The Christian Privilege of Atheists

In this blog post, I will be arguing that many atheists living in the United States contribute to the theoarchy (in analogy with patriarchy, `theoarchy’ refers to the system of societal advantages provided to theists, particularly those in the Christian tradition). Furthermore, I will make the claim there is a sense in which at least some of these atheists have Christian privilege.

I know what you’re thinking. Atheists have Christian privilege? But atheists aren’t even Christian and, besides, aren’t atheists an underprivileged group in our society, one which studies have shown to be one of the least trusted demographics? A demographic of people which, some studies have shown, is less trusted than rapists? The title of this blog post is probably going to produce a whole lot of backlash.

But let me present my case. I will not dispute that atheists are underprivileged. Of course, whether or not a given atheist faces discrimination, and is underprivileged in hir community, depends upon hir geographic and social location; an atheist at Harvard University is much less likely to face discrimination than an atheist in a small town in Mississippi. For many atheists, to think about movement atheism as anything other than an identity movement is a luxury that they cannot yet afford. Sitting comfortably in academia, I have recognizable advantages over those atheists who live an hour away in Salem, Virginia, or over the closeted atheists who study at Liberty University. I suspect that these differences between members of our movement is one of the forces which lies behind some of the infighting (though not all) that we’ve experienced in the Freethought community. Nonetheless, those are all tangential issues which I will not be discussing here.

Here, I will focus on the term `religion’ and the way in which the theoarchy has provided a system of expectations for what may be counted as religious. This is particularly important because many of the rights which we afford to citizens in the United States depend upon what we take to be a religion for legal purposes. It is also important for the kind of transfaith discussions that some, like my fellow blogger Jaime Wise, would like to have. If our social expectations about what gets counted as properly religious cloud our ability to think critically about religion and to engage with each other on those matters, then we have put an unnecessary stumbling block in front of ourselves.

One of the many problems that I have heard colleagues voice, when they teach about religion, is that many students enter the classroom with a large set of expectations as to what religions are. And these expectations often come from a Christianized world view. Even if the student is not Christian, they will often employ Christian categories when discussing religion. However, when one examines the full diversity of religions from around the world, one finds that Christianity does not make for a good prototypical religion.

For example, when I posted an article by Michael Dowd to the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech Facebook page, one person responded by saying that the use of the word `religion’ to refer to anything other than a collection of supernatural beliefs is “deceptive” and has no place in our movement. My colleague, Zack Lewis, responded by stating: “While it is clear that you originally used the word in the former sense, the latter sense is inclusive of Old Theism, New Theism, pantheism, Buddhism, various ethnic rituals, and Dan’s automobile maintenance practices. Depending on the context, a sociologist, for example, may find great usefulness in the broader sense of the term. The reason why clarification is important here is that you have put forth the idea of excluding those that use a different definition based on their different experiences. I would ask that you consider the implications of such a policy.” I share Zack’s opinions and elaborated in that thread:

Our notion of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and its significance to religion, is a conception that arises relatively late in history. That sort of distinction is very much part of modernity. But in pre-modern cultures, non-Western cultures, and in various indigenous societies that distinction often does not appear or, if it does, it’s radically different from how we conceptualize it in our society.

When anthropologists and sociologists go about classifying the various practices, belief systems, systems of authority, and so on, that appear in various cultures as “religions”, they do not pay attention to the doxastic commitments of those systems. For one thing, in those systems which emphasize praxis over doxa, it would seem rather alien to say that something is not one’s religion simply because one does not believe it.

Anthropologists and sociologists pay attention to the functional role that a given system plays for a culture when classifying that system as religious. Does it involve ritual? Are there associated totems or symbols? Is there a distinction between the sacred and the profane? These are the sorts of questions that anthropologists and sociologists would ask about Dowd’s New Theism to determine if it can count as a religion.

In many animistic cultures, there is simply no distinction made between nature and supernature. Often, in those cultures, our world is understood to be filled with various kinds of intelligent agents. Various objects in one’s local environment take on sacred significance and are often understood to be spirits (for lack of a better word; it’s questionable how many of these societies even have words that translate directly to “spirit”). In fact, one of the differences between the early Jews and their neighboring cultures was that the Jews carried their god with them when they went into exile. For many cultures, the local environment was so heavily caught up with the local cult that the two were inseparable; if you went to a new location, you would adopt a new religion. But when the Babylonians exiled the Jews, the Jews brought their local cult with them.

In the modern West, religions have a two-tiered notion of reality. On bottom is nature, governed by the laws of physics. On top is supernature, the domain of God, the angels, and so forth. The top tier somehow imbues the bottom tier with meaning and answers existential questions. The bottom tier exists to serve, pay homage to, and to rejoice in the top tier. Of course, we call the two “nature” and “supernature” respectively. Atheists are then often understood as, or accused of, chopping off the top tier and having a one tier world.

But other cultures conceive of reality differently. They might put spirits (or what we translate as “spirit”) on the same tier as everything else. For instance, to return to the idea of a sacred local environment, they might believe that a particular tree just is a spirit. Not that the tree contains, indicates, or symbolizes the spirit, but rather that the tree is identical to the spirit. Think about how different this is from our modern Western conception of spirits; in our culture, we tend to think that when we say that there is a tree spirit, that the tree contains a spirit (or a soul) and that were we cut the tree down, the spirit would live on. But if you think that the tree and the spirit are the same thing, that there literally is no difference between them, then when you destroy the tree, you have also destroyed the spirit.

As another example, when some ancient Greeks believed that the moon was a god, they didn’t believe that the moon contained a god or was controlled by a god or represented a god or anything like that. Rather, they simply believed that the moon was a god.

In some pre-modern cultures, others believed in a multiple tiered reality, but fail to have our tiers. Therefore, they cannot be understood as having believed that the world can be divided up into the supernatural and the natural. They might not have the idea that there’s any such thing as physical reality as we conceive of it in the modern west; they might not have anything that even resembles physics. For instance, the way that Europeans conceived of the universe during the Middle Ages was like this. They distinguished between a sub-Lunary (literally, “below the moon”) creaturely realm and another sort of realm that appears in the sky. The sky was believed to contain several crystalline spheres and to be filled with water. They also believed in a Great Chain of Being, which consisted of an infinite hierarchy of creaturely and celestial beings. In addition, for the Medievals, God is not understood as existing outside the world in some supernatural realm but rather as having a different sort of existence altogether. God’s Being was understood as only being analogous to creaturely being (the Doctrine of Analogy).

The religious systems that appear in other cultures are so radically different from our own that many anthropologists, sociologists, and historians hesitate to even call such systems “religions”. To use our Western words to describe these other cultural systems suppresses the full diversity of ways that humans have understood reality.

In our Western world, we understand religion to be one source of authority amongst many and one institution amongst many. We have a choice of religions and we have a choice to have no religion at all. Religions market themselves as corporate entities and they compete in a marketplace of ideas. All of these entities are post-Enlightenment constructs, taking along with them all of our cultural baggage concerning our culture’s distinction between nature and supernature, including a conceptualization of nature that depends on our having developed science (and, in particular, physics). We place expectations on them — that they, for example, involve the notion of faith or that they answer particular sorts of questions and emphasize belief over practice — which would appear entirely foreign to most of the cultures outside the modern West. Many of these expectations arise specifically from Christianity; but there’s much more out there besides Christianity.

In most indigenous cultures, what we might be tempted to identify as the religion of that culture are the various background assumptions that nearly everyone in that culture adopts. These are the various assumptions which one would not think to question, not because questioning such things is taboo but rather because it would seem a silly thing to do. It would be like someone in our culture questioning whether the sky is blue. “Of course the sky is blue!” people would respond, “Are you freaking blind?” Similarly, in most indigenous cultures, what Westerners would call “metaphysical questions”, would seem just as odd. If you believe that the tree in the center of your village is a spirit — not that it has a soul, but rather that it just is a spirit — people would look rather odd if you asked whether there were spirits. “Of course!” they’d respond, “Can’t you see the tree?”

In such cultures, there cannot be theology let alone theological debate. If we conceive of faith as the acceptance of beliefs even in the face of doubt, then there cannot be such a concept in that culture; there would be no reason to articulate such a concept. And, in such cultures, there is no distinction between nature and supernature because the categories into which the world is divided are so radically different.

I was further challenged on this in a variety of different ways. One response was to say that because many of these non-Western cultures fail to distinguish between the supernatural and the natural we should take their conceptions less seriously. However, it surely cannot be the case that the definitions we use when studying religion are somehow dependent on whether the doxastic commitments held by various peoples are true or false; the question at hand is under what conditions can x be considered a religion.

Another response was to say that non-Western cultures are irrelevant because we were discussing the use of the term `religion’ in a Western context. But I find that to be troubling, too, because we live in a world where we should be making every effort to be inclusive. Just because Christianity holds sway over the Western religious marketplace at the present time does not mean that it absolutely needs to. In fact, part of what we should be trying to do is to subvert the power and influence which Christianity presently maintains.

I stated that, “…a survey of what Americans think religion is would be disasterous; there are plenty of evangelical Christians who claim that Christianity is not a religion [especially in the Emergent Church movement]; others who claim that it’s the only true religion; and don’t even get me started on people who think that one can be ‘spiritual but not religious’. If we want to know what religion is, and not just what Christian privilege dictates religion to be, we need to look cross culturally… I would agree… that [Dowd's] use of language is probably confusing to many Americans who, due to Christian privilege, have a very narrow conception of what religion is… To many students, the terms ‘religion’ and ‘Christianity’ are synonyms.”

Since this Facebook conversation happened on June 1rst, I have since talked with other people concerning the inappropriate expectations that come packaged with `religion’. One friend told me that she considered religion to be absurd and that our world would be better off without it. Perhaps many of those who are reading this post are thinking the same thing. Nonetheless, I am left wondering whether or not that would be true when `religion’ is expanded in the way that I am suggesting here. Ethical Culture is already recognized as a religion by its constituents, even though it is entirely devoid of supernatural claims and other such notions. It’s a humanistic organization gathered around community service and education. The same thing is true for large portions of the Unitarian Universalist Church. Note that this is not the Courtier’s Reply; I am not saying that atheistic rhettoric is somehow naive because it hasn’t made contact with the full sophistication of liberal theology. Rather, I am simply asking this question — if what I say here about `religion’ is correct, then are there religions, broadly construed, which are not harmful in the way that the theoarchy is? And can we maintain this position without somehow inadvertently contributing to the theoarchy?

On the other hand, it might seem unreasonable to think that religion is likely to go anywhere any time soon. For that reason, we are probably best off if we can find peaceful ways to live with our Hindu, Wiccan, or otherwise “non-traditionally religious” (by which one means religious but non-Christian) neighbor. That would seem to be even more reason to understand what sorts of expectations are inappropriate to have when we hear someone self identify as religious.


  • Jaime Wise
    June 27, 2013 - 4:09 pm | Permalink

    So, you’re basically saying that religion can permeate a culture so completely, that even people who reject the dominant religion are still likely to derive a significant portion of their identity from its conception of reality, and thus make similar misjudgments of other cultures as their theistic neighbors; and that these misjudgements show up the clearest in our own culture when we attempt to define religion? I can see how theistic privilege could work for a non-theist in that manner, but I’m curious to see what dissenting opinion from either a religious or non-religious individual would entail. I’m also curious as to your opinion about how we should establish a more self-aware and accepting society in this regard.

  • June 28, 2013 - 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, i just listened to an old episode of Point of Inquiry in which Groethe interviews Flynn about the latter’s disdain for Christmas. Flynn frames the issue as one of the dominant religion’s subsumption of everyday life during the affected month or so of time, including among its lamentable consequences an imposed embellishment of minority religions’ festivals that happened to fall around the same time. He argues that atheists and other secularists who celebrate Christmas are accomplishing less in the way of the secularization of Christianity than in reinforcing Christianity’s cultural entitlement—in essence, though Flynn doesn’t frame it this way, these atheists benefit from (if not plainly assert) Christian privilege in a way made possible by indifference to religious identity.

    • Jaime Wise
      June 30, 2013 - 7:04 pm | Permalink

      That’s an objection to celebrating Christmas I’ve heard before. I think Holidays get more complicated, because for many people they’re associated so strongly with family and cultural heritage. What’s your own opinion of secular celebrations of religious holidays?

  • July 3, 2013 - 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Independent of norms and marginalization? Negative. I agree with the community-oriented humanists that we (secularists) stand to benefit from the use of shared rituals to calcify a secular culture, but nowhere is it writ (and, even if it were, what secularist would care? ;) that these rituals must derive from existing religious observances. Meanwhile, i view the secularization of Christmas less as a triumph of secularism than as one of capitalism/consumerism, which have developed symbioses with a variety of religions…though i can’t speak knowledgeably on that front. But most importantly i think that in order to make a secular culture maximally welcoming we need to avoid pressuring secularists who associate these holidays with other, unpalatable ideas (or even abusive histories) to embrace them anyway; that puts the burden on the questioner/survivor, and denies them a safe place to land. And it still doesn’t prevent anyone from celebrating whatever observances they want with their own families.

    • July 3, 2013 - 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Argh^2. I rue the day ascii smileys were auto-translated into gifs (which is already pronounced with a ‘j’ sound the way it’s spelled). That was supposed to double up as a wink-face and a right parenthesis.

  • Joe Nadukkudiyil
    July 25, 2013 - 5:47 am | Permalink

    I think atheists that come to atheism purely from the philosophical view point tend to be excessively paranoid and second guess themselves on their atheism. Science is just so clean and elegant in comparison. Something that cannot be proven empirically is probably false. Move on with your life…

    • Dan Linford
      July 25, 2013 - 9:40 am | Permalink

      Wow. Just wow.

      First of all, I used to be a scientist. I have an undergraduate degree in physics and I spent a few years in a physics PhD program before switching to philosophy. I don’t know what you mean by coming “to atheism purely from the philosophical view point”, but, whatever you might mean by that, it’s certainly not true for me.

      Second, overly paranoid? I’m not paranoid at all. I find this topic to be interesting and important. Would you describe a physicist who was trying to determine a more accurate value for the charge of an electron as “paranoid”? If not, then why would the physicist spend so much time working on it?

      Maybe it’s the inquisitive nature of the scientist which drives them to study a given phenomenon. Maybe my inquisitive nature drives me to study the human phenomenon of religious belief and practice, and to study the various arguments for and against specific religious beliefs (particularly in a historical context). Maybe I’m not being paranoid or second guessing myself at all, but simply living the life of an academic.

  • July 25, 2013 - 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree with what you are saying at the end more than at the beginning. I don’t get that the article supports your title. But if you are saying we should be aware of people’s varied definition of what religion means to them, and not exclude them solely based on a few simple statements about belief, then I agree.

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