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Not All Religion Is a Cancer, But If It’s Part of the Problem, It Must Be Part of the Solution

Not All Religion Is a Cancer, But If It’s Part of the Problem, It Must Be Part of the Solution June 14, 2016

If you acknowledge that homophobia and religious paradigms are often linked, then religion has to be one of the forces for change.

Image from the Toronto vigil for Orlando. Creative Commons license from WIkimedia.
Image from the Toronto vigil for Orlando. Creative Commons license from WIkimedia.

In my first post on this topic, Post-Tragedy Right-Wing Statements Predictably Blame Victims, I talked about how “this response plays into a pattern we see in folklore/culture of the religious right: victim-blaming, justification of violence, and epistemologically wrapping up man-made violence or acts of nature into some kind of tidily packaged religious worldview.” That statement applies to rape culture as much as to the Orlando massacre, unfortunately illustrating a broader pattern in contemporary American life.

I know I sometimes fall into the atheist pattern of being a little ragey against religion. As institutions, religions have been responsible for some pretty awful things in the world. Religious individuals have committed heinous, as well as just mildly icky, crimes against other humans. At the same time, I know religious folks who do good in the world, such as helping those in trouble regardless of their faith, taking in and feeding the needy, and so on. I’m thinking of the Muslims who joined the blood donation efforts after Orlando, the Polish Christians who aided Jews during the Holocaust, and even, on a smaller scale, some of my religious in-laws who have fostered and adopted children who needed a stable home.

When religious friends and family push back against my snarky broad strokes against religion, that’s generally something I welcome. As a cultural scholar I’m very attuned to patterns, and the fact is that looking at patterns of religious behavior generally doesn’t paint a good picture of religion’s potential to be a force for positive change in the world. So I know there are good people doing good things in the name of religion, and I’m okay with those reminders. It’s heartening, as an atheist, to see religious folks standing up and being like, “Hey, we know shit’s bad in the world, and we’re making an effort to help, an effort not based on our ability to get access to suffering people in order to proselytize but rather grounded in a recognition of common humanity and universal human rights.” Those reminders are very welcome indeed.

But here’s the thing: when religions are responsible for putting destructive rhetoric and actions out into the world, it is also the responsibility of the practitioners of those religions to help clean up the mess. Trust me, we secular folks are trying. But we can’t do it all.

This is why I wrote:

So if you have ever uttered or endorsed a statement about how gay people or trans people or lesbians or asexuals or bisexuals are “wrong” or “evil” or “immoral,” I want you to think very carefully about the cultural environment your words are helping create. I want you to think about the tradition in which your words participate, and which you’re helping perpetuate.

This is why I’m thrilled that a Catholic bishop wrote:

[S]adly it is religion, including our own, that targets, mostly verbally, and often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people. Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.

This is why I’m glad that Libby at Love Joy Feminism wrote:

Conservative evangelicals responding to the Orlando shooting need to do more than condemn Mateen and his actions. They need to evaluate the role homophobia played in this tragedy, and what this should mean for their own beliefs. They need to ask themselves, seriously, why so many LGBT individuals suspected that the shooter was likely a Christian, and why so many LGBT individuals have openly stated that they don’t want evangelicals’ sympathy or prayers. This should be a moment of serious soul-searching for America’s Muslim population—across the U.S., Muslim groups have rushed to condemn the attacks—but it should not be a moment of serious soul-searching for America’s Muslim population only. After all, this is not merely about Islam. It is also, and perhaps more fundamentally, about homophobia.

Stop promoting homophobia. Stop promoting transphobia, misogyny, racism. Of course if you think of yourself as a good person you’re probably not aware of actively or passively condoning these forms of intolerance… but it’s possible to learn, cultivate awareness, and then speak out. These are problems within secular society as well, and I’m definitely being a Cranky Feminist and calling this shit out when I see it. But I don’t have access to a lot of religious spaces, so I can’t do the work there as effectively.

I see this as as similar conversation to the one that’s been ongoing around Christianity and anti-Semitism. Did you think the Holocaust happened in a vacuum? Ha… ha. (unhappy laugh, because my family is Jewish) As a folklorist I have but to point you at the medieval anti-Semitic legends in circulation for centuries in Europe that shaped public (Christian) opinion about Jews, and helped influence the pogroms and other awful shit that happened. Hitler didn’t just swoop in and decide to exterminate Judaism on a whim – there was tons of religious and secular groundwork happening at a cultural level to make that a feasible option.

I know I just played into Godwin’s Law by being like “But the Holocaust!” … but hopefully you take my point. Large-scale cultural hatred of certain groups doesn’t come about in a vacuum. If your religion participates in the dialogue making LGBTQ folks out to be misguided, gross, or subhuman, then you are part of the problem.

You can either be part of the solution… or you can keep being part of the problem. I know I wouldn’t want to have to shoulder part of the responsibility for another massacre like Orlando, or even a small-scale hate crime, just saying.

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