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.