April 2, 2007
Discrimination and Disagreement: A Crucial Distinction

Susan Jacoby

Author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

"Does discrimination against Catholics still exist in this country today?" was a recent question posed in "On Faith," a blog published by the Washington Post and Newsweek.  The responses were extraordinarily revealing -- not about anti-Catholic discrimination, but about the profound American confusion between discrimination and disagreement.

Many panelists and readers expressed the opinion that not only Catholics but all people of devout faith -- especially Christians -- suffer from discrimination at the hands of "secular elites."

The Rev. William J. Byron, a former president of the Catholic University of America, described the discrimination he had encountered in academia as "typically grounded in skepticism and an unwillingness to accept the compatibility of faith and reason."  Protestant fundamentalists saw discrimination in mockery of biblical literalism. 

Skepticism and mockery, although they certainly cause hurt feelings, do not constitute discrimination.  Discrimination is the systematic denial of political, economic, and human rights solely on the basis of race, sex, or religion.  The Bill of Rights guarantees individual freedom of worship -- not the right to have your sacred beliefs treated as equally sacred by others.

Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship, made the absurd argument in his "On Faith" column that Christians are victims of discrimination because they "make a truth claim."  Only in America could a convicted felon, who has built a lucrative post-Watergate career on proselytizing for his brand of born-again Christianity, make such an assertion with a straight face.

The question is why so many Americans have the idea that others are bound to respect their "truth claims."  On one level, this bogus notion of tolerance is a byproduct of the genuine and welcome diminution of religious prejudice in the United States since World War II and the Holocaust.      

The flip side of the diminution of bigotry, however, is the stifling pretense that we are bound not only to respect one another as citizens but to respect one another's beliefs.

Novelist Philip Roth, in a speech delivered at Loyola University in 1962, spoke to this point regarding relations between Jews and Christians.  "The fact is that if one is committed to being a Jew," Roth said, "he believes that on the most serious questions pertaining to man's survival -- understanding the past, imagining the future, discovering the relations between God and humanity -- that he is right and the Christians are wrong.  As a believing Jew, he must certainly view the breakdown in this century of moral order and the erosion of spiritual values in terms of the inadequacy of Christianity as a sustaining force for the good.  However, who would care to say such things to his neighbor?"

As an atheist, I believe that I am right and that those who adhere to a fundamentalist version of Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, or Islam are wrong.  (I define a fundamentalist as one who believes in the literal truth of a holy book or in the inerrant authority of the book's clerical interpreters.)

I do not respect the belief that the Catholic pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals; that the universe was created in seven days; that homosexuality is sinful; that Mohammad's supposed words are sacred; or that it was a glorious day when Jehovah killed the Egyptian first-born.  Insistence on the "truth claim" of such beliefs is dangerous to American democracy.

Americans have a naive belief in the power of attaining "common ground" simply by "talking things out."  If only we all just listened to one another, we would see that all beliefs really deserve the utmost respect.  I would be happy that Colson's endeavors are subsidized by my tax dollars and he would be happy to have his tax dollars pay for a teenage pregnancy counseling center run by unapologetic secularists and atheists.  

This vision of harmony and respect for conflicting "truth claims" would require all of us to dilute our core beliefs.  Even Americans who say that they would never vote for an atheist are not practicing discrimination.  If they truly think that morality can only be based on belief in a deity, they could hardly be expected to have confidence in an atheist in the nation's highest office.  It is my task, which I take very seriously, to convince them that atheists do not have horns.

I would never vote for a fundamentalist of any faith -- and that does not constitute discrimination either.  I believe that faith unleavened by a large dose of doubt and secular knowledge makes for bad public policy.  I vote only for candidates rooted in what one of President George W. Bush's advisers once sneeringly called the "reality-based world."

Religious Americans who charge discrimination when confronted by disagreement generally do so because they have no confidence in their ability to persuade others by rational means.

The "On Faith" blog from the Washington Post and Newsweek can be accessed online at: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/.

The above article is from Sightings of the Martin Marty Center
at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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