Charlie Hebdo, White Secularism, and the Problem with Saying “All” Religion is Bad

Since, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and unfortunate and sad loss of life, there has also been a lot of unfortunately predictable Islamophobia. With claims of bystanders being able to hear “allahu akbar” and “we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” once again anyone without the safety blanket of being white, male and Christian (or at least not anything “savage” like being Muslim) is apparently responsible for the crimes of those who share one part of their identity.

It’s been covered by enough people, better than I could, about the way that we hyper-focus and make monolithic the crimes of anyone brown, black, Muslim, etc. despite the fact that the majority of mass shooters/killers in the past few decades in the US have been white gunmen. I could go into how this is especially characterized by the way U.S. media outlets have been salivating to cover every scrap about Charlie Hebdo, while pretty much giving 500 words and a raspberry sound to the NAACP office that was bombed by a white gunman. And, it’s also important to point out that “no, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.” There are lots of people who have said things before me, more smartly than I can, so I’m not going to retread a worn path.

However, what I would like to address is the circling conversation that seems to buzzing at a low-level hum on my Facebook feed, and on some of the news outlets that white liberals love. It’s one that especially I’m hearing white atheists and secularists share, an argument that seems to be the white liberal way of having claims of Islamophobia or racism wash right off them like a rain-slicker, to feel righteous at talking about the “real problem”: how religion, ALL religion, is the real culprit here, the real evil.

A good example is a piece from Slate from 2006 that they decide to reprint yesterday in light of Charlie Hebdo. Now, it claims to be about the right to mock religion, which I suppose it is, yeah. It’s the predictably boring, knee-jerk “what about my first amendment rights, EH” kinda white guy written piece (it should also be noted that the white guy writer in question, Christopher Hitchens, is documented as blatantly Islamophobic, which is always relevant, but will become more relevant later). And I get it, you have the legal right that it is actually usually unchallenged to you, as a white straight upper-class male, to be able to say whatever you want, whenever you want, without fear or threat of violence and death. I get it, we get it. I’m not even going to bother to debate that point because yeah—you got it. I really don’t give a flying fuck about whether it’s your first amendment right to say terrible or inaccurate or just plain stupid shit because it is. Big whoop. I’m going to get AT LEAST one comment most likely, either on Facebook or on this blog itself, trying to claim I hate freedom, and freedom of speech because they didn’t bother to critically read the whole piece and blah blah blah.

Nor does it cover you not being criticized or being racist when you employ that right.

Because the thing is, when Christopher Hitchens, and many other white liberal atheists and secularists, claim “the REAL problem is all religion” and “I have a right to mock religion,” they paint religion which such a massively broad stroke that it basically marks everyone but they and their white liberal atheist friends as “other” or, in the case of Muslims in the outcome of Charlie Hebdo right now—“evil”. Whereas, white liberals? Get to be “reasonable,” “right” and, not so indirectly “good.”

Now, I’m not saying that organized religion shouldn’t be criticized—not at all, seeing as considering my own personal history that would be extremely hypocritical of me. Because, see, I myself am a white “liberal” progressive, whatever you call it, who has pretty much cut ties from her Catholic background. My parents are Catholic, my house was filled with Virgin Mary placemats and crucifixes growing up, and I went to Catholic school from the age of 6 to 18. I grew up, to quote myself from a piece I’ve written about religion before, “hella Catholic.” And, being a young queer girl from a lower-middle class family in an environment that practically dripped heteronormative upper-class patriarchy, it hurt me. A lot. I still deal with a lot of anxiety, trauma, and, of course, Catholic guilt, from my upbringing. I won’t be tithing anytime soon. The last Catholic mass I attended was 3 years ago, I believe. And while I’m my niece’s godmother, in both the legal and religious sense, I plan to spend a hell of a lot more time mentoring her about kindness, and justice, than I do about the catechism. I have, in many ways, rejected my faith. It was a long road, a deeply personal decision, and one that still affects me and my family relationships. And sometimes, I mock Catholicism. I do it to cope. And I certainly criticize Catholicism. I do it because Catholicism was a major force and tool in colonizing all over the globe, in allowing people who looked like my and my family, who believed in what my family believed, to uphold racist practices, to uphold structures of wealth and abuse over roughly a thousand years. I do it to deal, with being a recovering Catholic, and to confront the privilege still inherent in my experience.

But faith is not just belief (though that shouldn’t make it lesser regardless) but culture. Catholicism for me wasn’t just about which Church I went to on Sundays, about the traditions I shared with my family, with the people in that space. It was my culture, is still a part of my culture. Faith is hugely interwoven in people’s lives, touching every part of their experience. It builds communities. It drives many movements for justice around the world. It gives families ways to gather. And sometimes, it gives a person reason to live through one more day. Faith—religion—gives quite a lot, to many people.

And yes, sometimes people use religion as a tool of violence. But honestly, humans are capable of turning many things not inherently bad, and even seemingly inherently good, into tools of violence. Government. Marriage. Sex. Parent-child relationships. Anything with enough human will and creativity behind it can unfortunately become a tool of violence. And while that doesn’t mean we can see to try to limit those capabilities (looking at you gun-control laws, or lack thereof) that ALSO doesn’t necessarily make the tool rooted in that violence.

Religion is not in itself an evil thing. The concept is actually one, I at least personally, find beautiful, even if I haven’t quite found a way to fit comfortably into it yet. And just because I haven’t, and just because others have no desire to—which is fine, more than fine—doesn’t mean it brings no good for anyone. Hell, even for myself, it’s more complicated than outright rejection. It was a Catholic religious retreat after all, that was the turning point in getting me to actually recognize, and begin recovery towards, my eating disorder when I was younger. I don’t really want to know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t gone on that retreat. I don’t really want to know.

What I do know, however, is that my relationship with religion is no one else’s relationship with religion. And what I do know is that when we say, “all religion is bad” and try to really emphasize that “all” part, it doesn’t equilaterally attack. Religion is statistically, in the United States, and across the world, most utilized and valued by those who are not white; by those who are not wealthy; and by those who are not men; when we white liberals say “all religion is bad” we are not really attacking wealthy white Christians who give money to fight against reproductive justice, or LGBT rights, like we might think we are. We’re attacking black churches where civil rights organizing historically, and currently, operate so widely out of. We are calling Muslims terrorists. We are attacking immigrant families who often when arriving go first to a place of worship. We are attacking lower-income families that sometimes are only getting by with the aid of their local church’s food pantry. And we’re attacking those religious queer and trans teens, and religious people who have had abortions, who are precariously trying to balance their identities and belief systems when sometimes both sides are saying neither can survive while the other lives.

We’re attacking the marginalized, with our white liberal secular version of holier than thou, while simultaneously using “all religion is bad” as our defense against attacking those same people. And that’s fucked up.

Critique religion, but do so in a way that does not feed into bigotry, that doesn’t broadly generalize, and that is actually self-aware both of the experiences and inherent biases you carry, as well as the gap of knowledge you have of other faith practices you were not raised in and that are treated as lesser in the mainstream culture. Be aware.

If you’re reading this in a place where you have the first amendment right. Okay. You can say whatever the fuck you want, technically (and if you’re a white dude, then, again, you can actually have that fairly guaranteed for you). You can say “all religion is bad.” You CAN say it. Just don’t pretend like you’re not causing any damage. And don’t pretend like you’re actually saying “ALL religion is bad.”


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