The Catch-22 of Religious Privilege

The Catch-22 of Religious Privilege January 5, 2016

Image by frankieleon via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In what now feels like a former life (and in some ways, it is), I was a high school English teacher. As it happened, I entered full-time teaching as a Christian, and my deconversion almost perfectly bisected my five-year career. I don’t think I made any huge changes in my teaching style or philosophy from BD (Before Deconversion) to AD (After Deconversion), but that event did give me some perspective on religious issues in the classroom.

One of my overriding principles in my classroom was neutrality. My students were by and large Christian (either by explicit belief or by enculturation), but I tried to be as objective as I could when it came to necessary discussions about religion or religious ideas, and my deconversion made me more aware that some of my students were likely not religious (and this turned out to be the case, as I later found out).

At some point, I made a conscious decision to use CE/BCE instead of AD/BC for dating. (In truth, it was also in part because I thought it would be good to expose them to those initials in advance of college.)

Wouldn’t you know it — the first time I did so, one of my brighter students who was also one of the most overtly Christian made a point to say something about it. “Isn’t that,” the student pointedly asked, “just a way of making it less Christian?” I tried to respond as cautiously and gently as possible, but it was clear that the student’s perception here was, “You just used a term that tries to tear down my religion.”

It was uncomfortable for me in my neutrality, but it occurs to me now that this is a perfect example of what happens when you press up against religious privilege, in this case Christian privilege. If you try to take the spotlight off their religion, you’re committing an offense against them; if you don’t, you have tacitly submitted to that privilege and should kindly shut up.

I mean, the consternation over CE/BCE is practically nonsensical outside this context. After all, it’s a dating system that is based off a date calculated by a 6th-century Christian monk that basically everyone all the way up to a recent pope agrees is incorrect. The only reason we use it is because an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon monk decided to use it in a history of the English people, and tradition (plus the difficulty of switching dating systems) carried it to the present day.

But you suggest even that using CE/BCE is acceptable — not even mandatory! — and that’s “political correctness gone mad.” You’re trying to snuff out Christianity from the public square. You are engaging in “a form of persecution.”

(Fortunately, there are some more rational Christian voices arguing that the Common Era naming should actually be preferable to Christians.)

The same thing can be seen in the perennial fight in America over “In God We Trust” as well. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen or been involved in discussions where Christians responded to this pushback one of two ways (if not both): 1) they acted like opponents of IGWT were persecuting Christians (just as with CE/BCE) or 2) they told opponents (at least the ones who weren’t Christian) that maybe they should just stop using money if the phrase offends them so much. (I’m not joking with that last part, either.)

There’s the stark choice of the privilege-defender: Oppose privilege, and you’re an oppressor; ignore it, and you submit to their rule. Heads, I win; tails, you lose.

Of course, that false choice is precisely what the secularist rejects. We know that neutrality is possible, that a level playing field means no pedestals, neither for religions nor for non-religious views.

Will the defenders of religious privilege ever get that?

I guess you could say it’s a toss-up.

Image by frankieleon via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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