Theonormativity

This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.

Josh Stanton of State of Formation recently coined an excellent new term (in a Facebook comment thread, no less) that I desperately hope will catch on: theonormative.

I love this term because it encapsulates a more nuanced and more pervasive phenomenon that I used to clumsily lump into the dissatisfying catch-all category of “religious privilege.” I don’t mean to say that religious privilege is not a real thing – it certainly is. But I think that a lot of the time, when we talk about religious privilege, we really mean theonormativity. And I think that being able to articulate this problem better will make it easier to address.

Theonormativity is when theism is the default, the standard, and everything else is a deviation from this norm.

Theonormativity is when politicians say that “We all worship the same God” and pat themselves on the back for being so inclusive. It is when people do not realize that this excludes not only atheists, but also many Buddhists, pagans, and other religious/spiritual nontheists.

Theonormativity is why God has invaded our money, our courthouses, our schools, and our government in what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni calls “The God Glut.”

Theonormativity is when sociologists call me a None.

Theonormativity is behind the unsatisfactory word “interfaith” and the awkwardly inclusive phrase “religious and nonreligious.”

Theonormativity is all the forms and websites that collect demographic information with a field labeled “Religion” and offer me a checkbox labeled “Other.”

Theonormativity is people who ask me which church I go to.

Theonormativity is the question “so…what do you believe?” (Um…pretty much everything else you do besides the God part?)

Theonormativity is the crosses on anonymous graves.

Theonormativity is all the psychology and sociology studies that ask me how often I attend religious services, and all the research assistants who are bewildered when I ask whether nonreligious services count.

Theonormativity is “interfaith prayer.”

Theonormativity is the fact that I have to explain this.

Chelsea Link is the Campus Organizing Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

5 comments on “Theonormativity

  1. Pingback: Theonormativity | NonProphet Status

  2. Excellent post, excellent word. One problem though, the word was coined by my friend Tony Houston on his The Multiversalist blog back in August. http://multiversalist.blogspot.com/2012/08/plus-or-minus.html?m=1 I just want to give credit where credit is due.

    As far as theonormativity goes, I see it all the time here in Rhode Island. Look at the outrage expressed over the Governor calling the State House evergreen a Holiday Tree. Any attempt to be more inclusive at the expense of religious privilege is greeted with umbrage.

  3. Pingback: Blogathon 2012 Recap, or, A Supposedly Fun Thing We’ll Never Do Again | The Humanist Community Project

  4. Theonormativity (sorry, I wrote “theocentric” in another comment) is also noticeably different amongst Western subcultures. CNN theonormativity, White House theonormativity, looks really different from theonormativity in the Pacific Northwest, where people are almost socially obligated to say “spiritual but not religious”. It’s different from the UK (a place both of us have spent time, I think?) It’s different from secularized Catholic continental Europe.

    Because of this diversity, I don’t think it’s always strictly privilege? Sometimes it’s because of a need/want to acknowledge the possibility of a Higher Power, less the assumption of one? Yes, that acknowledgement is still, sort-of, privilege to theonormativity (in that it’s considered viable enough to acknowledge) but a long way from In God We Trust and everything assumed about existence and nature of a Higher Power and the validity of reflexively referring to it. Maybe I’m being deliberately obtuse. But, to me, there’s a difference between “Dear God, if there is one…” and “Let’s all bow our heads for invocation”.

    This reminds me of Brothers K, an easy and engaging read.

    “Dear God, if there is one… dear tricycle. Dear Larry Moe and Curly…” http://www.scribd.com/doc/93145287/The-Brothers-K

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