July 27, 2010
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.
Chris, you may want to examine your assertion that "it is the vast minority of Muslims who are terrorists"?
Posted by: Peter Crowther | July 27, 2010 at 04:32 PM
Can you give an example of a reasonable way in which the protections offered to religious ethnic groups could be expanded to similar non-religious groups? I can't come up with one from my thinking so far - though I suspect it may hinge on differing definitions of "similar".
Posted by: Peter Crowther | July 27, 2010 at 04:35 PM
Peter: I have re-examined my assertion that "the vast minority of Muslims who are terrorists" and remain convinced of its veracity.
Al-Qaeda kills 8 times as many Muslims as it does non-Muslims, although of course Al-Qaeda is not the totality of Islamic terrorists, and you could argue some that they kill are also terrorists. However, there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world; while producing actual figures for the number that are terrorists is difficult, I think it unlikely we're looking at anything like 1% (i.e. 15 million) Islamic terrorists.
To quote Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East specialist at Boston University: "As the events in London show, it does not take too many people to cause big problems. If only 1/10,000 of 1 percent [of the Muslim world] is inclined to terrorism, that is still 1,200 potential mass killers."
Peter, again: To think of examples, one has to first find cases of non-religious cultures that *require* these protections. This, I suggest, is one of the problems in making this claim track... but I can find at least two obvious examples.
Firstly, atheists in the United States who would struggle to get employed by certain companies whose executives were devoutly Christian. Those in at-will employment States would be screwed (as indeed would religious individuals seeking employment with a creedist employer under these circumstances), but those working in States without this kind of law could file for discrimination under a case that their (non)-religious beliefs were being used prejudicially against them.
Secondly, I've mentioned before the case of members of "club culture" who use certain chemicals (e.g. ecstasy) recreationally in contexts which could be argued were ritualistic. I believe a case could be made that their drug use was protected by freedom of belief. This one is more controversial - I don't believe most anti-religious campaigners want to take this sub-culture under their wing. But a case for their protection could be advanced, albeit hinging on their ability to demonstrate their capability to use these chemicals both safely and reasonably.
I suspect that there are others if one digs into the issue.
Thanks for sharing your views!
Posted by: Chris | July 28, 2010 at 09:06 AM
Ah, I'd read "vast minority" as being more people than "minority", not fewer. Your point now makes sense - thanks for the clarification.
More on the other part of the response when I'm not under deadline pressure.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | July 29, 2010 at 03:02 PM
One should not discriminate against anything which is beyond the control of the individual and I would posit that a religious perspective is within one's control and certainly not something one is born with.
It can be argued that being born in certain countries pre-determines one's religious perspective and hence it is a fait accompli, but witness the hundreds of thousands who switch religions or abandon them completely.
One's religion is essentially an intellectual choice and not a given.
Kind regards/Chairman Bill
Posted by: Chairman Bill | September 14, 2010 at 09:05 AM
Chairman: It sounds as if you want to say it's okay to discriminate against religion because it's a choice. This is a very disturbing claim!
Following this logic, is it okay to discriminate against someone for their job and their sexual identity, because these are chosen and not given? Is it okay to discriminate against someone for the language they speak, because they could have learned a different language? Is it okay to discriminate against a researcher for the field they have chosen to study because they choose to do so? Is it okay to discriminate against someone on the basis of their nationality because they could have chosen to move elsewhere?
I find this approach highly disturbing, and I hope that you do not actually believe in what you are claiming to support here!
Posted by: Chris | September 14, 2010 at 11:00 AM
What I was referring to was the illegality of discrimination. It should be illegal to discriminate against anything over which one has no control and cannot change - like race, sexuality, gender, etc.
It can be argued that one has no control over one's religious beliefs, as they are formed by all that went before and hence to a certain extent they are deterministic, but I don't hold to the view that one's religion is something that can't be changed.
Whether it is right to discriminate on the basis of religion is another matter - after all, we discriminate all the time in our daily lives.
It would seem you are arguing that all forms of discrimination are intrinsically bad - correct me if I am mistaken.
Posted by: Chairman Bill | September 16, 2010 at 08:36 AM
Chairman: thanks for continuing this discussion. "Discrimination" is a loaded term, of course... it can mean "to make distinctions" - in which form it is unproblematic, but it can also be used as a milder synonym for persecution. It is in this latter sense that I voice my opposition.
"It should be illegal to discriminate against anything over which one has no control and cannot change - like race, sexuality, gender, etc."
My problem with your angle here is that you imply (and previously state) that it's okay to discriminate against things that can be changed. But this is an extremely dangerous position to take!
Consider the example of language. One can change one's language. But if people are allowed to discriminate (in pejorative sense) against people on the basis of language, then you have a giant loophole for racism. The example of religion is a direct parallel to language in my opinion, since both are cultural artefact that *could* change but which there should be no express obligation to do so.
Furthermore, you say that sexuality and gender are things over which we have no control and cannot change... How would you square this against gender reassignment surgery? What of the hermaphrodite who later chooses which gender to adopt?
And since we have no way of testing for sexuality we in practice rely on people to *choose* their sexual identities - and these can and do change. A certain person, in an endeavour to find the identity that works for them, may begin by considering themselves as heterosexual, later as bisexual, later as gay, then perhaps float into one of the many grey areas, claiming (as many do) is more about the specific people than about their gender.
Is a person who has had one relationship with a man and one with a woman bisexual, homosexual or heterosexual? How do we know? Only by what they choose to identify as. There is no other criteria we accept in this regard. (There are also the examples of people whose sexuality altered during an LSD experience). Whether or not sexuality is chosen, sexual identity *is* chosen - and this is all we have public access to anyway.
As a matter of law, all of the cases I have given above - language, religion, sexual identity, gender identity - are protected from prejudicial discrimination in Western jurisprudence. I happen to believe this is the only wise approach to the matter.
You seem to contend that some of these protections should be withdrawn because they are a matter of choice - you state in the case of religion, but if this goes, so too does language, sexual identity and so forth.
Do you not see the inherent problem with making choice the condition of justification here? Consider, as one final example, that we choose what political party we support. Shall we say that it is okay for an employer to fire you for supporting such-and-such a party, because that is a choice and it is okay to discriminate against choices?
Posted by: Chris | September 20, 2010 at 08:24 AM
I came across your post because I'm interested in popularizing the word 'creedism' in modern political debate and was surveying just how much it is in use.
My government here in Australia recently had an inquiry into religious freedom and I made a submission to it discussing this concept: https://pmc.gov.au/domestic-policy/religious-freedom-review/submissions/daniel-berk
While you suggest that creedism is racism I try argue (in a somewhat more roundabout way) that it is a prejudice that sits alongside it. Definitions aside, however, I think we have the same aim of showing that prejudice against belief exists, despite being overlooked by many who should know better.
Posted by: Daniel | July 11, 2018 at 12:48 PM
I can't say I've encountered 'creedism' in any widely used context. In this piece, which is eight years old, I put forward the point that under the definitions that the UN uses, creedism is a form of racism. It's not essential to use 'racism' as the umbrella term, though, and you could talk about 'bigotry' and treat creedism and racism as two kinds of bigotry.
Since writing this piece, I've begun to look at these issues from a different perspective, namely the idea of 'intolerant tolerance' developed in Chaos Ethics. This gives me pause in terms of simply trying to resolve these kinds of problem by incorporation with (or analogy to) racism... When I originally wrote this, my thought was that no-one wants to be thought of as racist and thus conflating creedism and racism might be helpful. Now, the problem seems much deeper than this - although I note that, even at this point, it was clear to me that cognitive dissonance was a key element in what we were dealing with.
Thanks for sharing your perspective, and I hope this inquiry by the Australian government ends with something productive for our mutual goal of trying to live together.
Posted by: Chris | July 16, 2018 at 07:13 AM