When trying to better understand what white privilege is supposed to be, I discovered a series of articles that help by providing concrete examples, such as What Is White Privilege? Here Are 9 Everyday Examples by Suzannah Weiss. As I was reading through these, it occurred to me that the social justice movement has been suspiciously silent about a another form of privilege that may be just as extensive – secular privilege.
Let me use the first seven examples of white privilege from the Weiss article to show they could just as well represent examples of secular privilege (it would help to read that article before this one). I’ll start by again quoting Weiss, with a few word changes, and quote her examples with the appropriate word changes. I will then add three more examples of my own.
If you’re a secular person who has trouble understanding your privilege, here are some examples proving that it definitely exists. It’s not your fault that you benefit from these privileges, but you can still work to help others benefit from them too.
1.Your Wages Aren’t Lower Because You are Religious
While I was unable to find any solid studies that compare the income of religious vs. secular people, this Pew Research survey found that atheists and agnostics have a higher household income than members of most religions. For example, while almost 60% of atheists have an income of more than $50,000 per year, only about 30% of Baptists do.
While the Pew data don’t measure religiosity itself, it is worth noting that the religious group with the highest household incomes also happens to be the least religious. In this survey, 58% of people who made less than $30,000 a year self-reported that religion was very important in their lives, while 58% of the people who made more than $100,000 reported that religion was at most “somewhat important.”
2.People Don’t Make Assumptions About Your Intelligence Because Of Your Religion
A common stereotype about religious people is that they are stupid.
The stereotype is even proudly perpetuated by the social sciences – Religious People Are Less Intelligent Than Atheists, Concludes New Study.
3.You Don’t Feel Pressure To Represent Your Religion
Secular people never have to worry that if they make a mistake, people will assume they made it because secular people are less capable. On the other hand, if you belong to a religion, a mistake (intellectual or ethical) will be used as something that represents your religion. Being secular absolves you from this pressure to defy your religion’s stereotype so that your mistakes don’t hurt others of who share your religious faith.
4.Most Products Are Geared Toward You
A secular person can go into any corner convenience store to buy beer, cigarettes, lottery tickets, or other secular goods and walk out with something that suits them. Religious people will not find religious items so readily available (like pocket Bibles or kosher food), reminding them that in the eyes of mainstream culture, they are invisible.
5.Most Media Is Geared Toward You
Secular people can feel fairly confident that they will see people like them represented on TV, in movies, in magazines, in books, and all over the Internet. The media is clearly secular, as one can easily watch Netflix all weekend and listen to the radio in their car all week, catch a movie on a Friday night, and read the newspaper every morning without being exposed to religious messages/themes/people.
Furthermore, while the media promotes secular lifestyles and mindsets, it often expresses an antireligious bias. As journalism student Katherine Dempsey noted:
Media bias against Christians is not new. A study published in the Journal of Media and Religion points to partiality between 1980 and 2000 against certain Christians by examining how nightly television network news broadcasts reported on “fundamentalist” Christians. The study found that fundamentalists were reported in a “consistent, mildly negative manner.”
Not surprisingly, a Pew survey found that only 8% of journalists attend church on a weekly basis, while 68% never attend or attend a couple of times a year.
6.Beauty Standards Aren’t Rigged Against You Because Of Your Faith
The rigid beauty standards depicted in the media harm all women, and that harm can be due to factors other than religion. But many religious women express their faith through modesty of dress. Some refuse to wear pants or makeup and others cover their heads. Yet the beauty standards of most women’s magazines, fashion designers, and the various ads found throughout the media portray women who are scantily dressed with lots of makeup. Secular women don’t usually feel the same pressure to uncover themselves and paint their faces.
7.Jobs Won’t Discriminate Against You Due To Your Religion
A recent study shows that employers are more likely to discriminate against you if you are religious:
The first study focused on New England employers and showed that when referencing involvement in a Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, atheist, Jewish, Muslim, pagan or Wallonian (a religion made-up by researchers) student group, an applicant was 24 percent less likely than the control group to receive a phone call from an employer. The control group was composed of those resumes that mentioned a generic student organization like “The Student Alliance.”The second study repeated the field experiment in the South with similar results. Applicants who reported a religious identity of any kind were 26 percent less likely to receive a phone call or email.
The discrimination becomes worse if the applicant is an evangelical Christian. According to Yancey’s study, 59 percent of anthropologists and 53 percent of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical.
“Of course there are biases against evangelicals on campuses,” notes Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard. Walton, a black evangelical, adds that the condescension toward evangelicals echoes the patronizing attitude toward racial minorities: “The same arguments I hear people make about evangelicals sound so familiar to the ways people often describe folk of color, i.e. politically unsophisticated, lacking education, angry, bitter, emotional, poor.”
This may be the tip of the iceberg. Given that most social scientists are secular, and appear to discriminate against the religious when they hire candidates, it is not surprising that they have ignored this issue for decades:
Wallace said that there is a notable lack of research done on religious discrimination in the workplace. “Surprisingly, sociologists haven’t done a lot of studies of this problem. We found only a scattering of five or six articles over a 30-year period,” he said.
8. People Don’t Make Assumptions About Your Mental Health Because Of Your Religion
Another common stereotype about religious people is that they are mentally ill to some degree or another.
In fact, professor Peter Boghossian, a full time faculty member in the philosophy department at Portland State University and an affiliated faculty member at Oregon Health Science University in the Division of General Internal Medicine, has recently argued that religious faith should be classified as a mental illness.
Once religious delusions lose their exemption in the DSM, IRB approval 4 interventions curing people of the faith virus would be obtainable
— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) 28 July 2012
As far as I have been able to determine, no social scientist has spoken out against such a proposal.
9.A secular education for your child is free.
If you are a secular parent wanting your children to have a secular education, the government provides free schooling from ages 5-18. What’s more, these schools effectively have a zero-tolerance for any religious expression in the schools and the courts routinely enforce efforts to censor if a violation is uncovered. On the other hand, if you want your child to have an education that includes religious considerations and values, you will have to pay large sums of money. Assuming a modest tuition of $3000/year for K-8th grade, and $10,000/year for 9th-12th grade, religious parents can end up paying $67,000 for something that secular parents get for free. Of course, since many religious parents cannot afford such an education, they are forced to send their children to secular schools that promote secular values and outlooks.
10. Universities won’t discriminate against you because you are too religious.
Julie R. Posselt, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan, was allowed to witness a review of PhD applications at six research universities. What she observed in one instance is disturbing:
The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.
“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”
The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”
Other committee members defended her, but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics. One noted that the college had a good reputation in the humanities. And another said that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking.
At the end of this discussion, the committee moved the applicant ahead to the next round but rejected her there.
That the committee members felt so comfortable behaving like this in front of her, and that she observed this with such a small sample, suggests this type of thing is not uncommon.
In fact, there are multiple cases of students having their applications rejected because of their religious beliefs. For example:
One student, Brandon, was denied admission because when asked in an admissions interview what was the most important thing in his life, he replied simply, “My God.” In rejecting his application, Radiation Therapy Program Director Dr. Dougherty informed Brandon, “I understand that religion is a major part of your life. . . however, this field is not the place for religion. . . . If you interview in the future, you may want to leave your thoughts and beliefs out of the interview process.” The college unapologetically doubled down on this sentiment, stating that Dr. Dougherty’s statement “is not bad advice,” and that students, when interviewing for secular positions, would be better advised to “have a concrete reason for wanting to undertake the training at hand than to say only that God directed one to do it.” (For more on Brandon’s case, click here). This situation is almost unbelievable, but unfortunately Brandon isn’t alone.
Even if religious students get admitted into a university, there are many reports where they feel the need to hide their religious views from their professors. Consider one such report:
John had been a straight-A student until he enrolled in English writing. The assignment was an “opinion” piece and the required theme was “traditional marriage.” John is a Southern Baptist and he felt it was his duty to give his honest opinion and explain how it was grounded in his faith. The professor was annoyed that John claimed the support of the Bible for his views, scribbling in the margin, “Which Bible would that be?” On the very same page, John’s phrase, “Christians who read the Bible,” provoked the same retort, “Would that be the Aramaic Bible, the Greek Bible, or the Hebrew Bible?” (What could the point of this be? Did the professor want John to imagine that while the Greek text might support his view of traditional marriage, the Aramaic version did not?) The paper was rejected as a “sermon,” and given an F, with the words, “I reject your dogmatism,” written at the bottom by way of explanation.
Thereafter, John could never get better than a C for papers without any marked errors or corrections. When he asked for a reason why yet another grade was so poor he was told that it was inappropriate to quote C. S. Lewis in work for an English class because he was “a pastor.” (Lewis, of course, was actually an English professor at Cambridge University. Perhaps it was wrong to quote Lewis simply because he had said something recognizably Christian.) Eventually John complained to the department chair, who said curtly that he could do nothing until the course was over. John took this to mean that the chair would do nothing and just accepted the bad grade.
Then there was the classic case of Emily Brooker:
Brooker, a student in the university’s School of Social Work, had been assigned by a professor, Frank Kauffman, to write a letter to the Missouri Legislature expressing support for homosexual adoption. She refused to do so because of her religious objections and was charged with a “Level 3 Grievance,” the most serious charge possible, and faced the possibility of having her degree withheld.
In addition, Brooker faced a 2 1/2 hour interrogation from an “ethics” committee, which asked her personally invasive questions such as “Do you think gays and lesbians are sinners?” and “Do you think I am a sinner?”
Secular students don’t have to worry that their applications will be rejected or that they will be punished or interrogated by university professors or administrators for holding a viewpoint that was secular.
In summary, secular parents are assured a free and purely secular education for their children. When the secular children graduate, they do not have to worry about their secularism becoming an obstacle to being admitted to a university. Once in the university, the secular nature of their views will not be challenged or mocked and they can proudly write and speak about them. If they go on to apply to graduate school, they do not have to worry about their secularism becoming an obstacle to being admitted to a PhD program and the secular nature of their views will not be challenged or mocked. When they are done with the university, their secularism will not become an obstacle for getting a job and they can look forward to a higher income than their religious peers. Throughout all of this, they can enjoy a mass media that caters to all their secular interests and don’t have to worry about their culture stereotyping them as stupid and mentally ill.
It would seem to me that anyone who is honestly and seriously interested in social justice would pay attention to secular privilege and seek to check it. But alas, no one in the social justice movement is willing to acknowledge even the existence of secular privilege. Could it be because the social justice movement itself champions and defends secular privilege? After all, we know in the atheist community, there is a huge overlap among anti-religious activism and social justice activism. And could it thus be that their posturing about social justice itself is just self-serving deception?