Why critique religion?

St Martin FieldsImage of St Martin in the Fields church. Photo (cc) Daniel Jackson.

We live in a secular age. Despite the odd throwback (bishops in the House of Lords and an established Church of England come to mind), religion has ceased to have much, if any significance in most areas of our society. 1 At least, that’s what I read in the papers and hear from my many non-religious friends. It’s not my perspective — but it’s clearly that of many people in our largely secular society.

So why critique religion? Aren’t there social structures where disability discrimination affects more people, and shouldn’t we be critiquing those first?

My answer to this question comes from two parallel perspectives: a critical ‘insider’ position, and a social theory ‘outsider’ approach. I believe that both perspectives are needed in challenging the church (although not necessarily from the same critics. I’m just lucky – or perhaps unlucky – enough to see it from both viewpoints).

I decided I needed to research religion and disability at the Greenbelt festival, in 2008. Greenbelt is a superb mix of arts and social justice. It’s a Christian festival that isn’t so ‘Christian’ that I can’t take my atheist partner along (she enjoys it, too!) and to which I have invited a Buddhist and some non-religious friends (who have also been pleasantly surprised that no one tried to convert them, and that they enjoyed it immensely). It’s been something of a spiritual home to me for about six years. Greenbelt places a high priority on social inclusion, as part of its wider focus on social justice, believing that this should be central to the Church’s role  in society. And in relation to wider society, they’re quite good at this social justice stuff. They challenge the Church on everything from its stance on LGBT people to its ignorance of injustices around the world; they engage with grassroots socio-political movements; they expose some of the social structures behind injustice. Yet, in relation to their own festival-goers — well, I don’t know how well they achieve inclusion for social groups to which I don’t belong, such as minority ethnic Greenbelters. What I do know, from extremely painful personal experience, is that their inclusion of disabled festival-goers leaves a lot to be desired. And that they appear entirely unable to realise this.

This makes them no different from most festivals, to be fair. But that isn’t the point. The very fact the “we’re [sometimes/almost/sort of] as good as other organizations” excuse is so often rolled out by religious institutions to explain poor access is a problem. Shouldn’t we be better? Shouldn’t we be different? Does a church that claims to be committed to social justice not have a responsibility to understand, address and dismantle its own role in all kinds of oppression, including institutional and societal disablism? Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?2 The church’s historical and current record with disabled people, among other marginalized social groups, calls into question our very right to speak about social justice. If we continue to use the rhetoric of justice without the actions to back it up, we will lose our right to criticize society on such issues.

In a fantastic blog article that’s partly on this subject, Smilde et al argue that the sociology of religion has recently done a bit too much gushing over the positive aspects of religion in people’s lives, without critiquing the negative:

Overstating religion’s positive impact steers us away from confronting how religious practices contribute to patriarchy, racism, nationalism, militarism, and a host of other social and political ills. Recent studies have made headway in this direction by balancing positive portraits of religion as agency with more nuanced analyses of religion as a source of social power that simultaneously enables and dis-empowers. Nuanced, measured work along these lines captures religion’s role more accurately.

It’s time to redress the balance, right the wrongs, and show a commitment to social justice that is more than rhetorical. That’s reason one why I critique religion, in relation to disability. It can do better.

As the article notes, this process is also about being clearer about the role of religion in society than we have been. Many sociologists have assumed that secularization is a simple process of moving from a religious age into a secular age. It may not be that simple. If anything, our society is a post-religious one – a society defined against religion. Dave Walker’s cartoon on the subject is a great illustration of this.

The second reason to critique discriminatory and unequal religious practice, then, is the very fact that religion remains a source of definition against which society is building a secular identity. Religion is in the spotlight, perhaps more than ever before — scandals among some Catholic priests and concerns about some fundamentalist ideologies being two interesting examples of this. Religion, and its practices, are being watched. The way it responds is important in terms of whether it retains a role in society, albeit a very different one than before. The Church is probably best-known among non-religious people for its injustices and unequal practice (towards women and LGBT people in particular). Can it respond to such criticisms and move its practices closer to its rhetoric — avoiding accusations of hypocrisy?

In the case of disabled people, I believe it absolutely can. The question of why it isn’t is one that I want to help answer.

1 In Europe, that is. When discussing secularization we have a tendency to forget the US, Israel, Central and South America, a large number of Islamic countries, and many other places where religion still plays a powerful social role, to a greater or lesser extent.

2 Matthew 7:3.

Note: I am at the fairly early stages of research into religion – my primary field is disability. If anyone can point me towards studies on these and related issues, I’d be delighted. I particularly need to read more about secularization and religion in late modernity.

About Naomi Jacobs

Disabled PhD researcher and equality activist. Researching disability and Christianity at SOAS, University of London.
This entry was posted in church practice, social theory, sociology of religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Why critique religion?

  1. Gill Hitchin says:

    Hi, I find the statistics for church attendance interesting. I know of several churches in Derby that have outgrown or are about to outgrow their buildings. These are the churches know as charismatic. Pentecostal, evangelical or spirit led are other terms used. Either way they are churches seen as non- traditional due to the more relaxed nature of services. The buildings are often more ‘disability friendly’ and they have an inclusive nature.
    However they are criticised for their biblical stance of non acceptance of gay relationships, sex outside of marriage and in some cases, the role of women in the church. They don’t do ‘religion’ they do faith.
    Research into why these churches appear to be growing would be really interesting.
    I have been a part of 3 churches in Derby city, Assemblies of God, Baptist and New Frontiers. Apart from spending 10 weeks in the summer at the latter of these, I have been ‘un-churched’ for the last 4 years. I don’t know where I belong any more although my faith is still real and strong and I choose to get involved in Chaplaincy stuff at Uni for the moment.
    I shall follow your research with interest Naomi.

  2. Kim Bond says:

    This got me thinking…
    Most often what I notice are the perimeters grouping sets of beliefs. There appears to be a great deal of overlap, be it areas of contention or agreement (& unsurprisingly I also notice those concerning LGBT & women most).

    Is this driven by a generic psychological need to define oneself against a set of “I am” statements laid out by others with whom we wish to belong or rebel? Or, put bluntly, my cave / your cave? Really? Still?

    So much of society is constructed this way. Polarities, and rebellions against them that cut smaller chunks. Attach labels to the parts. Labels, the naming of parts, allows for quick classification (supporting stereotyping) and rapid processing (reducing thought).

    Perhaps this is why ignorance is considered bliss; because it knows not what it does.

    Any one or group acting in a role as a leader of others, which I very much consider religion to be (as well as, for example, politicians), is doing harm if it allows ignorance flourish.

    Hmm… :D

  3. naomijacobs says:

    Lisa: Perspective is definitely relevant. As I’m trying to suggest above, sociological theories of secularization are definitely too simplistic (or have been until recently). The post I quote from might interest you in terms of secularization.

    Statistics vary a lot regarding how many people go to church regularly, but it’s clear that at least 90% of people in England do not. For comparison, about 40% of people in the US attend church *every week*, and the various numbers I can find for Ireland suggest that that at least 60% attend regularly there. (Having trouble confirming these statistics, but I can work on it.) We’re talking a massive shift, then, from pre-WW2 numbers of about 70% church membership, and 30-40% regular attendance – http://tcbh.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/19/4/446 .

    You may see churches everywhere, but you’d mostly find they’re not very full. My church averages 30-50 a week in a building that can hold over 200. I wonder if a lot of what you’re seeing is the remains of a formerly Christian country’s heritage, rather than current structures. (Church schools being a different issue, and an interesting one, but not just about religion.) That’s what I mean about a society defining itself *against* religion. It appears to be everywhere because something else is establishing itself against it. Maybe.

    Of course, these numbers only relate to Christians, not to the many other religions in the UK. But it’s clear that there’s been a major, if gradual shift towards a secular society in recent years. At the same time, I think you’re right that our society is pluralist rather than necessarily secularized. The secularization process has started, but it may well not move in a straight line towards less and less religion in society. And yes, I think perspective is interesting in that sense. I’d like to read more of sociology of religion stuff that’s written by non-religious researchers.

    Thanks for the comment! Useful food for thought.

  4. Lisa says:

    I’m not convinced that the world is as secular as this post seems to hint.

    For instance the Atheist Bus Campaign (which Walker’s cartoon spoofs) was prompted by religious bus ads and led to countless religious counter-ads. In sheer number terms there were far, far more religious than non-religious bus ads on the road.

    Maybe it depends on the perspective of the author? I’m an atheist so I see religion wherever I look. For instance I’ve got a couple of churches and about 5 religious schools within 5 minutes walk of my flat. But because you have Christian beliefs you see secularism wherever you go?

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