The Kinsey Scale, “Religious” Discourse, and Christmas

This past Fall, in the ethics course that I teach, I covered social inequality. We discussed Peggy McIntosh’s famous unpacking the backpack essay in which McIntosh, a white woman studies scholar, lists 26 ways in which society has provided her an advantage over those who are not white. She briefly mentions that “it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage which rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex and ethnic identity than on other factors”.

It should not surprise those who work on the academic study of religion to hear that these factors are difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle or that all of these involve axes of oppression. However, for my students, many of whom were attending their first college course and grew up in conservative, religious environments, this was an entirely new topic. When I brought the discussion to religious privilege, the idea that Christmas celebrations represent a kind of cultural hegemony was difficult for most to accept. Yet they would quickly acknowledge that they knew almost nothing about the holidays of other religions (none knew what Diwali was, for example) and that stores spend far too much time putting out Christmas decorations.

Organized atheists in the United States have recently participated in a discussion of whether they should celebrate Christmas and in what ways. As a movement comprised of a minority group, atheist identity is a matter of near-constant discussion. Atheist identity is hard won and the recognition of organized atheists as a contingency is deeply embattled. Anything which is seen to threaten that identity — or the right of individuals to freely identify themselves as atheists without facing e.g. microaggressions or other coercive measures — is quickly challenged. Should atheists leave Christmas behind or should they remake the holiday, perhaps legitimating their activity by appealing to a narrative in which the Christian celebration had been previously stolen from third century pagans?

Both of these developments — my classroom discussions of social inequality and the public debate over atheist celebrations of Christmas — involve assumptions about what it means for an activity or an individual to be religious, the political ends of various parties, and the American discourse over secularization. I think that this discussion is fundamentally mistaken in a variety of ways that are often lost on those engaged in the discourse. In order to explain in what ways this discourse is mistaken, I will first provide an analogy with human sexuality. Afterwards, I will provide a way to begin thinking about secularism which does not depend on the discursive assumptions I will identify as problematic.

It is now recognized that human sexuality is complicated. Sexual attraction is not limited to the simple binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality; not only can humans be heterosexual or homosexual, they can be bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc. Alfred Kinsey’s work on sexual orientation provided a scale on which humans can identify their degree of attraction to either their own gender or the opposite gender. It is now recognized that human sexuality is more complicated still; we have distinctions between gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. Gender is more complicated than a simple male/female binary; biologically, there are at least five different sexes and it is generally recognized by sociologists and psychologists that gender roles are socially constructed and contingent.

It is possible for a society to be repressive when it denies some aspect of this complication. For example, a society which acknowledges only heterosexuality erases the existence of other sexual orientations and normalizes only one kind of interaction. Notice: the framing of human sexual relationships as legitimate or not can depend upon what categories society provides. A society that recognizes only heterosexual relationships is one which has framed relationships too narrowly.

Those who fight for the recognition of gay rights endeavour to frame their discussions carefully. If a discourse recognizes only heterosexual and homosexual relationships, then bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality are erased. Similarly, intersectional feminists are careful to frame their discourse so that trans individuals are not excluded. Either sort of exclusion results if the terms of a discourse are defined too narrowly.

Just as Kinsey set off an avalanche of research indicating the complexity of human sexuality, research on the phenomenon of religion has recognized the complexity of religious phenomena. While our political and legal discourse continues to assume that there is a simple binary between religion and nonreligion, transcultural and transhistorical research demonstrates that no such binary can be identified which does not narrowly describe religion, leaving out important phenomena that most would want to identify as religious. Worse: the construction of religion as a category for political discussion can be traced to specific developments in European history over the last several hundred years. Many academics have simply given up the task of trying to identify what is essentially religious and instead understand the term ‘religion’ as a piece of vocabulary used by those who they study (i.e. a term in actor’s categories). Many would argue that the secular/religious binary is ultimately oppressive, for reasons similar to why non-intersexual feminism and bisexual-erasing gay rights activism is oppressive.

Christmas celebrations bring the resulting tensions to the fore. The discussion is often framed as follows. On the one hand, there are individuals who identify themselves as ‘secular’ and ‘atheistic’ who have fought hard battles to disentangle themselves from what they view as ‘religion’, yet wish to claim their Christmas celebrations as legitimate activity. On the other are Christian conservatives, who perceive that their moralistic hold on society is slipping and a need to re-assert that Christmas is about Christ (“the reason for the season”).

Notice that there are a variety of individuals missing from this conversation: for example, those individuals who are culturally (but not religiously) Jewish and do not celebrate Christmas, either as a “secular” or “religious” holiday. In order to fully capture the complexity of this phenomenon, we need to look beyond the categories that our society hands us. To do otherwise is to throw many secular Jews, apostates from Islam, atheistic Buddhists, and others, under the bus.

What of our political and legal discourse? If the secular/religious binary has imploded, how can we talk about church/state separation? I don’t have an easy answer to this question, but I think that I have the beginning of an answer. First, it is important to recognize that there are several ends which church/state discourse aims to accomplish. Second, having identified those ends, it may be recognized that the accomplishment of those ends does not have to rely upon an illegitimate secular/religious binary.

What ends does church/state separation hope to accomplish? I will discuss two. First, there are particular beliefs, traditions, practices that individuals may strongly and deeply hold, which it is unreasonable for the state to force individuals to change by coercion, and which do not circumvent the safety or rights of others. Furthermore, these privately held beliefs should be translated to a public language if they are to be participants in political discourse. As I have described this end, those beliefs, traditions, and practices which have been traditionally considered religious — such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — do not exhaust the category of things that this end should protect; my description did not assume a secular/religious binary. Also included are familial practices — e.g. the consumption of lobster every Tuesday (which an individual might be as strongly committed to as some Catholics are to fish on Fridays) — or participation in sports fandoms or political organizations. Atheists wish for their identities as atheists to have legal protection and, as framed, this end would protect their identities. These beliefs, traditions, and practices can be (and should be) protected from state influence without demanding that they be identified as “religious” or not. The state can be neutral on the topic of consumption of lobster on Tuesdays without declaring that such consumption is either categorically religious or secular.

The second political end of church/state separation involves the protection of a minority against the coercive pressures of a majority. For example, in the Ahlquist v Cranston decision, the judge cited the fanatical abuse Jessica Ahlquist received from classmates, teachers, and other Cranston residents as important in his decision. It has also been recognized that there are considerations in church/state decisions concerning school environments that do not apply to e.g. court houses because of the extra weight coercive pressures place on children as compared to adults. But the autonomy and intellectual freedom of children can be protected without assuming a secular/religious binary.

Atheists are free to celebrate Christmas; I am a Christmas-celebrating atheist. But let’s be honest about what we are discussing: I celebrate Christmas because it is my family’s tradition to do so. The reason my family has that tradition is because my mother is a Catholic from upstate New York and my father hails from New England Protestantism. I don’t expect that my Jewish friends will desire to celebrate Christmas (although it is not illegitimate if they do) despite the fact that many of them are atheists. I don’t believe in anything I would identify as God, but that does not render my interaction with religion and the secular any less complicated.

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