We hear all the time about people taking stands against homosexuality based on their religious beliefs. In America, of course, it’s generally Christians we hear about, but many other religions take similar positions for similar reasons (e.g. Islam). Often, these stands can be pretty emotional and extreme, even violent. And it is tempting to label Christians hateful and homophobic for these positions.
But I don’t really believe that.
Well, for the most part. I’m sure there are some for whom the driving emotions really are fear and hatred. Some people really are just assholes, and that kind of transcends religious beliefs. But for many, when they say their actions at suppressing, humiliating, abusing, and rejecting homosexuals – however hateful and mean-spirited they may seem to those of us on the outside – are motivated by love, I tend to believe them.
How can that be?
Well, you have to really consider the belief system and have enough empathy to imagine what it would be like to believe it. Because make no mistake about it: the god of the Bible is violently homophobic. He does call homosexual acts an abomination, and he does demand the death penalty for them. It’s rather strongly implied in passages that allowing people to become gay is something God inflicts on them as a punishment in and of itself, as an outward sign of their separation from him. The Yahweh character really, really hates himself some gay.
And in Christianity, people that God hates go to hell. I’ve talked about hell a little bit in the past, and suffice to say that it is supposed to make all possible earthly suffering look like a walk in the park. And it goes on for eternity.
Now try to imagine what it would be like to really believe that this is actually the way the world works.
What would it mean to you to have someone tell you that they’re gay? If you really, genuinely loved that person, and you really, genuinely believed that they were going to burn in agony for all of eternity, how desperate would you be to save them? What would you be willing to do, if it offered even the smallest hope of saving a loved one from that fate? Could any amount of suffering you might inflict on them in an effort to deflect them from that path possibly compare to that from which you hope to save them? What tactics would you be willing to employ? Would you be willing to lie? Berate? Ostracize? Even torture? Can you honestly say that if you really and truly believed that the alternative to “conversion therapy” was “eternal agonizing torture,” you wouldn’t still advocate for it no matter how abysmal its success rate or how much psychological damage it caused? After all, you believe that no suffering you could possibly inflict can hold a candle to the suffering your loved one is in for if they don’t change.
Imagine, also, that you encounter others who are trying to stop you from “saving” your loved one. For all intents and purposes, could you say you wouldn’t see those people as an active threat to someone you love? Could you say you wouldn’t hate someone who, from your perspective, is trying to send a beloved family member to a torture chamber?
Of course, you might point out that even if any of this were true, that torture comes about solely due to the arbitrary whim of their god. He declares the restriction, and mandates and enforces the punishment, and all for no justified reason. Shouldn’t he be the one to hold responsible for the eternal torture of your loved ones? But then, you have to remember that in religions like Christianity, that is a prohibited belief. You are literally not allowed to hold beliefs critical of your god. You are, in fact, subject to constant reinforcement of the idea that your god needs to be loved and praised not only in spite of his clear dedication to inflicting arbitrary suffering and his literally infinite cruelty in doing so, but because of it. And even if you were to be so bold as to object, there’s nothing you could do about it anyway.
Are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t lash out? If you really, really believed that, can you be sure you wouldn’t?
So yeah, when I hear anti-gay Christians tell me that their bigoted behavior, however hateful it may seem, is motivated by love I tend to believe them. And yes, after going on at length about how I believe they’re being honest when saying their actions are motivated by love, I have reintroduced the “b” word to the conversation. And that’s because it is still bigotry. Their love is forced to manifest in hateful action because their god hates with infinite abandon.
It’s easy to forget that, when we consider said god to be a fiction. It’s easy to lay that hate squarely at the feet of those who are forced by their beliefs to act it out, and to respond in kind. And it can be hard, at times, to separate those whose love is twisted by fear of the cruel dictates of a made-up desert specter from those who really just revel in hatred itself. But I think it serves us all a little better to try and have some compassion for them. To try and acknowledge the fear and pain it must cause to truly believe that you must savage those you love in order to save them from the infinitely greater savagery meted out by a power you have no hope of opposing.
And remember, also, that most of them didn’t choose to believe these things. The vast majority of people express the religious beliefs of the community they were raised in; they’ve been indoctrinated with these beliefs since they were too young to remember. Steeped in these beliefs, often constantly reinforced by others who were also raised in the same, they never really perceived an opportunity to make a choice about them.
Many forms of Christianity are not homophobic. But many of them are, and they compel their followers to act on that homophobia in spite of themselves; twisting feelings of love and compassion into actions of hate and cruelty. And it’s not merely limited to homosexuality – I use that as a jumping-off point for this discussion only because it’s a topic that is so much a part of the modern social landscape and is so clearly condemned on religious bases.
Atheists who speak out are often asked why we care what people believe. For me, this is a major reason why. It is painful to me to see the suffering many religious people seem compelled to inflict not only on others, but on themselves because of something I see no reason to believe is real. It just doesn’t have to be that way. And, in writing this, I not only hope to remind fellow atheists to be a little more understanding when confronting people who hold these beliefs, but to remind myself. I know that sometimes I fall into the trap of condescension and anger. Hopefully, having taken the time to think about this and write it down will serve as a reminder of why to keep the conversation going, and also to try and show a little more care in doing so.