By now, everybody in the atheosphere is familiar with the Jessica Ahlquist story, and especially the latest development in the saga. The sheer amount of bigotry, hatred, and blind, unthinking idiocy on display by citizens of Cranston is astonishing, made no less so by their calls for religious tolerance.

…wait for it….

“Religious tolerance?!”

Now I know how Link felt every time he said this and forgive him his annoying catchphrase

That’s right, kids. We’re being the intolerant ones. Most of you are familiar with this trick where no distinction is made between “public” and “private,” and where reality is blown so far out of proportion that if I didn’t know the facts of the case, I’d be outraged, too.

Obviously, the arguments here aren’t reflective of reality. They are based on a false dichotomy that makes this issue as a struggle between atheists who wanted the banner removed and Christians who didn’t, with a defined win condition. Moreover, the “loser” in this odd scenario ends up with less of something they had.

And this is the essence of privilage.

What is privilage, you ask?

Privilege, in this context, is the idea that for one reason or another that you have no control over, you are given benefits, often ones you don’t realize because you’re used to them. When somebody attempts to extend the same benefits to other groups, it feels as if you’re losing something.

For example, I have lived my life getting the benefits of white, male privilege. That means that, for example, I’m less likely to be stopped by police than people of color and less likely to be convicted of a crime. It means that I’m more likely to have my ideas taken seriously than a woman. I just came out a couple of years ago, so I benefited for the majority of my life from straight privilege, and coming out as bi meant learning quickly that while I used to be able to hold a date’s hand in public without getting dirty looks and treated as a person of suspicion, now I have to be aware of the people around me should I be out with a guy, especially since it might illicit violent reactions.

In this case, we’re discussing Christian privilege: the idea that Christianity of one form or another has been dominant in this country for such a long time that as we move from a time when Christian prayer was common and accepted in all contexts to one where people demand that we stop favoring it, Christians react. They feel like they’re losing their ability to worship because the contexts in which they usually have are getting fewer and fewer.

I remember when I was a child and my mother was discussing how she wished she had done what a friend of her’s from church did with her son. What my mother’s friend did was bring her child to church every Sunday, even if only for 10 minutes, so that he would get used to the idea that on Sunday you go to church. It became a habit, one that would be hard to break later in life.

Similarly, the Cranston West prayer banner was a habit. If children get used to the idea that the virtues promoted on there are descendant from and dependent on a “Heavenly Father,” then they will be less likely to question the authorities that claim to speak for that being. Taking that a bit further, that means that imposing more onerous restrictions on people becomes easier. Privilege tries to protect itself, and the ability for religious authorities to live in a world where they don’t have to see the icky gays or deal with women questioning male ascendancy is worth fighting for to them.

Jim Butcher, in one of the Dresden novels, pointed out that power of any sort is really about options. The more power you have, the more choices you can make in any given situation. Privilege is the protection of power, therefore is designed to protect options. You can see this in the calls by Ahlquist’s opponents for “majority rule” and scoffing at the power of minorities. The underlying thought here is that the majority of people can do anything they want, so you have to be sure that you’ll always be in the majority, which means tilting the playing field in your favor. When there’s nobody to complain, it doesn’t matter what laws or morals you’re breaking.

And this is why arguments like “If it were a prayer to Allah, you would be screaming against it” simply won’t work. The fact of the matter is, those screaming the loudest will never see a prayer banner to Allah. It’s not going to happen in a country that has given Christianity pride of place since its founding. Those who are opposed to this will never have to deal with pagan religious ceremonies on school grounds, never have to worry about Buddhists lighting incense, never have to consider that another prayer other than one that they’re used to, comfortable with, will be said by a teacher in front of a classroom before lessons start.

The argument you’re looking for is not to point out their hypothetical hypocrisy. It’s not going to work any more than saying, “I bet you wouldn’t be concerned about rising gas prices if you could fly by flapping your arms.” Proposing something that is impossible or highly unlikely, at least to the mind of the person you’re talking to, as the nightmare alternative will be dismissed.

Instead, try addressing the issue of privilege. Make them explain what they lose by having the banner removed and explain in turn why it shouldn’t be there. Demonstrate that this is not a “war on religion” as so many people have said lately. Demonstrate to the indignant exactly how not oppressed they are, the benefits they get, and ask whether others should get those same benefits. Socratic method will be your friend here.

Discussing the issue at hand in the framing that’s been established may convince a few people that a school prayer doesn’t belong in a public school, but if you want to treat the underlying problem, you have to get them to recognize how easy they’ve had it compared to others for no other reason than they are who they are. You have to get them to recognize their privilege, which is a whole lot harder, but worth the effort.

Kaoru is a complex beast. There is both too much and too little to say. “Kinky bisexual atheist feminist geek” just doesn’t seem to cover it. I hope to change small parts of the world with judicious application of sarcasm and reason. Feel free to follow me on Twitter or Google Plus for updates and random commentary. Also, don’t forget to keep an eye on Reasonable Conversation.

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