Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Homosexuality and Religious Hate-Peter Tatchell's Story

This is an essay written by Peter Tatchell. It is basically his personal de-conversion story and why he moved from his Christian faith to an atheistic view of the world.

I value this essay in particular because Tatchell is gay and he speaks directly to that issue in his writing. Of all the Christian ideas and dogmas that are still maintained and pushed into the political sphere there is none more irritating and bothersome to me than their labeling of homosexuality as sinful and following from that Christians overall homophobia and general hatred towards gays and lesbians. I usually understand and see that there are two or more sides to every issue but I truly can't see that with this issue. I won't pretend to understand the other side (Christian side) but rather admit the complete idiocy I associate with anyone who opposes homosexuality in any way, but especially in the political realm trying to hinder gay and lesbian couples in any and all ways possible so as to force their inane beliefs upon those who present no threat, mean no harm and are doing nothing wrong.

I offer this piece more to challenge Christian views on homosexuality rather than just as another piece questioning the existence of God though it is great for that too. I hope this story can serve as another window into the life of a wonderful and thoughtful gay man in order to make any and all who read it re-think any negative attitudes and beliefs they harbor against homosexuality.

My Nonreligious Life: A Journey from Superstition to Rationalism by Peter Tatchell

If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to,
Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing,
Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing,
Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing,
Then why call Him God?
Epicurus, Greek philosopher, c. 341-270 BCE

The Bible, Talmud and Qur’an are to gays what Mein Kampf is to Jews. They promote straight supremacism and homophobic persecution.

This is a strong and shocking statement, but a true one.

These religious texts have incited and legitimated centuries of heterosexist terror against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people; including inquisitions and witch hunts that resulted in the stoning, burning, beheading, and hanging or “sodomites.”

This religious-inspired anti-gay oppression is still continuing today in theocratic states like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where clerics and Islamic courts enforce the flogging and execution of same-sexers.

Even within the Anglican Communion, so-called Christian leaders, such as Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, demand the jailing of LGBT people and the banning of gay churches and gay rights groups.

As a human rights campaigner who is motivated by love and compassion for other people, I would be betraying my humanitarian values to embrace religious beliefs that lead to the persecution of LGBT people – or to the persecution of anyone else.

Not only has organized religion cast out and victimized same-sex lovers, it has, at various points in history, also justified and colluded with slavery, colonialism, torture, the death penalty, and the denial of rights to women.

Despite moderating some of its worst excesses over the centuries, religion is still the single greatest fount of obscurantism, prejudice, superstition, and oppression. It has caused misery to billions of people worldwide for millennia, and continues to do so in many parts of the world.

Although the end of religion would not remedy all the world’s ills, it would bring greater freedom and justice to more than two-thirds of the planet’s inhabitants who remain, to varying degrees, enslaved by its dogmas.

I have not always held such irreligious views. On the contrary, I grew up in a strict, devout evangelical Christian family in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1950s and ‘60s. My mother and step-father (with whom I spent most of my childhood)_ were prim and proper working-class parents, with very conservative views on everything. The Bible, every word of it, was deemed to be the actual word of God. Their Christianity was largely devoid of social conscience. It was all about personal salvation. According to our church, some of the worst sins were swearing, drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, sex outside marriage, communism, belief in evolution, not praying, and failing to go to church every Sunday. I can’t recall much concern about racism and the dispossession of the Australian Aboriginal people. Or about global hunger and the then nuclear arms race.

From my parents’ somewhat narrow-minded Christian perspective, all other religions offered false gods. Even Catholics were regarded as not being true Christians. In our household, there was no interest, sympathy, or understanding of other faiths like Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Although never hateful toward people of differing religious beliefs, it was nevertheless a fairly exclusivist, sectarian Christianity, bordering on fundamentalism.

The faith into which I was instilled overflowed with God’s wrath and vengeance and with fear-inducing warnings about the torment of eternal damnation in hell for nonbelievers and transgressors of God’s laws. It was more Old Testament than New; more fire and brimstone than love and forgiveness

[Personal Note: I disagree with this statement of his. He makes the all too common mistake of associating the God of the Hebrew Scriptures will hell. This is a misnomer because there is no fire and brimstone in the Old Testament. So while I’m not a fan of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures at least he only kills people. It is the God of the New Testament, the God of Jesus, that likes to use the fire and brimstone to cause people to suffer for all of eternity]

Unsurprisingly, I later rebelled against this dogmatism. But as a child, I knew no different. I had no other reference point. All my extended family was of the same persuasion. Naturally, I also embraced God.

When I was 5, my grandmother died. My mother recalls that some weeks later I asked to ride a Ferris wheel. I wanted to ride up to heaven to visit grandma.

My sweet, simplistic faith was reinforced at school by religious education (RE) lessons, where a succession of local parsons or Christian teachers would fill out impressionable minds with stories from the Bible.

But in high school, aged 13, I began to think for myself. I remember a rather smarmy RE teacher who one day gave us a lesson in faith, where he argued that when we switch on a light we don’t think about it; we have faith that the room will light up. He suggested that faith in the power of God was the same as faith in the power of electricity to turn on a light. Bad analogy, I thought. What causes a light to go on when one flicks the switch is not faith; it can be demonstrated by empirical evidence. In contrast, the existence of God cannot be tested and proven by empirical demonstration. This set my mind thinking skeptical thoughts. The contradictions between religion and science began to surface in my teenage mind.

This nascent skepticism was not, however, strong enough to stop me, at the age of 16, from becoming a Sunday school teacher to 6-year-olds. Being of an artistic persuasion, I made exceptionally colorful cardboard tableaux of Bible stories. The children loved it. My classes were popular and well attended.

The first serious cracks in my faith had begun to appear the previous year, 1967, when an escaped convict, Ronald Ryan, was hanged for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. At age 15, I worked out that the trajectory of the bullet through the dead man’s body meant that it would be virtually impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal shot. Despite this contrary evidence, he was executed anyway. This shattered my confidence in the police, courts, and government.

It also got me thinking about my faith. According to St. Paul (Romans 13:1-2), all governments and authorities are ordained by God. To oppose them is to oppose God. In other words, God supposedly ordained the police officers, judges, government ministers, and executioner who dispatched a probably innocent man, Ronald Ryan, to the gallows. I asked myself why God would ordain an apparent injustice? If he did ordain it, did God deserve respect? And what about other excesses by tyrannical governments? Did God really ordain the Nazi regime? Stalin’s Soviet Union? The apartheid dictators in South Africa? And closer to home, the nineteenth-century British colonial administration which decimated, by intent or neglect, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia?

Ronald Ryan’s execution set me on a path of critical thought and rebellion. I began questioning lots of things I had previously taken for granted, such as the racist marginalization of Australia’s original black inhabitants, and the invasion of Vietnam by the US and Australian armed forces. The indifference of many Christian leaders to these injustices, and their sometime complicity in them, led me to distance myself from the church and organized religion.

I began to develop my own version of liberation theology, long before I had ever heard the term. During the 1960s, the nightly TV news bulletins were dominated by footage of the black civil rights struggle, led by the US Baptist pastor, the Revd Martin Luther King. His faith was not mere pious words; he put Christian values into action. This is what Christianity should be about, I concluded. Accordingly, at 14, I left my parents’ Pentecostal church and started going to the local Baptist church instead. Alas, it was not what I expected – not even a quarter as radical as Martin Luther King’s Baptist social conscience. A huge disappointment.

Undeterred, I began to articulate my own revolutionary Christian gospel of “Jesus Christ the Liberator,” based on ideas in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan. This led me into Christian-inspired activism for Aboriginal rights, as well as against apartheid, the draft, and the Vietnam war. I linked up with members of the radical Student Christian Movement.

At the time, I was a great admirer of the US direct action Catholic peace protesters, Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Deciding to do something myself, in 1970, aged 18, I initiated Christians for Peace, an interdenominational anti-war group which, among other campaigns, organized a spectacular candlelit march through the heart of downtown Melbourne, calling for the withdrawal of Australian and US troops from Vietnam.

Previously, at the age of 17, I had realized I was gay. Despite my hardline homophobic evangelical upbringing, from the first time I had sex with a man I felt emotionally and sexually fulfilled, without any shame at all. It was a truly ecstatic experience. My long-gestating rational pragmatism kicked in. I could sense my own happiness and that of my partner. It overwhelmed all the years of anti-gay religious dogma that had been pummeled into me. Gay sex felt totally natural, spontaneous, and satisfying. Amazingly, I never experienced a moment’s doubt or guilt. The proof that gay is good was in the orgasm and the sexual and emotional afterglow. How could something so wonderful and mutually fulfilling be wrong? From that moment of my first sex with a man (we have remained lifelong friends), I understood that gay is not a crime or a sin, as the state and church claimed. I instantly accepted my sexuality and was determined to do my bit to help end the persecution of lesbian and gay people.

For the next three years, I managed to reconcile my faith with my sexuality; although the goodness and joy that I experienced in a loving gay relationship clearly contradicted biblical teaching. This set me wondering: if the Bible had got it wrong on same-sex love, what else had it got wrong?

So began a period of intellectual wrestling with my faith. Echoing the eighteenth-century Franco-German philosopher Baron D’Hollback, I reasoned:

-If God made the world and the natural laws of physics, chemistry and so on, according to his will and design, why does he intervene to adjust his own natural laws by allegedly performing miracles that defy the natural laws that he devised?
-If God is love and infinitely good, why do religionists speak of God’s wrath and fear him, and why does God condemn sinners to hell, which is supposedly a place of immensely cruel, barbaric torment and suffering?
-If God is perfect, wise, infallible, and master of the universe, why do his creation include the “imperfections” of people born with terrible deformities and genetic disorders; and why does his earthly firmament include the flaws and terrors of devastating tsunamis, earthquakes, and tornadoes?
-If God watches over us and protects us, why do sincere believers nevertheless have fear, including fear of death, and why do they have tragic accidents and die in wars and natural disasters?
-If God made man in his own image, why are there thieves, murderers, torturers, and rapists?
-If the righteous are destined for heaven, why do they worry about whether or not they die and why do the followers of God mourn their passing?
-If God knows everything, why do the faithful have to inform him of their needs and bother him with their prayers?
-If God is just, why does he allow the good and godly to suffer?
-If God is fair, why does he punish people who are born with genetic traits, and into dysfunctional families headed by bad parents, which predispose them to doing wrong?
-If God made nature, why did he make it so harsh and cruel, based as it is on the survival of the fittest where the weak and vulnerable suffer and die, and where horrific natural diseases like Ebola and HIV kill decent, honorable people, including people of faith?
-If God is all-powerful, how is it possible to break his laws, resist his will, and cause him offense?
-If God is so great, why does he need to be worshipped and idolized, and why does he need to be protected by laws against blasphemy and apostasy?

There are some of the questions that I debated in my mind, over and over.

Then, from the moment I recognized my gayness, it also became obvious to me that one of the main contemporary sources of homophobia is religion. I felt my love for my partner, and our mutual commitment and happiness, was under attack. We were being disparaged and reviled in the name of God. This harsh, cruel Christian homophobia dealt a body blow to my faith.

Despite the valiant efforts of liberals to reinterpret scripture in gay-inclusive ways, the Bible, like the Talmud and Qur’an, condemns same-sex acts. We can debate the precise meanings of particular words and the historical context and mores, but it is fairly clear that it was the intention of the Bible writers to proscribe all sex outside of marriage. Indeed, Leviticus 20:13 does not merely denounce homosexuality as an abomination; it also explicitly urges that men who have sex with men should be put to death.

Following these theological admonitions, most Christian leaders down the ages have preached a doctrine of straight supremacism, supported the execution of gay people until around the nineteenth century, and have, in recent decades, campaigned against gay equality and in favor of legal discrimination against LGBTs.

The religious doubts that were amplified by my homosexuality were further compounded by my growing anger at the churches’ frequent indifference to injustice and oppression around the world (racism, dictatorship, poverty, and war), and their sometimes support for tyrannical regimes like Franco’s Spain and Thieu’s South Vietnam.

By the time I turned 20, rationality finally triumphed over superstition and dogma. I didn't need God anymore. I was intelligent, confident, and mature enough to live without the security blanket of religion and its theological account of the universe. Science offered me a more accurate explanation of the world and our place in it. Rational thought struck me as a better way to think through issues and devise my ethical code. The moral reasoning of John Stuart Mill made more sense than the mostly irrational, often contradictory, and sometimes cruel morality of the Old and New Testaments.

Accordingly, I renounced religion; embraced reason, science, and an ethics based on love and compassion. I don’t need God to tell me what is right and wrong. We humans are quite capable of figuring it out for ourselves, as we have done in great secular emancipatory documents like the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

My atheism does not, however, lead me to hate religion or people of faith. Hate isn't part of my mindset. I have a rational critique of god-worshipping, but I also defend religious believers who suffer persecution and discrimination. I may find their superstition irrational, but they have human rights too. Way back when I first stood for Parliament in 1983, long before the UK churches took up the cause, I argued for comprehensive anti-discrimination laws to protect everyone, including people of faith. In my human rights work I have often supported religious refugees.

My defense of religious freedom is, alas, often not reciprocated. Right now, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism is one of the biggest global threats to human rights. Clerical fanatics adhere literally and uncritically to the centuries-old bigotry and ignorance of their holy books, which were written by people living in a barbaric era largely devoid of rational discourse, humanitarian ethics, and scientific knowledge. Like their predecessors, today’s superstitious religious dogmatists want to impose their particular interpretation of “God’s will” on everyone else. They seek to enforce their sectarian religion as the law of the land.

This fundamentalism is the enemy of human rights. It is, in particular, an attack on free speech and freedom of expression, as we witnessed in the threats and violence over Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, and following the publication of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.

Even my own calm, rational criticisms of the fundamentalist strands of Islam have resulted in me receiving death threats which, incidentally, the police have failed to investigate. They have never brought the perpetrators to justice. I am told that some officers “don’t want to upset sensitive relations with the Muslim community.”

I also experienced this police partisanship in 1994, when the Islamist fundamentalist zealots of Hizb ut-Tahrir staged a mass rally at Wembley Arena in London, where they openly incited the murder of gay people and women who have sex outside marriage. Six of us from the LGBT human rights group OutRage! dared to protest against their criminal incitements – lawfully, peacefully, quietly, and without causing any disruption. It was six of us against six thousand of them. We were arrested, but not the criminal Islamists, who threatened, right in front of the police officers, to track us down and kill us.

Since the police appear unwilling to trace and arrest the Islamist fanatics who have threatened to kill me, there are, I am ashamed to say, certain criticisms and protests concerning Islam and Muhammad that I dare not express. Why? I don’t want to end up being murdered like Theo van Gogh or having to live under constant bodyguard protection like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Faith extremists have successfully intimidated me, and many others, into moderation or restricting our critiques of their extremism.

Contrary to the threats and censorship of clericalists, all ideas, including religious ones, should be open to scrutiny and criticism. People ought to be free to criticize Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other faiths – especially the violent, oppressive strands of these religions.

All social progress, including the development of democratic societies and the advance of scientific knowledge, has depended on the free exchange of ideas and the right of people to question orthodoxy and even to cause offense.

Every idea is capable of giving offense to someone. Indeed, many of the most important ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused extreme religious offense in their era and provoked the wrath of clerical authorities. If their ideas had been permanently stifled, as many in the church wanted, we would still be living in an age of profound ignorance.

The free and open debate of ideas includes the right to dissent, criticize, and mock. It involves the right to hold and express opinions that are outside the mainstream and which challenge religious and state authority.

What is truly abhorrent, and absolutely astonishing in the twenty-first century, is that hundreds of millions of people are at risk of arrest, torture, and execution by tyrants and mobs inspired by fundamentalist religion. Their crime? Expressing ideas that are deemed forbidden and unacceptable. It is like a re-run of the Dark Ages. More than three centuries after the Enlightenment, there are still faith fanatics who want to kill people because of their ideas and words.

Experience demonstrates that everywhere religion has political power, it suppresses democracy and civil liberties. We saw this clerical tyranny in Europe during the Inquisition and the Puritan era, with the torture and burning of so-called heretics, witches and sodomites.

Today, this despotism is particularly acute in Islamic states. Hundreds of millions of Muslims suffer under Sharia law, where they are forced to obey ancient religious edicts that curtail human rights and where the death penalty is enforced for religious and moral crimes like apostasy, sex outside marriage, and same-sex love.

The Bangladeshi feminist writer, Taslima Nasrin, was threatened with death and forced to flee into exile after she questioned the second-class legal status of women in Muslim states. In neighboring Pakistan, Christians are persecuted by Muslims; while in Iran, Sunni Muslims are the victims of a theocracy where Shia Islam is the state religion where fellow Muslims who dissent from the official orthodoxy suffer victimization. This is one reason why secularism – the separation of religion from the state – is such an important principle and freedom. It not only protects the rights of nonbelievers, but also the rights of minority faiths and religious dissenters.

Islamic extremists are not the only ones. They have their mirror images in other religions. Christian fundamentalist churches in countries like Migeria, Jamaica, and Uganda incite homophobic hatred which often leads to the jailing, beating, and murder of LGBT people. Judaist zealots in Israel have spearheaded the oppresiion of Palestinian people, and their ongoing illegal settlements on the West Bank are blocking efforts to secure a peace settlement.

There are, of course, some truly heroic religious leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who are prepared to challenge the greedy, corrupt, unjust, and cruel. I salute them. But they are the exception. There are also many grassroots people of faith who are involved in campaigns against hunger, war, poverty, and racism. I value their compassion and activism. They are laudable. But overall, organized religion and the clerical establishment are, in most parts of the world, synonymous with intolerance and the abuse of human rights.

So, following my abandonment of God and clerical dogmas, what are my post-religious ethics? I try to live by the maxim: treat others as you would like them to treat you. This is not a religious philosophy; it is plain common sense and human decency. The same goes for the parable of the Good Samaritan. We don’t need religion to inform us that it is wrong to walk by and do nothing when people are suffering.

The motive of my human rights campaigning is love, I love people. I love justice. I love peace. I love life. I don’t like seeing other people suffer. I think to myself: since I wouldn’t want my family or friends to suffer, why should I tolerate the suffering of other people’s family or friends.

If we all had love for the wider human family and a zero tolerance of suffering, most of the world’s great injustices, like tyranny and hunger, would soon be solved.

Well, that’s how I see it. A different, better world is possible – and we don’t need religion to make it happen. All we need is love and people willing to turn that love into political action for human freedom and liberation.

If we go back to the beginning we shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them, and that custom, respect and tyranny support them.
Baron D’Holback, Franco-German philosopher
The System of Nature, 1770

For more information about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns and to make a donation, visit his website

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