Violence in America is nothing new, of course, nor is violence aimed specifically at gays and lesbians, but the horrific mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando last week is causing many to realize that a serious cultural reassessment is overdue.
A number of dangerous elements were present in the Orlando attack—homophobia, religious extremism, America’s gun culture, and even the possible psychological self-loathing of the attacker—and most rational observers would agree that these all deserve consideration as we seek to better understand recurring mass shootings. No group or institution should be immune from scrutiny in this process, and in fact some stand out as prime suspects: the gun lobby, indolent lawmakers, and of course the extremist groups and individuals who promote hate and inspire violence.
The Orlando massacre, however, leaves another institution with much explaining to do: traditional religion itself. Not just Islam, and not even just so-called “radical Islam,” but traditional religion as we know it. With dozens of corpses strewn about a gay bar—young lives cut down by an outburst of hate—all avenues that led to this tragedy should be considered, and there is no question that the revelation-based Abrahamic religions have long provided one of the broadest, most heavily traveled arteries for both violence and anti-gay bigotry.
Christianity, Judaism and Islam, even in their most liberal and tolerant forms, suffer from the unfortunate, undeniable fact that their foundational doctrines expressly condone both violence in general and the most virulent anti-gay hatred in particular. Homosexuality is evil, and the penalty is death. Any questions? Thus, it should come as no surprise that conservative and fundamentalist followers of the Abrahamic religions are aggressively anti-gay, for they are simply following doctrine. Frankly, it is the tolerant, liberal followers who must rationalize their acceptance of those whose ways are, as the Bible says, “an abomination.”
Of course, tolerant religionists can and do explain their acceptance of gays, since virtually any viewpoint can be rationalized with scripture if one looks hard enough. Love your neighbor, they say, and don’t judge others. The Bible clearly states that homosexuality is sinful, but we’re all sinners, so we should leave the issue to be reconciled between gays and their (hopefully) loving god.
Looming over all of this rationalization, however, is the fact that contradictory, hateful scripture exists, expressly condemning homosexuality in the harshest of terms, and it is here that we see the utter failure of revelation-based religion in the modern world. Stuck with ancient texts written by men who didn’t know where the sun went at night, the modern follower of any Abrahamic religion is at best a theological contortionist, twisting definitions and interpretations to conform to the moral landscape as he or she believes it should be. Unambiguous biblical condemnation of gays? Embrace it if you’re conservative, dismiss it if you’re liberal.
Tolerant interpretations of theology are preferable in a pluralistic society, of course, but the problem is that not all followers choose such interpretations. Look no further than the rantings of conservative Christian preachers after the Orlando massacre, many of whom celebrated the killing of gays. “The good news is that there’s 50 less pedophiles in the world,” declared pastor Steven Anderson of Arizona. “Because, you know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles.” If you ask how he can spew such hate, you should understand that the Bible tells him so.
Liberal and conservative religionists can debate whose interpretations of scripture are correct, but the problem is that such debates are still occurring in the twenty-first century. The entire exercise is dependent on intelligent men and women accepting the notion of revelation—that is, the idea that ancient men actually received messages from the creator of the universe and transcribed those messages into what is still considered holy scripture today. Even centuries ago, serious thinkers were questioning this concept. “Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1794. “It cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.”
Modern, humanistic ethics allow us to toss aside the concept of revelation and instead view homosexuality—and hopefully all issues—rationally and in context. Same-sex attraction and orientation are natural phenomena, seen widely in the animal world, and need not be feared or censured. From a cultural and historical perspective, we can understand that some societies have accepted homosexuality while others have condemned it, but there is simply no justification for intolerance in any free society today.
It is precisely this cultural and historical perspective that allows us to better understand the situation today. Ongoing intolerance of gays and lesbians is largely the result of strong religious institutions that have long propagated such intolerance. This brings us full circle back to the absurdity of ascribing legitimacy to the notion of ancient revelations.
Catholic Bishop Robert Lynch, writing in the Washington Post in the aftermath of Orlando, conceded the role that religion has played in bringing about anti-gay violence. “Sadly it is religion, including our own, that targets, mostly verbally, and often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people,” he writes. “Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.” Amen, Bishop Lynch.
Importantly, the rejection of revelation is an equal-opportunity phenomenon. It has little sympathy for Islam, but it also derides Christians who, with great righteousness, declare themselves peacemakers while condemning Islam as a religion of violence. As anyone who studies history knows, those claiming to abide by the “true” message of God are always able to justify their violence. Many of the most outspoken proponents of war in modern times have been Christians. The problem of ends justifying means is inherent in any ideology, and any religion claiming direct revelation from God, as the Abrahamic religions do, has the potential to become ideological.
Of course, none of this suggests that the Bible cannot be read as literature, as the writings of ancient agrarian peoples struggling to make sense of the world. Some passages contain beautiful and even inspiring prose, others terrifying glimpses into the human psyche in the context of premodern society. No thinking person, however, could believe what traditional religions ask us to believe: that these writings are “revealed truth” from an all-powerful God.
Science long ago displaced religion as the best means for ascertaining truth—few still cling to the notion that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, for example, or that humans were created in their present form—but religion has remained relevant in other areas of modern life, enjoying particular credibility as a supposed source for morality. In the carnage of Orlando, however, we are seeing that Abrahamic morality is no more useful than Abrahamic explanations of natural history.
Sensible modern human societies should question why they continue to validate the idea of revelation-based religion at all. No deity has ever sent revelation to any human anywhere, and we are killing ourselves by continuing the charade. If your friend, neighbor or co-worker claimed to be receiving special messages from God, you would understandably question their mental health. Likewise, we should question our health as a society if we continue to bestow legitimacy upon individuals or institutions—Christian, Jewish, or Muslim—that claim to be carrying forward divine messages from ancient tribes.
Morality, and just as importantly immorality, can be understood from a naturalistic, humanistic perspective. Humans, as evolved animals, carry innumerable impulses that produce thoughts and actions that we define today as being good, bad, and in between. Our job as a society is to nurture what Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, borrowing from Abraham Lincoln, calls “the better angels of our nature.” Freedom, creativity, critical thinking, prosperity, justice, and other important values can and should be encouraged in the modern world. To do so, however, it’s time to get beyond the confines of ancient worldviews. Having already dismissed revelation as our means of attaining truth, it is time to dismiss it as a medium for morality as well.
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