This analogy is half correct: A black man is a product of racial thinking just as the sinner is a product of religious thinking. Neither “black” nor “sin” exist without the respective systems that construct them. This is why I criticize religion with the same enthusiasm I criticize racism with: both are systems of oppression – just as the black man carries a stigma that subjects him to prejudice and discrimination, so the sinner carries a stigma that subjects her to prejudice and discrimination. Stigma is the basis of persecution, and stigma is a social construction, its meaning relative to a belief system.
We have in the West made great inroads in marginalizing religion as an organizing principle of society. A big reason for this is religious pluralism, which recognizes that there is no overarching religious system under which we are all defined. This includes the possibility that we are not defined in religious terms at all. But race remains an overarching organizing principle of social and cultural life. Of course, for those still trapped in religious systems, the experience can be just as punishing as racism. But in the West the situation is supposed to be different. We’re liberal and secular here.
Yet western society is massively hypocritical when it comes to feelings about racism and religion. One is condemned. The other celebrated, often even deemed necessary. As a consequence, I’m often regarded by as a bigot because I am consistent.
At the same time, there are differences between the cases. Racism constructs race from material found in reality, from the identification and organization of immutable, albeit superficial, phenotypic characteristics, empirical things like skin color, hair texture, eye shape, etc. Moreover, especially where ambiguous, race is rooted in ancestry, lineages of heritable traits. A racialized man cannot easily escape his ascribed status because his physical appearance and genealogy fate him to that status.
Religion, on the other hand, references immaterial things: gods, devils, demons, angels, the divine – things that are, as objective matter, impossible. At best, they are simulacra of social facts, projections of the profane into the sacred realm of imagination. A religious identity is not immutable in the way race is. I was born in a Christian family, to a minister, in a Christian community in the Bible Belt. Yet I have never been a Christian. And if I had been, I would not be now, proof that religion is abandonable. But I am white regardless of what I believe.
Here’s another difference between the cases: Whereas religious belief comes with specific cognitive and emotional content (I have a good idea what a Christian or Muslim believes when I know he is a Christian or a Muslim), race comes with no cognitive or emotional content at all. You can tell nothing about my belief simply on the basis of my race – or gender, for that matter. It won’t help you at all to know my politics or even my religion to know I am a white male. As a white male I could believe anything, listen to any kind of music, believe in any god or no god at all. But if a person is a Muslim, that comes with a suite of attitudes, assumptions, beliefs. Sure, it’s not monolithic. But it has ideological parameters. If you believe you are a Muslim by virtue of your birth, you are confused about what religion is. It’s not like being Arab for example. After all, Arabs can be Christians. Or atheists.
The reality is that I cannot choose my race, but I can choose my beliefs. I cannot shed my skin, but I can remove a hat or a garment. One may find it difficult to give up religion, just as it is for some hard to quit racism, but people do it all the time.
It is a historical accident – our ancestors were still immature in their judgment when they established the rules of civil rights – that religion was put in the lineup of categories requiring special protection. They treated this species of ideology apart from all the other species with which it shares a family connection, giving special protective status to a prejudicial and discriminatory belief system, thereby creating the false assumption that religion was different from its cousins racism and sexism. They committed a category error and flipped the oppressor-oppressed dynamic.
As for free thought and expression of opinion, we already protect that! You can believe and say whatever you want. And you are free to be criticized and ridiculed for that belief. Not special protection is necessary. Want to believe in a god, gods, or no gods? You don’t need my permission.
The differences help us determine how we move forward. Ending racial categories does not begin with pretending people do not share phenotypic categories but by dismantling the system that organizes us on this basis. On the other hand, ending religious categories does depends on personally rejecting religious belief. Religion is a system that each of us can shed because it is upon each of us to give up religious ideology, just as it upon each of us to criticize and ridicule harmful and absurd ideas. Those who don’t want to give up those beliefs shouldn’t get a pass any more than committed racists do on this account. They enable all of the terrible effects of a thought-system that appeals to the transcendent.