This piece is adapted from my research and notes for the speech I gave this past Sunday, May 20th, at the Orange County Freethought Alliance Conference. The talk was entitled “Push and Pull: The Role of Religion in Social Justice.” Look for the follow-up to this piece tomorrow about the positive role religion has played in social justice.
Generally speaking, among the skeptically-minded, religion is seen almost universally as a hindering force to anything approaching progress in society. Moving backwards in history, it is easy to see why that is the case.
In terms of LGBT rights, religion is notoriously hostile towards progress. Same-sex marriage, the issue that has become something of a poster child for LGBT rights, has been opposed at every stage by some very powerful religious groups. In California, most of the funding and support for Proposition 8, the voter referendum that denied same-sex couples the right to marry, came from a church that I will not name.
Religious groups have also been on the forefront of opposing hate crime legislation, often in the name of religious “freedom” or “liberty.” While some disagree with hate crimes as a concept, the fact remains that terrorizing someone in a minority community for being a member of said community affects all of its members and has wider repercussions than the harm done to the victim of the crime. In the case of the LGBT community, it will likely have a silencing, shaming, closeting effect. The same goes for bullying, both in terms of its effect and religious support of what seems to obviously be the wrong side on the issue, cloaked in the notion of freedom of speech. You don’t hear about religious groups outraged at the lack of free speech for, say, Jessica Ahlquist, but when it comes to children who bully their LGBT peers, it’s another story.
Yet another area where religion serves a hindering role in progress is with employment protections. In 29 states, still legal to fire people based on the gender of the people with whom they are nonplatonically involved. In 38 of them, the same applies based on the gender with which they identify.
When it comes to the many and varied movements for women’s rights, including the feminist movement, mainstream, organized religion has had a less than stellar role, to say the least. As shown by the War on Women, reproductive choice is always in a precarious position, and I’m not just talking about abortion. Birth control is something fairly uncontroversial nowadays, given that the vast majority of Americans use it, and yet access to it has been recently and severely challenged. In terms of abortion rights, which remains fairly controversial, religious groups have been at the forefront of attacking, shaming, and even murdering people whose actions are pro-choice.
Further back in history, the Klu Klux Klan (which might still exist but has been defanged to a large extent) relied fairly heavily on Christian wording and appeals to Christianity to rouse their supporters in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. For example:
Unlike the state of Utah, I am fairly sure the cross is a symbol of at least somewhat related to Christianity.
The Civil Rights Movement was the necessitated due to the legacy of slavery. After people were enslaved and brought over the Atlantic to the Americas, their native cultures, religions, and languages were literally beaten out of them in order to ensure subservience. Religion played a crucial role in convincing slaves to obey, the idea being that the white slaveowner was the representative of the Christian god to the enslaved. It’s not all in the Old Testament, either — even Jesus told slaves to be obedient to their masters.
Given all of the evidence, both historical and contemporary, it can be difficult to imagine religion taking a neutral, let alone positive, role in social justice movements. However, it has, and it is historically disingenuous to completely deny its legacy.