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Religious Privilege and Social Justice

When the topic of religion and social justice movements is brought up, progressive religious believers are quick to point out that there are many believers who support equal rights. This is true; I was a progressive believer myself, so I know this from personal experience. However, I have a problem with the ways in which religious believers from established organized religions are privileged in these settings, the ways in which religious arguments are given preference while secular arguments that point out how religion has contributed to injustices are treated as intolerance. This bothers me as a secular person, a non-religious person, and as an ex-Muslim. In this essay, which contains thoughts that have been in the back of mind for a long time, I aim to explain why.

Religious progressives are on the right side of many issues, favoring equality and human rights for people from many marginalized demographics. However, this doesn’t stop some believers, especially those from established and organized faiths, from taking advantage of their religious privilege to be the main voices in social justice movements, centering religious apologetics in the arguments that are made and emphasizing the compatibility of religion with equal rights. An aspect that makes this situation even more frustrating is that believers will then turn around and say that religion is necessary for justice and morality; repeatedly remind non-religious people (as if we don’t already know) that many religious historical figures were at the forefront of equal rights movements; that allying with religion is a practical step because religions have experience in organizing people for causes. Perhaps the reason you believe that religion is necessary for justice and morality is due to religious privilege and bias. Perhaps the reason you only know about the religious historical figures who fought for equal rights is because religious privilege made them more acceptable to the mainstream in their time periods and helped them be disproportionately represented in history books – the same history books that leave out non-religious people who fought for equality (or leave out their non-religious views) and that attempt to paper over the parts of religious history that inspired bigotry. Perhaps the reason it seems like a practical choice to shape arguments in away that caters to religion is because of religion’s privileged status in society, not because it’s inherently more likely to support equal rights or better at advocating for equal rights than secular groups. In other words, maybe religious progressive are using the existence of religious privilege in larger to society to argue in favor of continued religious privilege within groups that are supposed to be about challenging privilege.

Secularism is essential to equality, because it’s the only position on religion that is truly neutral. Religious progressive realize this when religious conservatives try to insert their religion into all aspects of society. Those of us who favor religious freedom and secularism (whether we are personally religious or not) argue endlessly that secular is not the same as anti-religion; secularism is the neutrality that’s required for everyone’s religious freedom to be protected. It’s high time that religious moderates and progressive realize that this applies to their attempts to insert religion into all aspects of society as well. Some of the things that religious progressives think are neutral really aren’t neutral or welcoming to all. For instance, a prayer that’s basically Abrahamic monotheism with the serial numbers filed off isn’t really inclusive; it’s just inclusive of the dominant strands of established religion, which leaves out a lot of people (not just atheists, but also believers who don’t associate with those religions). Including prayers or invocations by people from minority religions might be inclusive of those who favor those interpretations of those religions, but it’s still not all-inclusive – and it’s especially not inclusive of those who’ve been alienated from those religions due to bigotry. Of course, a private event is not the same as the government, so it does not have to be religiously neutral; however, if you are having an event that purports to be welcoming to all, then secularism should be the default, with religion or atheism-focused events or talks being clear in their intention. Religion shouldn’t be the focus of every event, meeting, or discussion by default. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that religious believers shouldn’t be accepted or included in equal rights movements; I’m saying that these movements shouldn’t privilege established organized religion while pushing people of non-religious views or personal religious beliefs to the side.

Religious privilege can be detrimental, not just to atheists, but also to those of minority faith backgrounds and those who have personal religious beliefs without membership in a particular religion. I grew up in the United States of America (a majority-Christian country) in a Muslim family and doubted organized religion from a young age. Growing up queer in the United States, I couldn’t help noticing that queer equal rights arguments focused on Christianity to a great degree. It really bothered me that so many mainstream arguments regarding queer equal rights were religious interpretation arguments between conservative Christians and liberal Christians. Why exactly should my rights be based on interpretations of a religion I don’t believe in? I saw issues of queer equal rights within Islam largely ignored by Western equal rights groups and websites, because liberals of Christian backgrounds were focused on changing Christianity specifically and their priorities were treated as the movement’s priorities. They might sometimes bring up the issue of including Muslims in queer rights events, due to a desire to be interfaith, but weren’t allies with those of us who expressed more critical views of the faith, in case that alienated the Muslims they wanted to be allies with. Related to the problem with one-sided intersectionality that privileges religion, it felt as though even those who attempted to be interfaith were willing to hold white never-Muslim Christian-background queer people accountable for bigotry against Muslims and other minority faith groups but weren’t willing to hold Muslims and other minority faith groups accountable for bigotry against queer people or women. It bothered me that organized established religions received this special treatment of their inclusion being considered more important than inclusion of people (both believers and nonbelievers in gods) who’ve been alienated by them.

There is the whole argument regarding religious arguments vs. secular arguments for equal rights. The actual content of these arguments (and why I think the secular ones are better) is the topic for another essay, but I do want to briefly address the meta/background arguments that focus on tactics of movements. Believers will often say to atheists that equal rights should be more important to atheists than convincing people to leave religion. Well, I can turn that back around: Equal rights should be more important to believers than converting people to their faith or convincing those alienated from religion to return to it. The status quo seems to prefer arguments that emphasize the compatibility of religion with equal rights rather than holding religious institutions and traditions accountable for bigotry (i.e. saving religion’s reputation is treated as a major goal). Arguing that believers who favor bigotry are “not true believers” is used to dismiss valid criticisms of religion’s role in perpetuating bigotry. There are many of us who believe it is important to discuss the role that religion plays in the discrimination that we face, and it’s not right to tell us to stop sharing our experiences and stories in order to privilege the experiences and stories of those who feel that religion is more beneficial than harmful. Ignoring the role of culture, including religious aspects of culture, in perpetuating bigotry helps it to continue; if some of the most powerful institutions supporting bigotry receive a pass because of their power and influence, that’s a big impediment to improvement. I understand that progressive religious believers will try to argue the religious case for equal rights within their faith, but please realize that arguments regarding whether your religious tradition or holy book is compatible with equal rights should not be the basis of the entire movement, which includes people with varying views on religion. By comparison, secular arguments are relevant regardless of religious belief.

I understand that, for many people, religious belief is a source of great comfort. It was for me as well; I believed that God loved me no matter what anyone else thought. I don’t make fun of religious people for having an “imaginary friend”, because for years my belief in my “imaginary friend” God gave me the strength to keep up hope despite bigotry and other family problems, gave me hope for a better future. This was an entirely personal belief. I considered joining some religious denomination or group, but never felt comfortable enough to sign up; participation in organized religion reminds me of bullying by conservatives, as one person or group is placed in charge of sermonizing, rather than allowing individual belief. I found solitary prayer more fulfilling and comforting. Believing in God does not mean that a person will feel comfortable at an event that privileges certain religions or that includes sermons or prayers. Personal comfort from religion does not justify including organized religion or public displays of religion in every aspect of a movement, and it does not justify exempting incredibly powerful established organized religions from criticism that other powerful societal institutions receive from the same equal rights movements.

In conclusion, I believe that challenging religious privilege is part of social justice, just like challenging other types of privilege. Privileging established organized religion in social justice movements is counter to the idea of being more inclusive and intersectional, because it leaves out many people who don’t believe in the religions or religious interpretations whose believers have appointed themselves as the leaders. If we’re trying to be more inclusive, then we can’t perpetuate religious privilege in movements that are supposed to be about supporting equal rights for the marginalized.


Acknowledgements and Recommended Reading

This is an essay I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, but recent conversations on Twitter with Alex Gabriel prompted me to finally write it.

Alex Gabriel writes a blog,[1] including the following essays that came up during the conversation: “I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?”;[2] “Jesus was not a queer ally: why I can’t take LGBT-affirming Christianity seriously (and why queer spaces must remain secular)”;[3] and “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”.[4] Gabriel makes important points about religious allies in queer spaces, bad apologetics, and the importance of secularism.

Greta Christina, on her blog,[5] wrote “Being an Atheist in the Queer Community”[6] and “How To Be An Ally with Atheists”[7] offering the view of someone who’s been involved in both the queer and atheist communities.

Heina Dadabhoy, on their blog,[8] offers an ex-Muslim perspective on this issue in “It Shouldn’t Have to Be So Hard to Be a Queer Atheist” explaining how bizarre it is to hear all praise and no criticism of religion at an LGBT event.[9]

[Originally written: 01 November 2015 – links have been updated]



[1] Alex Gabriel’s blog Godlessness in Theory can be found at https://the-orbit.net/godlessness/.

[2] Gabriel, Alex. “I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?” Godlessness in Theory, 17 November 2014. http://the-orbit.net/godlessness/2014/11/17/im-sorry-todays-atheist-movement-has-inspired-abuse-are-you-sorry-your-religion-has/

[3] Gabriel, Alex. “Jesus was not a queer ally: why I can’t take LGBT-affirming Christianity seriously (and why queer spaces must remain secular)”. Godlessness in Theory, Posted on 7 December 2014. http://the-orbit.net/godlessness/2014/12/07/jesus-was-not-a-queer-ally/

[4] Gabriel, Alex. “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”. Godlessness in Theory, 31 October 2015. http://the-orbit.net/godlessness/2015/10/31/why-i-still-need-the-atheist-movement/

[5] Greta Christina’s Blog can be found at http://the-orbit.net/greta/.

[6] Christina, Greta. “Being an Atheist in the Queer Community”. Greta Christina’s Blog, 15 December 2008. http://the-orbit.net/greta/2008/12/15/being-an-atheist-in-the-queer-community/

[7] Christina, Greta. “How To Be An Ally with Atheists”. Greta Christina’s Blog, 16 December 2008. http://the-orbit.net/greta/2008/12/16/how-to-be-an-ally-with-atheists/

[8] Heina Dadaboy’s blog Heinous Dealings can be found at http://the-orbit.net/heinous/.

[9] Dadabhoy, Heina. “It Shouldn’t Have to Be So Hard to Be a Queer Atheist”. Henous Dealings, 8 December 2014. http://the-orbit.net/heinous/2014/12/08/lgbt-religion/