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Education Series: Privilege & Oppression

Since last October, Charise and I have been branding ourselves as contemporary voices within the spiritual-but-not-religious worldview. When I identify myself as a SBNR person, I get mixed looks–sometimes a side-eye, sometimes a look of pity, sometimes genuine appreciation–but more often than not, I see a look of confusion. Here’s what people most often want to know,:

  • How is spirituality different from religion?
  • Without religion, how does someone practice spirituality?
  • What are the common beliefs of people who are SBNR?
  • What has been your journey to identifying with this worldview?

As you can imagine, I love answering these questions. I believe anyone who strongly identifies with their worldview–religious, spiritual, or neither–feels excited when they speak about their most deeply-held beliefs. To me, speaking about SBNR is not just an opportunity to share about myself; it is an opportunity to suggest a missing piece of inclusion in our society’s growing awareness of marginalized populations.

To me, the underrepresentation of SBNR is, first and foremost, a social justice issue, as I identify with a marginalized population that has long been dominated and oppressed by religious tradition. In the United States particularly, the worldview with the most social privilege is Christianity. Privilege is “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group,” meaning Christians in the United States enjoy benefits due to their worldview based solely upon their affiliation. Consider the many ways in which this privilege shows up.

To say I am oppressed due to my worldview identity will seem like an exaggeration only to those who don’t understand what oppression is. Oppression doesn’t always mean that someone is screaming in my face and telling me what I believe is wrong (although this has happened); oppression is typically more nuanced. Oppression is the assumption that I will celebrate Christmas, go to church, or believe in heaven, solely based on the fact that our country ticks to the Christian clock. Oppression is the fact that spiritual-but-not-religious isn’t even a worldview option on almost every demographic survey I take. When the option to feely, easily identify as one of your true identities is scarce or nonexistent, the message to someone experiencing oppression is clear: We are not thinking about you and your needs. We do not acknowledge your identity.

The SBNR oppression is so real that many people believe this identity isn’t legitimate at all. Can you imagine someone telling you that your belief system–the basis on which you operate your life–is illegitimate?

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This article calls my worldview “idolatry.”

This article calls my identity a “cop out.”

This article calls my identity a “problem.”

You get the point.

The important part to note here is that some Christians who do not understand privilege and oppression will cite multiple articles written by non-Christians who say Christianity is bad and claim that Christians are oppressed as well. But reverse oppression cannot exist because beyond the words of someone writing an article, Christians will still benefit from all of the institutional and systematic privileges mentioned earlier, but the oppression for SBNRs exist beyond words. Criticism against Christianity is no doubt discriminatory and shouldn’t exist on the basis of hate, but this is not the same experience as oppression.

I grew up Catholic. I get it. I don’t need to be told how there are peaceful parts of Christianity and how everyone can represent their faith differently; I also know dozens of Christians who are remarkably aware of their privilege and do their best to practice their faith without dominating people of other worldview identities. Remember, we are talking systematically here. The reason it is so important for people to understand the dynamics of worldview marginalization based on Christian privilege is because:

  • (1) a significant amount of SBNR individuals identify is non-religious due to their uncomfortable, negative, or traumatic experience within Christianity (we’ll talk about this in the “common beliefs” post), and
  • (2) because SBNRs and other non-religiously-affiliated folks represent almost a quarter of people in the United States as of six months ago.

This means almost a quarter of our population is left without major representation or even acknowledgment. Agnostics, atheists, and other marginalized religions feel this disconnect. Where are our resources for support going if even some of these major world religions represent so few people in American society? Is it really that much of a fucking problem to not be identified with a religion? 

You are reading frustration in this post because I am frustrated. Like many people of color, queer/trans people, people with disabilities, immigrants, second-language-learners, people with low socio-economic statuses, and other vulnerable, dominated populations, I have to risk the dangerous backlash of those with dominant privilege in order to advocate for an identity that means a lot to me. As you will see in the posts to come, SBNRs are not only large in numbers, but also fairly consistent across experience.


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