Most of us live in a culture where we treat racism with extreme negativity, and being called a bigot is an insult most would prefer to avoid. Yet incredibly one form of racism is so widely practised that a great many people do not even consider it a form of bigotry, viewing it rather as an entirely rational and reasonable stance. I refer to a form of ethnic discrimination I shall term creedism.
By creedism I naturally refer to prejudice against specific creeds, which is to say, belief systems (religious or otherwise). Some will dispute the premise that creedism is a form of racism, but the United Nations has no qualms on this issue: it makes no distinction between ethnic discrimination and racial discrimination, and since ethnic groups can be founded on any common cultural apparatus (including language, religion, common ancestry, common territory and so forth) this means that, to the UN at least, creedism is a form of racism.
An initial objection likely to be raised is that if (say) Islamic terrorists want to kill me, I have a right to discriminate against them. But who is it that you will discriminate against? If unknown people want to kill you, you have a right to attempt to defend yourself, and if known people try to kill you, you have a right to prosecute them. But either way, terrorists are still to be afforded the same rights as anyone else; they are subject to punishment for breaking laws, not for who they are. Furthermore, it is the vast minority of Muslims who are terrorists. It is pure creedism to extend a hatred for Islamic terrorists to the ethnic group they happen to belong to, i.e. Muslims, just as it is creedism for Islamic terrorists to hate all Westerners because of the atrocities that some have enacted against them.
We encounter creedism most commonly in two forms, one of which is vehemently criticised by liberal critics, the other is tacitly endorsed by some of the same individuals. The first form is the creedism the closed-minded follower of religion expresses towards people of other beliefs, something most commonly associated with the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although there are of course some subjective elements involved in the interpretation of religions, all three of these faiths are fundamentally opposed to creedism. In the case of Judaism, love they neighbour as thyself appears in Leviticus, long before Jesus elevated this idea to the status of “eleventh commandment” for Christians, and Islam is the religion which all but invented freedom of religion. Nonetheless, bigoted views are still expressed by certain vocal followers of these religions, and people justly criticise these views.
Precisely because the religious form is so widely and openly criticised, I believe the non-religious form can be more subtly pernicious. Prejudice against Christians, Muslims, or indeed followers of all religions, is held by a great many liberal intellectuals to be rationally validated; this is a gross case of creedism that deserves to be exposed to greater scrutiny. There is a tremendous variety of individual beliefs within any religious tradition; treating followers of any given path as all expressing the same negative traits is closely analogous to the thought process behind conventional racism. (Buddhism, oddly, is often excluded from this kind of attack, usually on account of a claim that it is a philosophy not a religion – an assertion that would render most professors of comparative religion dumbfounded!)
This kind of anti-religious creedism is sometimes disguised by making the target religion, rather than people of religious faith, who can then be portrayed as helpless victims of their religion. But a religion is nothing more than the beliefs and practices of the people belonging to a particular set of ethnic groups. Abstracting this into a concept, “religion”, that one then opposes is just as much a form of racism as it was when 17th century intellectuals (such as Hobbes) abstracted non-European cultures under such notions as “savage” and “uncivilised”. These terms would ultimately power imperialistic invasions under the guise of “civilising missions”. Attempts to “emancipate” children from their family's traditions might risk repeating the same grotesque error.
Some modern Humanists seem to be largely unaware of the terrible tensions involved in being caught between a commitment to Human Rights on the one hand and a crusade against religion on the other. Certain Humanist organisations say they are working for an open and inclusive society upholding freedom of belief and speech, but simultaneously fight for an end to a perceived “privileged position” for religion in law and education. Shouldn't the rational pursuit of this first objective entail the expansion of the protections offered to religious ethnic groups to similar non-religious groups, rather than the attempt to remove these protections? To do otherwise is to attack our notions of Human Rights, not to defend them.
The irony here is that Humanists could earn these protections instantly if they were willing to acknowledge Humanism as a religion – but this idea is apparently unbearable to those who have chosen to treat religion as a synonym for superstition. It is preferable, it seems, to fight the existing laws than to benefit from them at the expense of one's pride. One cannot willingly concede to be protected under the umbrella of a term that one deploys as a pejorative; to propose otherwise is to unleash serious cognitive dissonance, and thus anger. It is anger and its congealed form, hatred, in its social role of establishing outgroups to oppose, which drives racism of all kinds, including both kinds of creedism discussed here – religious and anti-religious.
Creedism is a widespread and highly destructive form of racism that advances in part because its practitioners frequently do not see their attitude as racist. That some of the people liberal creedists oppose are even more blatantly creedist than they themselves only serves to obfuscate the reality of the situation; it is as if a black racial supremacist justified their bigotry by pointing at a white racial supremacist for contrast, claiming “I'm nothing like that!”. That there can be two sides to a racist coin doesn't make that coin legal tender for anyone committed to what is enshrined in our Human Rights agreements. Those rights include freedom of belief, without which the very concept of liberty is undermined. The sooner we all accept this, the closer we will be to curtailing the harmful influence of racism in all its forms.