Religious Privilege Primer – Preface: Roots of ZFB

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How did ZackFord Blogs come about? Why did I decide to dedicate a whole blog to issues of religious privilege and LGBT issues? Just like in that one episode of Heroes that showed the events right before the original pilot, I’m going to share today everything that led up to the creation of this blog. This post is an introduction to the first document I ever wrote on the topic of religious privilege, what I’m calling my “Religious Privilege Primer.” Because the original is quite long (I called it my “treatise”), I’ve broken it up into sections over multiple posts. Truly, this document is what spurred this entire blog, and I think it appropriate that I finally dedicate the space to sharing it. First, some background…

It was only in February 2008 that I first read Dawkins’ The God Delusion and first decided that “atheist” appropriately describes my worldview. The book really meant a lot to me and really helped me sort out a lot of my thinking on issues, but at the time, that was that.

My passive atheism came to a sudden end the following November because of California’s Proposition 8. I still don’t think people quite realize the significance of Proposition 8. It was the first time that people voted to take away a right. Lots of marriage amendments and DOMAs had been passed, but in a sense, they were all preventative. In this case, though, there were already some 16,000 same-sex marriages, and people were voting to take a step back away from equality.

I followed Proposition 8 very closely. I had lived in California during the Summer of 2007, and I had a lot of friends out there. I even donated $50 to the No on 8 campaign (which is a pretty meaningful chunk to a graduate assistant). I knew as much as someone living in Iowa could know about what was happening out there, including that the biggest supporters of the Yes on 8 campaign were the Catholic and Mormon churches.

When I woke that morning in November to learn that rights had been taken away, I was quite upset, but also overcome with revelation. I realized that the entire argument against same-sex marriage was religious. There wasn’t a single anti-gay argument that could be made without a religious undertone. Quite unlike the polarity of the civil rights movement of decades before (white vs. black), this wasn’t gay vs. straight, it was gay vs. Christian. The significance of Prop 8’s passing was an imposition of religious values over the general population. I realized that the opposition to equality was religion. It didn’t matter that not all Christians hold anti-gay beliefs; the only reason equality backslid was the power that Christianity had over society. Countering anti-gay groups wasn’t enough, because they weren’t the problem; the problem was, as I recalled Dawkins calling it, the “undeserved respect” that religion has in our society. (I would soon start referring to this as “religious privilege.”)

So, the emotional reaction that I had to Proposition 8 was channeled in that way. I began attacking religion. I changed my Facebook picture to a picture that just said, “What do you get out of religion? I get discrimination.” I posted every possible link I could find demonstrating how religion was hurting society, discriminating against groups of people, promoting untruths, whatever I could find. I was livid. But my reaction was less because I was a gay man whose rights had been revoked and more because I was an atheist who was finally realizing just how oppressed I was, how unfree from religion I was. To borrow from coming out methodology, I entered a “pride” phase of my atheist identity development.

People in my life struggled to support me. While I know many of them were trying to empathize with how hurt I was by what had happened in terms of gay rights, they took very defensive reactions to what I was saying about religion. Many of them thought I was accusing them of being anti-gay simply because of their religious identities. I was only just begging to delineate my own understanding of religious privilege, and in many ways, I didn’t care at that time how they felt about their religion. I saw them all as enablers, and every time one of them told me I should have more respect for their beliefs, it only made me angrier. Respect for beliefs was the problem.

After a number of personal conflicts, I realized that something wasn’t working. The people from whom I wanted and needed support for where I was coming from could not offer me that. I realized that nobody really understood how I was processing this all in my head. I had been digesting my opposition to religion for years (my college admissions essay was on why I didn’t like “organized religion,” preferring individual belief), and even open atheism had settled quite comfortably. Just like when someone comes out as gay and that’s when everyone else starts their own coming out process of adjustment, so too did none of the people in my life have a context for understanding atheism or the concepts I was describing. Truthfully, it wasn’t even all clear in my own head, having been spurred by emotional reactions.

So, that very Saturday (November 8, 2008), I sat and wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I think I worked on that for a good 8 hours straight if not more, with only a short pause for dinner. My goal was to sort out all my thoughts and present them in a way that wasn’t so emotionally charged. I needed to explain my point of view and explain everything that I was piecing together in my head in an objective way so that people could connect to it without feeling attacked. The final result was eight full pages in Microsoft Word, single-spaced.

What I realized is that most of what I had written read more like a graduate school paper than anything else. I later went back to it, removed most of the personal messages and added to some more arguments and evidence to strengthen my case. I had a really solid introduction to what I perceive as religious privilege from a social justice angle (as opposed to just my own personal sense of injustice). I called it my “treatise” (and in my recent birthday post I called it my “manifesto”).

In terms of how it was received… for some, irreparable damage had already been done. Others were glad to finally understand where I was coming from (even if they didn’t entirely agree). A professor even invited me to his Multicultural Education graduate class to give a lecture on what I had written. The most important outcome was that I really organized my thoughts on the issues and took some important time to think about how I share those issues. I learned that when I take the time to organize my thoughts in writing, I can share them more eloquently so that people can be more receptive to them.

Still, I struggled to find people in my life who were as eager as I was to discuss these challenging questions and issues. Though I had become more grounded in my own feelings and understandings, I still had an incredible need to continue exploring. That is why I started this blog two months later.

Since then, I think I’ve written quite a lot that I am proud of. Sometimes I’m just reacting to current events, but I have also explored a lot of new territory in my writing. This blog has become an important aspect of my identity and also my career goals. I have connected with many who are excited by my ideas, and many who are willing to challenge my ideas in respectful intellectual discourse, which is what I think we all really need to help us learn and grow. (In student development, we call it “Challenge and Support.”)

Now, I think it is time to share what I originally wrote. Much of what is in this document has already been incorporated into the Terminology Page and Meme Collection, though in less detail. Some of the ideas are not quite as polished as I talk about them now, but for the most part, this “Religious Privilege Primer” still very much represents how I think and feel about these issues. I have broken it up into several small parts because it was so long, but actually quite easy to organize. I hope you’ll read through it over the next couple posts, and I hope that people can refer back to it to better understand these issues and identities. (The full document is also posted below.)


Preface: Roots of ZFB
Part 1 – Introduction: Reflections on Prop 8
Part 2 – What is Privilege?
Part 3 – Christian Privilege
Part 4 – Religious Privilege
Part 5 – Atheism and Privilege of Beliefs
Part 6 – Critical Thinking and Indoctrination
Part 7 – Undeserved Respect
Part 8 – Concluding Reflections

Privilege of Religion and Faith

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