Religion as an axis of oppression

Earlier, when I was talking about the death of the New Atheist movement, and I mentioned the idea that New Atheism contained an implicit critique of social justice norms. In social justice, it is common to treat religion as just another axis of oppression, similar to race, gender, or orientation. Religious minorities, such as Muslims, are seen as an oppressed group. However, New Atheism problematized the social justice framing by pointing to the harm caused by religion. New Atheism wanted to make it socially acceptable to argue about religious beliefs.

So, I’m curious how this all rolled out, especially among readers who participated in New Atheism and then shifted towards social justice. How did you view religious minorities around five years ago? Have your views changed since then? If so, why?

I wanted to begin with an analogy between religious and political minorities, both of which are belief-based minorities. For example, conservatives are a minority in California. I observe that most social justice people would hesitate to treat conservatives in California like a marginalized group. So there’s a question of whether there’s a breakdown in the analogy, and where.

But perhaps the analogy suffers from a lack of consensus for how to treat political minorities. What good is an analogy if it analogizes a situation we don’t agree on to another situation that we also don’t agree on?

My attitude has been, and continues to be, that religion causes a great deal of harm, and it is important to have space to argue against it. The silence surrounding religion often benefits the religious majority, because it is the atheists who are seen as the “offenders” for bringing up religion, while the religious majority usually gets a pass. When people complain that atheists are too shrill, this is a form of tone policing, and stereotyping too.

On the other hand, having space to argue against religion does not mean harassing people who are unwilling to argue. It does not mean laying the deeds of extremist Muslims at the feet of rando Muslims. It does not mean discriminating against Muslims, or blocking refugees. And if you’re going to argue against Islam, you owe it to Muslims to understand their position as a minority group in the US and Europe, and the implications of that.

So, I’m taking a middle view. Muslims are an oppressed minority group in the US and Europe, and should be treated as such. But we should be free to argue against religions–Islam included. It’s all a matter of context. In some contexts, arguing against Islam is appropriate, in other contexts it’s inappropriate.

One thing that has changed for me over the years, is that more and more, it seems I live in a context where arguing against religion is inappropriate. Especially as I’ve taken a community leader role in the ace community, I don’t want to chase religious people away. Anyways, I don’t even like arguing about religion that much. I’m in favor of it in the abstract, but I have better things to do.


  1. Poltiser says

    I don’t think it is a question of “death of New Atheism” or any atheism at all. The media cry over statements of “New Atheists” was politically motivated and all the drama of accusation, bigotry, blasphemy etc. is the best example of the bias and oppression.
    At the moment in many societies around “globalising” world a movement of “new ignorance” rises the head, after the isolation of the ghettoes, home and religious schooling, cultural, ideological and religious blinkers are again in fashion and muzzle free speech with the smoke screen of fighting for “religious rights”…
    Until the balance between individual freedom of believes and expression of the believes will not be guarded and incorporated in the legal systems – ideological echo chambers of internet will destroy modern “democracy” and replace it with “mobautocracy” as it is happening in so many places…
    Don’t cry for NewRiders, they had five minutes, now we need new Spinoza again…

    Best regards

    PS. They say: “you will sleep in a comfort if you manage to make your bed.”


  2. says

    My feeling is summed up in your last paragraph. Context. I’ve seen what happens when every cultural xtian feels like ripping on islam 24-7: It fuels violent islamophobia in society, regardless of how true the criticisms may be. I think there may be a context in which it’s fine for someone like myself to argue against the beliefs of islam, but I try to leave that to ex-muslims or people from muslim-majority cultures to handle.

    That last thing said, even when culturally appropriate speakers are doing the talking, it can stoke islamophobia. Indeed, the Koch brothers have given money to Ayaan Hirsi-Ali to do exactly that, and we had a problem with someone on this network doing the same. I don’t know where to draw those lines, maybe it isn’t my job to do so.

    Another consideration is that blasphemy feels vital to me. I don’t want to live in a world where I’m not allowed to tell god by any of his names to fuck off and die. If loving god can be a thing that deserves protection, despising him on the most deepy felt of moral grounds should also be protected. But that’s getting close to off topic. Atheists rarely get assaulted or murdered for their beliefs or cultures in my country, jews and muslims have with increasing frequency.

    So like you, I’m really on the fence, but my rule of thumb: No more dead muslims on my conscience. (I’m convinced Craig Stephen Hicks was inspired by new atheists, including us.) If I feel the need to criticize something in islam, I’ll think, can I just say this about abrahamic faiths or the western concept of god in general? And I’ll let myself out of the box to piss on Mohammed on average less than once a year.

    I don’t know if that’s the best way, but it’s where I’m at right now.

  3. says

    I don’t argue much against religion any more because I think that religion in itself has become less of a problem. There is still a strong correlation between certain kinds of religious belief and certain kinds of social injustice, but I no longer see religious people using religion as a justification for generalizing their injustice to the larger society. At worst, they seem to be using religion as a justification for maintaining injustice within their own communities: still a big problem, but a philosophical or political critique of religion seems like a poor lever to address within-group injustice, when philosophical and political critique of religion seemed like a good lever to address between-group injustice.

    As a communist, I have a more problematic relationship with racial, religious (specifically Muslim), sexual-orientation, and feminist social justice efforts. The most obvious factor is that I am a member of almost all socially privileged groups. It seems inappropriate for me to even offer unsolicited advice to historically oppressed groups on how to address and correct their oppression. On the other hand, I am extremely concerned with economic oppression, and I have what I see as legitimate credentials and expertise to talk about economic oppression and at least the relationship between economic oppression and, for lack of a better term, “identity-based” oppression.

    My elevator pitch in this regard is that I am unsympathetic to any advocate if their idea of ending oppression means only that their group is well-represented and well-respected in the capitalist ruling class, and I oppose anyone who advocates even tacitly preserving the capitalist system so that select members of their group can enjoy being the oppressors instead of the oppressed.

  4. Owlmirror says

    For example, conservatives are a minority in California. I observe that most social justice people would hesitate to treat conservatives in California like a marginalized group. So there’s a question of whether there’s a breakdown in the analogy, and where.

    I’d call attention to the point that minority and marginalized/oppressed are not synonymous. The racial situation in South Africa comes to mind, as but one point. Another tack is to ask what actual oppression (in social or economic or whatever domains) conservatives experience at the hands of non-conservatives.

  5. says

    @Owlmirror #4,
    The thing I’d worry about with political minorities is mainly biases in the workplace. e.g. if an employee holds politically conservative views, perhaps their boss will perceive them as not fitting in with the “company culture”, and pass up on them for promotion. This is materially similar, e.g. to workplace discrimination against women, POC, and people of different ages. Of course, there’s a lot more to sexism than just “company culture”. It’s also hard to be sympathetic to a group when their loudest voices are actively hostile to diversity and inclusion (see: Damore).

    There’s an analogy to religion here. It’s hard to treat religion as an axis of oppression, when the loudest voices in religion are actively supporting oppression. So New Atheists could not treat religion as an axis of oppression. But the role of religion in oppression has changed over time, so that’s something we could re-evaluate.

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