A Case of the Mondays: Religion is Like Race

A lot of secularists mistakenly believe that religious discrimination is somehow different from racial discrimination. The tipping point that drove me to write this article was reading about Sam Harris’s beliefs about the acceptability of denying Muslims basic civil rights. Since being religious is a choice, the argument goes, there’s no real analogy between religion and race.

But in fact, religion is very much like skin color, in that it’s an ethnic marker. Endogamous cultural groups can be distinguished on the basis of language, color, national origin, or creed. In the US, the difference between blacks and whites is about color while this between Hispanics and Anglos is a combination of color and language. In Bosnia, the difference between Muslims, Serbs, and Croats was entirely religious, as is the difference between Sunnis and Shi’as in Iraq. The exact nature of the difference rarely matters; there’s no material difference between distinctions based on religion and distinctions based on skin color.

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. Ontologically, Stephen Roberts made sense when he said, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Sociologically, he didn’t, because a person’s religious identity tends to be independent of what religion he adheres to. 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.

And politically, it’s easier to understand conflicts when one regards religion as just another ethnic variable. The Bosnian genocide involved peoples who differed only in religious markers, but proceeded like any non-religious ethnic conflict. Al Qaida provided aid to the Muslims, while Russia sided with the Eastern Orthodox Serbs; however, that religious sense of kinship was hardly different from the pan-Germanic and pan-Slavic movements that fueled World War One. Of Iraq’s three constituent groups, two are distinguished based solely on ethnicity and language, while two are distinguished based solely on religion.

Further, group distinctions can morph over time. European anti-Semitism began as exclusively religious in the Middle Ages. As Jews accumulated money in the late Middle Ages, it became increasingly a class issue, and then, during the Enlightenment, focused more on culture and less on religion. By the late 19th century, it became racial, reflecting an overall increase in the prevalence of racial pseudoscience in Europe; it has had a strong racial component ever since. But that story will reveal very little about the exact ways anti-Semites hurt Jews. A more instructive way of characterizing it is that anti-Semitism has been populist for most of its history, but was systemic between roughly 1890 and 1945.

The artificial division of religious and nonreligious distinctions seems by and large restricted to the secular West. It’s a mistake endemic to atheist activists, like Harris or Richard Dawkins, that religious conflicts will disappear if atheism only gains more credence. In fact, although religious fundamentalism has been a motivating force behind Western supremacist views, the Western elites justify supremacist views based entirely on secular arguments. Samuel Huntington doesn’t say that the West is special because the Reformation’s theology is the best of all the theologies of major religions and denominations; he says the West is special because of its mix of human rights, democracy, and separation of church and state.

Ultimately, this is a conflation of two different dimensions of religious distinctions. The first, the one between secularism and fundamentalism, is what is most familiar to people who are only familiar with one religion, such as most Westerners. That distinction is similar to distinctions between liberals and conservatives, and has very little to do with ethnic markers. But there’s another distinction, that between different religions. Plural religious societies, such as those of India or Iraq or even those Islamic societies that are in regular contact with the West, tend to emphasize that distinction instead.

This conflation allows a lot of people to hold beliefs about religious groups whose racial equivalents are too racists for any member of the Western elite to fathom. For example, take the idea that Islam is inherently degrading to women. In a way it is, but so is Christianity; the implicit idea is that Christianity is superior to Islam, because Christianity has been less successful at defending its misogynist traditions than Islam. Arguments rarely get more self-contradictory than that, but the conflation of cross-religious differences with the difference between secularity and religion effectively masks that contradiction.

But in fact, there’s little difference between distinctions of religion and distinctions of language or race. Different religions have different practices, but that hardly merits a special mention, in light of the different customs of different nationalities or cultural groups. In particular, discrimination and conflict have very little to do with whether the bone of contention is religious or national. Very rarely, religious groups will wage an ideological religious battle, as in the Crusades. More frequently, religion will be a proxy for something else—nationalism in the cases of Al Qaida, Israel, and Palestine; racism in the case of Western anti-Muslim attitudes; and a combination of racism and class consciousness in India.

The common secularist belief that every religious conflict can be analyzed in the same way as American-style culture wars is just not true. Most people never choose their own religion in the same way secularists chose to be nonreligious. In practice, religion works more like skin color than like the secular/religious spectrum; holding supremacist views about one religion is racism; and massacring people of a different religion is genocide.

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