19 February 2012

The Problem of God Symposium - LGBTQ Issue Session

Yesterday I went to two sessions of "The Problem of God" symposium. This event was put on by a number of Christian organizations on campus. Some of their reputations (like Campus Crusade for Christ and Chi Alpha) I am sure will give you a hint of what kind of symposium this was. That can be further confirmed by the fact that campus ministries representing denominations such as the Methodists and Episcopalians were not cosponsoring the conference (though an Episcopalian representative was the sole pro-LGBTQ person on the panel during one of the events). This post is going to focus on the first session that I attended.

The first session I went to was "The Problem of the Christian Treatment of Homosexuality," which really could have been renamed, "Why we don't like Gay people with one panel member that disagrees with us." Of course using the word homosexuality in the title gives away the leaning of the event (note I will be substituting homosexuality and the gay lifestyle with more accurate and accepted terms).

The main speaker discussed what he saw as the problems from the Christian side of this argument and then the problems from the LGBTQ side of the argument. I caught him saying 3 problems from the Christian side. Firstly, we have to define what a Christian is. This is pretty dangerous to start with. He presented it in the light of "Christianity isn't hateful and if it is being hateful it isn't Christianity." I will let this one slide, but if anybody would like I would be happy to explain self-identification to them. The second was the assumption that being Gay or Lesbian is a choice. This point was obvious. It has long been established that LGBTQ individuals did not exactly choose to be LGBTQ, and that quite a number of factors are at work here. The third was the assumption that being LGBTQ is the worst possible sin. This got the ramble about how all sins are equal and we are all sinners. There was also this depressing thought woven in that meaning in life can only come from Jesus. I just want to take a moment to point out that I have a huge problem with this statement (besides just the fact that I am not Christian). Apparently, according to this line of thinking, meaning in life coming from love, family, philanthropy, advancing human society, the pursuit of knowledge, et cetera, are all wrong without divinity. That hits me as being incredibly bleak. Anyway, I will get back on point.

He then presented his view of the problems from the Queer side. This discussion showed me why so many people have such extreme misunderstandings. This wasn't even slanting of facts, this was the blatant disregard of the facts. The first problem he noted I can understand. He takes a problem with the term homophobic. I can understand, and I will actually try to fix this one. My perspective - we should call these groups out on what they are actually being which is heterosexist. Homophobia is the fear of Gay and Lesbian people, but what we are facing here is the discrimination of LGBTQ people, which is heterosexism. It is essentially the same as saying that they are gynophobic. Churches who don't allow female religious leaders aren't necessarily being gynophobic. They aren't necessarily afraid of women. What they are being is sexist. They don't think women are equal, and that is sexism, not gynophobia. Thus I will agree with him on this point, but not in the way he thinks. Of course he thinks that people aren't being "homophobic" in opposing LGBTQ-rights. So to that I will say, you are right, you aren't being homophobic, you are being heterosexist.

The second point was essentially him trying to refute statistics. I will combine this with his third point of trying to say people aren't born Gay. Of course he fell for the genetics trap here. Being LGBTQ quite possibly isn't genetic. He obviously quoted those studies. Yet he totally left out the studies on hormones in the womb, birth order, et cetera. His use of twin studies yet again revolved solely around pure-genetics thinking, without taking into account environmental factors or epigenetics. There were just lots of obvious blunders that were made here. According to him, many people are Queer because of their relationship with their same-sex parent. This was said repeatedly. I think this aspect is so obviously wrong I don't need to go into explaining why it is a crock. There was also talk of ex-gays. Ex-gay therapy doesn't work. The fact that it doesn't work shouldn't be a surprise, as we have known this for a while. One is disregarding the evidence to say that ex-gay therapy works. There were just lots of the classic anti-intellectualism and distrust of science here that I feared was common in this kind of thought. Just as a note - I go along with the line of thought that people are born with their attractions sort of set (there is a level of fluidity that occurs generally at certain life events which makes sense), likely based on hormone exposure in the womb. The Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Straight/Asexual/et cetera identities are then socially constructed on top of these biological attractions. If this is hard to understand think of gender. People are born male, female, or intersex in terms of physical sex. In the West we have then built two social genders, male and female, on top of these biological differences. Obviously we are working on reconstructing this gender system because it hurts a lot of people, but you get the idea. Anyway, that is off topic, I more or less wanted to point out that there was some clear anti-intellectualism here in the sense that there was a clear distrust of science and statistics.

The fourth "problem" he presented was that the Queer community notes that marriage is a social construct. He tried repeatedly to argue that marriage somehow had universal aspects across culture. This is obviously not true. Marriage, even in the West, has meant a lot of different things. Even in the United States, marriage at one time implied that the woman was the man's property, and not that long ago people with different skin colors could not get married. There are cultures that have had plural marriages including polygamy (one man multiple women), polyandry (one woman multiple men), and polyamory (multiple people). Marriage has been a property exchange, marriage has only been for the wealthy, marriage has included members of the same sex (potentially even in the early Christian church as some have suggested with St. Serguis and St. Bacchus). Marriages have been arranged and thus had nothing to do with love or consent. There are also cultures that have no notion of marriage at all, or have pretty freely open multi-male multi-female groups. Confused paternity exists in some cultures, where a child is viewed as having one mother and multiple fathers. The "it takes a village" model also exists. If we look to our closely related species, we also see incredibly different social structures in bonobos and common chimpanzees. Marriage is clearly a social construct.

After this, a representative of Chi Alpha talked. We yet again had the "I have Gay friends" statement made, and lots of the, "Gays and Lesbians needed a better relationship with their same-sex parent." Lots of talking about how we are all sinners and bad and that whole mess. You get the idea.

Finally, the Episcopalian representative talked. I think he made a good choice, given the climate, of not trying to refute what was said but instead just made the following points. First, bullying is a problem. It is real and extreme. The second is that internalized homophobia can make people do really stupid things. Third, education is an answer. After seeing the kind of misinformation that was spouted at this symposium, this point is clear. There needs to be some serious education. I personally find it sad that the first two speakers at this event gave out so much misinformation. Many of the people attending this symposium trusted those speakers, and those speakers had a responsibility with that level of trust. The last point made was that Anglican Theology is based on a three legged stool. The scripture is not the sole source of knowledge. Christians also need to look to reason (I heard this as science and philosophy), and tradition. For me, personally, I don't get how the fundamentalist/evangelical groups can get away with denying science so heavily. Wouldn't understanding the natural world help you to understand god better? I guess I am not a theist for a reason, but I feel this point should be kind of obvious. I am also not the kind of atheist that thinks that the existence of religion is bad. At one time I did, but if I can be honest the experiences I have had with the Episcopalian church here at Purdue has changed my mind on that subject. Groups that put on events like this symposium, however, are the groups that give people like me such a bad taste in our mouth about religion. While I am not a theist, I wish more people like many of those who attended this seminar would see this point by the Episcopalians that you have to consider reason in addition to the scriptures - that there is more than one way to know god. From my perspective as an atheist, I think theists could learn a lot about their own beliefs from looking at the natural world.

The Q&A session had a few different questions. One that I thought was pretty solid was the question of slavery. Society now understands slavery to be immoral, even though there are teachings concerning slavery in the Bible that don't match with our modern understanding. How is this issue of LGBTQ rights any different? The only argument that was made was a clear slippery slope fallacy. Another question that I liked was asking how the speakers would define a lifestyle. Being LGBTQ is not a lifestyle. I don't even get how this connection is made. If you asked me, my current lifestyle involves going to bed between 11 and midnight. It involves late night walks on the weekends to get food. It involves where I study, when I eat, the fact that I do things like read and follow the news for fun. The fact that I am in a relationship with a man as opposed to a woman is not a lifestyle. The kind of dates we have sure. The fact that we are not an arranged couple sure. The fact that we don't have to undergo a rigid courting system sure. The fact that we are of the same sex, no.

This event was a shocking reminder of the kinds of things people are being taught every day here at Purdue. Many of the people that attended this event sincerely believe that being Queer is wrong. It is because of that thinking that heterosexist bullying is so common in our schools. It is because of that misinformation that our laws do not treat Queer people as equals. It is because of that thinking that so many people have cut their own lives short, or engaged in risky behavior. I want to remind everybody that being LGBTQ is not wrong. There is nothing wrong with a person who is Queer. In order to think that being Queer is wrong one must reject psychology and biology. In order to think being LGBTQ is wrong requires the rejection of the vast diversity of human culture. In order to think being Gay or Lesbian is wrong one must ignore the behavior of our species' close relatives. Being Queer is not wrong. It is not bad.

I want to remind people that there are safe places. The Atheist community is often welcoming of LGBTQ individuals. There are a number of churches (as well as synagogues, mosques, temples, et cetera) that are open and accepting of LGBTQ identities. At Purdue I feel safe in telling people that if they need help they can go to the Society of Nontheists, the Chapel of the Good Shepard (Episcopalians), the Wesleyan Foundation (Methodists), the Unitarian Universalists, and the Pagan Academic Network. These places are open if they need to talk through their sexuality and their religion (or lack thereof). The Queer Student Union (housed in Stewart G20) is also open to talk through problems. Many of the people in CAPS are open to talking. I also encourage people to report incidents of bias and discrimination. At Purdue gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are all protected. In West Lafayette the same three are also protected. In all of Tippecanoe County sexual orientation is protected. People should not have to live in an environment where the fact that they are LGBTQ is held against them. Let's not let the misinformation from events like this go unchecked, and let's not tolerate heterosexism (or any form of prejudice for that matter).


  1. Wish I could improve Purdue, but alas, I ran away for good reasons. Thanks for doing good, Nick!

  2. "Many of the people that attended this event sincerely believe that being Queer is wrong. It is because of that thinking that heterosexist bullying is so common in our schools."
    Is that true? Certainly many people at Purdue think that "being Queer is wrong." But is that why "heterosexist bullying" (probably actually "homophobic" in the case of bullying) is common? I think not! The same people who think "being Queer is wrong" likely think other things are "wrong" - perhaps cheating on exams, but this thought alone does not lead to bullying. In the same way, thinking that "being Queer is wrong" will not lead to bullying on its own. This is some fallacious logic.

    1. The perpetuation of the idea that there is something wrong with a person does lead to bullying. This notion that somehow Queer people are less than, are broken, are doing something wrong just by being Queer leads to people enforcing that idea. That enforcement sometimes manifests itself as organization’s fliers being removed. That enforcement sometimes manifests as a child telling another child they are bad just because of the toys they choose to play with or their dislike of sports. That enforcement sometimes manifests itself as somebody being beaten in schools. That enforcement means people getting kicked out of their homes, harassed by classmates, et cetera.
      The idea that being LGBTQ is wrong has also stopped our schools from doing things to protect their students. It isn’t uncommon to hear people argue against anti-bullying policies due to the “morality” of LGBTQ identity. People sometimes turn a blind eye to this bullying because of their own belief that being LGBTQ is somehow immoral.
      If you think you think there is something that better explains the bullying LGBTQ individuals face other than this nonsensical idea that it is somehow immoral to be Gay, please, let me hear it. I would love to hear it because then maybe we could do something about it.

    2. Look, you said nothing about the person who believes being gay is wrong also thinking that people who are gay are "less than." The two are different. I was only pointing out that your statement in the blog draws an illogical conclusion based on its one premise. There MUST be other factors that pushes people to bully people who are gay. I won't deny that thinking that being gay is wrong is probably one of them. It is a logical necessity that there are other factors.

      I personally think that being gay is wrong. But I'm not going around bullying people or tearing down signs. In fact, I think it's disgusting that the morality of being gay would stop a school from protecting students. Actually, I don't think this happens - which is exactly my point. There are other factors at work. Society should work diligently to identify these other factors without throwing Christians, Muslims or other people who think being gay is sinful into a category that makes their opinions negligible or 'intolerant' (whatever that means in contemporary society).

    3. If you attended the event, I hope you listened when Mark Thomas spoke. I feel he presented this point quite profoundly. I hope next time an issue of LGBTQ equality comes up you will listen to the arguments made by the side that opposes equality.

      In trying to think of a way to connect the two for you, I think a different voice would better express it. In the article at www.religiondispatches.org/archive/sexandgender/3479/why_anti-gay_bullying_is_a_theological_issue/ the point is made in a way I hope you will better understand.

  3. Hi Nicholas,

    Like what you are writing here, but you messed-up on one important issue. If you consult 'homophobia' on Wikipedia, for example, you'll find that the concept is much more complex than how you describe it. When the term was first coined, it was intended to refer to every person's fear of their own internal homosexual desires. Of course English is a living, changing language, and 'homophobia' can mean different things to different people, but defining it as 'a fear of homosexual desire and behavior' would be much more inclusive of the term's history and intent of its users.

    1. If you use that definition, then one can easily argue how the term 'homophbic' applies to these people-- how they articulate fears of their own repressed desires with dire and outlandish warnings that earthquakes, brushfires, and harricanes are God's punishment to Christians for tolerating homosexuality in their midsts.