Sunday, December 15, 2013

Religious privilege

The thing about privilege is that those who have it can seldom see it, but those who are victimised can see little beyond their oppressor’s privilege. We very often see people with privilege demanding ever more from society precisely because their privilege leads them to expect it.

The cartoon above depicts the benefits that a white man has received for being white. He’s blithely unaware of his privilege, thinking he’s “never benefited from racism”, even though he has. It’s a simple and clear way to see how privilege works, and why people can’t even see how they benefit from it.

As it’s used in discussions of politics and society, privilege is a special right, advantage or immunity available only to a particular group. In that cartoon, we see non-white people consistently being treated differently—the white people enjoy rights and advantages that non-white people do not.

When we come to expect those special rights, advantages or immunities, then we are said to be entitled. This expression comes from the fact that when one deserves something—like, say, a tax refund—one is entitled to it. In the same way, when people expect that the goodies they receive because of their privilege ought to be given to them, then they have a sense of entitlement.

We talk of privilege and entitlement most commonly in discussions of race and gender, but increasingly rightwing religionists are acting on their particular sense of entitlement. In the USA, far right “Christians” are demanding special exemptions to human rights laws so they can discriminate against LGBT people (although, based on their logic, there’s no reason they shouldn’t also be able to discriminate based on race, gender, religion and so on). The rigthwing religionists insist that if they’re not free to discriminate against LGBT people, it somehow takes away their “religious freedom”.

What the rightwing doesn’t want anyone to think about are the numerous ways in which religious people currently operate from a position of privilege. Overt public expressions of religious belief are not only acceptable, they’re often expected—and sometimes even required.

For example, a US president—or politician who wants to be president—must end every speech with, “God Bless You,” even if no one's sneezed. Anchors and reporters on mainstream American TV news shows think nothing of talking about “keeping them in our thoughts and prayers” when reporting on victims of tragedy. Professional sports people often point skyward as a religious homage. Recipients of entertainment awards thank their god. All of that is expected and approved of in society; even if we sometimes roll our eyes at the over the top religiosity of the sports or entertainment performers’ fawning, we nevertheless accept and expect it.

In some places in the US, religious groups place overtly Judeo-Christian displays on public property and become angry if it’s suggested that, just maybe, religious liberty requires that monuments from other religious traditions and non-belief must be presented, too, or none should be. Their outrage is based on their sense of entitlement born of their privilege.

Imagine if a music award recipient said, “I’d like to thank hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, without which life would be impossible.” Suppose a politician ended a speech with, “bless yourselves”. We can’t imagine that being done seriously, and we know the apoplexy that would result if it was done seriously. This demonstrates the extent to which rightwing religionists already control our thinking and attitudes.

This sense of religious entitlement is so pervasive in the USA that if someone openly bucks overt religiosity (regardless of their personal beliefs), they become a pariah, and the rightwing brands them as “intolerant”. So, without a hint of irony, rightwing “Christians” demand that their privilege be enshrined in law so that they alone are free to do as they please. That’s entitlement based on privilege, and has nothing whatsoever to do with “religious freedom”.

The vast majority of religious people in the USA are somewhere between secularists and theocrats. Like the white guy in the cartoon above, they may be unaware of their own privilege, or their acceptance of others’ privilege, but, in either case, they’re unlikely to advocate active oppression of others. Still, lack of awareness doesn’t mean they don’t have privilege, nor does it mean they don’t have a sense of entitlement to try to force their beliefs on others, even if only subtly, and even if only on some specific points.

Where does this leave us? Well, for one thing, it leaves secularists—religious and not—unwilling to say anything, nor to object at being subjected to others’ religiosity. That creates a sense of validation among the entitled religionists who assume that lack of objection means universal agreement, and it emboldens them to demand ever more special rights based on their religious beliefs.

Obviously, no one can do anything about being born with privilege, so the fault is not in having privilege; rather, the problem comes from embracing it and acting from a position of entitlement. True equality can never happen when some of us demand to be more equal than others, and that’s true regardless of the origin of their privilege.

We must find a way to embrace diversity or we don’t have a prayer, so to speak, of eliminating prejudice and bigotry. No one should get special treatment based on their privilege, no matter how entitled they think they are.

“The Story Of Bob And Race” and the comic “Ampersand” are by Barry Deutsch and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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