To Believe or Not to Believe? Is That the Right Question for LGBT people?

Authors: Darnell L. Moore and Derrick McMackie
Darnell: What motivated you to pursue an atheistic path?

Derrick: Like many Black Americans, I was indoctrinated into Christianity as a child. The child and grandchild of Black Christians, I had very little choice about my religious views. I was always an inquisitive child. I can remember being in Sunday school and asking questions that startled and confounded my teachers. I wondered why the ancient Egyptians would be punished on Judgment Day for not believing in a god that they had no knowledge of. I wondered why small children in China would be punished by a supposedly loving Christian god simply for having their own god(s). These kinds of questions about religion stuck with me throughout my life.

The death of my aunt from cancer in 2000 was an event that had a profound effect on me in terms of taking a critical look at the concept of god. I can remember asking why god would take my aunt away, why he would allow her to suffer and die? The religious justifications given did not satisfy me. I never looked at religion the same after that. I would remain in the church throughout my teens, mostly for its social and familial aspects. However, by the time I was leaving for college, I had pretty much given up on religion. When I arrived at college, I still believed in god, but I took a more spiritual approach rather than seeking out a particular religion. As a history major at an HBCU, I was confronted daily with records that exposed me to Traditional African Religions, the social and political developments that led to Christianity, and the myths and legends of many of the world’s cultures.

All of this coalesced in the winter of 2007, when I was discussing religion with two of my friends one night. We talked about the various concepts of Jesus and how wide the interpretations and beliefs about him were. I left that conversation knowing, without a doubt, that I didn’t believe in any religious myths or supernatural claims. On January of 2008, in a Public Speaking class, I announced that I was as an atheist.

Given the number of LGBT people who suffer under the tyranny of religion and god, what do you consider some of the benefits and/or consequences of members of the LGBT community rejecting religion and god?

Darnell: First, let me name what some might consider benefits of belief in God and/or gods. For many LGBT people and otherwise, faith and religious tradition is a vital aspect of personhood and community. Some Black LGBT folk consider religiosity an essential part of black cultural and social life. Similar to you, I grew up in the church. I too was inquisitive. And even after attending seminary in my late 20’s, a moment when my theological beliefs shifted drastically, I still maintained faith in God, even though I no longer believed in “hell.”

I read (when I do) Hebrew and New Testament scripture as texts composed by communities of faith—that is, by humans—and not as historical documents. I rarely attend church these days. And I believe in that which encompasses the human, the earth, the cosmos and moves through/connects all: the Spirit (notice that I didn’t reference a gendered god as “he”).

For me, there is something powerful about understanding oneself as connected to something larger. There is also something powerful about communal connection through religious experience. I loved church because of the music. I also loved the people, the sharing of our vulnerabilities in community; the communal worship; the routine and traditions. I loved feeling as if there was something bigger in this cosmos than me: that there was a community of sisters and brothers—a church.

I want to be careful, then, not to read other LGBT peoples’ religious experiences as monolithic moments of tyranny, even if I may have experienced heterosexist oppression at some churches I’ve attended. I understand why it is hard for some LGBT people, even those who experience heterosexism and transphobia in certain religious spaces, to leave places that they otherwise come to experience as “home,” as community. For many, disrupting belief in one’s god is akin to murdering parts of themselves. And leaving one’s church family can be an emotionally-charged experience.

But to your question: I am of the opinion that LGBT folk, and all folk, should be respected for making choices that work for them. There are moments when I have encouraged those whom I love to leave religious communities that seemed harmful (in my opinion). But I also remembered that they were not without agency and volition. Given that, I am not certain that I can make a general claim regarding perceived benefits and/or consequences of LGBT folk who leave churches or reject belief in god. Each person’s desires and decisions, surely, determine how their experiences will register.

How do you reconcile (or hold in tension) your respect for the contexts and traditions of others’ particularly theistic religious practices and your own desire to interrogate and even dismantle some practices that you find harmful?

Derrick: As someone raised in the Black Christian church, and someone with a deep respect and regard for Traditional African Religions, I struggle with being both critical and sympathetic with regards to my critiques of theism.

As a Black gay atheist, there are certainly aspects of Black religious traditions that I appreciate. I do not hide the fact that I love gospel music, the oratorical flare of Black pastors, the delicious food often eaten after religious services, the vibrancy of Candomble and Voodoo and the beauty of The Orishas, to name a few of  the things I treasure. However, I must be able to criticize those things that I love \ experience as harmful.

The fact of the matter is that religion, particularly Christianity, is and has been very damaging to the Black community. While I understand that some of my ancestors perhaps turned to Christianity to cope with and prevail against white supremacy, I can’t ignore its harmful effects. I feel that it is my duty as a Black gay intellectual and social justice advocate to draw attention to the destruction wrought by religion, particularly Christianity. Many Blacks are cut off from our history and traditions as well as each other because of our blind embrace of Christianity. We have allowed homophobia, sexism, and disregard for our African ancestors to roam free in the Black community because of our embrace of and devotion to the religion of our ancestors’ enslavers. These are the issues that I feel I must address as a Black gay atheist, and if that means that I will piss people off or be accused of disrespect that is a risk that I am willing to take.

Why do you think there is still so much hesitance when it comes to critically engaging the concept of “god”?

Darnell: While I may personally take a more critical position (and by “critical” here, I don’t mean to imply that any position outside of my own is any less thoughtful, nuanced, and deliberate) in terms of Christian thought and other theological systems, in general, I affirm those believers who think and feel and act differently than me. Indeed, when I critique someone for maintaining theist beliefs and commitments to certain religious practices–for thinking differently than me–I participate in a process of othering that essentially renders the believer as someone lacking rationality, analysis, and agency.

That, to me, is a posture that attempts to elevate rationality, the mind, over those affective, psychological, embodied, existential aspects of the human which escapes language and theory. That type of dualism is a function of Western philosophical thought that attempts to split the mind from the body. For those raced collectivities, for example, whose humanity was called into question because we were thought to be of the body and without the mind (i.e. beasts, sub-humans, et cetera) this type of thought should prove problematic.

But what is the job of the “critical thinker” or the “social justice worker” in this regard? Who determines which points of view to privilege? By using descriptors like “critical thinker” are we setting up false and harmful dichotomies, once again?

I think all of this betrays any project of community building because it replicates the oppressive postures that black folk, LGBT folk and otherwise, have had to war against. It betrays the very agency, critical intelligence, experiences of a people as if we cannot think for ourselves, as if we always accept the master’s “shit” and believe that it smells of roses, as if we have not created our own traditions or transformed those we were handed, and so on. While I agree that the history of Christianity, especially in the Americas, is wrought with problems and that the missionizing of black and brown peoples is central to the historical narrative of white supremacy, I refuse to suggest that black and brown people lack cognition and/or are without volition especially when many black and brown people have long held indigenous spiritual ideas and practices that some others named absurd. To act against the beliefs of a people is an attempt to colonize their beliefs.

Yet, I do believe that we should be addressing the problems that exist and might easily wreak havoc in the lives of people without fear of counterattack. Can you talk a bit about the backlash that you’ve experienced within your family, communities, et cetera for taking a public atheistic stance?

Derrick: In terms of my own atheism, I can’t say that I have received a lot of backlash from my family, community, or the public. Most of the people who I am close with understand that I am a very passionate and intelligent person. They know that most of my beliefs are the product of research and serious critical thinking. As a result of this, I think a lot of people respect me as an atheist because they know I didn’t come to my beliefs haphazardly.

I would say that my family is somewhere between indifferent and accepting of my atheism. While my mother is a Christian who attends church regularly, I’d probably describe my father as an agnostic. This usually means that I get a mixture of disappointment and acceptance from my parents. As an atheist student at Florida A&M University, my undergraduate institution, I always felt that my professors and peers respected me as an atheist. I can remember department heads coming to me after hearing or reading about my atheism and telling me that I was the first openly atheist person that they had heard of and that they thought it was cool or interesting. The student newspaper, The Famuan, allowed me to write freely as a Black atheist.

While my atheism hasn’t led to much backlash for me personally, I don’t want to portray atheism in the Black or gay community as being an easy ride. There is a lot of stigma, in both the Black and gay communities, towards those who identify as atheists. It could even be said that, to many people, being an atheist is worse than being gay, because at least the latter continues to believe in god. I know of peers who have lost family and friends because of their atheism. It isn’t unusual to hear of people in the media stereotyping atheist as immoral or corrupt. Celebrities like Steve Harvey and Pat Robertson are two examples of prominent people who fuel backlash against atheism. Though, on the whole, I think that the tide is in an atheist movement’s favor. National polls and surveys continue to reveal that America is becoming less religious.

What can the LGBT rights movement learn from the atheist movement, and vice versa?

Darnell: Before I address that question, I want to first respond to the claim you make above regarding the plight of atheists and gays. First, it assumes that there are atheists who are not LGBT and vice versa. You are evidence that such a claim is not true. Second, I am not sure that we can make an argument regarding whose oppression is more pronounced when in fact oppression looks and feels differently based on the multitude of identities that folk assume. I want to resist playing Oppression Olympics.

But the atheist movement reminds majorities that there are others who think differently and who deviate from the norms maintained by those majorities. It reminds us that we are not all the same and that our differences, therefore, should be acknowledged and respected.

LGBT people know a bit about resistance to difference and also the need for safe space for a range of people—who represent a range of expressions. I think the atheist movement could be reminded of the need for space, safe space, for all, even those theists who might hold different beliefs.

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