Sunday, June 19, I decided to attend an afternoon public meeting the agenda of which was to explore organizing action in the St. Louis area in response to the killing of 49 queer people, many of them latino, in Orlando last Sunday. We heard an overview on intersectionality and occupying space, listened to stories of oppressed people of color, received training on how to occupy space in a non-violent manner, and ultimately disbanded without setting specific action goals. It was generally speaking a very worthwhile experience, but all of us were shocked when, early in the meeting, a young gay man with an Asian appearance made a brief statement of objection to the proceedings, picked up his backpack and left. His protest was basically, “How can you talk about creating safe spaces where people who are frightened, hurting and angry can share their stories, on the one hand, and have this public meeting in a church sanctuary, on the other? Don’t you realize that the church has been one of the major oppressors of LGBTQ people for centuries and centuries?! I do not find this to be a safe space!”
How can you talk about creating safe spaces where people who are frightened, hurting and angry can share their stories, on the one hand, and have this public meeting in a church sanctuary?
The group spent a lot of time dealing with this event, for which apparently everyone was unprepared. There were a range of responses, from somewhat compassionate and understanding, through quite annoyed and critical, through accepting these statements as expressing real feelings and moving on. The church where I attend was hosting this meeting, so after that meeting we met briefly to further debrief before returning home. My reaction to all this was to reexamine how it is that I have become a person of faith in God as well as a person who places great faith in science and democracy. I hope that reviewing some of my experience in arriving at this point might have some benefit for others, so I am sharing.
I want to say at the outset that my goal here is not really to convince any avowed atheists to change their views. I have both relatives and friends who are fed up with religion for a host of reasons. A few of these people are militant about their views, some are merely feisty, and some are quite willing to engage in conversation on the topic. Nor do I hold out much, if any, hope that I will change any minds of fundamentalist Christians (or Muslims) who really do believe with all their hearts that the Bible (or Koran) is the Word of God and proscribes homosexuality as a vile sin. I will testify, however, that I do have several fundamentalist Christian and atheist relatives and friends who view me with love and compassion, rather than hate. That I can live with. Hate I can die from.
I was raised in a Christian household, read to from the Bible by mother and father, taught to pray at an early age, and I was loved. I also turned out to be very bright and talented, being especially good at science and math. As I moved through public high school in a county seat in Ohio, I went from general science to chemistry to physics, and I loved both the theory and the laboratory. I was also rubbing shoulders with the other shining stars of math and science in my large class of 200+ students. I think it is safe to say that science made me an agnostic. My parents’ attempts to justify their Christian beliefs just couldn’t stand up to the proofs that my science teachers could demonstrate before my very eyes. So, at the wise old age of 17 one day I announced to my parents that I didn’t believe in God or Jesus Christ anymore; all those tales were just mythology.
There I was a gay teenage boy developing breasts and hips. So, I reasoned, God wouldn’t do such a hateful thing to a good boy like me, so God must not exist.
But there was another thing that was going on with me in my early years that contributed to my “agnostic/atheist period.” I didn’t know it until just recently, but I am an intersex person. I have a partial insensitivity to androgen that is genetic. Even as I was developing a male body image, my genes were conspiring to make me a somewhat feminized male. (By the way, this is quite a rare condition, affecting 1 in 10,000, so this is not about my gayness.) My parents had taught me that God is good, and there I was a gay teenage boy developing breasts and hips. So, I reasoned, God wouldn’t do such a hateful thing to a good boy like me, so God must not exist. Yes, I actually did think that at age 17.
And I did just fine as an atheist. I finished a Ph.D. program, got a job as a college professor and came out rather explosively. My gay lifestyle of the time, in the early 70s, centered around a couple of gay bars: The Red Bull in East. St. Louis and Bob Martin’s in St. Louis. I was meeting gay men from all walks and stations of life, and some of them were fundamentalist Christians. One of those fellows challenged me to attend the newly formed “gay church” in St. Louis, the Metropolitan Community Church, which I eventually accepted. Now here was a chance, I thought, to experience God, if there is one, without all the homophobic overhead. I was soon to rediscover both God and barrels full of overhead. But, I had a conversion experience of some kind, I joined the Church, and I set about to rethink my values, my beliefs and my priorities.
I have spent the last 40 years trying to be both a scientifically-minded person and a person of faith, so I have a lot of experience doing this, and possibly a few pertinent observations. I think that both science and faith in God each give me something unique. I guess the benefits of science are obvious. At least in principle if you build a science of anything then any trained observer can duplicate the observations on which the theory rests and confirm it. Also, we have only to look at the amazing accomplishments of contemporary technology to see the power of basing your actions on science. That power, however, is dangerous, because while science has a brain, it has no heart. One can also wreak monumental damage and destruction with the power of science. Science will educate your mind, but it will not educate your heart.
Science will educate your mind, but it will not educate your heart. On the other hand, faith will educate your heart.
On the other hand, faith will educate your heart. It will motivate you to do what is right, and you will figure out using your mind (and possibly science) how to to achieve worthwhile goals, according, of course, to your own light. I personally need a faith community in which to participate, and with which I combine my actions, when possible, to achieve the good I want to achieve. Actually, I have been and still am a member of several faith communities. I try to engage in three practices every day: I do hatha yoga, I do Yang Short Form tai chi, and I am a 35 year meditator following the Self-Realization Fellowship. My partner and I are long term members of the Episcopal Church, and we participate fully in the church community. I’ve read books on the world’s religions, such as Houston Smith’s book on the topic. And here’s what I’ve decided.
They’re all right, and they’re all wrong. Well, actually, they are all on the right track: clearly, human beings participate in religious practices by the billions. It can’t be that there is nothing to religious practice. I think people do this because they want to understand their relationship to that which created them as a part of understanding why they are here and what is their purpose. Religion in all its multifarious forms offers a form for this relationship. While I do recognize a tiny possibility that maybe nothing created me, I find that hypothesis to be highly implausible. And while I am skeptical of arguments from intelligent design, I do think that things, human history in particular, have a particular direction, a teleology about them, even though we can’t even predict what is going to happen tomorrow for sure.
In all of the religious practices I have participated in, I have thrown myself into the community and the practices as best as I could. This has taken some courage. Being a moderately critical thinker—and I might add, all the while a person dedicated to supporting science—I have found what I considered to be questionable tenets in every single religious practice in which I participate. Frankly, some of it is even clearly bullshit. On the other hand, you can be sure that I wouldn’t be spending a lot of time on a religious practice if I hadn’t found something in there that was worth investing in. Here’s the core of what I find in religion: I experience my unique individuality in a shared practice with other unique individuals who, just as I, are striving to understand their relationship to that which created them. And they do it by voluntarily submitting to this shared age-old rule. Religion, I find, is where I can explore that “extra experiential stuff” that science can’t deal with: what’s left over after all the explanations have been given.
I do have a critique of religions that take themselves too seriously. By that I mean that some religions hold that they are somehow special in God’s eyes. At best, maintaining this attitude leads to subtle condescension and pretension, at worst, it can lead to holocausts. And now, here is my condescending statement: the best religion to be in is any religion where the participants focus on the siblinghood of all people, including atheists. This Earth, this is your family, these are your peeps. Love them. That is how we will have Heaven here. We all have to do our parts, but I can only be responsible for mine.
On the other hand, to get the full benefit from a religion, and also to give that religion what you owe it, you must be true to yourself. As you go about your worship, saying occasional phrases that catch in your throat, you must find a way to deal with this with integrity. Some people say the offending phrase and think otherwise. Some people, rather than finding it offensive, find that it expresses the truth. Some people are silent, or change the words. And some people say it as a testament to their faith in this particular religion. I have found that once you allow yourself to get completely into a practice, new understandings and experiences tend to emerge. Finally, what I have found inside all these different approaches to religion is truly my God, who is exactly your God framed from your perspective. I have found myself, just as you have found yourself.
And to that angry, frustrated Asian man, who was hurting over the senseless killing of 49 innocent young people because they were gay, I say “I understand.” I wish I could have said that then. It might have made a difference.