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Privilege of Religion and Faith

Privilege of Religion and Faith

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Published by zackford
In introduction to my views on atheism and religion in response to the passing of Proposition 8. It was written on November 8, 2008.
In introduction to my views on atheism and religion in response to the passing of Proposition 8. It was written on November 8, 2008.

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Published by: zackford on Sep 28, 2009
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In Reaction to the Passing of Proposition 8:A Conversation of Privilege around Religion and FaithZack Ford November 8, 2008My world has been so shaken by the results on four ballot measures on Tuesday that it hasnumbed me to so much else. After Tuesday night, I could no longer feel anything for how prolific and amazing Obama’s election is. (The fact that his transition website, change.gov, hasabsolutely no mention of LGBT populations or any related issues doesn’t help.) Despite myinterest in politics, I could not be glad to celebrate the gains Democrats made in Congress. Awipe of my brow as if to say “Phew!” was the best I could muster for the anti-abortion measuresthat did not pass. “Gay” and “atheist” are the two dimensions of my identity that are most salientto me, and I watched 12 million people vote in favor of discrimination against both. Themeasures, at first glance, attack only the “gay” dimension: preventing same-sex marriage inFlorida and Arizona (helping bring the total to 30 states with such bans), removing the right tosame-sex marriage in California (the first time a state constitution has been amended to
aright already in place), and removing the right for same-sex couples to adopt in Arkansas. But,then one must ask how these measures came to be: fear, intolerance, ignorance,misunderstandings, and lies, all promoted exclusively by faith-based values and organizations.So, I also received the message “you must conform to our beliefs.” I have been seething withanger ever since, never more distraught than I can remember being in my entire life.I see massive issues of privilege at work here that I am trying to challenge; I feel I have aresponsibility to challenge them because I see them. Many have so far responded by taking personal offense and, in many ways, defending the privilege I am trying to challenge. This hasonly energized me further to pursue this discourse, because from my point of view, such aresponse only confirms the very privilege I am trying to challenge (as I plan to explain).I have composed this treatise to attempt to explain why I’ve been saying the things I’ve beensaying since Prop 8’s passing. They may seem extreme, perhaps even polarizing. I openly admitthis without much regret. In a way, I’m taking on the world. I am trying to challenge systems of  privilege more complex, entrenched, and hegemonic than any of the other identity-based privileges that are regularly discussed. Arguably these two interdependent systems of privilege propagate those we are more familiar with such as white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, and nondisabled privilege. There is currently no theory that supports what I shalldescribe, but the model for systems of privilege fits perfectly. What follows requires someintense critical thinking, so I request you do your best to separate out your feelings. Simplyreading these ideas will likely challenge your own privilege. Despite the feelings that led me tothese new courses of action and rhetoric, the following discourse is intentionally designed to bewithout regard for feelings, my own included.Allan Johnson talks about systems of privilege as being
 by privileged groups,
identified with
privileged groups, and
centered on
privileged groups. Positions of power tend to be dominated by members of the privileged group. Privileged groups are also usually taken as1
the standard of comparison that represents the best that society has to offer. And, society focusesits attention on the privileged group, who they are, what they do and say, and how they do it.The result creates an imbalance of power, such that all other groups are in some way oppressedor taken advantage of. Affirmative Action and other equity-driven programs are designed tocompensate for this imbalance of power. (These definitions have been paraphrased/excerptedfrom Johnson’s
 Privilege, Power, and Difference
.)Discussing issues of privilege can be very challenging. I know that when I teach my Gender Justice class, one of the most important things we have to do (especially for the men) is helpthem understand the difference between the
and ourselves as
. This isimportant, because in the class, many of the men feel that the topic of patriarchy attacks them, asif they are the individuals that use, abuse, and control women. They, as individuals, are
(hopefully). But, they still exist within a system that delivers that connotation. They should nottake it personally, for example, if a woman is afraid when walking alone at night. They are not personally responsible for that fear, but they do have a responsibility to resist the system that promotes that fear through their words and behaviors as individuals. This is where theconversation opens to talking about men becoming allies, realizing the privilege they have, and proactively addressing and being aware of the way that privilege affects the way they relate tosociety. This same notion is the same in all other systems of privilege: race, gender, ability,sexual orientation, etc., as well as the two I shall discuss. I think this concept of a difference between systems and individuals is important to keep in mind as you read on.It is at this point that I wish to discuss two different kinds of privilege that I perceive. They arevery much intertwined, and yet I believe it is very important to distinguish them as two separatesystems working together. I am going to call these systems “religion” and “faith.” Both of thosewords mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For the sake of this treatise, I amgoing to specify exactly what I mean and how I am using them, and will rely on thoseoperational definitions consistently.The first system of privilege is based around religion. By religion, I am referring to the cultures,traditions, holidays, customs, rules and dogmatic beliefs that are specified or enshrined by aunified community. In the United States, it is easy to conclude that Protestant Christianity(Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical, etc.) represents the privileged religion. (Catholicism often benefits from this privilege by being under the umbrellaof Christianity, but not to quite the same extent.) Using our operational definition of privilege,we see how our society is dominated by, indentified with, and centered on Christianity in thisway. Our elected leaders are predominantly Christian. Our calendar identifies with Christiantraditions. Christian symbols are very visible throughout our culture. Our society focusesattention on the work and accomplishments of Christian organizations. Many cable channels arededicated to specifically Christian programming. As a result, all other religious groups are insome way oppressed or provided less power, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and all other major and minor religions, as well as Agnosticism (indifference or indecision towards a religion)and Atheism (without religion).Last year, we saw a great example of Christian privilege play out here on the Iowa StateUniversity campus due to the presence of a cross in the Memorial Union’s chapel. The cross2
dominated the space and made it less welcoming to other religious groups who wished to use thatspace. Many resisted its removal or covering, and took offense that it could even represent a problem. Some were quoted as saying things like “Well, like 80% of the campus is Christian, soit should get to stay.” This majoritarian mindset is representative of the greater systemic privilege in our nation, captured by lines like, “We were founded as a Christian nation,” or even,“We
a Christian nation.” The former is quite provably untrue, while the latter unfortunatelydoes accurately represent the privilege Christianity has in our society.It is important to note that there is a lot of variety within Christianity. As many have pointed out,there are Christians who would not vote in favor of Proposition 8 or other such measures. This isa perfectly valid point. It is not my intent in this treatise to delve into complexities and variationwithin Christian privilege. I would offer, though, that the system of privilege around Christianitytolerates this variation because it actually amplifies the power of the
that are foundthroughout Christianity. Consider, as examples, Christian-based holidays (Christmas, Easter,Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day), the ubiquitous expectations set forth by the 10 Commandments,or simply the wide distribution of Bibles (like the Gideon’s in every hotel room). Though thereis variation within Christianity, its core consistencies still persist as the privileged religiousculture in our society.The second system of privilege I wish to discuss is the one centered on “faith.” By faith, I refer to beliefs or systems of belief that include a presence or being of 
 preternatural or supernatural 
 power, something unproven by science and not existing in the natural world as we know it. Invery broad terms, this is known as theism, and I will interchange “faith” and “theism” as such.Very few examples of polytheism persist in our modern world, with one predominant exception being Hinduism, which is actually the third largest religion in the world, after Christianity andIslam. In the context of our society in the US, though, theism almost always means monotheism.Monotheism is a belief that there is one god or deity who has or continues to exercise power andcontrol over our very existence. And, in our culture, monotheism almost always refers to a belief in the Abrahamic God, the one worshipped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims.So, in terms of privilege, monotheistic faith is privileged over polytheistic faith and atheism.Most examples of this privilege, particularly how it is dominated and centered, overlap with theexamples of religious privilege provided earlier. There are several unique examples thatdemonstrate how we theistically identify, such as “God-given rights,” “In God, We Trust, “One Nation, Under God,” “God Bless You!” and “God Bless America.” In this recent election, wealso saw “Godless,” being used as an attack on various candidates. This, I think, demands weconsider the definition of “atheism.”Atheism has been interpreted in many ways. Because of the messages our privileged societyoffers about atheism, it is often interpreted by believers to mean “anti-God.” This does notaccurately describe atheists. I believe most atheists would admit that they cannot prove thatthere is no god(s). They merely see no reasonable proof or evidence that there is a probable deitynor any personal value in believing in such a claim. They do not live their lives believing thereis
God; they simply live their life
God. Note also that many atheists still participatein religion, or traditions rooted in religion. (Similarly, some theists do not participate in areligion.) It is also important to note that atheists are no less moral than theists, and share many3

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