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I have suffered for years due to not being able to let go of faith completely previously as it clashes with my sexuality.
I was hoping if you could advise on a few matters.
Even after letting go, the fear, guilt, and trauma still prevent me from seeking a fulfilling relationship. There’s always a fear of judgment or hellfire or what I want is wrong
Seeking from your experience. How do we let go of former beliefs which harm us and cope with the impact they had on us and our lives? To no longer believe and to convince ourselves that what they teach is not true or wrong.
To be free and let go of the fear, anger, and guilt. How do we move on?
I feel your message. Many gay men have similar experiences in religion — specifically Christianity, which I’m assuming is the faith that you say clashes with your sexuality.
Some religious queer people debate that clash and say the historic abuse of LGBTQ+ people by Christians is the result of misguided church policy, not divine mandate. They tell us “the Bible actually says nothing about homosexuality” and other things like that.
Theirs is little more than a semantic argument. On a practical level, we’re being asked to distinguish between cruelty enacted by people and cruelty enacted by people on God’s orders. Either way, it’s still cruelty.
I grew up in the Southern Baptist church and loved it. From a young age, I wanted to be a pastor. Even as a child, I was interested in the minutia of Christianity. My lifelong interest in philosophy started with asking questions about the nature of God. When I was about twelve, I had a long discussion with Dad about the spiritual world — what role did it play in ours? How could I see its influence?
My father is a surgeon and an incredibly brilliant man. His mind, like mine, is powerful and ferocious. He urged me to think deeply. We were close and shared a seriousness about religion that my mother and sister did not, and that made me feel like we were united in a common mission.
In middle school, I started asking questions about Catholicism, and this was the first time my questions were discouraged. I thought Catholics were mysterious and their churches beautiful — that’s all. I didn’t want to become Catholic. I did not fully understand the severity of the divide between Baptists and Catholics at the time, of course. I just knew words like “doctrine” and “liturgy” toed a precarious line at my Baptist church.
The history of Christianity is not discussed by Baptists. Doing so risks making the religion a literal thing, something old, recorded, and problematic. They instead prefer to think of faith as a living, current thing that can be divorced from its history. They believe belief is a personal relationship with God that bypasses even the Bible. The danger with this mentality, of course, is that it amps up the credibility of one’s subjective bias and delusions. Baptists readily accept that God might reveal his will to someone in such a way that contradicts centuries of scripture. In fact, there is a general distrust of sacred text and heavier reliance on one’s personal perception of God. For this reason, Baptist Christianity is shockingly radical, politicized, and notoriously anti-gay.
My study into Catholicism was eventually forcibly stopped when I tried to purchase some Catholic books at the Christian bookstore my parents ran for a few years. It’s unwise to tell a smart pre-teenager no, and I just wanted to know more.
One day my parents bought me a book of illustrated world myths from Barnes & Noble. The front cover featured an illustration of the Greek myth of Prometheus, the fire thief, so they must have assumed it was filled with old Greek mythology — obvious fairy tales. But when I got home, I realized it also contained Christian myths — “Noah and the Ark,” “Jonah and the Whale,” and so on. The book was one of the most powerful things to drop into my life. Its illustrations were made to entertain kids, but its implications were powerful. By holding Bible stories up alongside “Theseus and the Minotaur,” it either made stories I was supposed to believe in look flimsier or made the story of Odin carving the first humans out of driftwood appear more plausible. It either enforced doubt or asserted the validity of other faiths. For me, it did the latter.
I noticed there were similarities between myths. There were, for example, multiple “great flood” myths, suggesting a great flood may have actually happened. As early as twelve years old, I came to a logical idea: if various cultures had common myths, what if Christianity was one interpretation of a more universal truth? And what if there was a better one?
As a child, I spent several years in Zambia because my parents were medical missionaries there. I was unaware of the scope of their work until they sat me and my sister down one day and explained that they had founded an orphanage and were building a school. “You now have 60 brothers and sisters in Africa,” they said.
We returned to Zambia every few years to work at the orphanage and I became close with the kids. Many of them were my age. One such trip happened in the summer before my junior year of high school. We went there for two weeks to work with a missionary team — an aggregate of church-goers from various Protestant churches in and around Athens, Georgia. One of the guys on the team went to my high school. He was active in his church, but his religiosity seemed like a ruse. I knew he smoked pot and chased girls. I think he wanted an adventure and his parents could afford the trip. I fell in love with him and we spent late nights talking on the sofa in the common room after everyone was asleep.
We left the group to go up the hill near the guest house. While we were up there, he told me to stand on his shoes. Holding him in the tall grass, we danced. He was my first passionate, devastating crush.
The day my family got home, my dad walked into my room and confronted me: “I think you’re still dealing with this gay problem.” I don’t need to tell you the rest of the story because you lived it — the fight, the shouting and crying, how the pain lingers in the body, the shame and terror of it. I’ve written about that night elsewhere, probably too much. It wasn’t the end of my faith but it altered my perspective of God forever. I doubt my parents have ever grasped the irony that their effort to get me back on track with God was the first irreparable crack in my ability to ever be a Christian.
All the same, my default mode is spiritual. I have a natural religious mindset. I see the world with narrative and imbibe everything with portents. I didn’t think my desires were sinful or that God disapproved of them — I was convinced my parents were wrong on that little detail — but I was furious that God had placed me in such a family. I decided to put my faith in him on hold and switched to neopaganism — Wicca and Shamanism (this followed a period of fascination with Native American spiritualities, which were heavily shamanic). In Wicca, I discovered the horned god, a symbolic manifestation of masculine energy — a force that, in neopagan myth, coexists with a more powerful feminine energy, the sacred Mother. Wiccans believe these forces balance the world. I saw this as another plausible interpretation of a universal god truth.
In 2010, I went to college thinking Wicca was for me. I felt a little ridiculous when explaining it because parts of it sounded silly, but I also found its core ideas very beautiful. But thinking something is beautiful and believing in it are not the same thing. I would later realize that I think cathedrals and Jewish folk songs are beautiful, but that’s not the same as faith.
But it didn’t matter, because my religiosity was about to hit a wall. Many atheists have an “a-ha!” moment when they realize they don’t believe in God. I didn’t have that because I’m not a true atheist. I was a student in college, working in a computer lab, when I clicked on a news website. I read a report about female infanticide in China. I don’t remember the details but the report was about the effects of Chinese law mandating one child per couple, which created a dark situation for Chinese girls. Their lives were, to some extent and until a certain age, disposable. The author cited one grotesque example: a taxi driver backed over a five-year-old girl and heard her crying. He decided to back over her again and kill her rather than pay for her medical bills.
That broke me. The image stayed in my head for weeks. Deists of all stripes (Baptists, Catholics, Wiccans) would say her life was brought into being by an all-knowing, all-powerful god who deemed it acceptable for her to be crushed under a taxi wheel five years later. The mind balks at how severely she was robbed of life, how meaningless and impersonal her death was.
Could God be so cruel? The obvious answer to that question came from asking other very logical questions. What about the Holocaust? What about hunger? If we’re born sinful and made by God, isn’t God invariably responsible for sin? If evil exists, mustn’t God be evil? These questions (simple deductive reasoning) have been raised by philosophers since the very early days of Christianity. Epicurus (a Greek philosopher who founded a form of secular hedonism) said it best: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
In Zambia, I saw hundreds of people with AIDS dragging their bodies through the dirt to see a film about Jesus. Nearly once a week, we drove to a local bush village at night and showed a film about the life of Christ in a local language. After the film, a pastor invited anyone who wanted to be saved to come forward. Everyone came. They lived in mud huts and had just seen a movie for the first time. It must have looked like magic. And to be “saved” — healed, spared — is an enticing concept when you’re sick. Yet after nights of feverish prayer, I would walk through my parents’ hospital and see bodies, barely alive, covered in flies, and babies, tiny bones wrapped in skin, being bathed in filthy water. These people begged God for two years to save them — and they beg him still. And the AIDS crisis in Africa goes on. And God, the one who loves them, does nothing.
Once the problem of suffering (also called “the problem of evil” in philosophy textbooks) became clear, everything else fell quickly. Christianity, Wicca, spirits, prayer, morality — all of it broke down. Then I got to the core concepts: truth, self, subjectivity, mind, and language. When you find cracks in God, you find cracks in the entire social order on which world societies are built — because our world is built on religion. Scrapping that, I realized nothing was real. I still believe that most things we think are “true” are actually inventions of language.
A few months after this devastating breakdown of my faith, I became HIV-positive at age 21. When that happened, I had two options: I could look at the stars and see just stars — a Godless, unguided universe — or I could see a God that allowed a plague to kill a generation of gay men. The former lens is “atheism” and that’s what I tell people because it’s easier to explain than the truth.
And the truth is, I despise God. I’ve never been able to fully sever myself from belief. But if God exists, he must be cruel. If I ever meet him, I will him back for everything he’s done to us. And if he’s just a concept that has lingered too long in our collective memory — as I think he is — we can destroy him. We kill ideas all the time.
My sexuality blossomed after that — as yours will when you realize how easily you can destroy the God of your parents, the God of Abraham, and all other Gods. You can smite your past beliefs and immediately strip them of their power. All you have to do is replace them with a new philosophy. Go on a spiritual journey like I did to find what you think is true. My systematic sampling of different religious concepts and my sexual development are the same story — I cannot divorce one from the other — and they led me to hedonism.
Listen, friend: they want you to doubt your desires and feel shame for them, so you must do more than dismiss what they say. You have to create a new set of beliefs that are fully yours. Fight faith with faith. They will call your desires evil, so be evil. They will say your sexuality is the work of evil spirits, so welcome those spirits in with open arms. Your desires are as natural as everything else in nature. You are supposed to be here.
Do not be forgiving in your admonishment of them. You must be ruthless because they are ruthless. They have passed laws outlawing our existence and subjected us to generations of violence. In conservative countries all over the world they continue to kill and incarcerate us.
Your new religion or philosophy — whatever it is — must become your counter-message. Try new ideas and discard ones that don’t work. Doubt anything, believe everything. You don’t have to know where you’re going so long as you go away from the ideas that continue to harm you. I’m not certain those who grow up religious can ever discard the impulse to pray, but we can direct prayer elsewhere.
Keep an idea of your future — a gay man with a great sex life and beautiful relationships — in your heart. You must believe in this dream and be willing to burn down everything in your life to let it live.