As Queer as an Atheist in a Cathedral

A message from our Straight-White-Male-Atheist/Agnostic Blogmaster, the Righteous Pagan

I’m  a bit of an oddity on the staff here at the Homodox Confessions, being neither Queer, Conservative, nor Christian, but I’ll be weighing in now and again, as the spirit (or rather, the indefinable impulse I refuse to attribute to anything supernatural) moves me.  And I thought I might take this opportunity to talk about the sensation of being an outsider, a minority, in situations where my fellow Victor and Eiluned feel right at home.

As a Straight-White-Atheist Male, I’ve been trying to think of situations where I too feel othered.  It doesn’t happen often but I have experienced it in certain situations: in a Women’s Studies class, for example, or more seriously, when living overseas among people who don’t speak my language and look nothing like me…  But I think the moments when I feel the most queer are when I’m in church.

I find going to mass, or participating in religious ceremonies in general, intensely uncomfortable.  I’m not a rabid New Atheist who feels like all religion is an assault on rationality (or at least, I’m not one any more).  I’m well aware of the good religious organizations do around the world.  I love pre-Vatican II liturgical music (or rather, the chant and polyphony more commonly performed before Vatican II), enjoy the sound of Latin, and think churches are absolutely gorgeous.  Though I hate most of the homilies I hear, I am fascinated by homiletics.  I even find theology cool from a philosophical perspective, even if I’m unable to make some of the cognitive leaps required to grok it.  Why then, when I’m surrounded by the joyful faithful at an Easter Vigil mass, do I feel possessed by rage and frustration?  Why, when at a house blessing, do I search, panicking, for some alternative to making the sign of the cross, settling on crossing my arms awkwardly on my chest as if I were attempting to refuse the Eucharist?

Part of it is claustrophobia… I hate being surrounded by people, with limited access to exits, and I have trouble cramming my long legs and large feet into pews.   Part is boredom.  But that doesn’t explain the rage reaction.  Sometimes I can pick out specific things that make me mad, like particularly offensive homilies (those that viciously attack homosexuality, other religions, and aspects of secular culture I support, for example), or prayers for the Jews and other heathens (which I find somewhat condescending).  But since I get panicked and furious even when my buttons aren’t directly pushed, there has to be something else.

I think it has to do with my deep programming and the exclusionary nature of religion.  Being surrounded by a large group who all share a common shibboleth is a profoundly unsettling experience.  I feel like a caveman who has been dropped into the middle of a foreign cave, and my every hesitation marks me as an outsider.  Intellectually, I know I’m in no danger, but my flight or fight reflex gets triggered anyway.  I suppose the next question is, why cannot I learn the responses, join the singing, approach the priest for a blessing if I cannot actually take the wafer, pretend to belong.  Since I don’t believe and do respect religion, I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable pretending, should I?

But I do, I feel desperately uncomfortable.  I feel that by pretending to take part in a ceremony that is, to many people, more important than life, I will somehow diminish it.  I cannot ask the priest for a blessing precisely because it is meaningless to me, but profoundly meaningful to him, and as he assumes I’m one of the faithful, he expects me to cherish it too.  But I don’t, I can’t, not in the way he expects.  I am glad he wishes me well, but the true significance of the act, as experienced by a theist, is lost on me. I feel like an imposter, a sham. So I am trapped, unable to make the responses, and so doomed to remain alienated.

But there might be a solution.  Part of the pressure to conform comes from other people not knowing I’m an atheist.  If they know, it’s not a sham any more.  I’m not lying to them, and not pretending, and if they choose to offer their blessing to someone they know doesn’t believe, that changes the whole nature of the transaction.  A priest who knowingly blesses an atheist has made an informed decision, and I can accept the gift without concern; I might still be a bit weirded out (I don’t GET blessings) but I wouldn’t feel as though I had transgressed.  If there were some way to be openly atheist in a setting where everyone assumes one is religious, then I would take it.  It’s part of the reason I understand gays who broadcast their gender identity; so long as people assume that a homosexual person is straight, they’re still kinda closeted, and have to continually brace themselves against the shock of being outed again and again.

-Your Blogmaster, the Righteous Pagan

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Published in: on July 19, 2010 at 11:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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