The post below devolved into the same conversation that often happens when an atheist uses the same public forums aggressively used by believers to spread their beliefs—i.e., speaking up in books and websites. Why do atheists have to go around making the nice religious people uncomfortable? The religious people invoked in defending the religious privilege—the right not to be made uncomfortable, a privilege not extended to non-believers—are always the Platonic ideal of non-offensive believer, someone who barely believes really, keeps it to themselves, has no moral differences from an atheist, stays the course on the liberal party line and doesn’t squirm over Teh Gay or Teh Abortion, and maybe even agrees that “under god” should be taken out of the Pledge. We all like liberal Christians, so can atheists just stay in the closet and not upset the nice ones?
It’s actually a really damning argument, and has the power to shame really well. Which is why I’m glad that Dawkins in The God Delusion draws a lot on feminism for his ideas, because it helped me realized what the argument for benevolent religious privilege reminds me of—the hard to argue against arguments for benevolent male dominance. You see this argument in many different forms, no doubt employed because it assumes that pressure from outside the mainstream is somehow more coercive than pressure inside the mainstream, and therefore a strike against freedom. Call it “choice feminism” when used to argue for things like breast implants and the marital name change being outside the bounds of criticism, or “chivalry” when arguing for traditional domestic gender roles. Classic version (unsurprisingly, lean on religion): the argument that women should submit to their husbands, based on Biblical rules. The justification is that men are exhorted to love their wives. In other words, it’s a benevolent dictatorship, so no one is harmed, until the meanie mean feminists start in with the criticism.
There are two major problems with the benevolent male dominance argument:
1) By extending power to benevolent dictators, you also extend it to tyrannical ones. A culture of male dominance cultivates wife-beating, rape, emotional neglect, and child abuse, even if there are a substantial number of good men who don’t exploit their privileges.
2) Even in the ideal benevolent situations, there’s something lost by the stifling of women’s potential this way. One of the important revelations of the feminist movement was how even the submission to good, kind men was demoralizing and seeded resentments. And it damaged men’s potential, too. Both the dominant and underclass of a benevolent dictatorship are lessened for being in it.
So it goes with the automatic privileging of belief over non-belief on the theory that really nice believers shouldn’t have to face titles like The God Delusion on the bookshelf, making them squirmy with cognitive dissonance. It seems harmless enough on its surface to coddle the kind believer by shutting up and staying in the closet. But the very existence of the religious privilege extended by virtue of how nice some believers are is used by the ugly fuckers, just as wife beaters rely on the privilege extended to all men, because most don’t beat their wives. The Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world exist because it’s rude to challenge religious belief, and they exploit that taboo for all its worth, bundling every kind of bigotry and evil into the container labeled “My Religious Belief That’s Above Criticism”. Sure, within a handful of liberal social circles, there’s fine lines drawn between religions that are okay to criticize and those that aren’t, but as I learned after the John Edwards blow-out, the mainstream view is that the religious exemption from criticism generally extends far enough to cover Catholic abuse of its own followers, at least on the contraception debate.
The other thing is harder to measure, but I think it’s the same problem—when something is limiting potential, it’s hard to say what it’s limiting until the limits are thrown off and people really begin to explore. If atheists get to come out of the closet and start drawing more attention to the way that atheism is the logical result of rationalism, then doors could be opened that we don’t even completely know yet. Certainly one thing that could be changed is the absolute requirement that candidates be pious to run for much more than dogcatcher, and getting religion out of politics would do Americans and the world a whole lot of good.