At Post-Orlando Shooting Vigils, Atheists Must be Affirmed

The days following the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando will be filled with vigils. All across the globe, LGBTQI people and our allies are gathering to remember the dead, support the wounded, and express our outrage and despair at this latest attack on our community.

It is particularly important, at this time of mourning, that those who organize these vigils ensure that they are welcoming to everybody, regardless of their religious background - including atheists and Humanists. I understand the desire of religious people and religious leaders to respond to this atrocity in the language of their faith, and it is the right of every person to draw upon their religious beliefs and culture to give them strength in dark times. Yet many queer people have been harmed and continue to be harmed by religion, and it can be unbearable if we are forced to enter a religious space or endure religious messages so that we can grieve alongside our community.

I still remember the principal of my private Christian high school telling a school assembly that "Homosexuals deserve our pity and our prayers." I remember the uncomfortable conversations about "those people" in sex ed classes. The culture of Christian disapproval of homosexuality my school created affected me deeply, even though I was never a Christian myself - and my experience was mild compared to that of many others. I have friends - far too many friends - who, when they were discovered to be queer, were abandoned by their churches and mosques; stripped of leadership positions in their congregations; assaulted with violent scriptural texts and demeaning religious teachings; kicked out of religious schools and colleges; prevented from following their calling as clergy; forced into conversion therapy camps to "pray away the gay"; and driven to self-harm and suicide attempts by hatred sanctioned by their faith and fostered in their faith communities.

This structural violence leaves psychological scars. Many of us feel unsafe around clergy, and are unwilling to enter faith spaces which remind us of those which cut us so deeply. If a Christian Church had ruined your life, claiming you are disordered and sinful for being who you are, would you want to enter one when you are at your most vulnerable, and wish to remember lost loved ones? Likely you would not. This same critique extends to mosques and to Muslim faith leaders: there are powerful strands of homophobia within Islam, and queer Muslims and queer Ex-Muslims may have suffered at the hands of Imams and their communities of faith. Forcing them to hear paeans to a faith which has demeaned and dehumanized them at a vigil for other slain and wounded queer people - with no opportunity for their story to be told - is callous.

These hard truths impose a responsibility on all those who would provide a devastated community with a place for hope and comfort in the aftermath of the Pulse shootings: you must make sure atheists and apostates are fully welcomed, and that your vigils are not overwhelmed with religious messages many of us abhor. Decency and respect requires this. Here's how you can keep your vigils atheist-affirming:

  1. Try to avoid gathering in a place of worship. Such places are often associated with painful memories for queer people, and some may choose not to attend a vigil simply because it is happening in a church, synagogue, or mosque.

  • Avoid mandatory prayer. Not everybody prays, and some of us resent the assumption that we pray when we choose to respond to pain in other ways. No one likes others to make inaccurate assumptions about our beliefs and faith practices, and atheists are the same. Please, if you insist on a moment for prayer, provide an alternative for those who do not pray, explicitly described as such.
  • Explicitly call out the fact that not everybody is religious, and that there are non-religious people in attendance. Do not assume that this is obvious to everyone: this is a truth which must be named, especially if the gathering is in a place of worship and if clergy make up most of the speakers. Speak directly to the nonreligious among you. See us, and tell us you see us.
  • Do not expect atheists and the nonreligious to "translate" religious language into nonreligious language. This is difficult emotional labor at an already challenging time. Instead, do the translation for us when you can. At the very least, preface your statements by making it clear that you understand that your faith perspective may not speak to others, or even might put them off.
  • Do not silence criticism of religion and of the religious roots of LGBTQI oppression at your vigils. We LGBTQI people feel legitimate anger at the way we have been treated and continue to be treated by religious traditions and institutions, and some evidence suggests that religion was a motivating factor in the shootings at Pulse. To overcome oppression we must name the sources of that oppression - even when it makes religious people uncomfortable. Let us name religion as a source of our oppression.
  • Finally, and most important, find somebody to give an explicitly nonreligious, atheist perspective on the events. Very often, in my experience as a Humanist asked to speak at events such as these, there are many people in attendance who yearn to hear their own atheism reflected back at them and validated. Those of us who don't believe in salvation, a Plan for the universe, or an afterlife, need different philosophical responses to crises like the Orlando massacre, and only someone who understands what it means to live without belief in a God can provide this perspective. If you are to have religious speakers, you must find an atheist to speak.
  • If you can do these things, you stand a chance of creating a powerful experience of mourning and solidarity where both religious and nonreligious people can come together collective grief. In these darkest of times, that is a great gift. Make your vigils atheist-affirming.