Peter Tatchell: My journey to Humanism – how I made the transition from dogma and superstition to rationalism

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell writes about the story of his journey to Humanism. This article was originally published in Humanism Ireland under the title ‘My Journey from superstition to rationalism.’

Peter Tatchell: Why I'm...

Peter Tatchell: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof that humans don’t need a god to tell right from wrong, and something we as humans can be proud of.

Organised religion is the world’s greatest fount of obscurantism, prejudice, superstition and oppression. It has caused misery to billions of people for millennia, and continues to do so in many countries. So how come I was once in thrall to it?

Nowadays, I am a human rights activist motivated by love and compassion for other people. I do evidence-based campaigning, based on humanitarian and rational values.

But I once had a very different perspective. Indeed, I grew up in a devout evangelical Christian family in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1950s and ’60s. My mother and stepfather (with whom I spent most of my childhood) were prim and proper working class parents, with very conservative views on everything. The Bible, every word of it, was deemed to be the actual and definitive word of God. Their Christianity was largely devoid of social conscience, more Old Testament than New. It was all about personal salvation.

According to our church, some of the worst sins were swearing, drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, sex outside of marriage, communism, belief in evolution, not praying and failing to go to church every Sunday. All my extended family was of the same persuasion. Naturally, I also embraced God.

But in secondary school, aged 13, I began to think for myself. I remember a rather smug religious education teacher who one day gave us a lesson in faith. He argued that when we switch on a light we don’t think about it; we have faith that the room will light up. He suggested that faith in the power of God was the same as faith in the power of electricity to turn on a light.

Bad analogy, I thought. What causes a light to go on when one flicks the switch is not faith; it is man-made electricity and wiring – and this can be demonstrated by empirical evidence. The existence of God cannot. This set my mind thinking sceptical thoughts.

This nascent doubt was not, however, strong enough to stop me, at the age of 16,from becoming a Sunday school teacher to six year olds. Being of an artistic persuasion, I made colourful cardboard tableaux of Biblical stories. The children loved it. My classes were popular and well attended.

The first serious cracks in my faith had begun to appear the previous year, 1967, when an escaped convict, Ronald Ryan, was hanged for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. At age 15, I worked out that the trajectory of the bullet through the dead man’s body meant that it would be virtually impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal shot. Despite this contrary evidence, he was executed anyway. This not only shattered my confidence in the police, courts and government, it also got me thinking about my faith.

According to St Paul (The Bible, Romans 13:1-2), all governments and authorities are ordained by God. To oppose them is to oppose God. But why would God, I asked myself, ordain a government that allowed an apparent injustice, such as Ryan’s execution? If he did ordain it, did God deserve respect? And what about other excesses by tyrannical governments? Did God really ordain the Nazi regime? Stalin’s Soviet Union? Apartheid? And closer to home, the 19th century British colonial administration which decimated, by intent or neglect, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia?

I began to develop my own version of liberation theology, long before I had ever heard the phrase. During the 1960s, the nightly TV news was dominated by footage of the black civil rights struggle, led by the Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. His faith was not mere pious words; he put Christian values into action.

This is what Christianity should be about, I concluded. Accordingly, at 14, I left my parents’ Pentecostal church and started going to the local Baptist church instead. Alas, it was not what I expected – not even a quarter as radical as Martin Luther King’s Baptist social conscience. A huge disappointment.

Undeterred, I began to articulate my own revolutionary Christian gospel of ‘Jesus Christ the Liberator’, based on ideas in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This soon led me into Christian-inspired activism for Aboriginal rights, as well as against the death penalty, apartheid, the draft and the Vietnam War. I linked up with members of the radical Student Christian Movement. In 1970, aged 18, I initiated Christians for Peace, an inter-denominational anti-war organisation which organised a spectacular candlelit march through Melbourne, calling for the withdrawal of Australian and US troops from Vietnam.

At the age of 17, I had realised I was gay. From the first time I had sex with a man I felt emotionally and sexually fulfilled, without any shame at all. This positive experience overwhelmed all the years of anti-gay religious dogma that had been pummelled into me.

Amazingly, I never experienced a moment’s doubt or guilt. I reasoned: how could something so wonderful and mutually fulfilling be wrong? Instantly, I accepted my sexuality and was determined to do my bit to help end the persecution of lesbian and gay people.

By the time I turned 20, rationality finally triumphed over superstition and dogma. I didn’t need God anymore. I was intelligent, confident and mature enough to live without the security blanket of religion and its theological account of human life and the universe.

Accordingly, I renounced religion and embraced reason, science and an ethics based on love and compassion. I concluded: we don’t need God to tell us what is right and wrong. We humans are quite capable of figuring it out for ourselves. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof of this. It’s not God-given dogma and intolerance, but a fine example of high moral values, without religion. Bravo!

A victory for universality: UN Human Rights Council adopts resolution protecting LGBTI persons

Amelia Cooper reports again from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she speaks on behalf of the British Humanist Association

Amelia Cooper reports again from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she speaks on behalf of the British Humanist Association

‘There is no justification ever, for the degrading, the debasing or the exploitation of other human beings – on whatever basis: nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or caste.’

This statement was made by the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, in his introductory remarks to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva: a powerful, timely reminder of the universality of human rights. Notable in this statement is the inclusion of ‘sexual orientation’, which has faced numerous attacks and denunciations as being outside the remit of the Council, despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ emphasis that there will be no distinction ‘of any kind’ in the application of human rights. However, it is with great pleasure that I write to say that last night, following fierce debate, tense votes, and years of global advocacy, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), only the second of its kind.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people, with great successes regarding equal marriage taking place in the US and the UK, while elsewhere, such as in Russia, Nigeria, and Uganda, a spate of anti-homosexuality legislation has criminalized certain types of love, or made it impossible for LGBTI people to live openly. The global increase in homophobic aggression led one gay man to remark that ‘a hunting season is open, and we are the hunted’[1].

Without direct experience, however, it is easy to forget the rampant homophobia, both state-sanctioned and carried out by vigilantes, that permeates every aspect of daily life for LGBTI persons throughout the world – including in Europe.

Last week, I attended a side event hosted by ARC International, a leading advocacy group focused on achieving equality for LGBTI, and was shocked and heartbroken in equal measures to hear of the brutal violence that individuals suffer because of who they love.

Jabulani, from the South African Iranti Organisation, detailed innumerable cases of corrective rape and attacks carried out with impunity, ending by saying ‘The fact is that loving someone of your same sex is a direct threat to your bodily integrity’.

In Latin America, there are ‘curative clinics’ where LGBTI people are taken, abused and violated to ‘normalise’ their bodies. In the psyche of the perpetrator, this is not sexual abuse: it is a method by which people be ‘cured’ of their identity. The suicide rate among LGBTI youth in Latin America is 50% higher than their peers; in Central America, the life expectancy for transgender individuals is 24-28 years old. Transgender people do not have the benefit of ‘the closet’, due to their gender expression, and are therefore visible and oft targeted.

In Europe, Nori Spauwen of COC Netherlands said that the protection of LGBTI persons remains ‘a patchwork of national policy and Council of Europe recommendations’, and emphasized that having a legal, pro-equality framework is an indispensable precondition to elimination discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In the EU, more than half of all lesbian women have faced violence or verbal abuse in the past year, while crimes committed against LGBTI persons continue to be grossly underreported, due to the victims’ belief that nothing will change, or because they fear a homo/transphobic police reaction.

Any of these cases, on an individual basis, would suffice to show that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity must stop; when together, they illustrate that this is a global scourge that must stop now.

Yesterday’s adoption of the resolution ‘combating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity’ is a critically important achievement in upholding the universality of human rights and creating a global framework to combat discrimination against LGBTI persons.

Introduced by Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, and subsequently co-sponsored by an additional 42 states, the resolution expresses grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination suffered by LGBTI, calls for an updated study to be carried out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and ensures that the issue will remain on the Human Rights Council agenda.

The resolution faced a number of hostile amendments, including a proposal by Egypt (on behalf of ten states) to delete all references to sexual orientation and gender identity from the text. The Brazilian ambassador remarked that ‘Deleting all reference to sexual orientation and gender identity from this resolution would be the same as eliminating all references to women from the resolution on violence against women’. However, given that Egypt formed part of the core group who proposed the pernicious Protection of the Family resolution in June, their hostility to this resolution was hardly surprising.

A number of states spoke during the voting process, with impassioned statements from the resolution sponsors, including Chile’s statement that ‘this resolution does not seek to create new rights…there are some whose rights are more violated and need more protection’. Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, framed LGBTI equality as a danger to the country, saying ‘The wider connotations of the term ‘sexual orientation’ can be extremely detrimental and inimical to our Muslim societies in particular, and to our youth as a whole’.

Thankfully, the resolution survived the persistent attempts to undermine it and was passed with by a vote of 25-14 (with seven abstentions, including from China and India) to huge smiles, happy tears and close embraces in a rare moment of emotional diplomacy.

While the resolution alone will not bring an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, it is a remarkable achievement in enshrining LGBTI equality as part of the international agenda, and provides a framework for further discussion of the issue. As the final regular session of the 2014 Human Rights Council has now closed, the resolution is an enormous step forward in terms of LGBTI equality, undermining the national legislation that criminalizes love and proving that human rights are truly universal.

 


 

For further information, see the joint NGO statement following the passage of the resolution.

[1] Dima, a Russian man who was left blind in one eye after an armed group stormed a gay community centre. Quoted by Channel 4, and featured in their documentary ‘Hunted’. http://www.channel4.com/news/gay-russian-sochi-hunting-season-we-are-the-hunted