Religious Freedom and Privilege

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Discussions of religion often don’t include the topic of privilege, but the concept does apply to some extent. defines privilege as “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.” The idea of privilege is often applied to discussions of race, wealth, and/or gender, but here I’ll be examining how it can apply to religion.

In the United States, where the majority of the population identifies as some kind of Christian, to identify as a Christian yourself comes with a positive connotation. I remember watching a recording of some old Red Skelton shows with my dad, during which the comedian said something like “God bless” to the audience. I’ll never forget the way my father’s face lit up when he heard that. He gasped cheerfully, “He believed in God!” At the time, I too took that realization as a positive fact about the old comedian. Now, I’m more neutral. I’m glad celebrities and other people feel confident and comfortable being open about their beliefs. However, since I no longer hold an association with the religion, such a proclamation does not change my opinion of that person positively or negatively.

Proclaiming one’s Christianity is not simply an exercise in a religious freedom in the United States; because it is the religion of the majority here, it’s also a great way to gain a huge following and support. Just look at Tim Tebow, and the vast majority of US politicians. For a person in the public eye, calling oneself Christian can lead to personal gain. It’s a way of utilizing the privilege that comes with belonging to a majority group. This doesn’t mean that everyone who proclaims his or her Christianity is doing so for this purpose, nor does it mean that these people shouldn’t be open about their faith. However, many politicians make their adherence to Christianity a fairly big deal as part of their campaigns. I suspect they do this because they know it will win over a significant number of voters.

With this in mind, I instantly thought about privilege the other day, when posters plastered in my dormitory hallway informed me that the Catholic club on my campus will be hosting a “Religious Freedom Workshop.” I don’t know for sure what will go on there, but the fact that it is being held by a Christian religious organization makes me concerned that they don’t realize that their club isn’t the one that needs to be especially concerned about religious freedom. My only hope is that they will welcome religious minorities into their “workshop” and consider their fears. I’m tempted to show up and see what happens, but might not have time or the energy.

My main concern is that this workshop will turn into a bunch of Christians getting together and whining about how they’re being persecuted, complaining that there’s a war on Christmas, and asking questions that ignore very obvious reasons for the status quo. I can’t help but picture them asking why so many people are against the teaching of creationism in public schools. Will they waste time bemoaning the fact that many also oppose allowing public school teachers to teach religious doctrine or lead a class in prayer? I’ve addressed several of these questions in my post Thoughts on Prayer in Schools so I won’t answer those questions in depth here, but they really are pointless. When your faith is the majority, your fears of persecution are minimal compared to other faiths.

If the Muslim student association or Hillel held the same event, I would have a slightly different expectation. Smaller groups have smaller representation, and have reason to fear being ignored, mistreated, or ostracized by the majority. Muslims especially have to deal with this right now due to the current problem of terrorism. As an atheist, I’m part of a minority group too when it comes to religion. To my knowledge, my school does not have a humanist or secular student organization, but I would hope that if one existed, it would consider participating in, or co-sponsoring this event, in order to steer the conversation in a useful direction. For atheists and other religious minorities, violations of religious freedom can mean things like this happening. For Christians, as the majority, concerns about religious persecution tend to come down to this question: “Why can’t everybody be expected to learn about and practice my religion since most people follow it anyway?” For religions with fewer followers in an area, concerns about religious freedom are very different. They have to ask: “Will I (or my kids) be forced to pray to or worship a god I don’t believe in, or prevented from worshiping the one(s) that I choose?”

You may be wondering why I care about this as an atheist. After all, atheism is technically not a religion; it’s a lack of belief. I care because there aren’t many of us compared to other groups, and we rely on religious freedom in order to simply live our lives the way we choose. Religious freedom, contrary to some clueless politicians, includes freedom from religion. This is because separation of church and state means the government can’t require you to follow any religion, or promote one over others. That’s not a bad thing. It’s what allows Catholics to continue to practice Catholicism, while Buddhists can be Buddhists and atheists can just not have religion. We live in a time and place where legally, all of that is OK. Let’s keep it that way, please. Let’s not whine about nonexistent persecution, and just work to promote the idea that if we’re OK with people having any religion they want, we should also be OK with them not being forced to practice ours. Just as I would never support legislation that would require students to pray in schools, I also would not support legislation that would punish someone for praying by him or herself in public. Leading prayer can be inappropriate in some situations, but sitting down and folding your hands before a meal is not and should not be against the law. However, nor should digging in and chowing down immediately with a thought to thank your mom who actually made you that sandwich.

What do you think about religious freedom and privilege? As usual, feel free to comment. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


1 thought on “Religious Freedom and Privilege

  1. Hi Nancy.

    Like you (and Dawkins), I’m an agnostic atheist and, like you, very much concerned about religious freedom and privileging for the same reasons you outline in your post.

    My approach as a New Atheist (one who challenges religious privilege in the public domain) I argue that secularism – highly vilified by many theists as anti-pious, anti-god, anti-their-religion, and so on – is a central principle necessary for their religious freedom and that theists need to be much better and more supportive secularists if they honestly want to be uphold this principle.

    Most theists insist that they desire religious freedom and present themselves as defenders of this freedom, that it’s a principle worth defending…. but then a funny thing happens on the way to the forum, so to speak: theists wish the freedom to gain privilege in the public domain for their religious sensitivities and then pretend that the latter is a natural product derived from the former. It’s not. It’s an example of really poor thinking and yet one of the most typically befuddled lines of reasoning used to obtain religious privilege (religion tends to do this to one’s clarity of thought).

    Of course, one cannot justify any specific religious privilege in the public domain without directly endangering this official neutrality. Arguing that the alteration of this public domain neutrality by any public agencies and public agents of this domain for religious religious reasons does not affect neutrality is a losing argument. Private domain religious preference is an extension of their private domain religious freedom, and that freedom only comes from public neutrality. That’s what secularism is: public neutrality towards all religious beliefs.

    Those who attack secularism in the attempt to privilege this religion or that, this religious preference or that, this religious position or that, are attacking the very principle of what religious freedom means. Most theists are very uncomfortable being seen as attackers of religious freedom when they think of themselves as its defender.


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