On Christian Privilege & Being an Atheist Ally

A strange issue emerged around the Democratic party platform this week:  Use of the word God.

Peter Montgomery sums up the issue here, calling it a “manufactured outrage” sparked by Republican politicians, and complicated when the Democrats changed their adopted platform, re-inserting the term “God-given potential” as well as changing its language on Jerusalem.  Some objected to the process, others objected to the issues. 

Need God be named in the platform?  No.  What many have since reminded us is that the Constitution itself does not include the word God.

Here’s what I think:  Politicians and political parties use the word ‘God’ far too much.  The word ‘God’ does not need to be in a political party platform.  I wish politicians wouldn’t feel they have to conclude every public address with “God Bless America.”

In part, this is for one simple reason:  Atheists are Americans too.

My beliefs in and about God do not need to be imposed on everyone else.  That’s not what a pluralistic democracy looks like.  This issue is also what has been at the core of so much of this year’s discussions about religious freedom and choice.  I don’t need to impose my beliefs and practices on the Catholic bishops and I surely don’t want them to do that to me.

But the thing is, politicians and political parties get away with it.  Why?  Christian privilege.  The ability to presume that everyone thinks and believes like you when you are part of a majority faith.

Thinking about how systemic privilege and oppression are reflected in human societies and personal interactions is something that feminism lives and breathes.  Peggy McIntosh’s widely read, quoted, and used 1988 essay on “White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” built on her feminist awareness of how male privilege plays out, to address white privilege, and has since been adapted to address other systemic privileges like heterosexuality.

What about Christian privilege?  Especially in the United States.  Here is a crucial source of unearned tools and cultural capital that persons can count on cashing in and about which they are never meant to be aware.  Some examples I came up with, inspired of course by McIntosh’s style.  These are things that are true, even if they shouldn’t be:

  1. I can assume that wherever I live in this country, I will be able to find a familiar place to pray and worship.
  2. I have a job that recognizes my sabbath.
  3. My holy days are national holidays.
  4. The year, 2012, centers around my religion’s sacred timeframe.
  5. I can find greeting cards for my religion’s major rituals and events.
  6. When I dress to pray or worship, no one looks at me strangely.
  7. I have a legitimate shot at petitioning my local school board to have my religion’s cosmological story taught in a science class if I want to.
  8. Devotion to my faith is valued, and never mistaken for fanaticism or terrorism.
  9. My nephews will have their religion mentioned even in public school text books.
  10. If I want to engage in interfaith dialogue, I will be viewed by many as open minded, progressive, and charitable.
  11. I can choose to not engage in dialogue and service with people of religions other than my own.

I’d love to hear other ways in which you think about and identify Christian privilege.

Back in 2008, a post on the Friendly Atheist blog here at Patheos talked about how to be an atheist ally.  Many of us who’ve reckoned with heterosexism and straight privilege embrace the language of ‘ally’ to talk about working with our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers for justice and equality.

Why not be an ally to our atheist neighbors?  Here are a few suggestions from that post on what that would mean:

“Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about atheists — and don’t perpetuate them.”

“Find common ground.”

“Speak out against anti-atheist bigotry and other forms of religious intolerance.”

“Be inclusive of atheists.”

“Be aware of how religious belief gives you a place of mainstream and privilege.”

Can naming and debunking Christian privilege change the way that God-talk is tossed around so casually in politics, as if everyone believes in God?

Let’s find out.


About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Dkeane

    Excellent post.

    • Caryn Riswold

      thank you.

  • http://prismatictheology.com carol wimmer

    Can we please use the word ‘citizens’ when referring to LGBT people and/or people of other faiths or no faith? Brothers and sisters denotes a spiritual connection. Neighbor denotes close geographical proximity. ‘Citizens’ of the United States of America brings the right language into play when we discuss politics and argue for the legal rights of our citizens.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Great point – thanks for pointing this out.

  • Val

    Thank you for this.

    • Caryn Riswold

      You’re welcome. Thank you for reading it.

  • Common Sense


    Everybody says there is a problem called White Privilege. Everybody says this White Privilege problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.

    The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve Asian Privilege by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.

    Everybody says the final solution to this White Privilege problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites.

    What if I said there was this problem called Black Privilege and this Black Privilege would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?

    How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a Black Privilege problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?

    And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this?

    But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

    They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.

    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.

    • Caryn Riswold

      I completely disagree that “anti-racist is a code word for anti-white” … My understanding of being anti-racist is being committed to ending systemic privilege and oppression based on nothing more than skin color. It also means talking about real ways that my whiteness has afforded me privileges that I did not necessarily earn. As McIntosh’s piece, which I link to, talks about, and as many many more authors and activists have written meaningfully about.

    • Caryn Riswold

      And, I have no idea what you are talking about with the “final solution” language for ending white privilege, and that everyone is insisting on assimmilation or intermarriage. I certainly said no such thing.

    • Monado

      Europeans have already poured into North America, South America, Asia, Australia, Africa, and the Pacific islands, usually at gunpoint.

    • http://alsantedview.tumblr.com Simon Tam

      For a name like “Common Sense,” you seem to be lacking it. Perhaps you don’t understand the concept of what “privilege” is. The reason why people speak of ideas such as “white privilege” is because that group of people have enjoyed systematic benefits that have resulted in a narrow point of view that naturally excludes others, whether it is intentional or not. Even the term “third world countries” denotes white privilege.

      What’s being asked here is that those who are in the majority, who enjoy a certain social status that sometimes lacks awareness should ally with marginalized groups afflicted by racism, prejudice, and bigotry. It has nothing to do with being anti-white.

  • Erin M.

    Thank you so much for writing this. As an atheist, I love these reminders that not everyone views every issue as an “us vs. them” situation. We’re in this together!

  • Gordon

    I wanted to thank you for this!

  • OregoniAn

    I clicked over here from the “Friendly Atheist” blog as Hemant had made positive mention of you. Excellent article Caryn! I wish there were more Christians like you – perhaps there are and the ones who drive me nuts are just a vocal minority.. I’ll try to be more open minded.

    I sincerely believe that separation of Church and State is equally beneficial for Christians as it is for people of other faiths – as well as those of no faith at all. It annoys me no end that something so deeply personal as ones faith gets used (by both major parties) as bait and hook for votes. This election season it’s become worse than ever.

    Love your blog, and (completely off-topic) I love the way your first name is spelled. Props to your parents =)

    • Caryn Riswold

      Thank you so much … [ and I'll let my parents know ;-) ]

  • M. Elaine

    Ms. Riswold, thank you so much for speaking out on this issue. I watched day 3 of the DNC and, although fired up (and ready to go…heh) about the direction in which I believe the Democratic leadership has taken us and will continue to take us, I found all the God talk discouraging. The night kicked off with a prayer which not only excluded atheists like me, but also excluded people whose religious beliefs don’t include “God” or “Lord” or “Heavenly Father.”
    The convention is paid for in part with taxpayer dollars. I have also donated personally to the Obama campaign. The prayers and God talk sent me a message, “Thanks for the money, now go sit in the corner and be excluded.”
    The separation of state and church is something I feel quite strongly about, so to have it trampled upon on such a grand stage was very discouraging. I needed a ray of sunshine, and your blog post was it. So a huge ‘thank you’ to you.
    Were I not an atheist, I’d say your post came through divine intervention. :)

  • http://www.eharrishome.com Erik Harris

    Well said, Caryn. When I was growing up, this is the type of Christianity I was aware of – benevolent, inclusive, and neither hidden from nor imposed on others. Today, the public face of Christianity is pretty much the exact opposite, and it’s incredibly sad. I wish more Christians were vocal about their opposition to the extreme version of their religion that has worked its way so deeply into American politics.

  • onamission5

    Thank you for writing this. It is nice to be reminded that it’s not just atheists who recongise the necessity for having secular government if we are to have government which fairly represents all citizens and would-be citizens.


  • TiltedHorizon

    “My beliefs in and about God do not need to be imposed on everyone else. That’s not what a pluralistic democracy looks like.”

    This moved me, not just moved but picked up and relocated in another timezone. I hope people see the wisdom in these words. As an atheist, I thank you for building this bridge.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Wow. Thank you so much for saying that. I’m grateful beyond measure.

  • Julie M

    Thank you for speaking out about this issue. Your fellow Christians are more likely to be open to hearing this from one of their own. It’s also a refreshing reminder for us atheists that not all religious people are actively working to take away our rights and force their religions on us.

  • http://pursuing.calefaction.org/ Steve K

    Sincerest thanks for your voice in this. Would that more had the courage to speak and write as you do–with the conviction of your faith AND the recognition of others’ valid agency.

  • http://quittingprovidence.blogspot.com Paul Crider

    Thanks for writing this, from a friendly neighborhood atheist. For my part, I try to tone down the anti-religion rhetoric among folks of my persuasion.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Also an important part of living and learning together … thanks.

  • Tony

    As an atheist, I’ve seen tremendous amounts of venom directed from many believers toward non-believers.
    I really, *really* appreciate this post.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Caryn, thank you for your awareness of the issue of Christian privilege, your integrity to see its unfairness, your courage to challenge it, and your wisdom to seek alliances with the non-privileged. Please consider me an atheist ally of yours.

    It seems that in the last few years many, many people have become extremely contentious and tribal over all sorts of issues, dehumanizing and demonizing each other over political, religious, social and cultural differences that do not warrant such bitter enmity. Even those who try to calm the melee with appeals for respectful and rational discussion are cursed and vilified by extremists from all directions, even the sides they favor. As Erin M. said above, thank you for reminding me that there are still a few of us who value mutual understanding and mutual solutions instead of to-the-death conflicts over matters that should seem trivial when compared to our shared humanity.

    To respond your request for an example of Christian privilege: Some, (not all) Christians have a blindness to their over-arching assumption that their way of doing things is the “default position,” the neutral, normal, “way it has always been, and ought to be.” For example, in many cities, council members have been conducting Christian-only prayers during city government functions for decades. Then an atheist group objects to that as an unconstitutional governmental endorsement of a particular religion. The atheists try to help the council members understand that such prayers send a message of exclusion and unwelcome to the non-Christian citizens of the community. Then Christians protest that their rights are being harmed, and it’s very difficult to help them see that no, that’s not a right they ever had, even if they got away with it for decades. They have the right to practice and promote their faith with their private funding, on their private property, and on public streets and in public parks, but not on the taxpayers’ dime or with the government’s implicit or explicit endorsement. This is not a difficult distinction, but they are so used to having their improper practices go unchallenged, that they assume that it is and always was proper.

    I will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Christians to protect their rights to practice and promote their faith as the Constitution promises and guides, BUT they must understand that the same rules that protect them must also apply to everyone of all faiths and of no faith. I expect them to fight for my rights too. This is also not a difficult idea, but once again they have been raised in privilege, so they unthinkingly assume that freedom of religion means freedom for them to do whatever they wish wherever they wish, and freedom does not apply to anyone who is different from them.

    We must all remain free, or too soon none of us will be free. We must all protect each others’ liberty, or too soon we will be incapable of protecting our own liberty.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Thanks for those examples … important points.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have a few more examples of privilege:
    12. If I run for political office, my religious views will be an asset, not a liability.
    13. Meetings of my local legislature usually open with a prayer from my faith.
    14. If my children wish to form an after-school religious interest group, they will easily be able to find a sponsor, and will not be met with opposition.
    15. I can let my work colleagues know what religion I belong to, without fear of personal repercussions, or risk of being fired.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Excellent additions to the list.

  • Stephen Cook

    Not all people who believe in God or use theistic language are Christian–Jews, Muslims, Mormons and others immediately come to mind, as I am sure the poster knows full well. Therefore I ask, “Why hang this issue of unfair privilege solely around the neck of Christians?” Further, as a minister serving Unitarian Universalist congregations (an extremely diverse and not Christian, nor even particularly theist, religious association) I know intimately the challenge of finding a comfortable place of worship or a community of like-minded people, just to disagree with one of the list above; there are more, as well, that do apply to us. Christians versus atheists I find far too simple a distinction.

    • Caryn Riswold

      These are all really good points. I use the language of Christian privilege insofar as I am speaking for myself and where I’m coming from. That being said, you are completely right.

  • Gary (NJ)

    I totally agree with your article and try never to be insulting to atheists nor agnostics. However, when *some* atheists, and I stress some, refer to God as the same as Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or our “invisible friend in the sky” I find it highly insulting. Not only do these people have a totally puerile concept of God, or at least they do compared to my concepts and experience, they imply that people who have spiritual/religious beliefs are somehow incapable of reason and critical thinking; which is demonstrably not true.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Yes, this is very true. In fact, I was inspired to write this point in part because of a Twitter exchange between Chris Stedman and Amanda Marcotte on Wednesday night during the DNC. Amanda used the type of language you describe here, “magical beings in the sky,” and Chris (author of the upcoming book Fatheist, which I’ll be writing about soon!) tried to suggest that this language was insulting and not necessarily correct. Amanda wouldn’t give it up, and the exchange was fascinating.

  • Chris Keene

    Thanks for talking about respect for your fellow man. As an atheist with nothing but respect for all life styles, it’s nice to see a call for brotherly love that Jesus was always going on about. Maybe someday my lack of religion will earn a bit of respect.

  • http://etratio.blogspot.com Dan

    I cannot express how much I loved this post! There should be more people in the Christian community who feel as you do.

  • Catherine Norr

    Thianks for your thoughtful and well written blog-article. And thank you for your gracious responses to comments…active practice of the tolorance and willingness to listen and share that is so needed in politics & religion…in society as a whole.

  • Drew M.

    Wow. Thank you for this!

  • Daryl Forman

    As a progeressive Lutheran, I am ashamed of both the DNC and the RNC along with the Catholic church/fundamentalist jaggernaught using religion as a manipulating tool to fleece voters. I ‘m a strong believer of separation of church and state. Can’t believe the politicians can’t connect to the biggest problem of the earth’s very existence in global warming; wasting valuable time quibbling over nonsense.

  • Katherine Harms

    There should always be room in a conversation in the USA for yet another view. I hope so.
    I don’t see the things Ms. Riswold lists as evidence of Christian “privilege” at all. I see them as evidence of the history of the USA. The people who originally colonized the East Coast and the people who were most numerous in the general population as the country grew were Christians. For centuries, not just a few years, the culture was predominantly shaped by the predominant element in the culure—Christianity. Even people who could not articulate the faith, and people who didn’t even share the belief, respected Christianity in a cultural way. To describe how that worked would take a book, not a comment, but the outcome is exactly what Ms. Riswold describes.
    I don’t see how that constitutes “imposing” anything on anyone.
    The big brouhaha over “God” in the Democrat platform only mattered to people who believe that the platform matters and people who think you can accomplish something by pasting “God” into a document. It was a ridiculous and completely faithless exercise which did nothing to “impose” either Christian religion or Democrat politics on anyone. Anyone who was fooled into thinking it meant anything is dangerously ignorant and inattentive.
    I don’t see how that contitutes “imposing” anything on anyone.
    The culture of the USA today is very different from the culture in 1776, because there has been a great deal of immigration of non-Christian population along with some internal culture shifts away from traditional Christianity. In 1993, a poll showed that 85% of Americans even at that recent date self-identified as Christian, and in a culture dominated by a Christian flavor to that extent, it is natural that the expression of the faith, or at least expression of the faith words, would be common.
    A poll taken last year, however, indicated that 19% of all Americans classify themselves as secular, which includes atheist leanings. The column I read didn’t include the rest of the poll’s findings, because they were irrelevant to that column, but any observant person knows that the rest of the people do not all self-identify as Christian. I would be interested to know those statistics.
    However, what all this change means is that we need to hold fast to a principle of American culture since the beginning — everyone is free to choose what to believe, and everyone is free to speak what he pleases. The erosion of freedom of speech by means of taking offense at every word is a dangerous trend in our country, and the very people who are busy taking offense at everything today will one day rue the outcome if it continues.
    There used to be a way to manage the social issues associated with free speech. It was called “etiquette.” Good etiquette required that people show respect for one another, and deliberately aggressive and offensive speech was suppressed, not in order to suppress the ideas, but in the simple cultural pressure of shaming those who offended others on purpose. However, the current idea that I can’t say “God bless America” because an atheist might be offended offends me. I’m not trying to convert the atheist when I express myself, but the atheist is trying to suppress the free exercise of my faith when he/she demands that I stop saying it. When Muslims do not want “In God We Trust” on money and other documents, or when somebody shoots innocent Sikhs because they look like Muslims to him, we see expressions of a tendency to label and destroy, not to live together with respect.
    The biggest problem I see in this situation is the willingness, even the desire, to take offense at everything. If we do that, we cripple our ability to live together in peace. Remember when the polite way to refer to a black person was to use the work “Negro?” Then it was “black.” Now it is “African-American?” What next? Where does it stop? You could document a similar progression in a lot of terminology. Yet as these words have been stressed and strained over, words that used to be considered vulgar and socially unacceptable in public have become the content of the nightly news streamed into living rooms around the nation.
    The determination to take offense and to go on the warpath against all these words, many of which are meaningless by this point, is dividing the culture in ways that nobody ever wished for. What is it we want? We want a nation that doesn’t think first of a label or classification for our neighbors. We want to be colorblind and ethnic-blind and faith-blind in our normal speech, yet every news report talks about people such as a “black ethnic Latino Catholic.” What is that all about? Those labels are meant to encompass the politically correct speech, but what they mostly do is keep us focused on the wrong issues. This is a human being we are talking about!
    Let’s stop stressing about the labels. Let’s stop taking offense at everything. Let’s start acting like neighbors. Let’s permit people to speak in peace and assume the best rather than the worst. Oh, and let’s admit that this whole conversation is about each of us hoping to persuade all the others to modify their thoughts, just a little bit, or maybe a lot. That is human nature. Let’s allow it to happen and let’t be okay with that.

    • Helen

      I think it’s easy to say ‘let’s not stress about the labels’ when you are a member of the dominant group. You said that etiquette used to demand that if your speech offended someone, you would suppress it. Is it really so difficult to refrain from saying, “God bless America!” when it offends or excludes other people? It’s an indication that you are of a majority and in some respects oppressive group; can’t you respect other groups by not needing to do so?

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  • Helen

    Thank you for this. After an unexpectedly vitriolic ‘all atheists do is preach’ post from a friend of mine, I was feeling a little heartsore.

  • Sylvia N

    Other aspects of Christian privilege of which I’m aware are an assumed shared cosmology, vocabulary and mythology. I started going to church in college. As a junior in high school, I had an English teacher who presumed that all of her students would be familiar with the Christian bible, and penalized me on a test because I wasn’t. After college, I went to seminary and immersed myself in the Christian thought world. My partner, whose eclectic spirituality is based mostly in Hinduism, helps me realize how often I use Christian terms and ideas, even after being outside ‘mainstream’ churches for several years.