Lying the Good Lie

I’m bending the rules here. This blog is ostensibly about the Bible from an atheist’s perspective. But this post isn’t about the Bible. Hey it’s my blog and I guess I can break my non-existent rules.

This post is about an article from this weeks The New York Times Magazine (the sunday glossy with the alienating ads for luxury apartments), an infuriating piece titled “Living the Good Lie“, from Mimi Swartz. It regards a psychotherapist named Denis Flanigan who has come up with a solution for helping devout gay people find balance when their sexual attraction conflicts with their faith.

A fair question. Who won’t admit that there is often a profound conflict between personal faith and sexual desire? What does one do, if one is a friend of both Jesus and Dorothy?

Unfortunately his answer, in so many words, is: choose Jesus.

My response, in so many Japanese emoticons: o_O

Yeah, this article pushed my buttons. Because fun fact: religion’s intransigence in regards to teh gay is one of the major reasons I am anti-theist. No, not why I’m an atheist. (I’m an atheist because I was never indoctrinated in religion.) It is why I’m an anti-theist. A Gnu Atheist. It is why religion pisses me right off. And this article epitomizes the reason I do not think it proper to hand out respect to religious beliefs. Even the nice ones! Because it’s the very concept of “respecting religious beliefs” that is causing problems here.

Oh I should probably mention at this point that I am queer. (Bi, to be semi-precise.) Luckily, I live in one of the most secular states in this godly country. And like I said, I was never religious. So no, I have no idea what it’s like to be religious and gay and surrounded by homophobes. I’m living the secular dream. Other’s aren’t so lucky. How should they cope?

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Surprisingly, Flanigan, the psychotherapist at the heart of the article, is himself gay and atheist. (Faitheist, as you’ll see.) Me and him aren’t really on the same page. This is him on the dilemma between faith and sexuality:

Christians of the kind who earnestly believed that the Bible deplored homosexuality were particularly troubled as they tried to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. The more Flanigan studied this conundrum, the more he came to see it as intractable. Some gay evangelicals truly believe that to follow their sexual orientation means abandonment by a church that provides them with emotional and social sustenance — not to mention eternal damnation.

Well, an answer to this “intractable” conundrum came to me immediately: find another source of emotional and social sustenance. Why not- at the very least- a less hateful church?

Nonreligious gays thought the conflicted should just walk away from churches that won’t accept homosexuals as they are. “Which trumps which?” Flanigan asked himself. “Religion or sexual orientation?”

As a nonreligious gay, the author read my mind pretty well. Walk the fuck away!

The question of “which trumps which” is revisited when Flanigan describes one of his first clients:

Stricken, Flanigan brooded for months over what he might have done differently. He felt plagued by a professional contradiction: “Psychological ethics say that we’re supposed to support religious beliefs and support sexual orientation,” Flanigan told me. “But there was nothing I knew of that says what to do when they conflict.” As far as he could tell, the only choice those people had was to give up one or the other.

I totally agree. Give up one or the other. Wonder which one I’m in favor of losing? It’s probably not your innate and immutable sexual orientation. Because that would be insane! Why don’t we change the variable that is pure vile superstition?

This is my really problem with the article. Throughout, there is a standing assumption that these people’s religious beliefs are sacrosanct- no matter how obviously hateful and self-destructive they are. But wait: the belief that one will burn in hell for all eternity because one acts on a natural urge to have hot sexxy sex with someone of the same gender… that ain’t okay! Dare I say that? It’s fucking insane. Why is this described as equally valid an alternative to simply accepting your natural sexual orientation?

There is an obvious third option, and the article downplays it: Finding a kinder religion. Why isn’t Flanigan telling his clients to seek out a less batshit-insane source of “emotional and social sustenance”? That’s actually the standard progressive religious line. And I don’t like it much; just because a religion is nicer doesn’t make it more true. But in the interest of harm reduction, I think finding a less homophobic faith would be a good alternative that suppressing natural desire.

Apparently, that’s not an option. A person’s religious views are sacrosanct. It’s very rude to question them. Tormented by fear of hell because you happen to like the boys? I respect your faith! Maybe you should try… self-repression?

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The article goes on to describe a rather creepy therapy developed by two fantastically-named evangelicals (Yarhouse and Throckmorton) who started in the ex-gay “conversion therapy” movement, but kind of broke from it. Kind of.

“Many theorists in the gay-affirming world have taken a view that religion is a changeable aspect of personality,” Throckmorton said. “But people don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’ll be a Baptist instead of a Buddhist.’ Religion is the way the world makes sense to them, and for them that seems like a pretty stable attribute.”

I will admit that one can not “choose” their religion like choosing a hat. You can’t choose what you believe, and theists really believe what they believe. That’s fine. But ask why they believe what they believe. It’s probably not for great reasons! And stubborn it might be, but religious faith is a sure deal more malleable than sexual orientation. It’s also (minor point here) totally false. Those facts should be factored into the equation!

So Flanigan buys into their kooky semi-conversion therapy, but we finally get a lone voice of reason in one Wayne Besen:

Yarhouse and Throckmorton came up with what they called sexual-identity therapy (SIT). At first, Yarhouse told me, many left-leaning therapists saw SIT as a trick — conversion therapy by another name, and many remain skeptical: Wayne Besen, the founder of Truth Wins Out, an organization devoted to debunking the ex-gay ministry, told me that though he respects Throckmorton, he still believes that SIT is just another way of encouraging repression. “I think Throckmorton means well and really wants to help people reconcile their faith and sexuality,” Besen said. “However, the more appropriate way is for people to find a more moderate religion that doesn’t force them to live at cross purposes with their sexual health.”

Find a more moderate religion? I spy a modicum of sense!

Yet the details of SIT are pretty depressing (again, they read my mind: I’m skeptical.) Basically, it’s:

1. It’s okay to be gay.
2. Don’t you dare actually do anything gay.

Which is pretty much just ex-gay therapy, minus the bullshit about actually changing orientation. Instead, it’s just… pure repression. Ugh on a bug.

Here is Rob, victim to this bullshit:

 “My faith was very important to me,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to be alone all my life, and I wanted to be married and share that kind of life with someone else in the context of my Christian faith.” He never considered having a male partner or attending a more liberal church, because neither conformed to his religious beliefs. “I can’t pursue being a follower of Jesus and picking and choosing from what it is in Scripture that I want to follow,” he told me. For him, there is only one way to read the Bible. He said he believed that his attractions to men were “the way Satan wants to tempt me for that sin” of homosexuality.

And, scream.

Yes, Rob has a disease. A terrible urge he should repress. It’s called religious faith.

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Then the article really pisses me off. The paragraph starts with this:

Many people who are openly gay or straight and secular can’t grasp how desperately evangelicals do not want to be gay or the lengths to which they will go to try to change.

What exactly am I failing to grasp? I totally understand that coming out is difficult in an evangelical setting. Which is why you should leave the evangelical setting.

Following the lead sentence, we are told about Jim Swilley, an evangelical preacher who came out to his congregation during a sermon. It didn’t go well. (Damn.) I honestly don’t understand how this relates to the quote above. Is Swilley a case study in evangelicals “not wanting to be gay” or trying to change? No. It’s a case study in homophobic congregations steeped in homophobia being homophobic. It’s about religion making it unduly difficult to be gay.

These hateful communities are really the crux of the issue, the entire source of the “tension” at the heart of this stupid magazine article. These troubled gay men and women seeking help do not have a problem reconciling two immutable self-realities. They are simply surrounded by ugly people with ugly ideas. Nowhere in the article is the idea raised that these religious communities could actually be (get this!) hateful bastards, or wrong. Who is is at fault here, Jim Swilley, or his homophobic congregation?

Read the article to the end if you want to see the American Psychiatric Association declare its opposition to “conversion therapy” and Yarhouse and Throckmorton (I love those names!) spin their bullshit.

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I believe the topic of homosexuality is where religion is really shown to be its most transparently dangerous, regressive and irrelevant. It’s quite cut and dry. Many issues have a moral spectrum and you can find sound arguments on both sides. Not here. There is simply no rational argument against same-sex love, marriage, sex, parenting, etc. Nontheists innately understand this. The atheist community has a lot of diversity (you know the bit about herding cats) but I have yet to meet a homophobic atheist. I’m sure there are some straight atheist males who are grossed out at the very idea of man-on-man lovin’. But they are rational enough to see that that isn’t actually an argument against it.

No, it takes religion to hate gay people. It takes an echo-chamber of patriarchal squeamishness; a bigot’s bully pulpit; and a few lines in an old book given convenient relevance. Whilst rational people have accepted teh gay as natural human variation, religion is hard at work keeping homophobia alive.

So that’s why I’m anti-religion, and that is why this article pissed me off. It is so blindly pro-faith. It treats evangelical belief- crazy, self-hating, false belief- as fine, dandy and absolutely beyond question or reproach.

That is the status quo we need to break. I’m sick of this shit, and I am questioning, and reproaching. These religious beliefs are nonsense. These religious beliefs are harmful. Nobody should be told they are going to hell for being gay; not the least because it’s not true. 

When faith and sexuality conflict, it is faith, absolutely, that should give ground. Hell, when wanting-to-sleep-in-on-Sunday and faith conflict, I side with sleeping-in-on-Sunday. Faith shouldn’t trump anything. Faith is bullshit, and it needs be treated as such. It must be stripped it of its power.

In reality, the faith/sexuality tension is nothing but an artefact of our repressive religious culture. Ultimately, we will solve the problem by fixing the culture. Until then, what can we do for gay theists? Tell them to repress themselves? Fuck no. Tell them to change cultures. Yes, their church provides “emotional and social sustenance.” But so does any culture or community. Including secular culture and the atheist community. Or hell, Unitarian Universalists. Anywhere you’re not laden with guilt for being human is a fine choice.

Asking gay theists to repress themselves is unconscionable, and I am appalled the New York Times produced such a one-sided article advocating that religion should trump humanity.

Fuck religion.

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4 Responses to Lying the Good Lie

  1. Chas Stewart says:

    Thank you for this Abbie. It’s outstanding, especially because you used so many curse words.

    • Abbie says:

      Thank you! I wrote it mostly from blind rage and although I edited/finished it the next morning with a slightly cooler head, I’ve been worried it made absolutely no sense and/or was a terrible mistake.

  2. A lot of what you write I agree with. When I come across clients for home I can lead toward the better and (to me) healthier option of finding a more gay-friendly religious tradition, that is what I pursue with the client. That is a much better option than helping the client stay in the closet. I think the article actually presents that, though. I view religion as a choice, and sexuality as not a choice. I have seen religion damage a lot of clients–GLBT and not.

    BUT the clients referred to in the article (a rather small portion of whom I have seen and counseled), experience their SPECIFIC religious doctrine as part of the essence, at the core of their being, and personhood among people. For these people, their religion has been (feels) as fundamental to them as your or my sexuality is to us. To lead these particular people astray from the source of support in their lives and their self-concept could lead to decompensation (an acute exacerbation or worsening of a clinical condition). Religion–as much as it might be bunk to you and me (and ,yeah, I see myself as more atheistic than anti-theistic admittedly)–has been shown empirically to promote good mental health, quality of life, and longevity. A lot of mental health has been based on a little deluded optimism—a purely realistic view of the word has been shown to not be so healthy. As a therapist, it could be unethical for me to dissuade people from their religion.

    I have no illusion that the people referred to in the article will live sincerely happy or satisfying lives. I don’t think any of us suggested that. What I do hope for for these clients is that they will gain some peace or reduction in tension. Maybe that will keep them alive long enough to become flexible in their religious beliefs (which they experience as knowledge) and be able to genuinely incorporate their sexuality into their lives healthily.

    From a personal stand point I would like it if every GLBT person rejected the forces that held them back—whether it be family, religion, or corporatism/capitalism—and came out and lived authentically. Professionally I recognize that this may be too radical of a change for some people to make.

    • Abbie says:

      Thank you for such a civil reply to my un-researched angry screed.

      Without having any actual knowledge of the cases, besides the barest sketch in the article, I was really in no place to judge any professional decisions. They way I read the article made it seem that self-repression was the standard go-to solution for any gay evangelical. Apparently that’s not at all the case, and I’m sorry for generalizing.

      I have no illusion that the people referred to in the article will live sincerely happy or satisfying lives. I don’t think any of us suggested that. What I do hope for for these clients is that they will gain some peace or reduction in tension. Maybe that will keep them alive long enough to become flexible in their religious beliefs

      This is the crucial bit that really makes me kick myself. Thank you for taking the time to expound on it, I really had not thought about it on the level of a person struggling to make it from one day to the next. Leaving everything you know and seeking out a new support network would be difficult in the best of circumstances. Obviously it’s not an easy pat solution.

      I can see how staying in the religious support network, warts and all, could be the lesser of two evils. I saw it as caving in and giving undue respect to their silly religious beliefs, but I guess it’s actually respecting the facts of the situation.

      I still think SIT sounds quite horrible, but I’m assuming its a blanket remedy, tailored to keep gays closeted. If pseudo-evangelicals are using it that way, boo, but I won’t make any more grand assumptions.

      The one place I disagree with you is on religion being beneficial: I think it is more likely that religious community is empirically beneficial, and that there is nothing to it that can’t be replicated secularly. But I have to admit, that wouldn’t solve the issue. A closeted theist seems much more likely to move “down the ladder” to a more liberal church than take a jump into a secular community.

      Guess there are no easy answers. I had just been thinking on a societal level. Ultimately, the issue is the fault of homophobic religions, and the only way to fix it is to cut the problem off at the source. What to do until my atheistic utopia is achieved- well, I’m clueless.

      I didn’t deserve such a thoughtful reply, I honestly thank you for it.

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