This past semester, I was a teacher’s assistant for a course on divine goddesses. When I heard that the course had been assigned to me, I was curious to see how I, a white male, would be received by a student body composed of 95% females and 75% ethnic minorities. The irony was not lost on me — possessing the privileges of an instructor over female and minority students for a course that calls out the injustices of social and institutional white male privilege. Mirroring the head professor and core textbook, I revolved the classroom discourse around ancient cultural ideals and taboos concerning femininity, embodied in the divine goddesses. The ancient cultural projection of these goddesses provided ample material, serving as proxies, for my students to compare ancient social justice issues with those in the present.
In the last class, I explained how gods and goddesses provided explanatory principles for gaps in ancient scientific knowledge within all areas of human experiences, such as politics, society, economics, and nature. For instance, Lakshmi is a goddess who bestows wealth, success, and riches; Athena grants civilizational order and fortitude to the city of Athens; Inanna causes the fertility and success of various kingdoms.
I then proceeded to compare the ancient peoples’ method of explaining the world with that of my students’ method: The ancients explained phenomena, such as fertility, prosperity, and success, by appealing to the gods and goddesses; my students explained socioeconomic disparities between identity groups, such as the distribution of wealth, success, employment, income and life expectancy, by appealing to “privilege.” The goal of the comparison was to unsettle the principles that the students took for granted in making sense of the world.
The term “gods of the gaps” is often applied to religious thought that posits a deity in an area where there is a lack of scientific knowledge. For example, ancient peoples were uninformed about what meteorologists now know concerning weather patterns and what botanists now know about plant life. Hence, in order to make sense of the things they observed in the world, such as storms, famines, defeat in battle, a good harvest, barrenness of womb, sexual desire, wealth, death, and new life, they created myths and stories that explained the happenings of nature as the result of the gods’ activities. Although they acknowledged some secondary causes, everything was ultimately explained with recourse to some deity. Consequently, they struggled to predict the activities of nature since the principle explanation, namely, the gods, was inaccurate. So to cope with the unpredictability of the gods’ activities, complex religious rituals, such as sacrifices and festivals, emerged over time. The ancients believed that these religious activities would confer the power to influence and manipulate the gods. The myths and stories were galvanized through inter-generational storytelling aided by the corroboration of personal experiences.
Now, if the dominant discourse within most ancient societies was, in certain regards, pseudo-scientific, is it possible that a dominant discourse within our modern context likewise suffers from pseudo-scientific methods and principles? I think the prevailing explanation, in North America, of inequality in outcomes between races and sexes, share troubling similarities with ancient explanations of natural phenomena. Like the ancients explained nature with reference to the gods, we today, from the pulpit to the newsroom and the political rally to the lecture hall, explain the achievements and favourable outcomes of certain groups as the result of unmerited and discriminatory privilege. Unfavourable outcomes of certain historically oppressed groups are explained by positing that they are underprivileged. Out of all other contributing factors, privilege is postulated as the main reason to account for racial and gender disparities in outcomes.
With great pain, I recognize that white privilege was a historical reality over the past four centuries and that male privilege existed globally only until the recent past, but it is less obvious that widespread unmerited privilege exists today. Not only have discriminatory laws and policies against blacks and females been outlawed following the victories of the civil rights and suffrage movements, but society unanimously denounces racism and sexism as evil. Although old-fashioned racism and sexism became socially unacceptable, circles of legal scholars and psychologists now claim that discrimination found asylum elsewhere. The unconscious privileging of some individuals over others has left a sinister trace upon the statistical disparities between the races and sexes. The activist scholars primarily locate privilege neither in the laws of the land nor in explicit attitudes and behaviours, but in a realm insulated from hard empirical examination: the unconscious mind. Yet, tests devised to detect unconscious bias have been disproven by disinterested psychologists and social scientists because the results are unrepeatable and they do not meet basic scientific standards. The insulated location of privilege within the mind is reminiscent of the inability to empirically study the gods, who were not physical and were beyond the realm of mortals.
There is no doubt that some individuals today have benefited from historic or even current instances of discrimination, but how much can we ascribe to discrimination today in accounting for disparate outcomes? This is not a new question. The black economists Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams, among others, have written extensively on the often overlooked causes of racial disparities in outcomes, such as cultural attitudes, values, behaviour, and the socioeconomic policies that intend to help close the gaps in outcomes. Christina Hoff Summers and Jordan Peterson, among others, have spoken and written on the causes of gender disparities in outcomes, and they have demonstrated that discrimination is not a significant factor among the many contributing variables. In light of this body of scholarship, we can understand the concept of “privilege” as functioning in a similar way to the function of the gods in some ancient and modern religious thought. Social justice adherents share some striking similarities in habit and belief with the ancient adherents of the “gods of the gaps”.
It is impossible for the average person to comprehend all of the relevant knowledge—such as free markets, economics and history—in order to come to an informed opinion on the causes of different outcomes between groups. Ancient belief systems depended on ignorance of the thousands of variables and complexities that cause, for example, a single grain of wheat to grow. A Roman did not require training in the natural sciences or philosophical schools in order to come to the conclusion that crops grow because Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, was satisfied with sacrifices offered to her at the spring festival. Moreover, for a priest to attribute the prosperity of Athens to Athena neglected to take into account, for instance, the effect of the Athenian’s culture, its democratically enacted laws, or the values and attitudes the citizens had towards commerce, work, law and order, civility, cooperation, and familial bonds. Moreover, what of Athen’s geographical location respective to bodies of water and material resources, the temperament and culture of surrounding cities with whom they could trade or fight, and local weather patterns?
Athena alone cannot explain the prosperity of the Athens; nor can privilege explain disparities in group outcomes. There are innumerable variables that cause these differences in outcomes between identity groups. Privilege, like Ceres and Athena, is an unhelpful concept that reduces the cause of the gaps to a single variable, namely, discrimination. Ignorance reigns as thousands of variables and causes go unexplored. The risk-adverse expediency of a single-variant analysis—that privilege explains socioeconomic disparities—is preferred, and thus effortlessly taught and propagated in the academy and by the entertainment and media industries.
Privilege, as a notion, is having a disastrous effect on the outlook of historically oppressed groups. If something bad happens, it is easier to ascribe the cause to someone else’s privilege than to an unknown cause. This is the “privilege of the gaps.” The privilege of the gaps forms a superstitious lens for the believer to interpret their daily experiences through. The gods, goddesses and privilege are seen as external realities that you cannot control, existing in the heavens or in the unconscious mind. If the gods and Fate determined one’s prosperity, success, and fertility, then one would rightly feel weak, helpless, and a victim. Manipulation becomes the only tool to achieve an illusion of control.
In pursuit of equality in all measurable outcomes, the modern equivalent of spells, sacrifices, and rituals to manipulate the gods are diversity quotas, equity programs, redistribution of resources, reparations, and affirmative action. The hope is that these policies of manipulation nullify the power of Privilege by closing gaps between groups. The ancients used to say, “you prosper because you have pleased the gods.” We now say, “you got the job because you’re a white male.” Thus, we try to manipulate employment outcomes for ethnic minorities and women by setting race and gender quotas in order to bring about parity in employment, for example.
The “privilege of the gaps” is only made possible by both legitimate and willful ignorance. Interested parties ignore disconfirming evidence. Earlier pseudo-scientific theories, now disproven, attributed race or gender disparities in outcomes to genetic inferiority. White supremacists were not interested in uncovering the truth that differences were not grounded in genetics, rather they tried to justify their discrimination through “science”. Likewise, the ideological priests of the modern university and the grievance industry have no desire to seriously scrutinize the gods and goddesses that keep them employed. There are activistic departments that exist for the sole purpose of proving the existence of Privilege. It is thought that without Privilege, every measurable outcome between identity groups would render a holy parity, an equality of outcome, representation, and distribution of prosperity and success. Ancient communities built around mythologies that were corroborated by personal experience often met the challenges of philosophers and natural scientists with violence. So too, modern activists silence dissenting ideas with violence in word and deed. Science and logic, as forms of oppression, are depreciated. The personal experiences of the underprivileged assume the status of truth akin to the divine oracle’s of the high-priestess at Delphi, insulated from the scrutiny of “privileged” forms of knowing, i.e., science, reason, and logic.
How many fatherless children must bleed out on the operating table of pretense? How many young black men must be slaughtered on the altar of Privilege? How long will we raise our clenched fists to heaven and curse Privilege for our barren wombs, fatherless homes, achievement gaps, imprisonment rates, and poverty? When will we cease to revere and worship Privilege as that source of divine favour, prosperity, and blessings? How long will we persecute those who question the power of Privilege over our tribe? Privilege has become the god whom we now fight through myth-making (storytelling) and strategies of manipulation, rather than taking a serious look at the many complex political policies, and cultural and gender values and attitudes that contribute to these disparities.
G. M. Sutherland is a graduate student at McMaster University. His research includes the fourth-century Trinitarian controversies and the modern intersection of race and Christian thought.
 Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities (New York: Basic Books, 2018); Walter E. Williams, Race & Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2011).