Sceptics, Religion and Queers? Oh Myyyyy

Why don’t LGBTQ people leave their religion after their communities harm them?

It’s a question you see a lot, around the skeptical side of the internet. You’ll hear yet another case of an LGBTQ person being treated horrendously by their religious community. Maybe it’s another kid being kicked out of home after they come out. Maybe it’s another teacher being fired from the job they excel in after their employers find out who they’ve married. Maybe they’re not as lucky as that kid or that teacher, and it’s their body or their life that’s been put at risk by the religious communities they come from.

We see these things happening, and every single time, someone wonders the same thing: why on Earth are there any LGBT religious people left? Why aren’t LGBT people hightailing it out of their religions, haemorrhaging from their churches, mosques, temples and synagogues without a backward glance?

So, like, why are straight, cis men irreligious?

You never see this one posed, do you? If you can’t see a reason why LGBTQ people would remain religious, given the oppression they face in many religious communities, ask yourself why on earth straight cis men would ever give up religion. If our decisions regarding religion are based purely on the advantages or disadvantages to be gained by group membership, then why would a straight cis man ever leave? While there are privileges to be gained from straight cis maleness everywhere, many religions sure do pile them on even more than secular society.

Religion Is Never Just Religion

I hope you’ll forgive me a small diversion here- it’s time I situated myself. You see, I’m writing as a queer woman from and living in Ireland. There’s a (terrible, really not funny, people do it anyway) joke that you hear ’round these parts sometimes. It goes like this: You tell someone you’re an atheist, and they respond, “Yeah, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”.

Me, I’m a Catholic atheist- and not just because the Church refuses to take people off its books on request. I’m a Catholic atheist because Catholic rites, rituals, and innumerable cultural signifiers are inexplicably intertwined with the Irish culture that I grew up and live in. The Catholicism of my culture lives in everything from the church bells that I sleep through on a Sunday morning, to the stab of grief and love when I pass the holy water font beside my Nan’s old front door (she never let me leave the house, even to pop to the shops, without anointing my forehead to keep me safe. That gesture of a damp thumb making a cross on my forehead still feels like love), to the particular vein of all-encompassing guilt I can laugh about with ex-Catholic friends from all over the world. As an Irish person, it’s also in the pride in my culture that I was taught growing up- how Catholicism was oppressed under British rule, the sacrifices people made to hold on to it. Catholicism is in the ruins of thousand-year-old monasteries that dot the landscape of my country. It was a tool for holding onto pride and identity for hundreds of years of occupation. It remains one thread of the complicated fabric of class, ancestry, politics and identity that keep communities up North separate. And Catholicism is and remains an integral part of my own journey into scepticism and atheism.

If my atheist ass can be (wryly, not always willingly) identified with Catholicism? Religion is rarely just religion.

They (Really) Aren’t All (Quite) Like That

Religions, in general, have one thing in common. They’re sets of beliefs, myths and cultural practices that, at one level or another, involve the supernatural. Maybe they have something to say about an afterlife, or creation myths, or some kind of supernatural beings guiding our lives. Either way, there’s generally some invocation of something that is seen by its members as outside the purview of science- or, at the very least, unfalsifiable. Those supernatural elements, of course, almost certainly don’t exist, or else we’d likely see their effects on the real world and categorise them with all of the other interesting natural phenomena that we haven’t quite worked out how to study yet.

That’s it.

As religions deal with the unreal- or, at the very least, the drastically unfalsifiable and unanalysable- their interpretation and practice are up for grabs by any members with the gravitas and social clout to be taken seriously. Since religious texts are notoriously vague and self-contradictory, it’s possible to find or interpret verses to support just about any perspective you care to imagine.

Add to this a few millennia of intelligent and learned people justifying their own perspectives on religion, and it’s no surprise that you find the Pope, the Westboro Baptists, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (one of my heroes, by the way) all reading from the same manual. Add in a few different and equally inconsistent manuals with their own (tens of) centuries of interpretations by people from wildly differing cultures, and you have a diversity of beliefs and practices to make anthropologists swoon.

While the majority of religious sects (at least in the major strands of Abrahamic monotheism) may have a negative view of LGBTQ people and our relationships, it’s by no means universal. Even within sects that outwardly claim homophobia, many adherents feel differently. Need some evidence for that? In Ireland’s 2011 census, 85% of the population identified as Catholic. Polls since then have consistently shown about 3/4 of the population in favour of same-sex marriage. Even if every single one of the 1/4 opposed are Catholic- highly unlikely, but let’s go with it for the sake of argument- that’s still a considerable majority of pro-equality Catholics. Since we don’t see 2/3 of Irish Catholics leaving the Church en-masse (har har har), why do we look at LGBTQ Catholics differently?

It can be easy from the outside to point to religions as monolithic belief systems governed by central dogma coming from holy books and hierarchies. It doesn’t square up to reality though, does it?

Desmond Tutu

“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place,”
Source – Elke Wetzig

Not Actually Superhumans

Remember how religions are complicated, messy, constantly-changing things with a single element in common and as many meaning as they have adherents? You can say the same of LGBTQ people. Or, for that matter, of people in general.

When we hear stories about LGBTQ people who’ve had a terrible time at the hands of religion, we never, ever get see the entire picture. We see that person framed solely as someone with a particular gender or sexual orientation. We don’t see the rest of it. We don’t see how that person’s religious background has shaped and intertwined with their life. We don’t know what kinds of meanings they ascribe to their religion, or how important their religious beliefs and community is to them, their sense of identity, and how they place themselves in the world. In fact, we don’t see anything else about them, and nor can we even begin to view them as the complete, complicated human being that they are. From the outside, all we can see are two facts: that this person is LGBTQ, and that they subscribe to a belief system that views that aspect of them negatively.

It’s easy for us to oversimplify and to see someone solely as an LGBTQ person with some inaccurate, harmful beliefs. It’s easy from the outside to see the solution to that as simply letting go of the inaccuracy and getting a bonus absence of harmful in return. By doing so, though, we both drastically underestimate the ways in which a person’s beliefs may be entwined throughout their life and sense of self, and drastically overestimate the importance of a single aspect of a person’s identity- their LGBTQ status.

If LGBTQ people are complicated, messy, emotional beings with the same attachments to familial and cultural identities as everyone else, it’s not tough to see why many don’t want to throw it all away because of one aspect of our lives. And if religions are constantly in flux, with adherents who are all picking and choosing the dogmas they live by and the ones they reject, then expecting LGBTQ people to somehow behave differently to everyone else, is expecting LGBTQ people to be less.. human.

Why it matters

If we care about LGBTQ liberation, we need to quit seeing it just from our own perspective. If we care about scepticism- and I truly hope you do- then we need to live with the truths that are uncomfortable to us.

You may have a different definition of scepticism to mine. To me, it’s characterised most profoundly by the willingness to give as much scrutiny to the beliefs and perspectives that I hold, as to those that other people do. I know that human brains tend to see Others as undifferentiated wholes, especially when we disagree with them, and to see Us in our complexity and variety. If we’re going to be sceptics- not just atheists, not just humanists, but genuine sceptics- we need to acknowledge all facets of reality and not brush inconveniences under the rug.

And if we’re going to make a real case for scepticism- one that resonates with people outside our circles- we have to start from the perspectives of the people we’re talking to.

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Aoife was once voted Ireland's premier cranky bisexualist queermo by a group consisting entirely of herself and her cat (who cast her vote in time-honoured fashion by demanding belly rubs). She enjoys bracing wilderness walks, complicated tea, and misandry. She writes about Ireland, secularism, queerness, roller derby and what she had for dinner at Consider the Tea Cosy, and tweets intermittently as @flyingteacosy.

She will try to make you roller skate.


  1. January 23, 2014 at 5:39 am —

    Going through my blogs on my RSS reader and am pleasantly surprised to find one of my favourite writers now writing for the skepchick network. *waves at Aoife*

    I guess I could also class myself as a catholic atheist, though I suspect catholicism didn’t permeate my life quite as much here in South Africa as it did for you, but I still feel a certain fondness for some of the aspects.

    I must admit to having fallen into this pattern of thinking on one or two occasions. It was fairly easy for me to leave the church, my parents weren’t particularly religious, my grandparents were but were of the opinion that everyone should decide for themselves what’s right for them so I never felt pressured. I live in a pretty liberal varsity town where I’m surrounded by people who are also areligious. So I guess I sometimes fall into the trap of extrapolating from my own experience, it’s always good to be reminded that other people’s experiences are often vastly different from one’s own.

    On a final note, I had the privilege of going to a talk given by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the varsity here (they were naming a new hall after him) and he is an incredible person and very much someone I admire greatly.

    • January 23, 2014 at 9:48 am —

      *waves back* Hi there, Puffy! It’s wonderful to see a friendly face on my first outing at Queereka.

      To be honest with you, I think I’ve had a similar experience to yours in a lot of ways. It’s true that my grandparents were extremely religious, and interacted with me with a taken-for-granted kind of Catholicism that was inextricably intertwined with our identity as Irish people. Catholicism wasn’t just the one true faith, it was also what we (with a very clear not-them) believed. Questioning it, in that context, wasn’t just a questioning of faith. It was a questioning of identity, of Irishness, of the sacrifices our ancestors made for us.
      Luckily for me, that was something that in my family was pretty specific to my grandparents’ generation. While my parents did send me for my Communion and Confirmation classes, it was more of a cultural thing than faith-based, and by now they’re both varying levels of irreligious. I was also lucky enough to go to multidenominational schools in Ireland, and a very diverse international school when I was living outside the country, so I got tons of exposure to different cultures and ways of thinking which helped to plant seeds of other possibilities in my mind. Hence, probably, why I’m having these conversations today.

      Also, there are no words for how much I envy you being in the same room as Archbishop Tutu, but that green glow you may be able to perceive from far North might give it away. I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, that’d be right up there at the top 🙂

  2. January 23, 2014 at 10:09 am —

    Heyy Aoife, great post, so thanks!
    The two sections on ‘religion is never just religion’ and ‘they’re not always quite like that’ hit the nail on the head for me. I’m English and former Church of England so the level of religious identity also being cultural identity* is nowhere near as strong for me, but I always find the arrogance of atheists/skeptics who don’t appreciate that makes me bottle up faster than anything. Lucky those that walked away easily; for me it was not so simple. Being Christian was the major theme of my identity as a child and teenager. It was a place of safety and acceptance (or so I thought). It was the majority of my social life and school life (CofE secondary school/sixth form) and when people forget that, or underestimate the importance of that, it hurts.
    Moving from a place where you once thought you would never be able to understand why someone *wouldn’t* want to believe in Jesus to one where you question his very existence is a hell of a change, and when you’re leaving your community behind too, well, sometimes a little sympathy wouldn’t go amiss.

    *thanks for the perspective on how deep the Catholic identity goes and what it means outside of faith itself for many Irish people. I didn’t quite get it before, which made living in Liverpool, where there are lots of Irish-Catholic people and their descendants, somewhat awkward. Interesting indeed to know people who still go to mass and go through all the rituals and yet call themselves agnostic or atheist.

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