Religion and Bigotry
This is a story of my struggle with feelings of hatred toward religion and Christianity. I’m not proud of these feelings and I’m doing my best to resolve them. As with so many stories of prejudice, it starts with childhood…
As I’ve mentioned in other places on this blog, I grew up in a conservative family. I was born in 1968. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. Back then, my family’s conservatism wasn’t the kind of perspective that we now associate with the Republican Party and the Religious Right. There were no conservative think tanks or megachurches guiding people’s philosophies. It was a kind of gut-level conservatism that grew out of the culture of white, blue collar enclaves in Baltimore. It had less to do with politics and religion and more to do with fitting white cultural norms and vociferously denouncing that which didn’t fit. If you were not white, Christian, and heterosexual, my hometown was not a welcoming place to live in. Hate and prejudice were common, everyday features of life.
I was raised as a Christian, a Lutheran to be precise. So far as my childhood memories tell me, the church that I went to never directly confronted the issues of homosexuality or transgender people. Nevertheless, the intolerance of my community toward sexual and gender minorities was plainly evident, even to a child. I was very aware that who I was went against social convention and that the feelings growing deep inside of me were a mortal sin. I lived with the persistent fear of hell and eternal damnation throughout most of elementary school. It was terrible. I became obsessed with death long before I entered puberty. No child should have to endure this kind of torture. To this day, I consider teaching children about hell and damnation to be a form of emotional abuse.
During my adolescence, we started to spend our summers at a family cabin in the Appalachian mountains. Since the cabin was a hundred miles away from our church, my religious education ended. I was relieved. My Sundays were now mine to do as I pleased and I no longer had to endure grueling sessions of religious instruction that bored me to tears. In the following years, I learned to let go of the fear of a wrathful god who punishes the wicked with eternal damnation. My emotions started to heal.
During college, I came to a place in my life where I began to challenge everything in my conservative upbringing. During that process, I became an atheist. I looked upon the self hatred and fear of my childhood, so deeply intertwined with the irrational prejudices of religion, and decided that religion was a hateful superstition intent on controlling society. I turned my back on Christianity, dismissing it as a social cancer that infects people with prejudice and self loathing.
A few years into college, I decided to participate in abortion rights activism. My travels during these years brought me into contact with many Christians on the other side of this issue. During this time, I met some of the most conservative, unsavory religious people I had ever met in my life. I came face to face with the Religious Right. I saw their actions and listened to their rhetoric. They tried to shut down abortion clinics that I helped to defend. They yelled epithets at women entering these clinics. They threatened clinic escorts and doctors with violence. I once infiltrated a gathering of anti-choice activists who were being led by Randall Terry. The mindless, religious fervor I witnessed was deeply unsettling. The experiences I had as an activist left me fearing for the future of the country. In the midst of this mess, I found my feelings toward Christianity crystallizing into a growing hatred.
My college years were also the years in which I came out to my family. Although I was not disowned, I certainly encountered much resistance and skepticism. Of my three siblings, I felt the closest to my sister. When I came out to my sister, she told me that I was going against God and the church. She told me that being transgender was immoral and that I had become an immoral person because our parents had failed to give me a proper religious education. I left the experience angry and alienated. One of the people I loved most in my family had rejected the very core of my being as twisted and sinful. I placed the blame firmly upon Christianity’s shoulders.
After my experiences with my family and political activism, my feelings toward religion darkened considerably. By the time I left college, I came to see religion—Christianity in particular—as a hateful, ignorant anchor around the neck of human civilization. I came to see religion as an intellectual and emotional plague, intent on controlling people’s minds and destroying anyone who dare go against its will. It was the oil that lubricated the machinery of oppression.
Then came the year 2000, the second Bush administration, and the zenith of the Religious Right’s influence. Needless to say, this didn’t help my growing hatred against religion.
In the midst of all of this, there is irony: I am a deeply spiritual person. That’s right—I’m an atheist with a strong sense of spirituality. Although I do not believe in gods, I do feel a deep sense of connection with living things: people, animals, forests, the Earth, etc. This sense of connection is very important to me and when something comes between me and that sense of connection, it causes me great distress. Not surprisingly, hating people goes against that sense of connection. It hurts and diminishes it. Consequently, I don’t like feeling hatred very much. It feels intrinsically wrong.
What to do?
About two years ago, I started to spend time with a very close friend here in the Twin Cities. She’s an atheist, too. Nevertheless, she feels a curiosity toward religion because she was raised as an atheist and consequently, had little contact with religion as a child. My friend sees religion somewhat differently from me for she did not suffer through emotional abuse at the hands of Christianity in a conservative community. To her, religion is a fascinating cultural phenomenon around which communities form and relate. Her curiosity has brought her into contact with several different churches and many of her experiences were quite positive. Seeing religion through her eyes challenged how I saw Christianity.
My friend introduced me to a local LGBT church in Minneapolis. She and I attended the church for several months and got to know some of the people there. It was the first time in my life that I experienced a community of religious people that felt vibrant, healthy, and free of bigotry. The experience changed how I view religion. I spent much of that summer reading about liberal sects of Christianity and their philosophies. I was surprised by what I found and I have grown as a consequence of the experience. I started to let go of the hatred and prejudice that I once felt against Christianity. I now realize that there is much more to religion than the horrors of my childhood, the narrow views of my family, and the scary specter of the Religious Right.
It’s not all sweetness and light for me. There are still countless numbers of people doing terrible things in the name of their respective religions. Religion has played a key role in all kinds of oppression: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, bigotry against other religions, colonial oppression, slavery, and on and on. Wars have been fought and governments have been toppled under the aegis of religion. However, religion—like any other human activity—is not a monolithic endeavor. There are good people and assholes everywhere, regardless of the group in question. When one solely focuses upon the deeds of those with ill intent, it is easy to become swept up in a tribalism that brings humanity to prejudice, hatred, and collective bloodshed. There are plenty of terrible things to focus upon when it comes to most religions. If that is all you focus upon, then surely, that is what you shall see. I’ve been trying my best to embrace this realization. I accept that organized spirituality doesn’t have to be grounded in hatred and intolerance. It can be so much more… and in many churches and religious organizations, it is.
For those people who are reading this and are looking for something beyond the realm of conservative Christianity, there are many, many LGBT affirming churches in the world. If you are looking for such a church, you can find a list of these churches at gaychurch.org. Do click on the link… It’s well worth your time. I promise.
As for those atheist friends who are reading this blog: don’t worry—I still don’t believe in a god.