On 30 July, as part of the programme of Europride 2008, the Swedish Humanist Association organised two very successful events. The first was a panel discussion, ‘Religion: the hotbed of homophobia?’ for which the 120-person auditorium in the main Pride Hall of Stockholm was packed to capacity, with many more would-be listeners turned away at the door. The second was a more informal pub evening allowing humanists from different countries to discuss the issues of the day over drinks and food.
Religion: the hotbed of homophobia?
The panel discussion was led by Christer Sturmark, President of the Swedish Humanist Association and Carl-Johan Kleberg, former President of the Swedish Humanist Association. Participating were Taslima Nasrin, physician, writer, and activist; Anna Karin Hammar, lesbian and priest in the Church of Sweden; Barbro Westerholm, Liberal Member of the Swedish Parliament and former Director General of the National Board of Health and Welfare; Andrew Copson, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) and Sonny Van De Steene, from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).
Taslima Nasrin began the discussion by sharing the story of her own long struggle for human rights for women and others beginning with the story of her childhood, raised in a Muslim family in Bangladesh. Her heart-rending story of being seemingly permanently exiled from her Bengali home and suffering the banning of her books led into her propounding her view of how governments are accommodating misogynistic and homophobic views in the name of including religious minorities. Campaigning for democracy, secularism and human rights, she asserted, entailed campaigning against religions and she gave her view that there is no difference between religions and religious fundamentalism. In conclusion, she stated that religion was not only the hotbed of homophobia but ignorance, inequality, injustice and misogyny.
Anna Karin Hammar introduced her argument by saying that she would advocate ‘changing religion not abandoning religion’. She argued that reason and freedom and rights should be used to re-interpret religious texts, that religion is not the hotbed but it is a hotbed and a serious one; she claimed that atheism has been as dangerous as religions, using Nazism and Stalin as examples.
She argued that homophobia is related to social conditions at large rather than to religions. Citing the world values survey, she distinguished between agricultural, industrial and post-industrial societies and asserted that it is in the agricultural societies where there is homophobia and that in post-industrial societies even the religious people are not homophobic. In industrial countries it is in-between. She argued that cultures are more important than religions as a factor; that they must be changed; that reformed religions can help to change cultures and must be supported in reform.
In addition, she believed that a legal human rights framework must be supported by cultural and religious values and that it is dangerous to isolate religion from the process of change. More, she saw religion as a cultural resource for dissolving homophobia and argued that gay religious people have produced much literature to help with this. One example she wanted to draw attention to was that some Jewish scholars believe that the punishment of Sodom was not for homosexuality but xenophobia. She saw this research as important because it would offer new interpretations of such important texts which would combat homophobia. She said she did not deny that religion was often homophobic but that it could be a resource for diversity in that it encourages care for ‘the other’.
Barbro Westerholm gave an account of her experiences in politics. In 1979 she was the director general of the national board of health and welfare who removed homosexuality from the register of mental diseases after lobbying by gay activists. She knew nothing then about homosexuality but said she believed that love was lacking in the world and ought to be encouraged – this was the perspective from which she approached the issue. She learned much about homophobia, harassment and violence and discrimination at this early time. She received many letters of abuse from religious groups and churches but also met a priest who collaborated with her and invited gay people to his holy communion. One church, however, prayed to God for him to suffer within one month and unfortunately he did in fact die that month. All this was good preparation for when she chaired the parliamentary committee to bring in legal partnerships for gay people. She received two sorts of lobbying – those who prayed for her to change her mind and those who threatened. The same church that had prayed for the punishment of the collaborative priest in 1979, prayed for her to suffer too, but when she contracted Legionnaire’s disease at the same time, she was encouraged to survive just to prove them wrong! From all her experiences, she said she had learned it was important for priests in the Swedish church to defend partnership and marriage and that politicians had to collaborate with priests in the cause of change.
Andrew Copson, chair of the UK-based Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) began by saying that it was great that there were people working within religions to change their religions and we should work with them, but that it had no bearing on the question of whether religions themselves are and have been hotbeds of homophobia – in fact it supported the argument that they were. In Europe, he claimed that religions are in fact the main hotbed of homophobia. Using the ILGA map of countries where homosexuality is restricted by law and punished, he pointed out the countries that had death penalties for homosexuality were Muslim and with Islamic governments. Only slightly better off were African countries which were very religious and have a legal heritage stemming from the protestant legal codes of European colonisers. Religion was the origin of most of the persecution of gay people in the world and today the situation has not changed. Andrew pointed out that many legal advances in Europe – anti-hatred laws, partnership legislation, anti-discrimination legislation in employment and service provision – has all been opposed. Every time there has been opposition, Andrew pointed out, it has not been from trade unions, NGOs, or atheists and humanists, it has been religious groups that have opposed equality.
Sonny Van de Steene of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) emphasised that Humanism embraces human rights, values of tolerance and freedom. If two people want to have sex, we should respect their free choice. He supported Anna Karin’s work in pursuing change though he didn’t know if it were possible. He questioned the argument that Anna Karin made about agricultural societies and pointed out that there are religions deriving from such times that have a moral context and value system saying that homosexuality was not natural, but there are religious systems and philosophies arising out of similar societies that do not ban the homosexuality; so the assertion that wider social contexts were relevant was questionable. He argued that reinterpretation may be possible of something like the story of Sodom but questioned what could be done about those texts that simply say that homosexuals should be killed – there is no re-interpretation of such words.
Christer Sturmark began discussion by asking Taslima whether there was connection between oppression of women and gays; she replied that religion is patriarchy and so it is oppressive of both women and those with different sexual preferences as well as of freedom of expression and other freedoms.
Christer asked Anna Karin whether it was not the case that Humanists may like her theology more than those of the mainstream but that her theology is a very minority opinion and that Humanists must respond to the other mainstream Christianity? She replied that we must perceive the highest value in life which in monotheistic religions is god. She was willing to take responsibility for the harm done by her tradition but wants to change it; she said her religion was ‘a language like a poetry for the brokenness of the human body’.
Andrew said the problem with the liberal religious position was that it’s all very well to say that one of the solutions to the homophobia of the religious traditions is to say we will re-interpret, but that even if you have evolved a new interpretation, the old interpretation will still be present and may become dominant again. But if you take a rational humanist approach then you will avoid all these problems that are implicit in tying morality to unrepresentative texts that have nothing to do with modern life.
Anna Karin accused Andrew of thinking that one could get rid of religion but the fact was that it could pop up again always, and that you need a strong internal critique. Barbro Westerholm agreed that churches have an obligation to teach people to re-interpret the bible.
Sonny didn’t think that religion would go away and supported freedom of belief but he made the point that you can have a separation of religion and state and that as we could see from the ILGA map, those places that had such separation were better for gay rights. Education and critical thinking – important humanist values – should also be encouraged and were essential in improving the situation.
Taslima argued that you cannot change religion and you have to get rid of it. Religion will not give you equality and justice because it was not made for equality and justice; the Quran says men are superior and women inferior – how will you reinterpret it? She argued that religion can fade away with fear and ignorance and drew attention to how Europe moved from religion to a lack of religion.
You can see the further discussion that ensued in the video of the debate at http://tinyurl.com/6de7rj
Humanist Pub evening
Rolf Solheim of the Norwegian Humanist Association entertained and informed humanists including Taslima Nasrin and other activists and campaigners, as well as members of the Swedish Humanist Association with a talk on the gay movement and the Humanist movement. He explored the similarities between the two movements and explored the inherence of gay rights within humanist values. Andrew Copson of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association briefly described the history and current work of GALHA. Lively discussion from the floor following on from Rolf’s remarks ranged from the bogus nature of the argument that gay sex is ‘unnatural’ to the necessity of assisting fledgling Humanist and gay movements in Baltic and Eastern European countries.
Swedish Humanist Association: www.humanisterna.se
Gay And Lesbian Humanist Association: www.galha.org
Norwegian Humanist Association: www.human.no
International Humanist And Ethical Union: www.iheu.org