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In Reaction to the Passing of Proposition 8: A Conversation of Privilege around Religion and Faith Zack Ford November 8, 2008 My world

has been so shaken by the results on four ballot measures on Tuesday that it has numbed 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,, has absolutely no mention of LGBT populations or any related issues doesn’t help.) Despite my interest in politics, I could not be glad to celebrate the gains Democrats made in Congress. A wipe of my brow as if to say “Phew!” was the best I could muster for the anti-abortion measures that did not pass. “Gay” and “atheist” are the two dimensions of my identity that are most salient to me, and I watched 12 million people vote in favor of discrimination against both. The measures, at first glance, attack only the “gay” dimension: preventing same-sex marriage in Florida and Arizona (helping bring the total to 30 states with such bans), removing the right to same-sex marriage in California (the first time a state constitution has been amended to remove a right 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 with anger 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 a responsibility 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 has only energized me further to pursue this discourse, because from my point of view, such a response 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 been saying since Prop 8’s passing. They may seem extreme, perhaps even polarizing. I openly admit this 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 shall describe, but the model for systems of privilege fits perfectly. What follows requires some intense critical thinking, so I request you do your best to separate out your feelings. Simply reading these ideas will likely challenge your own privilege. Despite the feelings that led me to these new courses of action and rhetoric, the following discourse is intentionally designed to be without regard for feelings, my own included. … Allan Johnson talks about systems of privilege as being dominated 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 as 1

the standard of comparison that represents the best that society has to offer. And, society focuses its 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 oppressed or taken advantage of. Affirmative Action and other equity-driven programs are designed to compensate for this imbalance of power. (These definitions have been paraphrased/excerpted from 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 help them understand the difference between the system and ourselves as individuals. This is important, because in the class, many of the men feel that the topic of patriarchy attacks them, as if they are the individuals that use, abuse, and control women. They, as individuals, are not (hopefully). But, they still exist within a system that delivers that connotation. They should not take 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 the conversation 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 to society. 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 are very much intertwined, and yet I believe it is very important to distinguish them as two separate systems working together. I am going to call these systems “religion” and “faith.” Both of those words mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For the sake of this treatise, I am going to specify exactly what I mean and how I am using them, and will rely on those operational 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 a unified 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 umbrella of 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 this way. Our elected leaders are predominantly Christian. Our calendar identifies with Christian traditions. Christian symbols are very visible throughout our culture. Our society focuses attention on the work and accomplishments of Christian organizations. Many cable channels are dedicated to specifically Christian programming. As a result, all other religious groups are in some 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 State University campus due to the presence of a cross in the Memorial Union’s chapel. The cross 2

dominated the space and made it less welcoming to other religious groups who wished to use that space. 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, so it 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 are a Christian nation.” The former is quite provably untrue, while the latter unfortunately does 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 is a perfectly valid point. It is not my intent in this treatise to delve into complexities and variation within Christian privilege. I would offer, though, that the system of privilege around Christianity tolerates this variation because it actually amplifies the power of the consistencies that are found throughout 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 there is variation within Christianity, its core consistencies still persist as the privileged religious culture 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. In very 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 and Islam. 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 and control 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 the examples of religious privilege provided earlier. There are several unique examples that demonstrate 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, we also saw “Godless,” being used as an attack on various candidates. This, I think, demands we consider the definition of “atheism.” Atheism has been interpreted in many ways. Because of the messages our privileged society offers about atheism, it is often interpreted by believers to mean “anti-God.” This does not accurately describe atheists. I believe most atheists would admit that they cannot prove that there is no god(s). They merely see no reasonable proof or evidence that there is a probable deity nor any personal value in believing in such a claim. They do not live their lives believing there is no God; they simply live their life without God. Note also that many atheists still participate in religion, or traditions rooted in religion. (Similarly, some theists do not participate in a religion.) It is also important to note that atheists are no less moral than theists, and share many 3

of the same morals that are rooted in religion. Obviously, they cannot escape the norms and society (i.e. religious culture) in which they were raised. However, these morals can be and are constructed and rationalized without consideration for theistic faith or religious dogma. Just as an example, consider the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” While this value is rooted in many scriptures, it does not originate there. It actually is responsible for our evolution as a species. Our survival as humanity depends upon our social interdependence. Though our complex reasoning skills now allow us to consider and define “morals,” this core guiding value is consistent across all cultures and belief systems because it is, in fact, biologically instinctual. Thus, atheists can interpret and apply morals through such secular philosophies as Buddhism and humanism. Atheists live in a society where those who do believe in God are privileged, and—and here’s where it gets tricky—society also privileges the beliefs of monotheists over other groups’ sets of beliefs. This notion is at the core of my argument, and I shall expand upon it in different ways shortly I say that this is where things get tricky, because beliefs are very personal. I think this is why many have taken offense at my comments, but I want to try to explain why I think my words caused such reactions. Before I proceed, I want to reiterate how important it is to consider the differences and yet dependent relationship between privilege around religion and privilege around faith/theism. The privileged faith, monotheism, is incorporated by most of the religions in our culture. In fact, I would argue that religion itself—its culture and traditions—is a byproduct of theistic belief. It is impossible separate the two: the privilege of Christianity depends on the privilege of monotheism, and is essentially the most privileged manifestation constructed around monotheism. Likewise, monotheism depends on the religions organized around it in order to be sustained through society over time. (If the conceptualization of this sounds interesting, I encourage you to read more on memetics.) Please keep in mind that when I refer to faith, I am talking specifically about theism, belief in something supernatural. For many, the customs and values of religion cannot be separated from the monotheistic faith, but I believe it is imperative to see the two operating separately. I know I left the tricky part hanging, but I’m building up to addressing it. In a sociology class I took in my undergrad, our professor was wholly dedicated to challenging us to critically think, and she spent a great deal of time explaining what exactly that means and how it looks. She offered that there are eight steps in approaching critical thinking: 1. Purpose – What is my goal or objective? 2. Question – What is the problem or issue I’m addressing? 3. Assumptions – What am I presupposing or taking for granted? 4. Point of view – What is my orientation or frame of reference in approaching this question? 5. Data, Information, Evidence – What facts, observations, and experiences have I collected? 6. Concepts and Ideas – What theories, definitions, axioms, laws, principles, and models do I have to work with? 7. Inferences, Interpretation, and Conclusions – What can I derive from the critical thinking process I have undertaken? 4

8. Implications and Consequences – What impacts do these conclusions have? Or more simply, what now? She also offered four levels to consider: clarity, accuracy/relevance, depth, and significance. This seems like a lengthy process, but the more it is practiced, the more streamlined it becomes. This order of thinking could easily be applied to every decision we make in our entire day, but our minds are so incredible, we go through the process so quickly that we hardly realize it. When it comes to more complicated problems, especially issues with no easy right answer, it is important to slow down and consider all of the steps. If too much is missed along the way, critical thinking falters. The two most important and challenging steps in the critical thinking process are considering assumptions and point of view. Time must be spent to sort out the biases in our approach, especially because humans are prone to egocentric thinking. Here are the five ways egocentric thinking often interferes with critical thinking: 1. “It’s true because I believe it.” (Innate egocentrism) 2. “It’s true because we believe it.” (Innate sociocentrism) 3. “It’s true because I want to believe it.” (Innate wish fulfillment) 4. “It’s true because I have always believed it.” (Innate self-validation) 5. “It’s true because it is in my selfish interest to believe it.” (Innate selfishness) In other words, in order to effectively critically think, we have to consider issues by setting aside our beliefs. This is the ultimate challenge to the privilege of faith! Faith is entirely constructed out of beliefs, so it could never stand up to rational critical thinking. The reason faith persists is because faith-based beliefs, themselves, are privileged in society. Let us consider things from the beginning of the cycle: “How does faith come about?” Nothing is more personal than one’s beliefs. All individuals come to define their beliefs for themselves, but those ideas and that context have to originate somewhere. I would offer that theism depends upon the five variations of egocentric thinking I just listed, and takes advantage of our cognitive development to indoctrinate itself. Let us consider the five egocentric assumptions, beginning with the first: egocentrism itself. Jean Piaget, the educational psychologist, concluded that the cognitive function of young children is naturally egocentric, meaning they do not have the mental ability to understand that other people may have different opinions and beliefs from themselves. During this stage of cognitive development (known as preoperational), children have imaginative minds and display animistic thought, which means they can assign emotions or living attributes to inanimate objects. This is why to a young child, something imaginary (a monster under the bed, Santa Claus, etc.) can be believed to be quite real. It is not until children’s thinking develops into what Piaget called the concrete operational stage that they can appropriately apply logic and reason, such as through conservation and decentering. At this stage, such imaginary beliefs are eventually disproven. I challenge that theistic beliefs are promoted in much the same way. At the preoperational stage, a God makes perfect sense to a child’s thinking. This is where the system of faith starts, or rather, starts over (“where the chicken lays the egg”). Theistic faith is taught as truth while, to the child’s level of cognitive development, truth does not require rationalization (innate 5

egocentrism). As the child grows older, a society that privileges theism will continue to encourage that child to maintain those beliefs, even without concrete evidence to support it, which reflects innate sociocentrism. Faith itself promotes innate wish fulfillment as well as innate selfishness by teaching young children the beliefs that faith is good, one should want faith, and faith makes one feel good. They all support each other and support faith itself. And, because the beliefs are set up at such a young age, grown adults cannot even remember when they first believed, thus fulfilling the innate self-validation. Consider the skeptic who is asked, “What do you believe?” and responds, “Well this is what I was raised to believe…” or “I was raised ____ (insert religion here).” That person is still affected by the supernatural premises that were set up and supported so that they would resist concrete reasoning skills. I know the word “indoctrinate” has many negative connotations, but its definition seems quite appropriate for the phenomenon of how individuals learn to have faith. The definition I found is “to instruct in a doctrine, principle, ideology, etc., esp. to imbue with a specific partisan belief or point of view.” Because of the system of privilege around theistic faith (and only because of it) does faith pervade our society and persist. In essence, we are indoctrinated to support and privilege faith before we have cognitively developed enough to challenge its premise. The ultimate conclusion is that faith survives solely by supporting itself, which it can only do by the way it is privileged. Also, consider the disconcerting way we label children as “Jewish children” or “Protestant children” long before they would be ready to make up their own minds about religion. That is very different than calling someone “the child of Jewish parents.” This is an issue Richard Dawkins is working very hard to raise consciousness about. In conversations I have had with individuals in the week since Prop 8 passed, I have heard many examples of this privilege being challenged. Here are some of the things that have been said to me: “I have challenged my beliefs and I do challenge my beliefs and I have already come to the conclusions I am at. … I…have studied my faith much more than you probably have.” “Never question my faith; you project a message of people being wrong when they have faith.” “Clearly you do not have the capacity to see any other view but your own…. which is ironic considering the fact that you’re asking the very same of your ‘debate opponents’—that which you do not, yourself, provide.” “No, I won’t defend my faith to you—faith is a very personal thing and I won’t defend that to anyone. My faith does not give me privilege in our society, identifying as a Christian does. These are two very distinct things.” I hope, given the context I have created for my perspective, it is clear to see how these statements avoid the kind of critical dialogue I am trying to engage in, and actually reflect a dualistic perspective. These statements, along with the defensive emotions that accompanied them, represent to me the very privilege I am trying to bring to light. Because our society supports privileging theistic beliefs, it has become a societal norm to not question them. In fact, it is impolite and disrespectful to even suggest they could be open to question. Douglas Adams (author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) once said the following that sums this up well: 6

Religion … has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’. Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe … no, that’s holy? … We are used to not challenging religious ideas. … Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be. I think it is clear to see that what Adams was getting at was what we define as privilege. … I have reached the end of my rationale and shall now offer my reaction. The words I chose earlier in this week perhaps did not accurately represent the point I was trying to make. I had said, “I fear people of faith.” This is not untrue, but could be perceived as me challenging individuals as opposed to the system. Those who I have quoted above all responded in a personal way, and I will own that my words did not communicate the message I intended. My fear is specifically of faith/theistic belief itself because of how it is privileged in our society. This is why I specified the importance of separating individuals from the system. Not all individuals who represent the privileged group are responsible for propagating it, but if they wish to be allies to the oppressed, they must be able to recognize their own privilege and consider ways they can resist the system. This past Tuesday, many ugly decisions were made—decisions I hope our society looks back upon shamefully in the history books. The voters who supported these ballots were motivated by fear and ignorance, all of which were enshrined in the ideological privilege of theistic faith. I know there are many people who have a rational understanding for same-sex sexual orientations that does not conflict with their faith; however, it is the privileging of faith that maintains the way our society tolerates intolerance that cannot otherwise be justified. I say to you, if you are unwilling or unable to challenge, question, debate, or see past the beliefs with which you have been raised, how can you begin to engage in critical thinking about large and complex issues with which they might intersect? My conclusion at this time is that you cannot. I stand by my decision to push forward with these challenges and these questions, because I feel it is vital not only to our learning and growth but also as citizens of humanity on a greater scale. Note that it is not my expectation that people forsake their beliefs. My goal is to 7

deconstruct the privilege around those beliefs so individuals’ beliefs no longer have power to control society. Consider the scope of history. Almost every great war or conflict (if not all) have been motivated by conflicts between theistic beliefs. Faith can be used to justify anything, because of its privileged freedom from rationalization, and it has repeatedly been used in just this way. This week, it was used as a weapon against me and two of the communities to which I belong, resulting in pain and despair I did not know I could experience. I cower pondering what it could be used for next. We can stand against the irrational discrimination that has plagued our society throughout history or continue to enable it. Those are our only two choices. Won’t you join with me to make the world a better place for all of us?