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Sexual Orientation

Religion, Secularism, and Homophobia

One reason why younger Americans are fleeing faith.

Younger Americans – especially those in their 20s — are rejecting religion in record numbers. For example, according to a recent CIRP Freshman Survey, 31% of college students in the USA are currently non-religious, compared to only 10% back in 1986. And according to a 2014 Pew study, while 11% of Americans born between 1928-1945 are non-religious, and 23% of those born between 1965-1980 are non-religious, a whopping 36% of Americans born between 1990-1996 claim to have no religion. I say “whopping” because we’ve never seen such a large proportion of that age cohort without religion in any past surveys from decades gone by.

What’s going on?

While there are many factors involved – from increased internet usage to reactions against the Catholic church’s pedophile priest scandal -- one of the biggest factors causing younger Americans to walk away from their religion is the matter of homosexuality.

Simply put: Younger Americans are the least homophobic generation in our nation’s history, with a clear majority of millennials being accepting and affirming of homosexuality. And what do they see? That most major religions condemn homosexuality as sinful and wrong. Given this situation, these anti-gay and anti-lesbian religions are losing members in record numbers. Younger Americans are simply walking away from beliefs and institutions that they see as intolerant, unloving, and immoral.

As one young man, Larry, in his 20s, explained to me while I was doing research on contemporary apostasy in America:

     “The church’s view on homosexuality…just like…this man, Jesus Christ, who you all love and worship and hail so highly, how can you tell me a man who was supposed to be about love and peace — essentially a giant hippy — how can you tell me that he didn’t accept these people because this man likes a man or this woman likes a woman? And then there was an election, either my junior or senior year of high school, and one of the propositions was gay marriage. I just flipped my lid. We’d go to church in our town — St. Mark’s — and somebody put the anti-gay proposition sign up. I was livid, dude. I was livid. I got up and I left. I was in the back of the church just sitting — I was like, I’m not sitting here. I’m not going to listen to any of these people talk. I’m done, just done….my brother came looking for me about 20 minutes in…he’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Let’s go back and sit down.’ I was like: ‘F that! Did you see that sign over there? I’m not going to sit in there. These people are not accepting, man. That’s hypocritical.’ Like I said, I was done.”

Raised and confirmed a Catholic, Larry is now an atheist. And his church’s anti-homosexual agenda was a crucial part of that transformation.

Larry’s story is not unique: strong religious opposition to homosexuals has turned off countless others. For but one clear example: when some leaders of the Church of Finland made some anti-gay comments during a public panel back in 2010, 30,000 Finns resigned from the national church the next day.

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Research shows that there is a strong correlation between being religious and being homophobic. On average, the more religious you are in terms of strength of faith and church attendance, the more likely you are to be anti-gay rights, anti-gay marriage, etc. And conversely, the more secular you are, the more likely you are to be open and accepting of homosexuals, and supportive of their equal rights. It is thus no accident that in those nations where religion is strong – especially in Islamic-majority nations — the lives of homosexuals are plagued by inequality, disrespect, harassment, and dangerous oppression. But in those highly secularized nations where religion is the weakest, the lives of homosexuals are much safer, freer, and relatively more equitable.

And this all goes directly to the intrinsic difference concerning the very nature of morality from a religious worldview versus a secular worldview.

For the strongly religious, morality is ultimately about obedience to a magical, invisible, powerful deity. Whatever God commands, one must obey. If you do, you get rewarded in heaven and if you don’t you get tortured in hell. And that’s that. It's a very messed up ethical orientation, to say the least.

For secular people, morality is something altogether different. It is about being empathetic and compassionate, not causing unnecessary harm and suffering, fighting for justice, and generally treating people the way one would want to be treated themselves – because all of these moral values increase human well-being. We strive to manifest them not because we are commanded to, but because we want to.

Religious people look to a higher, outside authority to tell them what is wrong and what is right, while secular people look to themselves -- our consciences and our communities – in determining such things.

The results of these differing moral orientations are clear when it comes to contemporary issues such as homosexuality. When religious people look at the matter of gay rights, they simply defer to what they believe some God says in some ancient writings, and that’s that. In the Old Testament, God commands that homosexuals must be murdered, and in the New Testament, St. Paul condemns homosexuals outright. In seeking to follow these ancient scriptures, strong Christians actively fight to deny homosexuals the right to live freely: to marry who they want, to raise children, to teach in public schools, to have legal protection from discrimination, etc.. Not very kind, not very loving – to say the least. But that’s what happens when one’s “morality” is based on obedience to a magical being.

In contrast, when secular people look at homosexuality, they ask themselves: what harm is being caused by people of the save sex loving one another? None. What suffering is caused by denying such people full and equal rights? Plenty. Is it fair to deny people certain rights that you yourself enjoy? Of course not. Is it just to oppress a certain segment of the population simply because they are different in some innocuous way? Of course not. And as for treating people the way we would like to be treated: just as we, as consenting adults, would like the right to marry the person we love -- as well as the right to raise and adopt children, to be legally defended from discrimination, etc. -- so too ought we grant that right to people with differing sexual orientations. Such is the logic of a secular morality based on empathy, compassion, justice, and thoughtful reflection.

As the forces of strong religion – from the fundamentalist mullahs in Iran who murder gays and lesbians, to the Evangelical politicians in America who fight to deny homosexuals equal rights – continue to treat homosexuality as an abomination, they will see more and more of their younger members walk away in warranted disgust.