Atheists and other non-believers are reminded on a regular basis how privileged religion and religiosity are in this country and how oblivious the religious are to the existence of that privilege.
On a national level, this refers to Christians. On a local level, it can be some other religion or religious group, such as the Haredim in some parts of New York State and city. Overwhelmingly, though, in America, religious privilege equals Christian privilege, so letʼs stick to that.
Recently on the Nextdoor social media site for my area, a woman asked for auto mechanic recommendations. She said she had been cheated and otherwise mistreated by unreliable and/or dishonest mechanics before, and therefore she now wanted a recommendation for a God-fearing one.
I took exception, of course.
Iʼm trying hard to be non-confrontational these days. Well, less confrontational. Well, sorta kinda. Politely, I asked her how “God-fearing” was relevant.
A few people chimed in to suggest possible answers to my question. They gave her the benefit of the doubt, although one poster asserted that believers are more honest than other people.
Eventually she responded to me—not with an explanation, but with hostility. She accused me of attacking her god. She told me to get a hobby and not bother her.
I kept answering politely, pointing out that her words were a slur against non-believers. She insisted they weren’t. I asked if she would be as dismissive of slurs against other groups. She became more hostile. Eventually, she blocked me. Rather, she said she was blocking me, but then she showed up again to tell me that I needed help—presumably because pointing out that someone has denigrated a group of people is a sure sign of mental illness.
The original poster and others accused me of only wanting to disrupt the group. That’s a technique commonly used to dismiss complaints and those making them. Jumping into an online group discussing football just to say that I hate football would be disruptive, not to mention rude. It would also be pointless. I do hate football, but that silly game and its fans, even at their most boorish, are not a threat to my freedoms. I donʼt need a wall of separation to protect me from them.
The discussion on Nextdoor wasn’t about football. It had morphed into a debate about the perceived right of believers to insult non-believers. In pointing out that they were insulting non-believers, I had exposed their unconscious religious privilege. They wanted to be free to sling such insults in a public forum, and they were outraged when someone called them to account.
I had touched a nerve. I wasn’t surprised. I’ve touched that nerve before.
One such time was in December 1962, at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. I was a college sophomore, but it was my first year living away from home on a college campus. Christmas lumbered into view and holiday lighting went up on numerous campus buildings. This upset me. IU is a public university, so it was clear to me that putting religious decorations on the buildings was a violation of the separation of church and state. I said so in a dormitory bull session.
The first response from my fellow bullsessioners was bewilderment. Such lighting was ubiquitous. They had seen it all their lives. It was normal. It was traditional. It was entirely appropriate. That’s one of the major characteristics of religious privilege: The practitioners of the majority religion always think it’s normal and appropriate for their symbols to appear everywhere.
Then their bewilderment turned to anger. I argued for a while with an increasingly hostile crowd.
Some of them knew that my father was a rabbi. The anger followed the inevitable course. Someone said bitterly that all those Jewish merchants had no objection to making money selling goods intended as Christmas presents. I laughed and said sure, why not? If Christians are so foolish as to spend huge amounts of money every Christmas, why should Jewish merchants not sell to them?
Someone, trying to cool things down, asked if I’d be okay with the decorations if they included a Star of David. Would that satisfy me? No, I said. It would still be a violation of church-state separation. Any religious symbols on the buildings would be a violation, no matter what religion was represented. This resulted in more bewilderment, mixed with frustration.
Eventually, the discussion fizzled. No blood was spilled. I had learned, though, how quick Christians are to anger when their right to fill the public square with their religious symbols is questioned.
Christian symbols and rituals saturate public life in America. They are so much a part of the background that Americans donʼt even notice them. This is Christian religious privilege, and it’s everywhere.
It extends from Bibles in hotel rooms to the president being sworn in with his hand on a Bible and adding “so help me God” to the oath of office. It’s politicians ending speeches with “and may God bless the United States of America.” It’s ubiquitous public prayer. It’s celebrity preachers being treated with deference in the news media.
And, yes, it’s those tacky Christmas decorations on public buildings.
It’s manger scenes on public property and the fury of Christians when an organization dedicated to church-state separation, such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation or Americans United for Separation of Church and State, calls for the removal of such manger scenes. (Fury and threats of violence—how the love does pour out of Christians when they’re celebrating the birth of their mythological Savior!)
There has been a change since that dormitory bull session, but in the wrong direction. Instead of the annual display of public Christmas decorations fading away, they now include the occasional menorah as a nod to Hanukkah. American Jews, I think, see this as acceptance and tolerance instead of realizing that they have been recruited into helping destroy the barrier between church and state.
One the one hand, Hanukkah isn’t the threat to church-state separation that Christmas is, because Judaism doesn’t have the power and influence of Christianity. Christian churches have been the real threat to separation, and hence to religious (and non-religious) freedom, from the beginnings of the country. So a menorah on public property should elicit less outrage than a manger scene. On the other hand, as I told my fellow students in 1962, any religious symbol on public property is a violation of separation. In addition, religion itself is a potent threat—that is, deference toward religion, reverence for the idea of it, and the elevation of religion and religious leaders and spokesmen to a special place. You certainly see this in popular entertainment, where the believer is the default and religion intrudes everywhere and is treated with deference.
The culture is so pervaded by the symbols and customs of Christianity that their religious nature has become invisible. Thus courts have ruled that the use of Christian symbols and prayers by public officials is merely “ceremonial deism” and can continue. That’s an absurd and pernicious doctrine, but it flew under the radar even of those who should have reacted with outrage.
That’s no surprise. Many who proclaim themselves atheists or agnostics put up Christmas decorations and celebrate the holidays. “It’s no longer a religious festival,” they say. “It’s just a custom and a family time. And I like the pretty lights.” At least one separationist organization makes much of celebrating the solstice every winter; they have created for their own comfort a thinly disguised Christmas celebration without the saccharine manger mythology.
Ah, well. Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, so selling religious liberty for a display of pretty lights has an Old Testament resonance.
It may be that people require ceremonies, and that’s why public ceremonies and symbols, including religious ones, are ubiquitous. I donʼt feel that need, so it’s hard for me to judge. Does everyone but me require ceremonies? Almost everyone? A substantial number? A minority that has cowed the majority into silence? Whatever the percentage, those who have that strange hunger for ceremonies and symbols have to realize that the importance of keeping church and state separate far transcends their need for shiny lights and manger scenes.
Complaining about all of this is probably pointless. It’s tilting at windmills. But sometimes, the windmills must be tilted at. Some battles must be fought even when the likelihood of a grim outcome is known in advance.
Oh, perhaps there really is no need for windmill tilting. Religion’s grip on America seems to be loosening. Perhaps someday, America will become like other developed countries, where believers are a tolerated minority. If so, the silly lights and music will probably persist, but they really won’t be a danger. They won’t be, as they are now, innumerable chisels working away at the mortar that holds the bricks in the wall of separation.
But we’re not in that future, are we? We can’t even be sure that we ever will be. Here and now, the wall is in danger. Theologically tilted courts and opportunistic politicians have been working hard to remove its bricks. Americans who should be alarmed fall into the trap of dismissing each removal as trivial, as a battle not worth fighting, as meaningless. Meanwhile, the wall becomes weaker and shakier. That’s the way it is with walls, both the physical and the metaphorical ones: Every brick must be safeguarded, every crack must be repaired, and the vandals who would dismantle it must be kept at bay. The vandals are doing their best to prevent religion’s decline. They’re working as tirelessly to force theocracy upon us as they ever have. They’re tireless, and so we must be tirelessly vigilant.
That includes being vigilant about what may seem to be small things. The wall is weakened brick by brick, but it’s also made higher and stronger the same way. Moreover, the bricks that make up the wall are not the same size, but each one is nevertheless important. (Yes, that is indeed the sound of a metaphor being stretched extremely.) Religious indoctrination in schools is a very big brick. Mangers on public property are smaller but nonetheless important bricks. “Holiday”—i.e., Christmas—lights on public buildings are a bigger brick than you may think. And the religious privilege that lets people feel free to say that non-believers are dishonest and will cheat you—oh, that’s a very big brick indeed, for it reduces non-believers to an inferior status, a lower class of being. Surely the vileness of that is obvious.
And therefore I disrupted a Nextdoor discussion—not in order to disrupt, but in hopes of making at least some believers more aware. Possibly I made a tiny dent in their armor of privilege. Possibly.
Also, football is a really stupid game.