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packMy mind has been on invisible knapsacks this week.

After health care reform passed, the gnashing of teeth intensified among its opponents — a deep concern about (non-war-related) expense, dire warnings of our descent into one or more other-than-capital isms, and a tearful eulogy for the America We Loved. These flies are always buzzing, and I’ve learned to just keep my tail moving and go about my day.

But there’s one trope in the mix that brings up an especially deep outrage in me, one that makes it hard to hold my tongue. It’s the suggestion that this Act confers benefits on people who — unlike the speaker — have not earned them.

Which led me back to the invisible knapsack.

Twenty years ago, in a piece titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley Centers for Women crystallized the argument that racial discrimination, especially today, is less a matter of “individual acts of meanness” than “invisible systems conferring dominance” on one group over another.

In our culture, I’m a member of several privileged groups (white, male, educated, heterosexual) and outside of others (religious, attractive). Like most people, I’m able to see and decry the advantages I am denied, but those I do have are largely invisible to me — until someone points them out, as McIntosh does so lucidly in her essay, with a list of 50 privileges she holds, but usually fails to recognize, as a white person. It’s a quick and thoughtful read, and I recommend it.

The nonreligious rightly protest unfair advantages conferred on the religious. But when it comes to our own advantages as nonreligious people, we too often act as if we earned them all.

Our advantages?? Sure. My secular humanism doesn’t confer much social advantage, but I do think it has allowed me to see a much grander, more astonishing, and ultimately more inspirational world and universe than the one my most conservatively religious friends inhabit. I don’t think this makes me a better person than they are. But I am deeply grateful for what it has done to the color and depth of my life and to my ability to open that lovely perspective to my kids.

Darwin hints at this color and depth in the last sentence of the Origin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (First edition, 1859)*

I’m glad for that grand naturalistic view, at once humbling and ennobling. But I recognize that in addition to the serious effort I put into reaching my conclusions, I also had some advantages along the way — advantages that not everyone shares.

My parents valued education and the life of the mind and encouraged the same in me and my brothers. They took us to a UCC church, a liberal denomination free of thought-paralyzing dogmas and fear. They encouraged us to think for ourselves and to be infinitely curious. My early interests in mythology and science were nurtured. I had a first-rate education, K-Ph.D. I was raised in relative physical and economic security. I knew people of several different religious traditions and eventually attended churches in nine denominations. We attended a Unitarian fellowship in my teens.

Not one of these is essential in achieving a naturalistic worldview free of traditional religion. Many of my nonreligious friends found their way out despite far fewer advantages than I had. But I recognize that many of the folks we rail against for holding on to beliefs we find unbelievable have often inherited, in one way or another, a more formidable set of obstacles.

The end result of such a process is greater empathy for the believer. Not for the beliefs themselves, especially those that are malignant or dehumanizing. It’s unethical to leave genuinely harmful beliefs unchallenged. But the most effective challenge to beliefs begins with heartfelt empathy for those who believe.

*Go here for a fascinating look at the (what else?) evolution of this poetic passage through later editions, and Darwin’s regret at “truckl[ing] to public opinion” in changing it.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.