I have this bad habit of checking my email and taking a spin through Facebook (even Twitter sometimes, unless I really have to pee) when I wake up first thing in the morning, before I get out of bed. Waking up to the news of the vile tragedy in Paris… was not what I would call the ideal start to my day, and seeing vaguely Islamophobic comments like “most Muslims tacitly approve of such things” from people who ought to know better made me want to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head. (In fact, that is exactly what I did.)
In general, I struggle with religion. Like many Americans, I was brought up in a church-going family, but we stopped around the time I started middle school. My parents, to their credit, decided Sunday drives would be more meaningful, so that is what we did instead. And throughout the eighties and nineties, as the country drifted into the toxic, mind-numbing ether of the evangelical right, I felt more and more distant from the culture I was living in, more and more appalled by it. Today, America’s preferred flavor of Christianity (or at least the one that shouts the loudest) seems to be a pernicious, anti-intellectual form of evil that people say they must respect because it is faith, because religious faith must be respected. Only in this case, I don’t. I think big-haired, little-brained American religion is a socially sanctioned form of mental illness, and I feel sorry for its victims. Actually, I am one of its victims because I am a gay man, and I doubt I need to make a list of the ways in which we have been harmed by right-wing Nut Jobs for Jesus. (Look at what happened to Leelah Alcorn if you need an example of the damage that Good Christian Haters can do.)
At the same time, despite my anger at the injustice I and people like me have endured, I know better than to write off all Christians on account of the ones who have perverted Christianity, and I know many Christians who are passionately opposed to being lumped in with the lowest common denominator. While I’m far less angry than I was in my teens and twenties (and thirties, I suppose), I won’t pretend it’s not there. Sometimes it gets the better of me and I make remarks about religion (perhaps I am even doing so now) that I’m sure make my moderate Christian friends flinch. I don’t want to hurt them. But I also don’t want to go on being hurt by their fellow believers. Is it an excuse to say that I am living my truth? It’s certainly a cliché, but perhaps not one without some merit. When you’ve grown up gay in a small town in the Bible Belt, after all, you have plenty to be pissed off about. This is something I’ll continue to struggle with for the rest of my life, I suspect. Some Christians would embrace me and fight for the social justice I still mostly lack. Others would like very much for me to be dead. Maybe someday I’ll be able to default to a neutral, nuanced, and respectful way of talking about religion that honors what I have lived through while keeping both of these extremes in their proper context. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.
As if all this weren’t enough, this struggle becomes more complex because I also cannot embrace the label of athiest. To me, that is little different from the smug, dumb certainty of the evangelicals. They don’t know the answers and neither do I. We’ll find out when we’re dead. Maybe. In the meantime, the safest and sanest thing to do is to live a decent life. For me, what that looks like hews close to the Episcopalian Christian teachings I was brought up with, which is fine: there’s a lot that is good about them, and the Episcopal Church (the US version of the Anglicans) is one of the few that seems to value erudition and individual choice over submission and blind conformity. (An interesting footnote: I actually come from a long line of Quakers, which might also explain why my parents were never really keen on the hellfire and brimstone.) So if I’m not an athiest and not a church-goer, and if I’m revolted by the extremes to which American Christianity has been taken but also unwilling to dismiss religion altogether (even though I don’t believe it and privately think it’s all rather silly), where does that leave me? Has anyone else noticed that the word “agnostic”has more or less dropped out of public discourse?
My agnosticism is large; it contains multitudes. And I’m bringing up homophobia and stereotyping because I don’t have to be a fan of religion to find Islamophobic remarks like “most Muslims tacitly support such actions” deplorable. Really? There has been a poll that has checked representative samples of Muslims from Morocco all the way to Indonesia and the Philippines, and most of those hundreds of millions of people condone violence? To me, this is the same poorly thought out “logic” behind arguments used to deny gay people civil rights. Gay men shouldn’t be allowed to raise children because sodomy and promiscuity. Lesbians are unfit parents because they hate men and their sons would have no male role models. Gay men should not be allowed to donate blood or organs because of the aforementioned promiscuity: after all, with all that anonymous shagging (just check the polls!), we’re little more than disease vectors with dicks.
Well, actually, no. We aren’t, and these broad-brush presuppositions about what all gay people are like (not to mention the underlying idea that gay sex is inherently dirty and bad) are no more acceptable than statements or insinuations that all Muslims are bloodthirsty savages at heart. I’ve spent enough time in Muslim countries and know enough of them by now to believe that by far, most of them are just like everybody else: they go to work, buy groceries, and worry about paying the bills. Just as I deplore the religion-based extremes that have torn my own culture apart (said from the perspective of a 10-year expat who just visited the US for the first time since leaving), they deplore the maniacs sawing off heads and murdering journalists in the name of their own faith. The problem is that the moderates don’t have a loud voice. They aren’t screaming in the streets—or from pulpits, for that matter. Thus, to an outsider, they may appear not to exist.
Yes, the crazies are out there: ISIS is scary, al Qaeda is a cancer, and things in the Middle East are likely to get worse before they get better. However, untrammeled capitalism is a much more serious menace to today’s world than radical Islam. As we sift through the aftermath of yet another atrocity that seems somehow to be about Islam, please try to avoid conflating the maniacs and their religion. The Australians rose above the worst of it during and after the Sydney hostage situation with #IllRideWithYou. Let’s let that be the model of how we respond to this tragedy. I may not be entirely over my own religion-based struggles, but it’s the least I can do.