Sunday, February 12, 2017

On the Very Idea of a Religious Minority

A minority group is a group that comprises less than 50% of the total population. Draw the pie chart. If your part is defined by an acute angle, your group is a minority one; if its shaped like Pac-Man, you're part of the majority.

Even holding fixed the total population, whether someone belongs to a minority group or not depends on what kinds of groups are relevant. For example, among faculty members in my department, I'm in a gender majority, because I'm male, and more than half of the faculty members in my department are male. With respect to certain natural ways of carving out dietary restrictions, I am a minority, because I'm a vegetarian, and fewer than half of the people in my department are vegetarians. This kind of 'minority-relativity' is obvious, and not something people get particularly confused about. There's no one absolute answer to the question of whether someone is part of a minority—it depends on what kind of categorization you're interested in.

But there's another kind of minority-relativity that's easier to overlook. Someone's status as part of a minority doesn't just depend on what kind of category you're talking about. It also depends on how finely you're carving up the distinct options. Suppose, for example, that you're interested in the question of whether someone is part of a religious minority, relative to their nation of origin. (Donald Trump attempted to make this a central question for many people's refugee statuses.) If you're going to give special treatment to religious minorities, then it turns out that it matters quite a lot what you count as a religion.