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Religious Privilege: How Religion, Religious Groups, and Beliefs are Privileged

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What is Religious Privilege?:

The history of human culture can be recounted as the rise and decline of privileges for various groups over other groups in society. The Enlightenment was the beginning of the end for most forms of privilege in Western societies, though it has taken centuries to develop. White privilege and male privilege remain in subtle ways but are in steep decline. Religious privilege, the favoring of religion, religious beliefs, and religious figures, has been much more difficult to kill.

Religious Privilege as a Nonconscious Ideology:

In significant ways, religious privilege is what is known in the social sciences as a “nonconscious ideology.” This means it is perpetuated in ways that people aren’t conscious of. The very environment which structures their lives and assumptions about life also reinforces the assumption that religion is and should be treated with greater deference, respect, and favoritism than other beliefs. Unpacking these assumptions and revealing them is critical to ending religious privilege.

Modern Liberalism vs. Social Privilege:

Social, cultural, and political privileges of any sort — gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. — are anathema to modern liberal conception of society. Under modern liberalism, all citizens of society should be treated as fully equal with the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities as everyone else. If one group is privileged over others on the basis of something like race or religion, this institutionalizes discrimination and bigotry.

Religious Privilege & Taxation:

Perhaps the most common way that religion is privileged in modern society is how religious groups are automatically exempted from most taxes. Any charity can apply and usually get tax exempt status, but religious groups have a much easier time applying for and receiving tax exemptions. Religious groups are simply assumed to be legitimate charities, almost without question, and rarely are their tax exemptions serious challenged for any misdeeds like political activity. Read More...

Religious Privilege & Zoning Ordinances:

In the past, the judgment of local zoning boards and elected officials was trusted; today, any zoning decisions which cause problems for religious groups are assumed to be invalid unless they can be proven to be absolutely necessary. In effect, religious groups like churches have carte blanche to build and expand as much as they want; those who complain are labeled anti-religious bigots. The fact that they sincerely object to massive churches in residential areas is simply dismissed.

Religious Privilege & Prisons:

In prison, people’s lives are closely regimented and severely constrained. This places restrictions on prisoners’ ability to practice their religion — sometimes justified, sometimes not. Recent laws have expanded prisoners’ rights to where any limits are almost automatically assumed to be invalid. The privileging of religion in prisons has gone so far that in order to check it, at least one court had to find that atheism was, for one prisoner, a ‘religion” for First Amendment purposes.

Religious Privilege & Blasphemy Laws:

Not so common in the West today, blasphemy laws were at one time a popular means by which religion was privileged in society. They still are in many Muslim nations. Blasphemy laws create special criminal penalties for saying things considered “offensive” from a religious perspective, for example denying the existence of God. Analogous statements made against other beliefs do not carry criminal penalties; in some cases, they might even be considered virtuous.

Religious Privilege & Discrimination:

Most religions have, at some point in the past, validated and reinforced various forms of discrimination — racial, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Because religions tend to be very conservative, they typically continue promoting such discrimination even after the rest of society has moved on. In America today, there are many ways that religious groups can discriminate in which no one else can. Even worse, religious conservatives want to expand this and provide public funding for it.

Religious Privilege, Holidays, and Holy Days:

Many societies privilege religions by providing official sanction and support for their holy days. Religious holy days become official state holidays, though usually only one religion is specifically favored in this manner. The holy days (and sabbath, if one exists) of the dominant religion are given a special status; holy days of minority religions are ignored at best. Nonadherents of the dominant religion cannot avoid these holidays and are forced to incorporate them into their lives.

Religious Organizations & Believers Should be Bound by Neutral Laws & Regulation:

The main premise employed by those who advocate religious privilege in modern society is that religion, religious groups, religious beliefs, and religious believers should not have to be bound by the same laws as everyone else. The primary argument against religious privilege should therefore be that neutral laws should be binding on everyone.

This doesn’t mean that there should never be any religious exemptions from generally applicable laws — that would be too extreme. Instead, the guiding principle should be the idea of “first, do no harm.” If people are harmed by an exemption, then it is probably wrong because it means that some citizens are losing out in order to accommodate the religious beliefs of others. If no one is harmed by the exemption, then it is probably valid.

An example of a valid exemption would be the conscientious objector status in the context of a military draft — so long as the status isn’t applied unfairly so as to favor one religion or religious tradition, then no one is harmed by it. An example of an invalid exemption would be how churches are freed from following basic zoning regulations — by allowing them to do pretty much as they please, other property owners are harmed.

Defenders of religious privilege tend to frame it as a matter of religious liberty: when laws infringe upon religiously motivated actions, then that infringes upon religious liberty. In the abstract, that sounds reasonable, but when we come to actual cases we can find many instances where one person’s interests may trump another’s free exercise rights. This is an important principle to recognize because too often, people fail to understand or even simply deny the possibility that religion and religiously motivated behavior can cause harm.

The right of a person to practice their religion cannot entail a right to harm others or to undermine the public good. The rule of law becomes meaningless if religiously motivated behavior stands outside legal regulation.

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