Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Atheists react to queer religious people

I was happy to see that Alex Gabriel talking about how queer activists give way too much credit to Christianity, and how this excludes queer atheists.  I was even happier to see this picked up by other atheist blogs, including Heina Dadabhoy and PZ Myers.  (And once Myers picks it up, it's likely to get more reactions from there.)

I feel this topic is under-discussed, and thus when people finally talk about it, so many different feelings and issues get swirled together.  I myself have a lot of mixed feelings which are difficult to disentangle.  It helps to contrast the perspectives of Dadabhoy and Myers.  Dadabhoy brings up her many negative experiences in queer activism:
When I volunteered for the No on Prop 8 campaign, the local dispatch center was a church. At on-campus LGBT events, many of the speakers were religious and talked about their god as if everyone believed in that sort of deity.

The worst experience I had was at a local conference about mental health and LGBT issues. Fully half of the panels were about religion, and every panel had a representative of what was euphemistically referred to as “the faith community.”
PZ Myers, being straight, doesn't have the ground-level experience with LGBT activism, and instead talks about the way religion is used to justify everything:
The problem is that Jesus and Mohammed and Moses are completely malleable imaginary authority figures who can be invoked to justify anything — Jesus simultaneously blesses the peacemakers and comes with a sword in that muddled book of myths, the Bible, so pacifists and warmongers are both happy to adopt his ‘philosophy’.
These are two distinct issues.  There's the practical issue, that LGBT activists are very religion-friendly, and not very atheist-friendly.  And there's the theoretical issue, which is that the pro-LGBT arguments within Christianity and Islam just aren't very good.  It's important to distinguish these issues because there are contexts where only the practical issue is present, or only the theoretical issue is present.

There are some religious traditions which are much more plausibly LGBT-friendly, from a theoretical standpoint.  In particular, I point to Unitarian-Universalism, and Shin Buddhism.  I also point out that most religious traditions are much more ambiguous about other queer groups, such as asexuals and genderqueer people.  And yet LGBT conferences can still be dominated by religious perspectives in a way that is exclusive of ace and genderqueer atheists.

There are other cases where the theoretical issue is present, but the practical issue is not.  Many people, myself included, have complained about the dominance of religion at the big NGLTF conference, Creating Change.  And yet, Zack Ford, a major critic, says it has not always been this way:
I’ve had numerous conversations with folks in the movement about the phenomenon, and the consensus has been that this embrace of religion is new, and a swinging of the pendulum away from what used to be a very toxic environment for any discussion of religion to an environment eager to reconcile with religion.
In the past, LGBT groups frequently excluded religious queers, which is not a situation I endorse.

It's also important to remember that the "LGBT community" is far from a united community.  There are LGBT activist organizations, but nearly every non-activist group subdivides by individual letters.  Furthermore, most of these groups are local, and don't really interact with each other.  Without an activist agenda, why would they?  What I'm trying to say is that while LGBT activist groups may be dominated by religion, in my experience this is not consistent among all queer communities.  Some may even have the pendulum swinging the other way.

Having seen a lot of the practical issues associated with queer atheists, I find myself a little uncomfortable with atheists who focus exclusively on the theoretical issue of reconciling queerness and religion.  The pendulum can swing both ways.  We're not talking about the general US population, which is 73% Christian.  We're talking about LGBT people, who, in the US, are 47% non-religious.  My own community, the ace community, is 59% non-religious.  We absolutely need to continue discussing the theoretical issue of reconciling queerness with religion, but we need to be careful about the practical issue of how that feeds back into queer communities--all queer communities.

I have the sense that many atheists, when they see Christians arguing that the Bible is actually LGBT-friendly, really don't like this.  It seems so hypocritical, and utterly inconsistent.  In fact, it subjectively feels even more inconsistent than the belief that Jesus is God.  I think we should examine why we feel this way.

On some level, believing that Jesus was a queer ally is more sensible than believing Jesus was God.  We at least know that allies exist.  The Bible doesn't say Jesus is an ally.  It doesn't say Jesus is God either.  Besides, it's a work of fiction.  I think the fact of the matter is we're simply more used to Christians believing Jesus is God, and so even as we reject that belief, we take it more for granted.  When Christians believe Jesus loves gay people, that seems more unusual, and thus somehow worse.

I do not see queer Christians as any worse than other Christians.  On the contrary, I like queer Christians better, because they're probably not homophobic.  Straight atheists can complain all they want about bad epistemology and the irrational justifications used within religion.  However, I can only be so principled before I care about the results of beliefs, irrational or not.

Queer religious people should be treated the same way as other religious people.  They absolutely deserve some space to talk about their particular issues and beliefs amongst each other.  But they cannot demand freedom from criticism, and cannot pressure critics into silence.  General queer spaces, just like general society, should be kept secular.  Currently, LGBT activist groups are not very inclusive of atheists.  They can't brush us under a rug just because they're afraid of what it will do to their image.