Thursday, September 8, 2011

Atheists on asexuality

People often ask me, "What does religion have to say about asexuality?"

How should I know?  I left religion years before I even started to question my sexuality.  I didn't even have a sense for how anti-gay the Catholic Church is until quite some time after I left it.

I get Google alerts on asexuality, and every so often someone asks a Christian forum what they think about asexuality.  The results are mixed.  Christianity is old, asexuality is recent.  Expecting Christianity to have anything to say about asexuality is like expecting Christianity to have anything to say about modern science... Oh wait.  But the point is that no religious group I know of is sufficiently aware of asexuality to have an official line on it.  So on the forums, Christians simply give opinions that they've formed individually, on the spot.  Since I only have a few examples on the internet, it is hard to say how Christian reactions compare to reactions from the general populace.

But did you know?  Most people on AVEN are nonreligious.  According to a survey from 2008, 54% are not religious, and 26% are Christian.  An informal poll indicates 39% are atheist/agnostic/nontheist.  Yet another poll says 42% don't think gods exist, and 14% think gods probably don't exist.  These are all terribly unreliable polls, but they seem to converge on the fact that the internet asexual community is nonreligious-dominated.  The reasons for this are not forthcoming.  I suspect that atheists are simply more likely to discover the concept of asexuality, choose to identify that way, and then want to discuss it on the internet.

I think this raises another question, one which is more relevant to the internet asexual community, and which I'm more capable of answering: What do atheists have to say about asexuality?

A quick clarification: I'm talking specifically about atheists who participate in some way in atheist activism, atheist discourse, or the atheist movement.  Some people have hangups about trying to describe atheists' views on anything but gods (since atheism is nothing more than lack of belief in gods), but I'm going to ignore these hangups as the distractions they are.

Like with Christians, atheists as a group have no dominant view on asexuality.  When encountering asexuality for the first time, atheists form their own individual opinions on the spot.  The results are mixed.  There are some patterns though.
  1. Atheists are sex-positive.  There are good sex-positive responses, and bad sex-positive responses to asexuality, which are different from the good and bad sex-negative responses.  For instance, sex-negative people might dislike the queer associations, or dislike the alternative relationship structures.  Sex-positive people, on the other hand, might dislike the abstinence associations, or may simply be incapable of grokking asexuality.  Or they can contribute to sexual normativity (eg making fun of people who don't masturbate, insisting that sex is essential to every relationship).  Or they can dismiss the concept of sexual normativity, and dismiss the idea that there is any need for an asexual identity.  I could go on, but I'm sure this will not be the last time I blog about it (nor the first).
  2. Atheists are skeptical.  Atheists don't take things at face value.  Even if you're just talking about identity and personal experience, there is often some claim about objective reality embedded within, and atheists will find and question this claim.  Sometimes I hear asexuals (and other queers) say that no one has the right to question their personal identity because it is their personal identity.  I always shake my head, because this argument would never fly with atheists.  There are lots of groups who incorporate questionable claims into their identity.  Religious groups for starters.  9/11 Truthers.  Abductees.  Indigo children.  Hell, people identify by their astrological signs.

    Of course, I'm all in favor of the skeptical mindset, and therefore I contend that the problem is not in the skepticism, but in the execution.  The existence of asexuality is worth questioning, but let's not ignore the evidence right in front of us.  Asexuals claim that the experience of asexuality exists.  As evidence, they offer... experiences of asexuality.  The other side offers offers misunderstandings of evolution (ask me later), personal experiences that are improperly generalized, and unfounded speculations elevated to theories.  They offer the presupposition that everyone is sexual, everyone is gay or straight (or maybe bi).  And why are homosexuality and bisexuality more accepted, when the evidence for them is in pretty much the same form?

  3. Atheists are anti-religious.  Note that the atheist community is more than gay-friendly, it's actively pro-LGB.  An adoption agency shuts down in reaction to legalizing same-sex marriage?  A Christian pastor makes fun of non-conforming gender expression?  A hurricane hits a gay neighborhood?  Atheists are on it!  (Examples taken from Friendly Atheist.)  Oddly, atheists have a less admirable track record on women and people of color.  Let me advance a possible explanation: supporting LGB people is more politically expedient.

    It's quite clear, after all, that religions are systematically anti-gay.  There are a lot of dumb and hateful things said about LGB people by religious leaders.  There is also a strong human-interest aspect to it, because those religious leaders are attacking people (as opposed to just a field of science).  So there is a lot of motivation to talk this up.  And in the mean time, the atheist community gets educated on queer issues, and it develops from a political tool to a sincere concern.  No such mechanism is at work for women or people of color.  Religions often say sexist things, but this usually only trains atheists to recognize overt sexism.  Black people are, if anything, associated with churches.

    Sometimes atheists have a negative reaction to asexuality because it's assumed that religion and asexuals are pals.  This assumption does not come from any real experiences, but from an oversimplified view of religion and asexuality.  Religions don't like sex, therefore they must like asexuals, who don't have sex.  I feel at a loss as to which way to respond.  One, some asexuals do have sex, and some are LGBT.  Two, so-called "sex-negative" people are not actually against sex in that way.  Three, why should the only worthwhile causes be those that are opposed by religion?  It is a straw man atheist that thinks religion is the root of all evil, and yet some people behave like that straw man.
Of course, plenty of responses are positive too.  Especially since atheists are very educated, as a group, about queer issues.  Many atheist get it.  Queer issues are not just about same-sex marriage or opposing the religious right, they're about diversity.  In fact, I might even say that positive and neutral responses are the most prevalent.  It's hard to say, since my own experience certainly has its share of biases (and I'm keenly aware of my failure to provide specific examples).

But I focus on the negative patterns, because that is the part that needs work.  It's like, when I walk around with my boyfriend, I don't think about the hundreds of people with no adverse reactions.  I think about that one guy who called me a fag, you know?  When the results are a mixed bag, that's not good enough.


drransom said...

A quibble: you say that religions are "systematically" anti-gay, but this is far from universal. Just off the top of my head, Unitarian Universalists, Reconstructionist Jews, the United Church of Christ, and the Metropolitan Community Church are all fully accepting of gays and lesbians. (I think some of those groups allow individual ministers/rabbis to take anti-gay positions, however.) There are also accepting congregations of various other Jewish and Christian denominations, and my understanding is that self-identified "pagans" are typically accepting of gays and lesbians. I'm not sure how these groups do with other queer identities, however.

I don't know about other religions.

miller said...

That's why I say "systematically", and not "universally". The usual caveats about broad generalizations apply.