I went to church on Sunday evening, August 7. This is something an atheist like me rarely does. However, I was eager to attend because Rev. Jeremy Rutledge of Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where I live, invited me to a special “interfaith and philosophy” service in honor of Pride Week in Charleston. He also asked me to promote the event to other members of my local Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry group.
Some atheists and humanists don’t participate in interfaith ceremonies because of the word “interfaith.” They have no faith in deities and don’t want to give the impression that they do. Many conservative religious groups also refuse to participate in interfaith ceremonies because they don’t want to give the impression that they condone the “false” theology or religious practice of those who worship or behave differently.
I was pleasantly surprised to see humanists explicitly included and publicly acknowledged in the Circular Church ceremony. Participants included liberal religionists who favor LGBTQ rights, as well as humanists. Rev. Rutledge began, “We gather here, as people of many different faiths and philosophies, to say clearly and unapologetically that our message is love, not hate.” I normally wince when a preacher talks about the one “true” religion. However, I silently applauded when Rev. Rutledge said, “The true religion is love,” adding, “religion has so often been used, and continues to be used, as an instrument of intolerance, division and outright hate.”
The keynote speaker was Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance. He talked about the importance of the LGBTQ community standing out, and his evolution from being a closeted gay, uncomfortable with the flamboyant side of the gay community, to his acceptance of all. He reminded us that it is important for everyone to stand out in support of those who are persecuted for being members of the LGBTQ community.
After the service, over wine, snacks, and cake, I had interesting conversations with several attendees. I told Warren that everything in his excellent address also applies to atheists, and he agreed. Gays and atheists improve their standing in the community when they come out and stand out, and I would like to see them collaborate more because conservative religious groups oppose equal rights for both our communities. Warren and I are active members in our local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
I wore our humanist group’s t-shirt to the event, and received smiles and praise for my favorite pun on the back: “A Non-Prophet Organization.” Many attendees told me that they don’t believe in prophets, either. I mentioned that I enjoyed the ceremony, except for the prayers and hymns praising God. Some people said that “God” is mostly a metaphor to them and we are free to substitute “Good” for “God.” They sounded like secular humanists, and I invited them to join our local group.
One woman told me she believes God is queer, or at least queer-friendly. A few days later, I read a New York Times Op-Ed by Rabbi Mark Sameth titled, “Is God Transgender?” All this reminded me of the joke, “If God is a Unitarian, he probably spends all day questioning his existence.” Or maybe it isn’t meant to be a joke.
I attended the Gay Pride parade on Saturday, August 13, and was envious of how much greater acceptance the gay community has achieved, compared with the atheist community. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg was Grand Marshall of the parade, which had dozens of sponsors, and thousands of supporters cheered the passing parade along the route. All kinds of organizations marched with banners, including our secular humanist group. I saw a few signs on the sidewalk warning about sinners going to hell, but I just smiled at that, wondering if they believe a special place in hell is reserved for gay-friendly atheists.
Earlier that week, my wife Sharon and I went to a Gay Bingo event. I hadn’t played bingo since I was ten years old, but I don’t think I’ve lost any of my bingo skills. I was curious about how the event would differ from the bingo of my youth. Unfortunately, we were turned away, though not because of discrimination against heterosexuals. All 500 tickets for the event had previously sold online. At the Saturday parade, I saw a friend who had attended the bingo event and I asked her how gay bingo was different. Her response: “No straight line on the bingo card could win.”
Even at the parade, Donald Trump was channeled. Among the clever signs was “Make America Gay Again.” Perhaps we now need atheist and humanist signs that say “Make America Secular Again.” The world would be a better place if serious events would incorporate some friendly humor. The last time I played bingo, the word “gay” was a synonym for “happy.” In that sense, I hope we can make America gay again.