July 15, 2013
This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared on PositiveLite.com, Canada's Online HIV Magazine.
"GOD: The belief that there was nothing and then suddenly god appeared from out of nowhere and made everything after that ... and hates gays!
Makes perfect sense!"
My mother always said: "Never, ever talk about politics, sex and religion with friends; it will only get you into trouble!" Well, I guess the sex boat has long-sailed and we can't talk about HIV without talking politics, so that just leaves religion. Dangerous waters maybe and some people may never read anything I write again after reading this but I've grown to believe that sex and politics are at the heart of religious attitudes when it comes to HIV and LGBT people and always have been, so how can we avoid discussing it?
At this point, I have to disclaim and set out the foundation behind this article. To avoid having to say after every sentence that I truly believe that people are entitled to believe; to have faith and to abide by the rules of that faith, I'm saying it now, so that there'll be no misunderstanding. People have every right to have a faith or a religion, and to worship a God but with my personal proviso that they don't push it on me and don't try to judge me by their own religious ethics. Like liberals used to say about us in a half-assed attempt to be accepting: let them do it "in the privacy of their own heads, homes and churches." However, watching governments make anti-social decisions for fear of a religious backlash; or priests and pastors telling us to repent or go to Hell; or bigots of every nationality using the tenets of Christianity, Islam, Fascism, Communism or Capitalism to back up their hatred of us; no, I don't have to put up with that anymore and I'm not going to.
I personally lost religion on June 9, 1972, the day after South Vietnamese planes dropped a napalm bomb on Trang Bang in Vietnam. The world famous press photo image of a naked little girl and her friends running crying down a road with the dogs of war behind her, ruined religion for me. It was a mistaken raid; the planes weren't acting on orders from a religious group and weren't aimed specifically at a religious movement (unless you can call Communism a religion) but the point is that any God and all gods let it happen.
From the Vietnam War onwards, we were confronted by instant images of armed conflict in our living rooms every day. We saw death and destruction and witnessed what man was capable of doing to other men, women and children. Today, we're almost immune to real-life horror. We've seen the faces of dead children in the famine regions of Africa; we've watched as lines of men and boys lined up to be executed in the Balkans and we can count the dead bodies on the streets of Syria, and we barely bat an eyelid anymore.
My point is that God has always let it happen, without intervention. According to fundamentalists, AIDS is god's wrath on homosexuals so we deserve to die and some Christians, Muslims and others are still prepared to kill us with impunity in the name of their god. So God will apparently intervene and give his blessing to the battle to eradicate homosexuality but he won't intervene when it comes to the torture and deaths of innocent men, women and children of all faiths in wars!
Of course, religious leaders across the world will claim that God gave man free will and that's why man's inhumanity to man dominates our news reports. That's always been the excuse and was invented in the early days of most religions to explain why god is love but won't stop the killing. In that way, the churches could exert authority, make laws in his name and let God off the hook when people saw murder as being somewhat unfair. Yet certain groups, mainly minorities like us, can be hounded to Hell because conveniently God and his assumed instructions in the Bible or the Quran say so.
Of course, the hypocrisy of it all became clear to me during the worst years of the AIDS crisis, when images of the dead and the dying and the suffering were burned onto my retinas and won't go away. With the world baying for our exclusion, isolation and even elimination and the rabid fundamentalists of all faiths preaching the vengeance of God and basically telling us we only have ourselves to blame, I had my own epiphany and concluded there is no God, there are only scheming, manipulative men who will use fantasy to frighten people into hatred and intolerance.
Gods were invented to explain the inexplicable. When Neanderthal people looked up at the night sky and saw blankets of dazzling stars above their heads they had no means of rationalizing what they were seeing. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, pestilence and all manner of other terrifying natural disasters were completely unpredictable and destructive and ancient man just couldn't see why. In order to cope with it all, they had to give reason to the chaos, in terms they could understand and maybe accept.
In that way, the first supernatural, or other-worldly beings were created to fill in the gaps and provide some sort of logic to the illogical. It happened in every society across the planet and mythologies grew up to frame daily life and make some sense of it all. Of course it was only a matter of time (given man's proclivity for domination and rule) before the strongest religions tried to eliminate the weakest and impose their own values on others.
Gradually, the main religions we know today came to prominence, usually achieved by subjugation and killing. If you didn't believe in our gods, you were heretics and deserved to die. Did any of those gods step in and stop the inherent unfairness of all that? Never, because man had been given a free hand.
In the case of Christianity, one of many so-called prophets caught the public's imagination and the stories around his birth, life and death became the basis of the most popular religion the world has ever seen. The fact that his teachings bore little relation to the manner in which religion in his name was imposed on others seems to have been overlooked.
What would have happened if the Romans had succeeded in eliminating Christianity? They came within a whisker of doing exactly that. Would we still be worshipping Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto (god of death, not the planet or the dog!) today? The popularity of religions were accidents in history, determined by power struggles and conquest and each religion justified its actions by claiming to be the one true faith. The main religions fought brutal wars against each other and still do and the struggle for dominance goes on.
So why did people put up with it all? Let's take the case of Christianity. The Catholic church of Rome established its power base during the centuries when European man was at a very low ebb. Later, other branches of Christianity broke away but always accompanied by vicious struggle, death and destruction. The point was that in the so-called Dark Ages, (after the fall of the Roman Empire and the decline of pagan religions like the Norse (Viking) and Germanic gods), a vacuum appeared which Christianity was perfectly placed to fill. Life in those centuries was short and often brutal. Wars raged across the continent, starvation and subsistence living was normal and various plague outbreaks decimated European populations. Life was unbelievably tough and often terrifying. It was into this sort of social anarchy that the Church brought both order and fear. Its Popes were often power-hungry politicians with few moral scruples and the Vatican and Rome was a political super-state determined to dominate the world.
The Catholic Church sent out its priests to literally put the fear of God into the people. Heretics were tortured and burned and the KGB, Stasi and FBI could learn nothing from the Inquisition, who imposed the word of God and the church's rules for living with brutal efficiency. It was a win/win situation for the church. Threats of eternal hellfire and being torn to pieces by demons and the Devil were enough to intimidate an already terrified people. Life was hard enough but if you weren't going to get respite in the afterlife, it wasn't worth living at all. Worshipping God according to the rules of the church became a no-brainer -- the alternative was everlasting damnation.
If you didn't follow the rules you knew where you would end up, either in this life or the next but as with all human organizations, corruption ensured you could buy your way out of trouble by purchasing Indulgences from the ever-present priests and monks. Guilt and fear became the currency of the church's teachings and it was exploited for power.
By the time the age of enlightenment arrived, the church, although by now somewhat more fragmented, was so entrenched in people's lives that any ideas that maybe all the mumbo-jumbo was actually little more than fairy tales, was regarded (and still is) with horror. Furthermore, the 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of the missionary movement and the urge to convert all other believers to Christianity. Nations warred with nations; papists warred with Protestants and meanwhile the native peoples were subjugated, robbed and converted, all in the name of God and colonization. That's the reason why Christianity is such a widespread religion across the world; not because it's the one true faith but because it was imposed on the weak by the strong. This is not damning Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. They've all done it at various stages in their history and the rise of Islam was also founded on war and conquest and despite having many basic concepts in common, it could be argued that the most important struggle of the 21st century is that between Islam and Christianity -- it's been that way since the Crusades.
So that brings us to the present day. Personally, I cannot understand why any LGBT person can be a person of faith, if that faith condemns him or her for even existing. But I have to accept that many LGBT people are religious and are sincere in their beliefs. I hope that's not because of fear of offending God, priest or family, or fear of not going to heaven. I am, however, perfectly willing to believe that LGBT people are religious because they sincerely believe in the inherent and theoretical tenets of love, goodness and doing unto others as you would be done by.
I was brought up in the 50's and went to church, joined the choir, was confirmed etc., and I did all that because my parents thought it was what you had to do even though they rarely showed their faces in church themselves. To be fair, when I started questioning, they told me that I should wait and make up my own mind when the time was right.
I wasn't Catholic but even in the 21st century, I know Catholic LGBT men and women who are still racked with guilt and fearful of consequences if confession isn't adhered to, or their sexual behavior disregards the norm. Is that what religion is meant to be; adherence based on guilt and fear? For many gay people, that's exactly what it is.
Then we have the added complication of being HIV positive. How has religion reacted to the virus?
Well, condemning condom use as a preventative measure for a start. How can the Catholic Church sentence so many adults and unborn children to death, or a life with disease because their parents aren't allowed to wear condoms!
Thanks in part to evangelist extremists in Africa, we're seeing the modern phenomenon of African countries imposing draconian laws in an attempt to stamp out homosexuality, all in the name of Christianity.
Modern day Islam also takes a dim view of homosexuality and certainly HIV associated with homosexuality. LGBT men and women are being killed as we speak in secret in Islamic states, again in the name of Allah. HIV in Islam is seen through the so-called "prism of sin" (along with prostitution and promiscuity) and HIV is by definition the result of sinful behavior, with death or life imprisonment as an accepted punishment.
Judaism takes a more pragmatic view in general but orthodox Judaism sees homosexuality, and as a result HIV, as a consequence of immoral behavior. However, there is an important distinction in that HIV is not seen as a punishment from God but a consequence of immorality. In the case of HIV, condoms are approved but being HIV+ is still regarded as a disgrace. Luckily, the basic tenet of Judaism is caring for the sick and is seen as an obligation.
Buddhism may be the most pragmatic religion when it comes to HIV. In Thailand, some Buddhist monks actively encourage the use of condoms for HIV prevention. As part of an enlightened campaign by Mechai Viravaidya, Buddhist monks have offered condom blessings for couples. Similarly, Buddhism provides an enlightened view of homosexuality in general. Several Buddhist scriptures tell stories of same sex relationships, even between monks but generally, it is frowned on if openly displayed within the priesthood itself. For lay people, Buddhism condemns "sexual misconduct" but leaves any definition wide open. Again, LGBT people may find life more comfortable under Buddhism than in most other religions.
Hinduism is much more complex, due to the various types of Hinduism under the general umbrella. Furthermore, religious texts don't specifically mention homosexuality and therefore fail to give guidelines. It's certainly a controversial issue in modern Hindu lands, the results of which remain to be seen. As far as HIV is concerned, the issue is also very complex according to which branch of Hinduism you follow. Compassion is fundamental in all forms of Hinduism but HIV can still carry a stigma, especially in rural areas and within families. LGBT issues have certainly found a new voice in modern India and Hindu south-east Asia and there are signs that much wider acceptance is on the way. Also thanks to the fact that HIV is a largely heterosexual problem, attitudes also become more pragmatic as time goes on. The heterosexual majority in African HIV cases should also moderate attitudes to LGBT-related HIV but unfortunately evangelist Christianity is far less tolerant than its Hindu or Buddhist counterparts.
It could be argued, then, that the two most outspoken opponents of HIV inside LGBT circles are Christianity and Islam. Both religions influence and are influenced by politics and thus the people in power both in the state and the religious hierarchy have a direct role to play in attitudes to both LGBT and HIV issues. Islam and the fundamentalist Sharia laws speak for themselves regarding homosexuality and HIV as a result of homosexuality. The attitude is consistent and unrelenting and we have to hope that moderate and pragmatic Muslims will gain the decisive voice in the future.
The last U.S. election was fought by one side, along not so subtle Christian lines based on perceived norms and values, with the emphasis on the family underpinning society. That sort of ideology is diametrically opposed to tolerance of gay rights and sympathy for people living with HIV. We've all heard the crackpot Republicans who use the debating arena and the media as forums for their hate-filled rhetoric and it would be easy to write them off as extremists who shouldn't be taken seriously. But there are millions of decent, normal Americans who believe that we have sinned against God and that we deserve everything that's thrown at us. They believe that we are in some way destroying society by subverting God's laws, especially regarding family and marriage and the political and religious leaders are feeding those beliefs with carefully selected sound bites stemming from Christian texts. How often is the Bible quoted as being proof that being gay is sinful and that HIV is a natural consequence? What's worrying is that these far right movements are growing rather than diminishing and America seems to split right down the middle both politically and socially. For the moment, LGBT Americans have a sympathetic president but a divided law-making system: who knows what the future will bring? At least enlightened thinkers at the top can put things in perspective. As ex-president Jimmy Carter said:
"Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things -- he never said that gay people should be condemned. I personally think it is very fine for gay people to be married in civil ceremonies."
There may be people who feel personally attacked by things I've said but this article is not aimed at individuals; it's just a reflection of my own personal opinions, nothing more. I firmly believe that history shows us why people found religion or faith necessary as a support in difficult times but history also demonstrates that religion is more often than not imposed on people and frequently with undue force. It's been going on for thousands of years and it's still going on today.
Show me a war in the last thousand years and I'll almost guarantee you that religion lies at the base of it. It has been used as an excuse for some of the most horrific massacres of innocents in history, and in conflict areas across the globe in 2013, nothing has changed.
So why do people still cling on to it as a foundation for their beliefs and values? I don't know; maybe the alternative is a vacuum and nature abhors a vacuum. It has been tried in the recent past, with Communism but that failed because human nature overcame the theory. Men just aren't born equal and the strongest will always rise to the top, which is why LGBT people living with HIV should always be open-minded and alert to societal trends. God won't save us if it all goes politically wrong ... he doesn't intervene remember!
I'm sure that many will say that I've approached this much too simplistically but in the end, we can only be responsible for what we believe as individuals and in this case, I have to stand by mine. My own personal view, therefore, is that religion can be equated to myths, legends and fairy tales: I don't believe in them either but admit they are all darned good stories bearing moral messages.
I'm a gay man living with HIV and looking back, religion has let people like me down and continues to do so, preferring persecution to reconciliation and damnation to compassion. That sort of belief system is just not for me.
Read Dave's blog, HIV, Neuropathy and More: Avoiding Becoming a Nervous Wreck.