Losing My Fear of Religion

Human Rights

If the gay and lesbian movement is going to make significant headway into changing the minds and hearts of Americans on vital issues of fairness regarding our rights, we are going to have to find a coherent way to address issues of religion.

As a matter of disclosure, I should confess that I am an atheist. I do not believe in the concept of a God.

While I am confessing, I should also say that my disbelief about a higher power is not at all related to my homosexuality. I was aware that I was an atheist long before I realized I was gay. My father is Muslim, and was raised in a Quaker school. My mother was an Atlanta girl who was raised Southern Baptist, but who, on paper, changed her religion to be a Muslim when she married my father. As a child, I can remember that my parents agreed on one point only when it came to religion.

If anyone ever had an open mind about religion, it had to be my father. When my sister and I were kids, he used to tell us that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and all the other words of God were essentially the same message, simply packaged in different ways, depending on the time and culture where they appeared.

My mother agreed with him, sort of.

Religions really are all the same, she would repeat after my dad. They are all fairy tales, she would insist.

The strict and unbending ways of the Southern Baptists were enough to turn my mother, from an early age, into a life-long, fervent nonbeliever. As I grew up, I weighed the evidence that both of my parents presented to me about religion, as well as that which I garnered from science and society, and rather easily came down on the side of my mother. When I realized I was gay, it seemed another good reason to snub religion.

Like many gay men and lesbians, for the longest time I looked at religion as an enemy of our civil rights movement. But, even as an atheist, I have come to believe that if we continue to take the antagonist approach to religion, we will inevitably come out on the losing end. In America, for all our declarations of being a secular society, religion is deeply ingrained in our culture.

I don�t pretend to have all the answers on how we can approach religious people about gay rights.

But I suspect that one of the best tactics may be to appeal to the very things in religion that give believers their strength: their sense of morality and right from wrong.

To do this, we don�t have to turn into religious scholars or get into jousting matches over what every particular verse in the Bible or the Koran means. But most people of conviction do derive a strong sense of moral right and wrong from their religion.

For too long, we in the gay and lesbian civil rights movement have been embarrassed or shy or nervous about engaging in this conversation. The result is that the right wing has successfully cornered and dominated the discussion on what religious morals are, and how Americans of faith approach them. We need to help show good Americans who believe in right and wrong, based largely on their concept of God, that supporting gay rights isn't a contradiction of their religious beliefs.

Indeed, if we approach it in the right way, we can help them discover that supporting gay and lesbian rights is, in fact, a morally just thing to do.

Two real-life transformations come to mind. One is Bridget, a friend from college who is a devout Catholic. Bridget doesn� t believe in divorce or abortion. But she is an ardent supporter of gay rights. Why? She believes her religion demands it. I wish I could take credit for Bridget�s personal transformation from a person who believed that gays and lesbians were sinners to someone who believes that discriminating against gays is unholy.

But I can�t. Like too many of us, I was cowardly. When I discovered Bridget's initial views on gay people, I simply declined to tell her I was gay or broach the subject, despite our close personal relationship. Instead, a few braver souls ventured to Bridget�s church and appealed to the congregationas sense of social justice. They won Bridget over as a convert. Years later, when I did come out to her, Bridget told me that she had changed her mind on the gay issue when she realized that the struggle for gay rights was an issue of fairness, and that her religion taught her to treat people equally.

Susan's transformation was more difficult, and less complete. But in many ways, it was more astonishing.

Susan, a co-worker I met years ago on a new job, was a born-again Christian. At first, I kept her at arms length. Quite simply, I decided she was the enemy.
Susan was incredibly conservative and initially willing to deny gays and lesbians civil rights, based on her religious beliefs. But she was not the monster the religous right is often painted as.

Susan was also a decent person in many ways. She was a good mother and wife. She was a hard worker. And she had a strong ethic of right and wrong that she derived from her religion. To the end of my days at that office, Susan continued to struggle with particular Biblical verses, and how they should affect her feelings about gay rights.

But Susan, an intelligent, college-educated woman, made surprising leaps of faith, quite literally, in her position on gay rights. Eventually, she came to believe that her born-again God wasn�t asking her to unduly discriminate against gays and lesbians. In fact, he probably required her to support them, she concluded. While she and I still didn�t see eye to eye on many things, it would be unfair to call her an enemy. In fact, she, too, had become a convert to gay rights.

Both Bridget and Susan switched their positions on gay rights because of their religious beliefs, not in spite of them. I cannot believe that Bridget and Susan are alone.

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