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The Danger of Religious Privilege

By WizenedSage --

Below is my most recent letter-to-the-editor offering to a local weekly newspaper. In the 3rd and 4th paragraphs I talk about the extreme editing of an earlier letter of mine. Both letters were sent to the same newspaper, and, amazingly, the letter below was published intact, with no edits!

I did get an e-mail from the editor claiming his earlier edits were not related to the subject matter, and suggesting that I wrote just to piss people off. Of course I responded in my defense. As this exchange was taking place, I knew the paper had already been printed, but I hadn't seen it yet. Imagine my surprise when I saw what he had printed. Of course, I'm lucky, I live in Maine, well away from the Bible belt.

To the Editor:

Prayer for USAImage by hpebley3 via Flickr

The current flap over the National Day of Prayer court case has brought to light a concern which deserves a great deal more newsprint than it gets. It should be obvious now that religion is granted a privileged and protected place in our society and that the danger of this situation is grossly underestimated.

Religion is so privileged in this country that our currency sports the motto, “In God We Trust,” and our Pledge of Allegiance contains the words, “One nation under God.” In fact, it often seems that it doesn’t matter to folks which god we worship, so long as it’s one of them.

Media censorship of anti-religious opinion is another example of the privileged position of religion. I witnessed this myself only recently when I submitted a letter-to-the-editor to a newspaper and saw it published in an emasculated form. I had quoted real people who had been psychologically damaged by the teachings of hell, in order to make a point. Those quotes, all of them, were edited out of the published letter. Apparently the medicine was too strong. It might disturb someone’s comfort. If I had quoted political opinion or statements representing one school of economics or another, I think it very unlikely that those quotes would have been removed. Only religion gets this kind of privileged, hands-off treatment.

What is the danger of religious privilege? Consider this. There are large, active Christian sects today which teach that prayer is the proper treatment for illness, not medicine. There is another sect which commands its members to refuse blood transfusions under any and all circumstances. These teachings have been responsible for many deaths, including the deaths of children. There is considerable scientific evidence which counters these teachings (which are attributed to the Bible), yet you will see little discussion of these matters in public forums because it is considered somehow impolite to question people’s religious beliefs in public. People sometimes die from these teachings, but religion is privileged. Some states even have laws absolving parents from legal responsibility for the deaths of their children caused by these beliefs.

What is the danger of religious privilege? The Ryan Report (May 20, 2009) on child abuse by Catholic institutions in Ireland is another first-class example. According to the Ryan Report, because of the power and prestige of the Catholic Church in Ireland, whenever child abuse was reported to Catholic authorities, it was covered up, from the public and the law. In fact, in many cases, when people brought abuses to the attention of police, the police considered it a church matter and passed the allegations on to church authorities as opposed to investigating themselves. The national Department of Education was also condemned in the report for abdicating its responsibilities to the children involved, which it did in deference to the church.

These cover-ups, which have happened repeatedly in our country as well, occurred because the churches are seen as more important than people. Clearly, when the religious dogma is considered sacrosanct, morality gets twisted to serve the dogma. The individual abused child becomes “collateral damage,” a regrettable, but secondary concern. The reputation and survival of the religion always come first.

The clear and present danger here is that if we cannot pull religion down off its pedestal of privilege and challenge the churches publicly to prove the worth and “truth” of their dogmas, then we the people will continue to suffer the consequences – especially the children, who are nearly always powerless to reject, or even question, the religion of their parents.