On BBC local radio here in the UK after the Sydney cafe siege, the presenter had a conversation with a local Imam on the subject of religious extremism. The Imam reiterated that the attacker was a lone nut, who didn’t represent Muslims. The conversation was one of damage limitation and worry for Muslims who may be abused and attacked in the aftermath. The rise of anti-Muslim hate must be addressed – one would hope with the promotion of civil rights & protections for all – but I was unsure that the conversation on BBC local radio that day was particularly helpful, when at one point, the presenter insisted that ‘all religions promote peace and love‘. To begin from that uncritical premise – as if it is a matter of undeniable fact – is just as problematic as beginning from the premise that all religions are violent and oppressive. The problem of religious dogma – that is, the chaining of morality to a single time and place (usually very patriarchal, middle eastern tribal squabbles) – is suddenly dismissed, and other explanations for extremism take its place. The rise of ISIS was blamed on Blair, Bush, and the Iraq war, sometimes on Israel, but little attention payed to religious dogma. It is almost as if it is too uncomfortable to accept that such ingrained religious traditions & much loved religious ideas may present issues within themselves and autonomous of surrounding context. And so it is a distinct religious privilege, to free its problematic dogma from shouldering any blame for extremism, instead blaming everyone else for its problems. No other ideological framework of power has that privilege. But it isn’t the only privilege religions currently enjoy…
When the debate over same-sex marriage came up before Parliament last year, the only dissenting voices – and those who believed themselves to have the privileged right to tell others whom they can and can’t marry – were those of the religious. It is as if “it’s unnatural, because Leviticus says so” is a legitimate argument in a 21st century that has extensive knowledge of the natural spectrum of sexuality. It is therefore a religious privilege for Christians to believe that firstly they own the institution of marriage; Secondly, that they and they alone have the right to tell others whom they can and cannot marry based on discredited myths; and thirdly, that breaking the barriers to equal rights and freedoms regardless of sexuality, is an assault on Christianity.
It is breathtakingly delusional to believe that extending rights that you have always enjoyed, to those traditionally oppressed by your faith, is oppressing you. It is even more delusional to assume that the institution of marriage is a solely Christian, unchangeable institution. Hebrew society engaged in polygamy much of the time, it certainly wasn’t frowned upon. Monogamy in a marriage is a pretty new development. We know that the Mohammad married Aisha when she was 6 years old. In Ancient Rome, marriage was civil, it was not overtly religious. In India, if the bride was born when Mars and Saturn are “under the 7th house”, she is considered cursed and could end up murdering her husband. And so to break the curse, the bride must first marry a tree, the tree is then destroyed, and the bride is free from the curse forever. In the Tidong community in Northern Borneo, after marriage, the couple must not urinate for three days. Marriage is not official within the Neur tribe in Sudan, until the bride has had two children. It was only in 1967, that the US allowed interracial marriage. By 1910, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah had all banned interracial marriage. And what was used to justify anti-miscegenation laws in the US? Of course it was the Bible. The destruction of all other concepts of marriage, to the benefit of just one concept – the Christian concept – and then attempting to ensure that single concept reigns supreme, is wildly oppressive to say the very least.
A couple of months ago on the Bill Maher show over in the United States, in a debate on extremism Sam Harris referred to Islam as the ‘mother lode of bad ideas‘. Consequently, actor Ben Affleck- also appearing on the show – referred to Harris’ statement as ‘racist‘. It is a curious criticism and one that had me considering the unique nature of religious privilege, the language that sustains it, and its lashing out – by among other things, demonising criticism – when challenged. It is a religious privilege to be able to claim racism at criticisms of an idea. As a secular liberal, I define racism as the institutional disenfranchising and denial of equal civil rights based on ethnicity. Language can & does of course further add to the perpetual dehumanising of an ethnicity. Also as a secular liberal, I believe all ideas must be up for inquiry, criticism, satire, and mockery. Religions are not immune to this, nor should they be. Racism is not criticism, or even complete contempt for a religion. Much like racism is not criticism, or even complete contempt for a political ideology. Further, and by implication, I would argue that if words that offend a religion are to be deemed racism, then equally words that offend non-believers must also be deemed racism. And so, left-leaning commentators like Mehdi Hasan would be deemed racist, for rants like:
“We know that keeping the moral high-ground is key. Once we lose the moral high-ground we are no different from the rest of the non-Muslims; from the rest of those human beings who live their lives as animals, bending any rule to fulfil any desire.”
– I am quite certain that if Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris had referred to all Muslims as ‘living like animals’, Hasan would be the first to call racism. Further, the New Testament, Old Testament, and Qur’an would be deemed incredibly racist books. Most chapters of the Qur’an begin with God explaining how great he is (a little arrogant), followed by a lovely little description of the fate that awaits those of us who have not been convinced that a God exists:
“[10:4] To Him is your return. This is Allah’s promise that will certainly come true. Surely it is He Who brings about the creation of all and He will repeat it so that He may justly reward those who believe and do righteous deeds, and those who disbelieve may have a draught of boiling water and suffer a painful chastisement for their denying the Truth.”
– Whilst Sam Harris simply referred to a religion as a bad idea and was deemed racist for doing so, Holy Books go beyond criticism, and become threats of eternal torture for non-belief. This of course would also mean that the idea of a Caliphate – in which non-believers are barred from highest office – is institutionally racist. It would mean that South Carolina was institutionally racist when Herb Silverman ran for the post of Governor in 1992 but was discarded from the race for refusing to swear an oath to God. It took five whole years for the courts to rule in his favour. It is therefore a massive religious privilege to demand and expect respect for a book that threatens people like me, with religious institutions that disenfranchise anyone ‘outside’ of the religion, whilst yelling racism if I am to call that book the ‘mother lode of bad ideas’. If one is to be considered racism, so must the other.
Along with compulsory worship in schools, and a Monarch whom also happens to be head of the Church of England, it is a religious privilege in the UK, for over 25 Bishops to have a permanent position in the national legislature, as if they have some sort of natural right to consider legislation based solely on which invisible being it is they believe in. To be called ‘Lords Spiritual‘, as if spirituality is a supernatural phenomena consigned to the religious only. The perpetuation of privilege based on the bizarre belief that a deeper understanding of a very unproven deity somehow grants one a position to legislate above the rest of us. It is worth noting that no religious scholar has any more of an idea about what happens after we die, than the rest of us, and that filling in that gap in human knowledge with myths is a ‘science’ consigned to the history books in every other realm of human understanding, yet when it comes to this particular question, we put Bishops in the Lords for their adherence to 1st Century Palestinian myths. It is also worth noting that spirituality does not in any way require a belief in God, or an afterlife, and is a perfectly natural and human trait. Religious supremacy has no more place in a national legislature, than racial supremacy, sexuality supremacy or gender supremacy. The very fact that structures of religious supremacy are not treated with the same contempt as those of racial, or gender supremacy, is in itself, a vast privilege milked for every drop it is worth by those in positions of religious power.
Often, religious privilege is sustained by the powerful few, & the denial of many. Those who are so invested in their religion, refuse to accept that it might be flawed. Jumping back to the racism theme, not too long ago Twitter exploded in rage at Lady Gaga wearing a full face veil. The charge was that she – a white westerner – had ‘appropriated’ a cultural symbol of the Islamic east. It is a wildly hypocritical religious privilege to claim the veil for one religion, thus dismissing it from every other culture that has ever used the veil, whilst refusing to acknowledge that Islam has appropriated Christian & Pagan stories, Temple Mount, the Hagia Sofia, the Palestinian freedom cause (Palestinians are all who live there – not simply heterosexual Muslim men), every piece of land deemed to be “Muslim land” (no land belongs to a religion), and when Mo Ansar recently mentioned the French invading Muslim Tunisia in the 19th Century as an act of western imperialism, he neglected to mention that Tunisia was only “Muslim” by the 19th Century, because imperialist Arab Muslims had invaded it and established the Arab Aghlabids dynasty in the first place. It is a religious privilege to rewrite history by deflecting onto others, the often violent ‘appropriation’ of cultural symbols into its own black hole.
It is a religious privilege for Christianity to be so enshrined into state constitutions, that it requires a national constitution to protect everyone else:
No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this
State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.
Maryland Constitution, Article 37:
That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.
Mississippi Constitution, Article 14, Section 265:
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this State.
South Carolina Constitution, Article 17, Section 4:
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.
Tennessee Constitution, Article 9, Section 2:
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State.
Texas Constitution, Article 1, Section 4:
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.
The list of religious privileges is endless. It includes Jehovah’s Witness families torn apart if a member decides they don’t believe any more. It includes apostates dehumanised and abused for leaving Islam & then referred to as ‘Islamophobic’ if they dare to speak out. It includes women covered from head to toe so as to not arouse the apparently uncontrollable lust of men. It includes Uganda’s Christian Minister for Ethics condemning homosexuals to a life of fear, whilst insisting that the rape of young girls in his country is, and I quote:
“… the right kind of child rape. It is men raping girls and that is natural.”
– It includes Pakistan’s grotesque blasphemy laws that punishes the ‘offending’ believers, whilst institutionalises the ‘offending’ of non-believers. It includes the Boy Scouts of America prohibiting the inclusions of atheists and whose charter states:
“The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”
– It includes ‘In God we trust’ and ‘One nation under God’ placed on US institutions in blatant disregard of the secular founding. It includes Iran murdering gay people because an ancient, unenlightened, out-of-date myth condemns homosexuality and is taught to impressionable young minds as truth – despite the fact that many of those young minds, will be gay – whilst neglecting to teach the actual biology and genetic base for sexuality. It includes all of these things causing little uproar, whilst a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, or a “There is no God” billboard on the side of buses causes the religious to insist that their faith is under severe attack. It is the moment the religion of one, extends to control the liberty of another. In short, the nature of religious privilege.