You don’t have to like religion, practice religion, or even identify with religion to be religious. You could simply believe in God in your own way, or pray every once in a while, or even just believe in some kind of spirituality or other form of higher power or greater connectedness, and guess what? You’re religious. You can also just never say anything about any such topics and you’ll be assumed religious (though perhaps not the right one, right Mr. Obama?).
At the Soulforce Symposium, I asked the panel about what I feel to be conflicting identities, being both gay and atheist. My friend, Cathy Renna, offered that she’s long witnessed a disenchantment with religion in the LGBT community, to the extent that it was once taboo to admit attending services on a Sunday morning. And she’s surely right, and it might only be in recent years that the LGBT community has placed a much greater focus on embracing and reconciling with religion. It could just be a pendulum swinging back towards a pro-religion point of view, but it would only have had to be as recent as the past six years for it to define my whole experience.
Now, let’s face it, it’s no surprise that LGBT folks would feel alienated from religion. After all, arguably all anti-gay and anti-trans sentiments are securely rooted in religious teachings and the willful ignorance that is religious thinking.
But not wanting to practice a religion and being an atheist are two very different things. Just because members of the LGBT community no longer want to be a part of religion doesn’t mean they’ve stopped believing, or stopped being “religious,” at least as I defined it above. It doesn’t make them atheists, and it definitely does not automatically make them welcoming or inclusive of atheists.
The virus of religious thinking does not let go so easily, and the human brain is incredibly adept at functioning under the conditions of cognitive dissonance. A person who believed that homosexuality is a sin that then decided that the Bible was wrong about that could easily never question that the whole rest of the Bible is just as fallible. That person might trust religion less, but never bother to think critically about any of the rest of it, and certainly not abandon it.
But being an atheist? That’s a whole different ballgame.
First, you should know that there’s a whole atheist community. It’s true. In fact, just like the LGBTQQIAA community has diversity, we have atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, nonbelievers, skeptics, brights, humanists, and more. There’s a lot of overlap—I identify with at least five of those labels—so we don’t use a a long acronym, just a single scarlet A. We have a coming out process and it can often be as difficult or worse than coming out as gay (and unlike the coming out process for homosexuality, it hasn’t been studied at all). We suffer incredible oppression in the United States; in fact, we are the least trusted minority and our vision of America is the least popular, even compared to Muslims and homosexuals [sic]. We’re also the only minority group for which tolerance has not grown over the past 30 years.
And yet, here we are. We vigilantly disclose our identities specifically so we can create change. We challenge people’s core beliefs and welcome heated debate. And we are a community. We make an active choice to identify openly and we seek each other out. We need each other’s support.
This community is a very different picture than the group of folks who just don’t participate in religion anymore. It’s a whole different identity, a whole different community, and a whole different set of challenges.
And you know what’s great about the atheist community? Even though it is predominantly heterosexual (like the rest of society), it is overwhelmingly supportive and inclusive of LGBT issues. I would go so far as to say that the atheist community understands that anti-gay attitudes are among the most dangerous and unscientific views still held by most of modern society, and they speak out in defense of the LGBT community all the time. The atheist community is by far one of the strongest LGBT allies of any other minority community.
But then I come back over to the gay community and the reverse is not true for me as an atheist. HRC’s putting out a “Clergy Call 2011 for Justice and Equality.” The Task Force has a whole “multi-faith” mini-conference as part of Creating Change this year, as if CC weren’t faith-centric enough. There’s the MCC and UU, Catholics for Equality and Soulforce, and a slew of other pro-religion organizations that work on behalf of LGBT equality. Now, don’t get me wrong, as a gay man, I appreciate those efforts greatly. But as an atheist, they totally alienate me. They make me feel unwelcome because they are antithetical to my point of view. And I seldom see partnerships with the atheist groups eager to help!
As an atheist, I want to dismantle the power that religion has, not reinforce it. I don’t want people to reconcile their homosexuality with their faith; I want them to see that homosexuality is a brilliant example for how flawed and unnecessary faith is. I hate the idea that religions or religious beliefs are something deserving of respect, and I have no intention of respecting them or catering to them in order to achieve legal equality as a gay man. I want to work with other LGBT activists, but I don’t want to have to sit through prayers or endure a faith hegemony to make my difference in the movement. And yet, that is increasingly the environment with which I am faced in the LGBT movement.
If you buy into the ex-gay movement even just a little, you are faced with two choices. You can try to change your sexual orientation or you can fail to change your sexual orientation. If you fail, they have nothing left for you, and certainly no validation for embracing an identity other than heterosexuality.
While it’s not as overt, I feel like the LGBT movement similarly offers a kind of non-choice for atheists. I can work with faith and I can work without faith, but there is very little room for me to work against faith. While there may be some who aren’t thrilled with religion, they like holding on to their own faith, nonetheless. Frankly, there is a certain baseline of anti-atheist prejudice (I call it “faithism”) and religious privilege that is just as prevalent in the LGBT community as the rest of society.
Many atheists within the LGBT community struggle to be out (or even come out), recognizing the challenges of openly identifying as atheist within the LGBT community, and particularly of identifying as both atheist and LGBT in greater society. Surely for most, LGBT issues are more salient to them, impacting their relationships, families, housing, and employment. It’s all too easy to subscribe to the silence and invisibility for nonbelievers that is already in place.
Gaytheism is a borderland that is not always fun to live in. On one side of the Venn diagram are the LGBT issues that are so salient and important to me that I am passionately dedicated to addressing, but which is a community that still ostracizes me for my way of thinking. On the other side is the atheist community, a group that completely appreciates who I am and supports my point of view, but who are less organized, less committed to the issues most important to me, and likely not the place I’ll find a life partner or a job in activism or education. And I can’t have it both ways and still maintain my own integrity, because I can’t both disavow faith and simultaneously reinforce it and feel like I’m making any meaning out of my own life.
Given that I am a man of integrity, what choice do I have but to push? Push the LGBT movement to open its eyes not just to the unreligious, but to its atheist subcommunity en masse. I have to encourage other LGBT nonbelievers to come out. I have to try to help organizations understand how their religious messages or strategies can be very exclusive. I have to convince the LGBT movement to accept and welcome the support of the many atheist and humanist organizations eager to be involved with the effort for LGBT equality. Maybe I even have to create one that represents LGBT issues specifically on behalf of nonbelievers.
So, I’m just putting it all out there for you, LGBT movement. I’m going to be a little thorn in your side. I’m going to call you out on your religious privilege. I’m going to cause some consternation for your believers. I’m going to say things that aren’t popular and that aren’t even always welcome. It is very much my intent to push and to change as much it is my intent to support and cooperate. We’re stuck with each other, so we’d best make the most of it.
But if nothing else, remember this: I’m not the only one. I know when prayers and Amens are making me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome; I can identify those triggers, respond to them appropriately, and continue on. But there are a lot of members of our community who aren’t where I am, who feel silenced and alienated by all the attention you pay to religion. I want to create a movement that understands and appreciates their point of view as much as any other, and I want to work together to make that happen.
I hope you do too.