Creating Change or Reinforcing Privilege?

Zack Ford, an atheist and LGBTQ activist and blogger, has written eloquently on many of these issues. Find his posts on this topic here.

Baltimore, MD. Charm City. Thousands of LGBTQ activists throng the halls of the Hilton, networking, strategizing and, let’s be honest, hooking-up, intent on securing full equality and social acceptance for queer people everywhere. It’s my first time at the conference (generally supported by an Eric Rofes Memorial Fund Scholarship), and I’m excited: since finally accepting myself and coming out just under two years ago, I’ve become increasingly engaged in LGBTQ activism, and this is my debut at a big national conference. I can’t wait to represent not only my local direct action group, Join the Impact MA, but also the Humanist Community Project, as a voice for a principled, welcoming Humanism that supports the equal dignity of every person – no ifs or buts. I also want to make it clear that there are nonreligious queer people, and they are just as worthy of representation as any religious group, and must not be forgotten.

But things start inauspiciously. The main plenary session opens with a prayer, led by the First Nations Two Spirt Collective. I don’t have the instinctive feeling of distaste for prayer that many of my atheist friends and colleagues have, but beginning the entire proceedings with an expression of religious belief – to which people were not offered an explicit opt-out – struck me as a divisive decision. The enormous number of religious groups represented (in a bank of tables stretching the entire length of one wall), the endless religious panels and events as part of the Practice Spirit Do Justice part of the conference (dwarfing the single non-believers caucus), the sheer number of Reverends on the plenary stage (three on the first day!), and the photo exhibit of religious LGBTQ leaders (not a Humanist among them) made one thing abundantly clear:

Creating Change has leapt into bed with liberal religion with a passion even some conference delegates would be hard-pressed to match.

Let me be clear: I’m not entirely critical of this. Lifting up the voices of liberal religious people is essential to the LGBTQ cause. For too long the public face of religion in the USA has been the grotesque visage of the repressive right – so much so that political religion has almost become wholly associated with bigotry and hatred. In a profoundly religious country, this is a recipe for disaster. Empowering liberal religion as a counterweight is vital. By featuring so many religious voices so very prominently, Creating Change 2012 made a smart political decision which will further our cause.

However.

There is a very short distance between empowering religious voices and reinforcing religious privilege. There is a very fine line between saying “You can be gay and religious!”, an important message I can get behind, and “It’s ok that you’re gay because you’re religious,” a message that reinforces religious privilege and leaves queer non-believers out in the cold. And let’s be clear: religious privilege is a reality in the USA. We are all familiar with the polls which show atheists to be the least trusted segment of the American population. But many don’t seem to realize that this prejudice has direct repercussions in the lives of countless Americans. It affects them when they won’t pose for photos with their secular group for fear of losing their job if they’re discovered. It affects them when they can’t get custody of their kids because a judge assumes a religious home is always better than a nonreligious one. And it affects them when their schoolmates attack and demean them simply because they don’t believe in god.

This prejudice also infects the political sphere. Nonreligious Americans who want to serve their country have either to hide their beliefs, compromise their integrity, or face a crushing penalty at the ballot box. No wonder no proudly nonreligious candidate has ever introduced themselves to the public with their Humanism on their sleeve. And Humanists, lacking the large number of supporters leaders of congregational religions can call upon, have very little political muscle.

Since secular Americans are, by and large, much more progressive in their political views than the intensely religious (being staunchly pro-choice and pro-equality, for example), this is a real problem for the LGBTQ movement: some of our strongest potential supporters lack political representation and are de facto excluded from the public conversation because of their belief in the natural world.

So on which side of the bed did Creating Change find itself? Was it doing the good work of amplifying liberal religious voices, or the bad work of reinforcing religious privilege?

In my judgment, both. The strong representation of religious individuals and organizations at the conference played an important corrective role, belying the impression that you cannot be a happy, fulfilled member of a religious congregation as a queer person. Religious individuals gave some of the most inspiring and morally powerful addresses of the conference, and I heard myself raise my voice a few times in an impassioned “amen”.

At the same time, queer atheists are members of a double minority in this country, and their lack of representation in this space – which worked so hard to accommodate a huge variety of other identities – felt like a significant omission. The lack of explicitly nonreligious voices for change reinforced the idea that, if you’re an LGBTQ activist with an interest in ethical questions and community-building, you must be religious. The panels in which religious played a role had no nonreligious representatives at all. The religious heroes of the queer movement were lauded, while the nonreligious and anti-religious ones – Harvey Milk, Peter Tatchell, Bayard Rustin toward the end of his life – were evoked, if at all, without any mention of the progressive Freethought tradition they embody.

Most important, by relentlessly portraying religion in a positive light, the conference missed the opportunity for robust and necessary criticism of the role of religion in perpetuating anti-LGBTQ injustice. For a minority whose enemies are now almost exclusively motivated by religion, this is a startling omission, and a reprehensible one. It’s critical that conferences like Creating Change, while embracing religious reformers and liberals, not muzzle themselves from criticizing the overwhelmingly religious voices who work so hard to keep us down, and from joining the dots to show the connection between their religious dogma and their hate.

There needs to be a space for people to say not just that “faith” and “spirituality” isn’t for them, but that they are harmful notions which work against the emancipation of humankind. Otherwise people like me, who want to work alongside religious allies while being committed to the eradication of supernaturalist and wrong-beliefs as part of the human struggle for freedom, will not feel empowered to speak. This is a challenging balance to maintain, but the Practice Spirit, Do Justice website itself exhorts us to “hold our complex differences without diffusing or dismissing any of them” – and that includes religious differences.

These frustrations and more were raised in the one event for nonreligious people at the conference, a spirited atheist caucus in which around thirty people expressed their hopes, passions and, often, frustration at being, once again, not a full part of the conversation (thanks to Zack Ford and Brian Murphy for organizing this!). Many fantastic suggestions were made there, and, because I believe in constructive critique, here are some concrete ways through which Creating Change could become more welcoming to the non-religious:

All plenary activities should be secular. This doesn’t mean that religious voices should be excluded – far from it! – but attendees should never be given the choice between participating in a religious ceremony and leaving the room. That means the First Nations prayer has to go, despite its part in the Creating Change tradition.

Interfaith services, and other interfaith events which explicitly desire to present a wide range of religious perspectives, should reach out purposefully to nonreligious organizations to find an individual to represent that point of view. There is no good reason why there should be multiple varieties of Christianity represented and no nonreligious representative at all. There are multitudes of nonreligious gay rights activists to call on for this purpose.

Speakers, particularly in the plenary sessions and in the sessions which address religion and faith, should make an effort to use language which does not exclude naturalists. Don’t assume that everyone has a “faith” in something, or that everyone is comfortable with talk of the “God of your understanding”. This can be finicky, requiring some linguistic contortions, but it’s just as important as including bisexual and transgender people, for example, and no more difficult. This commitment must go right through to the language on the conference website. We need to find ways to rephrase language like the following: “This is a sacred space that is rooted in radical welcome” – not everyone accepts the concept of the sacred, and some find it objectionable.

Let’s table an explicit discussion of religious privilege and its intersection with queer liberation. This is not only an issue of interest to nonreligious people, but is also of importance to religious leaders who wish to examine their own role in maintaining the structures of religious oppression. This point came home to me forcefully when David, a religious participant in one if the interfaith discussions, said “”We say you can be a good gay Christian, a good gay religious person, but you NEVER say you can be a good gay person and an atheist! We just don’t seem to think about…the danger of using religion to normalize being queer.” This goal is directly in-line with the values of Practice Spirit Do Justice, which state that “The conference is a space that welcomes everyone in their complex identities, bodies and experiences. We believe that the most important way to practice radical welcome is to ensure that issues of power, privilege and oppression are clearly named and explored throughout the conference.”

At the same time, it’s critical that nonreligious individuals do more to make their voices heard in interfaith settings like Creating Change. There is a lot we could do to bring about the sort of changes detailed above. An exploration of this question will be the subject of my next post.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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