Christonormativity: Are Pagans second-class citizens?

by Phos Erebos

“When a system of oppression has become institutionalized it is unnecessary for individuals to be oppressive.” Florynce Kennedy

In the West and in most westernized countries an almost invisible socio-religious class system is still being pursued, where Christians tend to occupy the top echelons of the religious/spiritual ladder.

Photo credit: Sacred Sanctum of Vesta

Under this system, Christianity and its followers are generally afforded a special status over other religions and spiritualities, and the effect this has had on society is experienced in everyday life and has left many, including, contemporary Pagans, trapped in and by a culture of privilege based on religion.

Pagans, like many other followers of non-Abrahamic religions, have in many ways become second-class citizens in a Christian-dominated world.

In “The Culture of Privilege: Color-blindness, Post-feminism, and Christonormativity”,  scholar Abby Ferber in 2012 coined the term Christonormativity to describe the assumption that Christian values are, and should be, the norm, standard or default.

According to Austin Cline in “Christian Privilege and Religious Privilege: Christian Claims to Privilege”, Christian privilege in westernized countries is based on the assertion that the religious preferences of the majority are more important than the religious equality of the minority.

“Christian privilege is the system of advantages bestowed upon Christians in some societies. This system arises out of the presumption that the belief in Christianity is a social norm, leading to the exclusion of the nonreligious and members of other religions through institutional religious discrimination and/or religious persecution. Christian privilege can also lead to the neglect of outsiders’ cultural heritage and religious practices.” (1)

Christian privilege-based discrimination thus includes the views that non-Christian beliefs are inferior or dangerous, or that those that adhere to non-Christian beliefs are amoral, immoral, sinful, or simply misguided (and thus need to be “saved”).

It also very often includes the view that everyone is, or should be, Christian – or thus the refusal to acknowledge that anyone could possibly follow a different religious or spiritual path.

“The most visible example of attempts to assert Christian privilege in the political realm may be the efforts to insert sectarian prayers into political events, like town council or school board meetings. Rather than stick with generic prayers or even permit prayers from multiple religions, Christians insist that Christian-specific prayers are both appropriate and preferable,” Cline writes.

This is not supposed to happen in South Africa as the National Policy on Religion and Education adopted in September 2003 provides for religious education about diverse religions, which does not promote any particular religion in the public school curriculum. (2)

Christonormativity also, or especially, includes seemingly innocent actions, such as wishing someone a Merry Christmas without knowing whether said person is a Christian. Christian people may not think twice about this, and may, even if subconsciously, not really care if these acts make others who do not share their beliefs uncomfortable.

Whether Christmas, Easter etc. have been hijacked by Christians from other religions is a moot point, as these religious holidays are now accepted as being Christian –  which illustrates the effectiveness, if not craftiness, of Christonormativity.

Christonormativity has marginalized those who do not follow that specific religion and has been so embedded that we do not even think about things such as our calendar, which is set to the life and death of the Christian savior.

It is hard not to be Christian in South Africa, especially when you are Pagan and you have to explain and justify your beliefs, or, even worse when you are forced to stay in the closet for fear of harassment.


Legislators in most western(ised) countries, including South Africa, tend to be Christian and their decisions reflect the majority of their supporters, who are also Christian.

Christonormativity affords a powerful identity to Christians and acts as a social moraliser, whether you are Christian or not, and legislators tend to believe their decisions are morally superior, not realising that their position is, in fact, strengthening Christianity, and that this institution is then used to reinforce a broader system of privilege and oppression in society.

What we often forget is that religious freedom is not absolute. Our religious freedom has been granted to us, for the most by “Christian” legislators, and laws can, and have been, amended and revoked, even in constitutional democracies.

The preamble to post-apartheid South Africa’s Constitution of 1996 contains references to God in the form of a multilingual evocation asking for God’s protection and blessing. Which god?

The South African Constitution nevertheless enshrines the right to freedom of religion. Chapter 2 of the Constitution of South Africa, the Bill of Rights, contains a number of provisions dealing with religious freedom.

However, even the constitutional right to freedom of religion in South Africa is not absolute.

In his keynote speech at the public endorsement ceremony of the South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms in Johannesburg on 21 October 2010, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke stated: “Every right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights may be limited by a law of general application. Thus, the right to religious freedom is not absolute. Its scope may be limited by other rights or by a law in pursuit of a legitimate government purpose.” (3)

South Africa’s new Constitution did not result in the immediate reform of discriminatory legislation infringing on the right to religious freedom, true, various legislative reforms have taken place or have been initiated since 1994 as a result of lobbying by disenfranchised groups. (4)

Reforms which have taken place include the Civil Union Act, which came into effect on 30 November 2006. This legalized same-sex marriage and also allowed for the legal designation of religious marriage officers without any religious restriction in accordance with the Constitution.

The Christian holidays of Christmas Day and Good Friday remained in post-apartheid South Africa’s calendar of public holidays. The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) held countrywide consultative public hearings 2012 to assess the need for a review of public holidays following the receipt of complaints from minority groups about unfair discrimination.

The CRL Rights Commission published its recommendations on 17 April 2013, including the scrapping of some existing public holidays to free up days for some non-Christian religious public holidays. On 18 January 2015, the South African Law Reform Commission published a discussion document on legislation administered by the Department of Home Affairs in which it suggested: “that either these holidays be reviewed or that equal weight is given to holidays of other faiths”. (5)

However, certain outdated laws regarding religion still persist.

One reform which has not yet taken place, for example, is the law regarding blasphemy – a good example of to what extent society has been “Christonormativised”.

Blasphemy is still a common law offense in South Africa, defined as “unlawfully, intentionally and publicly acting contemptuously towards God”. (Common law offenses are crimes under English criminal law and the related criminal law of other Commonwealth countries.) (6)

Several legal writers have suggested that the illegality of blasphemy has become unconstitutional as a result of the adoption in 1994 of the Bill of Rights, which includes the right to freedom of expression.  It has also been suggested that it is unconstitutional because the criminal prohibition only applies to blasphemy against Christianity and the “Christian God”, and therefore discriminates on the basis of religion. (5)

And then, there have also been attempts to adopt, or perhaps sneak in new legislation.

In June 2007 a draft of the Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill of 2007 was leaked, but unlike the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 (which was directed against witch-hunting), the proposed new act would explicitly acknowledge the existence of witchcraft and criminalize it.

It would thus even criminalize witchcraft as practiced by certain Pagans, and others.

Drafting of the bill was suspended the following year following opposition from traditional healers and contemporary Pagans, which also led to a review of existing national witchcraft legislation by the South African Law Reform Commission. (7)

On 24 June 2008, the Mpumalanga Provincial Government issued a statement announcing they had suspended drafting of the bill until further notice after consultation with different stakeholders.

The existing Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957, based on colonial witchcraft legislation, criminalizes claiming knowledge of witchcraft, conducting specified practices associated with witchcraft including the use of charms and divination, and accusing others of practicing witchcraft. The act is based on the Witchcraft Suppression Act 1895 of the Cape Colony, which was in turn based on the Witchcraft Act 1735 of the United Kingdom. (4)

In 2007 the South African Law Reform Commission received submissions from the South African Pagan Rights Alliance and the Traditional Healers Organisation requesting the investigation of the constitutionality of the act and on 23 March 2010, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development approved a South African Law Reform Commission project to review witchcraft legislation. (5)

Internationally, article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is designed to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In 1993, the United Nations’ human rights committee declared that article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights “protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief”.

Signatories to the convention are barred from “the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers” to recant their beliefs or convert.

Despite even this minority religions, including Paganism, still are to varying degrees, victimized in many parts of the world, including in South Africa.

What is the use of freedom of religion if you are not truly free to openly practice what you believe in?


At the individual level Christian privilege occurs in proselytizing to convert “non-believers”. While Christians view proselytizing as offering salvation, followers of other faiths often view conversion attempts as manipulation, disrespect, and even oppression.

It seems that many Christians do not realize that with religious freedom also comes freedom from (their) religion.

Although the South African Constitution “guarantees” religious rights for all, Christonormativity makes this highly improbable. Social institutions in South Africa have pretty much-maintained policies that privilege certain groups, while limiting other groups based on religious identity.

“Christian privilege and religious oppression exist in a symbiotic relationship. Oppression toward non-Christians gives rise to Christian privilege, and Christian privilege maintains oppression toward non-Christian individuals and faith communities.” (7)

Just as we as Pagans have an obligation to fight racism, and all other forms of prejudice, we also have an obligation to combat the effects of Christonormativity, even if what we want to do is to distance ourselves from it for fear of being stereotyped as immoral, unbelievers, evil, etc.

Pagans know that wildly different religious and cultural ideas can and should co-exist, and even at times blend, but Christonormativity is and has been, a key component of the structures of privilege and oppression in our society.


Some of the “everyday” Christian privileges in westernized societies include:

  • When traveling, Christians can assume they will find churches of their denomination;
  • It’s easy for Christians to find a religious site to marry;
  • Christians easily find Christian movies, radio programs, music, magazines, books and TV shows;
  • When someone talks about or thanks, god, Christians can assume it’s their god
  • In many countries, especially in the West and westernized countries, Christians can assume that they will not be discriminated against because of their religion;
  • Christians need not worry about moving to a new town where Christians are not welcome;
  • Christians do not worry about revealing their religion to parents, friends, employers, employees, etc;
  • Christians can easily find private schools that cater to their religion;
  • Christians can wear Christian symbols, jewelry without fear;
  • Christians don’t have to educate their kids about persecution for their own protection;
  • Christians can ignore the language and customs of other religions without censure;
  • Christians need not worry if their religion will hinder their professional ambitions;
  • Christians do not have to worry about hate groups dedicated to wiping out Christianity;
  • Christians can assume that most neighbours and co-workers are Christian;
  • Christians are not expected to speak for all Christians or everyone in a denomination;
  • Whatever Christians do, they need not worry that it will reflect poorly on Christianity;
  • Where relevant, laws take the Christian Sabbath (Sunday) into account;
  • Christians can assume that most politicians are Christians who represent Christian interests;
  • Christians can criticize the government or society without being labeled cultural outsiders;
  • Christians can assume that politicians will not attack their religion;
  • Christians can assume that government prayers will be Christian in nature (they usually are);
  • If a Christian is being tried in court, he/she can assume that the jury of “your peers” will most likely share their faith and not hold religion against them in weighing decisions;
  • When swearing an oath, a Christian will place his/her hand on a religious scripture pertaining to their faith;
  • Politicians can make decisions citing Christianity without being labeled as heretics or extremists;
  • Christians can reasonably assume that anyone they encounter will have a decent understanding of their beliefs;
  • Without special effort, Christian children will have a multitude of teachers who share their faith;
  • Without special effort, Christian children will have a multitude of friends who share their faith;
  • Disclosing their faith to an adoption agency will not likely prevent Christians from being able to adopt children;
  • The Christian faith is taught or offered as a course at most public institutions;
  • Christians can complain about their religion being under attack without it being perceived as an attack on another religion;
  • Most Christians don’t have to work on their holiest days;
  • Christians can assume that their opinion won’t be ignored because of their religion;
  • Successful Christians aren’t told that they are greedy because of their religion;
  • The word “Christian” is treated as a label representing the best human attributes; etc (8)


“Defenders of religious privilege tend to frame it as a matter of religious liberty: when laws infringe upon religiously motivated actions, then that infringes upon religious liberty. In the abstract, that sounds reasonable, but when we come to actual cases we can find many instances where one person’s interests may trump some else’s free exercise rights.” – Austin Cline

Is Christonormativity a conscious or a non-conscious ideology?

Peggy McIntosh and LZ Schlosser, in “Christian Privilege: Breaking a Sacred Taboo”, write: “A nonconscious ideology is analogous to the water fish swim in fish don’t think of the water as wet because this environment is all they know – it structures their experience of life itself. Water simply is. Members of privileged groups don’t have to think about their environment because, for them, that environment simply is. They don’t have to be concerned about others’ opinions because it’s safe to assume that most think like them.”

It is, they write, however, those who do not benefit from such an environment who have to think about it because they can be harmed by it.

In the social sciences, religious privilege is known as a “nonconscious ideology.”  This not only means that it is perpetuated in ways that people aren’t conscious of, but also that the environment which structures their lives and assumptions about life also reinforces the assumption that a specific religion should be treated with greater respect and favoritism than other beliefs, writes Cline.

Defenders of religious privilege tend to define it as part and parcel of their religious liberty. What many fail to comprehend, or wish to comprehend, is that behavior based on a specific group’s ideal of religion is often harmful towards those who do not share the same religion.

“Christians realize that many of the above privileges are in decline. They interpret this as persecution because privilege is all they have ever known. The same is true when men complain about the decline of male privilege and whites complain about the decline of white privilege. The defense of privilege is a defense of dominance and discrimination, but for those who benefit it’s a defense of their traditional way of life. They need to become conscious of their privileges and realize that in a free society, such privileges are inappropriate,” writes Cline.

Some claim that we may be slowly moving into a post-Christian era, yet the vast majority of South Africans identify as Christian, and because of that Christians continue to have massive influence on our culture, our economics and our politics debate on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, etc are still framed by Christianity.

To many Christians their privilege is invisible, and they do not realize how much society accommodates, and suffers under their unquestioned power. The fact that some Christians often do not realize what they are doing has been referred to by some writers as oppression blindness.

Ironically, many Christians claim and believe they are the ones under attack –  a kind of paranoia mostly based on fear mongering instituted by their own leaders, supporters and even government officials and departments, utterances about a returning “pagan persecution”, and the dangers of the occult that they must constantly guard against.

The problem with these allegations is that it merely leads to the further entrenchment of Christian privilege, and the further demonisation and even dehumanization of Pagans and Paganism, and members of many other religions and spiritualities.

Proof of such entrenchment and the need within certain Christian circles to protect themselves against non-Christian practices in South Africa was the creation of the Occult Related Crimes Unit in 1992.

Christian belief was a prerequisite to serving in this police unit – which points to the furthering of religious-based privilege, even within the police force.

However, the concern with the alleged presence of Satanism and occult practices continued into the post-apartheid era, and although this specific police unit no longer officially exists, it continues to function in a different guise and train new members of the police force in occult-related crimes.

Newspapers reported that in November 2010 a team of 30 specialists was trained for the unit, and in 2012 two detectives per province received specialized training. In 2012 three Eastern Cape detectives were trained for a new provincial occult task team. (9)  In November 2014 it was reported that members of the police force had been trained in occult crime investigation. (10)

In 2012 a leaked police memo revealed that the unit had not been disbanded, it had simply been renamed The SAPS Harmful Religions Practices Unit. (11)

And this unit still exists and is active.

According to the Annual Report of the Department of Police for the period 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2015:

“…The Department will focus on safer schools by means of linkages between schools and police stations, the establishment of safe school committees and report systems on crimes and violence occurring at schools including the prevention of gangsterism, substance abuse, and harmful occult-related behavior. “ (Page 22)

Furthermore: “General Crime Investigations is responsible for managing and ensuring the effective investigation of crimes at station level according to their mandate and are also responsible for the following functional areas:

  • Bureau for Missing Persons
  • Crime Stop
  • Harmful Occult-Related Crime
  • Purification of Wanted Person database “ (page 214)

The annual report under the heading “Harmful Occult-Related Crime”, states on page 216:

  • Harmful Occult-related crime means any human conduct that constitutes a crime, the modus operandi of which relates to or emanates primarily from any belief or ostensible belief in the occult.
  • The main objective of the investigation and prevention of harmful occult-related crimes are to ensure:
    – the effective investigation of harmful occult-related crimes
    – the prevention of harmful occult-related crimes
    – the effective gathering, management, use and dissemination of information on harmful occult-related crimes in order to meet the legal obligation of the harmful occult-related crimes investigation capacity, in collaboration with Crime Intelligence.

The report states on page 217 that 11 occult lectures were presented during the year under review; 19 victims were interviewed; 15 suspects were interviewed; 13 scene were visited, and 24 files were opened for investigation

On page 15 of another official government document (the SAPS Strategic Plan 2014-2019):

“… the Department will focus on safer schools learning institutions by means of linkages between schools and Police Stations, the establishment of safe school committees and establish reporting systems on school-based crime and violence including the prevention of gangsterism, substance abuse, and occult-related behavior.”

Page 67 shows part of a table for the SAPS’s Human Resources Development Plan for the Medium-Term Strategic Framework Identified Priority:

2015/2016: Harmful Occult-Related Investigators Course (2 courses); 50 members;

2016/2017: Harmful Occult-Related Investigators Course (3 courses); 90 members

2017/2018: Harmful Occult-Related Investigators Course (3 courses); 90 members

2018/2019: Harmful Occult-Related Investigators Course (3 courses); 90 members.

The fact is that the Department of Police and the South African Police Service actively support, fund and train members of the Harmful Occult-Related unit.

The SAPS also disseminates information on the unit and its work in its “awareness interventions”, and this could point that Christonormativity may be an “unofficial official” government policy.


In the current world according to Christianity, religions other than Christianity are barely tolerated, and never embraced or valued by the majority.

In westernized countries, including South Africa, the future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents.

The best Pagans and others can hope for are to experience the world where Christianity has lost its monopoly on social and political agendas.

However, before this happens, perhaps Christian ethics need to be re-imagined, and this is only possible when coexistence replaces dominance.




(3)  Dikgang Moseneke, “The right to differ religiously”






(8) List compiled from:;;  and





– Every faith has something to teach us by Daniel Herron –;

– Christian Privilege and Religious Privilege: Christian Claims to Privilege by Austin Cline –;

– Oh My God! Christonormativity and Sexual Politics on Amanda S’s blog:;

– How Religion, Religious Groups, and Beliefs are Privileged by Austin Cline –;

– 30+ Examples of Christian Privilege –

– Outside Perspectives and Gay Marriage by Jason Pitzl-Waters on;

–  Witch trials in the early modern period from Wikipedia on;;;

– Christian Privilege as a Nonconscious Ideology:  by Austin Cline at;

– Neopaganism: Is Dialogue Possible? By Andrew J McLean –;

– Dikgang Moseneke, “The right to differ religiously”;

– How Religion, Religious Groups, and Religious Beliefs are Privileged at;

– Oh My God! Christonormativity and Sexual Politics | Scarleteen;

– Christonormativity, Part II: More random thoughts… at

– South African Law Reform Commission Thirty-Eighth Annual Report 2010/2011;;;

– Race, gender, sexuality, and social class: dimensions of inequality and identity;

– Annual Report of the Department of Police for the period 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2015;

– SAPS Strategic Plan 2014-2019.


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