Religion and Racism

My latest post for 3 Quarks Daily, Religion is Like Race, is now up. The post is mostly about the analogy between religion and race as markers of group identity and as causes for conflict and discrimination. It builds on a brief exchange on Appletree between me and Len, who began by arguing that killing people of a different religion wasn’t strictly speaking genocide.

Len argued, “When Religious Faction A is slaughtering Religious Faction B and their root conflict is largely based on little more than niggling points of theological interpretation, why call it GENOcide? The word itself implies acceptance of the hypothesis that being Sunni or Shia or what-have-you is a genetic factor, which is of course fallacious.” I rebutted mostly on the pragmatic grounds that religious conflicts are more comprehensible when one considers religion yet another ethnic marker.

On 3QD, I wrote a more complete argument, and also explained why atheist activists like Dawkins and Harris often make the mistake of considering religion a separate marker.

Like the other ethnic markers, religion is intimately connected to group identities. Even apostates often have some cultural connection to religious customs: secular Jews hold Passover Seders ex-Christian atheists usually celebrate Christmas, and secular Muslims in Turkey tend not to eat pork… This religious identity is weaker among secular people, but it doesn’t disappear entirely, as Bosnians discovered in the early 1990s; analogously, linguistic identity is weaker among polyglots than among monoglots, and racial identity is weaker among people whose social circle is racially mixed than among people whose social circle is racially uniform.

I’m not going to quote my entire article here; you should read it where I posted it and, if you have something to say on that subject, comment there.

Rather, the point I have here is somewhat more personal. Different racebloggers naturally focus on different forms of racism. As I analogized on Fetch Me My Axe a while ago, “In the 1970s, South African refugees complained about apartheid more than about the Cambodian holocaust.”

Unlike sexism, which is global, each locality has its own peculiar kind of racism. The kind I’m most familiar with is the anti-Muslim one, which is why so many of my 3QD articles have been about that particular subject. I took a more global view in Different Forms of Racism, but Religion is Like Race is specific.

A few weeks ago, when I participated in a Five Things About Me meme, I wrote that,

After 9/11, I had a stint of being more Islamophobic than the average Freeper. It got to the point that when some Pakistani student annoyed my too much in eighth grade, I told him (rough quote) “What the hell, you’re going to get seventy virgins anyway.”

That one was true. The false thing was #4. Rather than writing about the transformation of my views on foreign policy, I’ll just note the reaction of that student, Ramiz. Naturally, he immediately accused me of racism. Another student, a German Muslim, immediately joined in. Others were too far removed from the incident to start hating me over it, or already hated me in the first place.

My defense was the exact argument I know now makes no sense: “It’s not racist, because I’m criticizing a religion.” I could even point out the fact that right after I came to that school, I told a crowd of 30, “The Bible sucks.” But I didn’t ask the Christians who attacked me over that comment whether they were going to drop out to participate in a new Crusade.

It’s that double standard that made my comment racist, and a similar double standard that inflicts many Western conservatives as well as many atheist activists. It’s true that Qur’an promises seventy virgins to every Jihadi martyr. So what? It doesn’t mean Ramiz believed in any of that, any more than the Bible’s more militant parts mean all the white European students were anti-choice terrorists.

Religious fundamentalism is often militant. But to point out that an individual religion is militant is like to point out that 50% of all black people have below average intelligence. That no Enlightenment has watered down Islam the way the original one watered down Christianity isn’t a strike against Arabs or against Islam, but against religious fundamentalism of all stripes. To exempt Christian fundamentalism from it is to say, “We Christians are better because we lost so many culture wars we have relatively little power nowadays.”

5 Responses to Religion and Racism

  1. libhomo says:

    All forms of prejudice have similar psychologies, but that doesn’t mean that religion is like race. Religions are harmful superstitions that do tremendous harm while races are completely harmless and cause no problems.

    Homophobia is very similar to prejudices against people based on sex, religion, and race. But, sexual orientation, sex, race, and religion are very different things.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Actually, the concept of race does cause problems – plenty of them. It’s not a coincidence that every ethnic group that achieved equality without trampling other groups did so by integrating itself into the mainstream (think German- and Irish-Americans) rather than by self-segregating.

    Religion tends to lead to fundamentalism; similarly, racial identities tend to lead to racism.

  3. It’s not a coincidence that every ethnic group that achieved equality without trampling other groups did so by integrating itself into the mainstream (think German- and Irish-Americans) rather than by self-segregating.

    That’s one of the things I always find funny about conversing with my fellow Italian-Americans (Portland is a hodgepodge of Italian ancestry, just within my gene pool we have names like Ciazo, Nappi, DiDonado, DiAngelo, etc.). A lot of them have jumped on the Hispanophobic anti-immigration bandwagon (one of them even picked up on the ridiculous Mexifornia hysteria). One of my favorite replies to any xenophobic comments I hear is “You know, you might want to be careful, seeing as though we were the job-stealing Papist greaseballs before they were.”

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