white privilege directly targets anyone who is or could be seen as non-white, and ultimately poisons all of society as it fosters a violent, unstable social structure.

Religious or theistic privilege is probably most charitably understood to be the advantage of not identifying as an atheist or markedly nonreligious person in America. In documenting the sort of discrimination that might constitute such an advantage, writers often cite are studies that (tenuously) paint a public perception of atheists as untrustworthy, unlikely to be voted into office, etc. Vlad Chituc has written considerably on the reliability of these studies themselves, but suffice it to say that it's not uncommon, certainly in particularly conservative or churchgoing communities -- my own hometown is its own beast in that right.

But it would surely be ridiculous to say the converse -- that to be religious necessarily endows you with a social advantage. Irrespective of how "trustworthy" atheists are, the systemic violence faced by, for instance, Muslims and Sikhs after 9/11 certainly doesn't place them in a position where the fact that they identify with some recognizable religious system grants them a bubble of protection. Another historic example: anti-Catholic sentiment's foothold in American immigration policy and social life crippled the stability of many Catholic families, with repercussions still felt today even as those sentiments have in many ways subsided. The list goes on miles, though: almost any religious minority, theistic or not, faces its own unique brand of intolerance that at least complicates the question of whether the fact that they are "religious" gives them a sort of societal acceptability that nonreligious folks can't have.

More in line with anti-atheist discrimination might be the plight of the non-traditionally religious -- those who identify with interfaith communities, with faiths but not their institutions, as spiritual but not religious, or indeed in nonreligious moral communities. The simple act of trying to describe your nontraditional spiritual identity (for which a listener probably doesn't have any substantive preconceptions, good or bad) can go often misunderstood, if not wholly dismissed or ignored. That can be jarring: your integral moral and community values, erased seemingly because they aren't conventional.

But the non-traditionally religious can still be religious, can still be theistic, can even still be Christian. It seems unclear that that fact alone offers them any considerable upward mobility or protection, especially if, as described above, they identify with a religious tradition that is demonized by other cultural factors at play.

The question becomes whether the religious values that have been injected into our culture gives an advantage to -- or imposes values and norms consistent with -- everyone who could be called a Christian, or theistic, or religious. Unlike the theories of privilege that Hayes and Gayle outlined above, there doesn't seem to be a considerable threat of persistent violence or systemic immobility against anyone perceived as atheistic--in fact, atheists have considerable representation in powerful places, particularly academia (it's not uncommon that activists will tag the polling of the National Academy of Sciences, 93 percent of whom are atheists) as well as in Hollywood and music. It's certainly not always safe to be open about your non-theism, but whether the freedom of certain religious people to, in certain contexts, be fearlessly open doesn't seem consistent with the sort of the ubiquitous unearned immunity and reward scheme that the term usually refers to.

And that all aside, we ought to reflect on our use of this sort of language at all, given its associated context: "privilege" is a complicated theory, which has a particular and unique thread when applied to whiteness, to heterosexuality, to masculinity. Can we claim that same narrative? Do we want to do so as flippantly as when we challenge Ten Commandments monuments? There seems to be something truly missing from the doctrine of universal Christian supremacy when described with the same language as white supremacy or patriarchy, namely a ubiquitous threat of violence and systemic marginalization that simply isn't represented in the current structural disadvantages that non-Christians or nonreligious as an exhaustive group face. We want to be able to describe our experience with gravity -- but casually adopting language of "religious privilege" denies religious experiences that aren't normalized in society, and can sever alliances with others subject to discrimination on religious grounds.

That's not to discredit what motivates writers and activists to use this sort of language -- in some places, disadvantages exist, and we need a way to describe them. But we have to find a language that does so without stumbling over other social movements, or denying the experiences of religious or Christian folk who already face oppression themselves. A hyper-specific lingo is probably too clunky: institutional-monotheistic-straight-white-center-right-Protestant advantage, and that certainly doesn't even do justice to the issue. We can cycle through others, we can invent a new term, but in the end, we're still left coming up short in our description.

What we can do, though, is acknowledge in every discussion of the issue how complex it is. And that's not as weak a call as it reads: the language we use now is convenient, but subversive, and given it's not so easy as picking a more charitable vocabulary to represent everyone who is affected by discrimination on behalf of religious belief, we may have to change the conversation entirely. We're no longer just talking about "injecting God into our legislature" because the "God" being injected doesn't functionally connect with everyone, or even most people's, representations of divinity. Instead, the conversation can explore what language would be inclusive--is there a way to discuss spirituality in public life that includes everyone?

Our current discourse around "religious privilege" separates the plight of American nontheists from that of other religious minorities who also suffer when the powerful normalize their spiritual experience. There's a bigger conversation to hear about what spirituality means in America today. For those of us whose experience is either underrepresented or not clearly represented at all in the American cultural lexicon, we could make great strides towards understanding and indeed rejecting oppression by transcending a simplified vocabulary. Being clear and direct as well as passionate and honest about our experiences run hand-in-hand.