16 January 2013

Religious privilege? What religious privilege?

It’s no secret that critics of religion are often made out to be mean curmudgeons with inflated grievances. They exaggerate the harms of religion while downplaying or ignoring the good that faith and the faithful contribute to society. Whether they are atheists, humanists or secularists, strident critics of religion all have a vendetta against any public expression of religious ideals, and are not above bully tactics to get their way.

This caricature omits one important detail: religion enjoys an unjustified and anachronistic kind of privilege that is denied – for good reasons – to secular ideologies and institutions. This religious privilege manifests as the automatic assumption of moral rectitude, and as special treatment from the government, like churches being exempted from both taxes and certain secular laws. It is this very privilege that allows religious groups in countries like Australia to discriminate against homosexuals, unmarried couples or anyone perceived to be egregious ‘sinners’. Given this, it is dishonest of its sympathisers to paint religion as the disadvantaged victim in any confrontation with its critics.

Our PM Julia Gillard may be an atheist, but her government is clearly committed to upholding the privilege of religious groups to break anti-discrimination laws simply because they believe that a sky-fairy would be quite cross if they had gays on the payroll. Labor’s new Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill aims to consolidate existing anti-discrimination acts into one comprehensive law, but god-believers needn’t worry, the bill won’t remove their right to deny the rights of their fellow citizens. As David Marr wrote in The Age, the bill is a “bigots’ charter.”

Of course, religionists like Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby beg to differ. Wallace doesn’t think he’s a bigot because discriminating against, say, homosexuals is simply “a case of looking for people in employment of staff who represent your same philosophy of the organisation that’s employing them.” He goes on to compare religious prejudice with how an environmental group wouldn’t hire someone who was pro-logging, a false equivalence since the latter discriminates on purely ideological grounds while the former discriminates on things like sexuality, which is hardly a matter of choice.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon seems a tad peeved with criticisms of the new bill. After all, the government’s aim was just to “simplify and consolidate the law, not completely re-invent the anti-discrimination system.” Because reinventing the system would mean ensuring that the rules apply equally to everyone, thereby removing any special treatment for religious groups. Roxon goes on to remind, and chide, us:

Labor is proud to have developed the sex, race and disability discrimination acts and established the Human Rights Commission. And we are proud now to be developing these important new protections from discrimination on the basis of sexuality… The fact that these new protections are being glossed over by some commentators is regretful.

Nice work Labor, except that religious organisations can still ignore these protections. And they are allowed to do so because of the divine mandate they supposedly possess, a mandate that they have convinced the public and government of Australia (and elsewhere) to be worthy of privilege. This is the same privilege that gives taxpayers’ money to Christian Evangelicals for them to proselytise to schoolchildren. It is the same privilege that equates religiosity with moral authority. And it is the same privilege that makes criticism of religion, unlike criticism of political, economic or scientific ideas, a specifically vulgar act.

HT: Grant Joslin


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