The Privilege of Faith
Lithwick sums up well the legal and logical problems with this. Being a non-Christian sensitive type myself, I decided to take a look at the comments as well. I don't know why I do this to myself. They always make me angry to see Christians commenting from their place of privilege to explain to those of us who actually belong to a religious minority why religious minorities should not be upset by the imposition of the majority.
I was raised in an arreligious family. Not irreligious--I was never taught to be an atheist or to reject a belief in a god or gods. Religion simply wasn't mentioned in my family. Living in the United States, of course, it occasionally edged in on my life--I attended my cousins' confirmations and used to read religious pamphlets over my grandmother's house--but it was always the practice of others, never my own. Like anyone, I asked the usual questions about the meaning of life and death. I found my answers in nature, in observing the world around me. I was never given those answers in the form of religion. I still ask those questions today. Whenever I walk in the forest or work in my garden or write a story or poem, I am asking those questions and with slow, careful work, discovering answers and deeper questions.
Thirty years later, I identify as an agnostic who practices a type of Druidry, a form of nature spirituality. It is probably safe to say that, aside from Bobby, another person of my belief system does not exist within 100 miles of me, even in liberal Maryland. (There are other agnostics and other people who practice Druidry but likely not the rather uncommon combination of the two.) I think that qualifies me as a religious minority.
So it galls me to hear Christians, from their comfortable place as a religious majority powerful enough to influence the laws of a supposedly free nation, tell me that the injection of their beliefs into public life shouldn't matter to me. That if they pray before government meetings, that does me no harm. That they would gladly tolerate religious speech from other religions, were that religion in the majority.
That my objection to their religious speech in public makes me intolerant. That they are persecuted because I ask not to hear their prayers--or anyone's, for that matter--when I am conducting civic business.
I would ask these people to live one year as an actual religious minority before they speak of this. It is easy, when symbols condoning their faith pervade private and public spaces and when laws are shaped to fit the value system of their faith, to claim that none should mind a quick little prayer before a board meeting. Or that they would not protest the exercise of another faith. (Yet, clearly, they do protest the exercise of agnosticism: of choosing to state neither belief nor unbelief in a higher power.) From that place of privilege, Christians cannot know what it is to live as a religious minority.
I would say to Christians who think that the rest of us should "tolerate" their religion in a government that's supposed to belong to all of us ...
When nearly half of U.S. citizens polled have no problem admitting that they think "you people" are unfit to serve as President solely because of your beliefs, then you can comment on how a religious minority should feel. Poll after poll shows that most U.S. citizens would accept a woman, a Jew, a Mormon, even a gay person or a Muslim, as President, but these same people would not accept an atheist. (Since agnostics tend to get lumped in with atheists, I doubt the numbers for my particular belief system would be much more favorable.) We are in a sad place when almost half of our fellow citizens are comfortable revealing that level of bigotry against a particular group.
When inquiries about how you practice a religion not your own become a litmus test for public office, then you can comment on how a religious minority should feel. Whenever I observe the scrutiny paid to the (Christian) church a presidential candidate attends, or the hand-wringing that surrounds which (Christian) church a new president will attend in DC; whenever I hear candidates or representatives speak about their beliefs from a default Christian perspective, it reminds me that, were I so inclined to serve as an elected representative, that this would in all likelihood be unavailable to me because of my beliefs. I imagine that when I answered the question of, "What church do you attend?" with, "Well, I observed Lughnasagh in my living room this year because a thunderstorm prevented the use of my preferred maple grove," my constituents would not be favorably impressed.
When people who identify as both tolerant and progressive do not protest--or even notice--the above litmus tests, then you can comment on how a religious minority should feel.
When you fear revealing your beliefs, even to people close to you, because you worry that they will think less of you or abandon contact with you altogether, then you can comment on how a religious minority should feel. Christians should think of the number of times they casually mention going to church or other words that identify their faith; imagine if every time you spoke of these things so important to you, you worried that you were losing a friendship, or losing the respect of someone you cared about. When you have to carefully consider your relationship with a person before allowing casual mention of your beliefs into conversation. Or when you worry that your beliefs--or lack of Christian belief--will close doors to you in your professional life. I think it is telling that even as I type this post, I wonder if I should post it. I can count on one hand the number of people on my flist who knew my spiritual beliefs before I posted this. I wonder how many of you are surprised? Unpleasantly so?
When words that describe you are tossed off casually as insults or to describe all manner of monstrous behavior, then you can comment on how a religious minority should feel. The term heathen describes me. It is also used to describe murderers and child molesters, by the same contingent of people who proudly identify as progressive and tolerant. The term godless describes me too. It is frequently appended as a modifier to add extra oompf to the above-mentioned folks' disdain for murderers and perverts.
Godless heathen ...
What comes to mind when you hear that?
What I wish Christians who make these kinds of ignorant comments would realize: Marginalization and, eventually, oppression of a minority group needn't come through legislation or any outright declaration of that group's inferiority. Many of the 48% who can't imagine a qualified atheist as a suitable presidential candidate probably can't remember ever being taught that atheists were bad people. Most of them probably have friends or loved ones who are atheist, agnostic, or otherwise not Christian, even if they don't realize it. But when we start putting a minority group in the place of the Other, when we start making it obvious who doesn't stand or kneel for a religious observance or who excuses themselves from a prayer before a town hall meeting, when we call attention to that detail above all others, then a person who was formerly a neighbor, even a friend, becomes identified by their difference and pressed to the periphery of the community, excluded. Be that person on the periphery and tell me it doesn't matter.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!