Natalie Reed, an atheist who is transgender has a new article called “God Does Not Love Trans People” over at Free Thought Blogs. It’s a very long post and raises numerous issues, many of which I simply can’t address for the sake of brevity. However, I do want to spend some time on her main assertion: transgender people should not believe in God or participate in religion because these are both harmful and dangerous and they enable the transphobic oppressive religious institutions. She states, “I honestly believe that religious faith is inherently dangerous and harmful.” For anyone who seeks to redefine God or say that God loves transgender people you are guilty of strengthening and bolstering a harmful and dangerous institution. She claims:
You spur on religious belief which, more often than not, maintains a climate of bigotry towards LGBTQ individuals. You insulate and protect them. You assent to the foundations of their hate, which they claim as justification. Asserting there is a God, and supporting the human tendency towards religious faith (whatever its form), does nothing but bolster the underlying principles on which the Westboro Baptist Church is based. If we wish to fight these organizations, we can’t do so simply pitting our own intuitive, faith-based assumption of God against theirs. We need to attack the foundation: the idea that faith is…good, or at least harmless…
Reed’s analysis is hard to stomach. She’s claiming that transgender people who believe in God are actually enabling a group that protests the funerals of gay soldiers simply because they believe in God. It’s not enough to face the daily oppression that trans people do, now there is the added blame of creating the culture that oppresses them for simply having faith in God. Queer people who go to church “maintain a climate of bigotry towards LGBTQ individuals.” Following this line of reasoning black people were responsible for maintaining a climate of racism and white supremacy because they participated in a religion that had been used to enslave them. African Americans must “assent to the foundations” of the hate and “bolster the underlying principles” of racism since they have enabled, supported and participated in religious organizations which have been predominantly racist. Women who attend Church on Sunday are responsible for the patriarchy that has defined so much of Christianity…etc. Blaming African Americans for racism or blaming queer people for homophobia merely because they believe in God or participate in religion is of course absurd.
The belief that underlies Reed’s thinking is that if we got rid of religion everyone would magically see how wrong white supremacy, transphobia, class oppression and sexism is. Please. Religion reflects the surrounding culture. That’s why of course the queer identified Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco reflects people of the community: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender…etc. It of course offers incredible resources and support for this group. These communities prove that religion can be reformed and used to resist the worst oppressions in society. Belief in God or participation in religion is not a predictor of one’s politic.
The reason so many religious institutions are oppressive is because so much of society is oppressive. Sexism, racism and homophobia are predominant in U.S. institutions. An educational institution that is anti-racist and counter-oppressive shouldn’t be blamed for the larger reality that our educational institutions are racist and sexist. Blaming queer friendly religious institutions for the more numerous homophobic religious institutions is like blaming a queer friendly business for a homophobic business simply because they are both businesses. There is zero relationship between a transgender person believing in God in San Francisco and the hateful acts of the Westboro Baptist Church. Yet Reed wants to put the blame at least partially at the feet of transgender people. It’s like positing some kind of correlation or relationship between a conservative Christian and a queer Muslim simply because they both believe in God.
The fundamental flaw in Reed’s argument is that it conflates people like James Cone who have stridently resisted white supremacist Christianity with the KKK who have used Christianity for their own racist agenda. Cone shouldn’t bother writing back against a dominant Christianity and suggest black theology or black images of the divine according to Reed. Womanist theologians who challenge the patriarchal and white images of God really have nothing to contribute because they themselves are guilty of the worst sin: colluding with the dangerous and harmful institution of religion. There is no meaningful difference between Jerry Falwell and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Reed’s analysis. Rather they both believed in God and thus are both responsible for anything terrible that has been done in the name of religion. It’s as simple as that.
Rather than wasting time challenging white supremacist theology, critiquing patriarchal religion and suggesting that African Americans and women have a role to play in religion Reed thinks they should simply become atheists and pronounce the dangers of believing in God. This will solve their problems. Transgender people shouldn’t bother with religion or God – it only serves to bolster Westboro Baptist Church.
As I’ve mentioned before it is very important not to dismiss religion outright because it has played a role in resisting slavery, racism and oppression. It has continued to be used in resisting homophobia, transphobia, racism and sexism and provides many useful functions in society. Being liberated from a belief in God is generally the last thing that most people need liberating from. Additionally religion is a very complex phenomenon that plays numerous roles in the world. But yet Natalie Reed dismisses religion entirely with her statements like: “ALL religion is dangerous…religious faith is inherently dangerous and harmful.” As I’ve mentioned before (see Reason and Racism in the New Atheist Movement) this is a hypothesis that needs to be examined. Yet, you won’t find any anthropological, sociological or scientific research that supports Reed’s claim. It is wildly out of touch with reality. It’s like saying that the belief that Elvis still lives is inherently dangerous and harmful. How so? Furthermore Reed is making truth claims about religions all over the globe that she has never even heard of. Yet, somehow she knows that their religious and cultural practices are harmful (despite never defining harmful or dangerous). I suppose she wants to impose a Western scientific atheism on indigenous cultures and religions around the world? This is the height of cultural imperialism and arrogance. I’ve never even heard of your religion or culture but I’m enlightened by science and I know it is harming you. I know your religion is dangerous because all religion is dangerous. You need to be like me. Please. Let’s not forget that it was because of the Western Colonizers that the Native American Sun Dance was banned in the U.S. until 1978.
I actually think Reed’s argument could very well do more to enable, bolster and support the most oppressive elements in religion. Her strategy of shouting that God doesn’t exist will fall on deaf ears to the vast majority of believers. Repeating the unscientific and false idea that “religious faith is inherently dangerous and harmful” only spreads more ignorance. She’s basically saying that Christianity in the U.S. should just remain in the hands of the dominant group that brought it to America: white, heterosexual men. Queer people, women and people of color should stay away and give up their attempts to change religion because their participation only does more harm. Anyone’s attempt for that matter to reform religion means they are guilty, guilty, guilty according to Reed. You are either with religion (i.e. homophobia, transphobia, danger, harm…etc.) or against religion (an enlightened anti-religious atheist.)
The reality is we need more queer and transgender people to become religious leaders. We need more women and people of color to hold significant positions of religious authority. Black liberation theologians, Womanists, and feminist theologians are important voices in the struggle against oppression and domination. But Reed would see a transgender religious leader as a step in the wrong direction. I see it as a necessary corrective to historically narrow minded institutions. Their presence doesn’t enable oppression but rather it works to lessen it by reforming and changing the structures that have defined religion for so long. Being a religious leader is a way of assimilating into the wider culture. Seeing transgender leaders in society is inspiring and empowering for other transgender people.
Religion is one of many institutions in society. People who have been historically marginalized have made great strides in assimilating into these institutions – whether they be government, medical, military, educational, sports or the music industry. I have all kinds of issues with the U.S. military, however I also know what role it played in the process of African Americans becoming more accepted in the U.S., especially during WWII. Sitting on the sideline saying God is dead/ALL religion is harmful while discounting the important ways in which marginalized peoples have used religion to challenge oppression only strengthens the dominant forces that control many of today’s religious institutions.
In conclusion Reed’s essay represent everything that is wrong with the predominant thrust of New Atheism. Her analysis is severely disembodied i.e. abstract, theoretical and completely out of touch with the reality of how complex religion is. She’s not writing about real religious people, nor does her analysis reflect the struggles that they go through (otherwise she couldn’t claim that ALL religion is harmful). Like many of her counterparts she defines religion as all of the bad stuff associated with religion. She’s obviously not in conversation with any Womanist theologians to find out just why they devote so much time to reforming white supremacy and patriarchy within Christianity. I don’t see any evidence of her reaching out to dialogue with religious people, whether they be people of color or transgender to actually ask them if they are being harmed by a belief in God. She doesn’t need to do this, because like most of the other New Atheists they have all of the answers already. The African American atheist Sikivu Hutchinson captures this attitude well, “As delineated by many white non-believers the New Atheism preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity.”