Talk: How should atheists see Christian LGBTQIA allies?

How should atheists understand Christian LGBTQIA allies?

Good afternoon! I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to speak here today and I’d like thank the event organizers for putting all of this together. My name is Dan Linford and I’ll speaking to you today concerning the way in which atheists might understand Christians who are LGBTQIA allies. I’ll be focusing on what I see as mistakes in how some aggressive or anti-theistic atheists have approached LGBTQIA affirming Christians.

I started thinking about the topic of today’s talk in January of 2014. The organization American Atheists had posted a picture of a marriage equality protest with the hashtag #religionispoison. The hashtag invoked instant controversy because many LGBTQIA individuals and their allies are devout Christians. In defense of the hashtag, public relations director Danielle Muscato tweeted “if you’re a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter, you’re doing one of them wrong”. In response, Dean Roth wrote a guest post for Chris Stedman’s blog arguing that Muscato’s statements were “appropriative”, “disrespectful and offensive to the queer people [she] claim[ed] to be supporting”, and unethical or inappropriate behavior for LGBTQIA allies, wrongfully seeing gay people as “pawns in [her] game against religion”.

There are two questions central to this debate:

First, is it ethical for someone to describe religion as poison in the context of discussing LGBTQIA issues?

Second, is it factually correct to say that LGBTQIA allyship is inconsistent with Christianity?

I will leave the former question for others to resolve; I’m not part of the LGBTQIA community and I do not wish to speak on their behalf as to what their allies should or should not do. What I will address is the question of whether, from the standpoint of ideas commonly expressed by atheists, LGBTQIA allyship is compatible with Christianity.

I will argue that there is no incompatibility between being a Christian and being an LGBTQIA ally. I will assume that I am talking to an atheist audience. Christians will be unlikely to be convinced by the arguments I present because I assume several opinions commonly held among atheists but unlikely to be held by Christians. Furthermore, I will not engage with the internal theological debate among Christians as to whether or not Christians should accept a theology inclusive of LGBTQIA people.

It is prerequisite to answering whether Christianity and LGBTQIA allyship are compatible to say something about what Christianity is. If Christianity is simply identical with the Bible, then the answer is easy: a straightforward reading of the Bible would demonstrate that Christianity is incompatible with LGBTQIA allyship. The Bible contains numerous passages directed against two men having sexual relations with each other and states explicitly that God has commanded us to kill men who have sex with each other.

However, Christianity is not identical with the Bible. To say that the Bible is identical with Christianity is to take sides in the theological dispute between the Roman Catholic Church — which claims that, although we have the Bible God intended us to have through His providence, the Church retains magisterial authority — and Protestants — who, following Martin Luther, declare that Christian doctrine can come only from scripture: sola scriptura. As atheists, we reject both the authority of the Church and sola scriptura.

Furthermore, Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants do not exhaust Christendom. As additional examples, but without being exhaustive, there are the liberal Protestants, Coptic Christians, and the Greek Orthodox. Of all of these ways of experiencing the Christian life, I know of no creed — whether conservative or liberal — according to which one must take the Bible literally.

The Nicene Creed, shared by most Christian groups, does not mention the Bible. Indeed: many Christians who hail from theologically liberal backgrounds would side with Paul Tillich, who thought that the various representations of God, in any particular religion, are false idols. Paraphrasing Tillich, God is the God beyond any of our conceptions of God. As such, from a liberal Protestant perspective, to declare the Bible to be the central object of Christian worship is to make a grave error: biblioidolatry. It might be that a majority of American Christians understand the Bible as the infallible and literal Word of God, but that has much more to do with the contingent situation of American religion than it has to do with some intrinsic essence of Christianity.

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has expressed the notion, common among liberal Protestants, that he approaches the Divine through the Christian tradition, but Christianity has no monopoly on Truth. In his perspective, the Bible is not the infallible word of God. Instead, the Bible is a recording of how his ancestors approached and thought about God. If the Bible indicates that homosexuality is a sin, this is a reflection of the imperfect knowledge of the Biblical authors and not a reflection of Divine Reality.

Nonetheless. the Bible has been an integral part of Christian life and performs a variety of functions. The Bible is an object used in a variety of ritual and devotional contexts in diverse communities self-identifying as Christian. Diverse communities have socially constructed diverse Bibles not present in the churches, libraries, hotel rooms, homes, book stores, or other spaces where we find physical Bibles. Instead, socially constructed Bibles exist no where other than the human imagination.

It should not trouble atheists to learn that Christians believe in a non-existent book any more so than it troubles atheists to learn that Christians believe in God, the virgin birth, miracles, or any number of other incredible claims that atheists reject. We can add to that list of false Christian doctrines the statement that there exists a book having a particular content, that this book has central importance in Christian practice, and that this book is the one seen in churches, libraries, hotel rooms, homes, and book stores. We can say that there is a mystification and a mythologization of the physical Bible which produces various mythical Bibles.

As an example, consider the doctrine of creation ex nihilo: God created the cosmos out of nothing. Not only do most contemporary Christian denominations believe in creation ex nihilo, they believe that Genesis chapter 1 describes creation ex nihilo. Nonetheless, creation ex nihilo is absent from the Bible and contradicted by Genesis 1. Genesis 1 parallels the Babylonian creation story found in the Enuma Elish: God creates the cosmos by parting the pre-existing primordial waters. No where is it explained where these waters originate. Yet we do not say that Christians who accept creation ex nihilo are bad Christians.

It cannot be said that this is a problem of interpreting Genesis 1. Even if Genesis 1 is not interpreted literally, no where does the Bible mention creation ex nihilo. In fact, although the Condemnation of 1270 banned its consideration, historically, some Catholic theologians argued for the view that the world was co-eternal with God.

That most Christians believe the Bible contains a description of God creating the cosmos out of nothing should not be any more disturbing or shocking to atheists than the discovery that Christians believe a variety of other doctrines which, from an atheistic perspective, are understood as factually incorrect. That there exists a holy book, central to Christian practice, containing passages saying nothing against gay people is just another item of false doctrine to be dismissed with critical thinking.

With this in mind, if someone were to tell us that Christianity is based on the Bible we can rightfully ask them, “which Bible?” Attempting to answer that question, or saying that some forms of Christianity are more legitimate than others because of how they treat the Bible in their community, rapidly devolves into fighting Christian theological battles which, as atheists, should not concern us. We need some other way of thinking about the term ‘Christianity’ which does not involve legitimizing some Christian theological positions over others.

With this in mind, consider the following argument:

  1. Christians believe the Bible is the Word of God.
  2. The Bible contains commands to kill gay people and statements that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.
  3. Therefore, Christians (should) believe that we should kill gay people and that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.

If argument (1)-(3) succeeds, then obviously supporting LGBTQIA people and Christianity are incompatible. One could only do so on pain of hypocrisy. I take it that this is what Muscato means when she states, “People who claim to be Bible-believing Christians and also claim to support marriage equality are hypocrites” (Chris Stedman’s blog, January 13th, 2014).

Nonetheless, based on the preceding discussion concerning the social construction of Bibles, it is clear that we should draw into question premises (1) and (2). This is because the term ‘Bible’, for a community of self-identified Christians, does not refer to the actual Bible. Instead, it refers to the Bible of their collective cultural imagination. At first pass, we might imagine reformulating (1)-(3) to the following:

1′. Christians believe the (non-existent) Bible is the Word of God.

2′. The (existent) Bible contains commands to kill gay people and statements that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.

3′. Therefore, Christians (should) believe that we should kill gay people and that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.

In this reformulation, (3′) does not follow from (1′) and (2′). This is because the term ‘Bible’ does not refer to the same object in (1′) and (2′). And this ignores the fact that whether or not the (non-existent) Bible is the “Word of God”, and what precisely that means, is itself a function of the particular Christian community that one considers. The meaning and relevance of the phrase ‘Word of God’ is another doctrinal claim. Keeping again with the principle that, as atheists, we should avoid legitimizing or siding with any particular Christian theological stance, we should again reformulate (1′):

1″. Some Christians believe their particular (non-existent) Bible is the Word of God by which they mean z, where z is an interpretation of ‘Word of God’.

With this reformulation of (1′), it is extremely difficult to see how one might save the argument. However, I can provide the following positive argument for the view that identifying as Christian and supporting LGBTQIA rights are compatible:

  1. Christian group C believes that the (non-existent) Bible contains passages implying that they should support LGBTQIA rights.
  2. C believes that the (non-existent) Bible has special significance which motivates members of C to action.
  3. If (4) and (5), then members of C will be motivated to support LGBTQIA rights.
  4. Therefore, members of C will be motivated to support LGBTQIA rights (from 4-6 by modus ponens).

Multiple respondents to Muscato’s tweets and blog post remarked that religious LGBTQIA allies do believe themselves to be motivated by their religious commitments and that it is illegitimate for either Muscato or American Atheists to claim that they know the motivations of those allies better than those allies do.

It should not matter that the Bible contained in (4)-(7) is non-existent. As atheists, we believe that most religious motivation has its source in non-existent things. Suppose that Fred states that he killed a gay person because he was commanded to do so by God. It would be odd for Muscato to respond that Fred was not motivated by Fred’s religious beliefs because God does not exist. Instead, Muscato would likely say that Fred was genuinely motivated by his religious convictions concerning a non-existent God. It would be consistent for Muscato to say that others are genuinely motivated by their religious convictions concerning a non-existent book to be LGBTQIA allies.

One might worry that, given the account I provided here, the term ‘Christian’ has lost its meaning. Perhaps there ought to be a minimum number of beliefs that one should hold in order for us to consider them a Christian.

In correspondence, Muscato wrote, “I think all Christians would agree that there is a minimum set of beliefs you must hold to be Christian, e.g. Jesus is the Messiah, souls exist, Jesus has the ability to save your soul, etc. At some point it’s simply not recognizable as Christianity anymore.”

This objection fails for a variety of reasons.

First, this objection assumes the primacy of a certain set of positions that have been debated by Christians over the past 2000 years. For example, not all Christians have believed in the existence of souls or agreed about what souls are. The people who wrote the Bible were not themselves monolithic in their beliefs. Some were polytheists, some monotheists, some accepted Jesus as god, others did not. Why should we expect twenty first century Christians to be monolithic? No one who lived during Christianity’s first three centuries endorsed beliefs or practices identical to twenty first century Christians, who often owe much more to Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or their local pastor than they do to the Bible.

Second, this objection assumes that the only thing which could make something “recognizable as Christianity” is a set of beliefs. Aren’t there symbols, such as the Cross, which are recognizably Christian? Yet symbols are not identical with beliefs nor are the people who wear those symbols uniform in their understanding of what the symbols represent.

In addition to symbols, there are rituals and institutions which we recognize as Christian. As with symbols, rituals and institutions are not identical with beliefs and may embody any number of distinct beliefs for their participants. It would be wrong to say that Don Cuppitt is not a Christian because he does not believe in the existence of God. Cuppitt was the founder of a major Anglican movement — theological non-realism — which incorporates the stance that God does not exist. That there are Christian theological stances in which God is understood as non-existent is a testament to the diversity of Christendom.

Third, this objection seems to assume a simplistic view of semantics on which words have meaning only if we can list out some set of characteristics in virtue of which the word could be said to properly apply. That is, unless a Christian is someone who believes that “Jesus is the Messiah, souls exist, Jesus has the ability to save your soul”, and so on, the word loses its meaning altogether. I do not think that this is the way we should think about the word ‘Christian’.

In contrast, consider the word ‘game’. The word ‘game’ seems to be a perfectly sensible word and I am reasonably sure that I know how to use ‘game’ in any number of meaningful and substantive sentences. Nonetheless, I do not know of a characteristic that all games have in common. Soccer, chess, and solitaire are very different from each other. They involve different numbers of players, different sorts of objects, different histories, and the experience of playing each is diverse. Yet given any particular game, I can find other examples of games that it resembles. Solitaire resembles some other card games. Chess resembles checkers. And soccer resembles some other sports. We say that all games bear a family resemblance to other games, even though there is no one characteristic that all games have in common. Likewise, the inability to provide some characteristic that all Christians have in common does not render the term ‘Christianity’ meaningless. Instead, we can say that the beliefs and practices of any given Christian bear a family resemblance to those of other Christians, even if we cannot pin down one thing that all Christians share.

To define ‘Christianity’, I’d suggest performing an empirical investigation of those things which have been identified as “Christian” and determining from that investigation what might be useful. Importantly, we should put aside what Christian communities state, by virtue of doctrine, is either Christian or non-Christian and focus on what the empirical investigation tells us. We should keep in mind the fact that we have been encultured — largely by a traditional Protestant hegemony — to think of religion in terms of discrete doctrinal statements and not in terms of practice, rituals, or other elements of praxis, or indeed the broad array of sociological, anthropological, political, economic, and other factors that dictate much of what is recognizably Christian. A respectable definition of Christianity should not be the mere product of a Protestant hegemony nor should it merely serve anti-religious ideological purposes.

A second objection might come from atheists who argue that those Christians who endorse LGBTQIA allyship have a hybrid secular/Christian view. Perhaps they argue that, in so far as some Christians support marriage equality, they could not have arrived at their support for marriage equality from the Bible. Their endorsement of marriage equality could only have come from secular influences and it has only been in virtue of the rejection of Biblical principles that they can support LGBTQIA people, or so the argument goes.

There is a kernel of truth in this objection. It was the secular forces of modernity which have brought about an increasing acceptance of LGBTQIA people. It is a matter of historical fact that much of the hatred towards LGBTQIA people, and a variety of other troubling stances concerning sexuality and gender, originated in Christian doctrines, though certainly not all. Note that I am acknowledging only that Christian doctrines have been, in some times and places, legitimators of injustice and not claiming that all anti-LGBTQIA prejudices originated in Christian doctrines. I do not deny this, nor do I deny that atheists can be powerful allies for LGBTQIA people.

Nonetheless, Christianity, like all religions, is a human product shaped by human concerns. While present forms of Christianity may incorporate various bits from the proximate culture, it has never been the case that Christian doctrines had their origins somewhere else. After all, do atheists who believe Christianity to have some doctrinal essence think that those doctrines were handed to humanity from God? That some present forms of Christianity socially construct Bibles reflecting the progressive turn towards the acceptance of LGBTQIA people is more in line with Christian history than contrary to it.

It was brought to my attention, while preparing this talk, that historian John Boswell published a book, shortly before his death in 1994, arguing that the pre-modern Christian church solemnized same-sex unions for a thousand years. Boswell’s conclusions remain controversial among historians and I have not evaluated his claims myself, but it is an intriguing possibility. If he was right, the traditional Christian stance has been far from uniform in its opposition to gay marriage.

I’ve gone through a lot of material in today’s talk. I want to leave you with three central points:

  1. As atheists, we believe that most Christian doctrines are false. Therefore, whether or not a doctrine is true should not determine, from our perspective, whether or not it is Christian. As an example, if Christians declare that the Bible is LGBTQIA inclusive when it is not, this does not mean that they have somehow failed to be properly Christian.
  2. As atheists, we do not believe that religious doctrines ever come from other-worldly sources; instead, we believe that religious doctrines come from this-worldly sources. Therefore, it is illegitimate to say that Christians stop being Christians when their doctrines are influenced by secular politics. Religions can be vehicles for progressive social change and liberation just as they can codify  prejudices and legitimate oppressive institutions.
  3. To say that a literal and infallible interpretation of the Bible is central to Christianity ignores the diversity of Christiandem. There is no reason why we should let American fundamentalists define ‘Christianity’.

The atheist movement has a choice. We can either chose to endorse progressive causes or not. We can either promote LGBTQIA tolerance for everyone  — regardless of their religious affiliations — or not. We can either put aside questions of God’s existence, at least in our political allegiances, and aim to remake the world for the better or not. Although I have not answered ethical questions in this talk, what I can say is that those atheists who claim that there is an incompatibility between Christianity and LGBTQIA allyhood are mistaken.

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