Category Archives: Religion

Religion, atheism, and religious oppression

Finding my tribe

[Image: A young woman lights the first of a semi-circle of thirteen candles.]

I’ve just read a moving essay by Sherry F. Colb, a Jewish vegan professor, daughter of Holocaust survivors, and author of the book Mind If I Order The Cheeseburger? (which I recommend highly). As we’re currently in the season of the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’m reflecting on my own Jewish history. As with my difficulty fitting into the black community, I’ve never felt truly at ease with this aspect of my heritage.

I was born in 1970 to a white Jewish father and a black mother who believed in God but did not profess any specific religious affiliation. My father was very secular, said he hated going to Hebrew school and so didn’t want to make me suffer through it. I did attend pre-school activities at a Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh briefly when I was very young, before we moved to a WASP town in West Virginia in 1975.

We drove to Pittsburgh to attend a Passover seder at my grandparents’ house each year, and I lit Hanukkah candles (next to our Christmas tree), but that was about the extent of my Jewish upbringing. I never had a bat mitzvah (the one pictured above is from a hired photo shoot I did a few years ago), and did not attend any religious services.

We moved back to Pittsburgh in 1982, and in 1984 I enrolled in high school in a heavily Jewish community, with numerous synagogues. We often saw Orthodox families walking to shul, and some businesses were closed on Jewish holidays. But most of my Jewish friends were secular like my father, and agnostic or atheist in their beliefs even if they did observe various holidays and customs. I had already begun to doubt the existence of God by age 12, and by age 16 I was decidedly and openly atheist, a position I haven’t wavered from since.

In college at Northwestern, I became good friends with a couple of observant Jews (of the Reform variety), one of whom I began to date seriously.  He knew I was an atheist, and he hoped to become a rabbi. I tried to learn more about Judaism so that I might relate to him better, attending a few events with other students at Hillel.  But I simply could not reconcile my atheism with the direct, unmistakable presence of God in the Hebrew Bible. I did not feel that I could ignore this and simply celebrate Judaism in a secular way.

I tried once again some time after moving to California in 1992, reading books about Judaism and attending High Holy Days services at a synagogue in Berkeley. Once again, I was very uncomfortable with the theism inherent in the services. I could witness these events as a cultural phenomenon, but my perspective definitely felt  like that of an outsider, despite my Jewish heritage.

I knew many other atheist Jews felt strong connections to their heritage. I became quite enamored of monologist Josh Kornbluth, an atheist who spoke about Judaism frequently in his shows, and eventually traveled to the Holy Land for his bar mitzvah at the age of 52. But his upbringing – raised by Jewish Communists in New York City – was nothing like mine.

Along the way, I explored other religions. I discovered Buddhism in college, and identified as a Buddhist for a good 20 years. But I rarely practiced formal meditation, either alone or with others; Buddhism to me was (and still is, to some extent) primarily an ethical and philosophical stance. I’ve more recently read about Jainism, and have concluded that I agree with the fundamental ethics, but cannot relate to the metaphysics.

Starting in graduate school I also explored neo-paganism, doing a fair amount of reading (The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk was one of my favorite books) and briefly participating in a Church of All Worlds circle. But once again, the theism – even if there was more than one god/dess – turned me off to the practice. I felt that deifying nature by assigning human characteristics to nonhuman animals, plants, and natural phenomena diminished rather than enhanced these elements of our shared Earth. I also was a vegetarian moving toward veganism by this point, and felt a disconnect from people who practiced a nature-based religion while killing and eating farmed animals. (Many of the Buddhists I met ate animal flesh as well.)

Eventually, I decided I shouldn’t try to force a connection that just wasn’t there. When I realized two years ago that I was trans, part of the reason I changed my last name along with my first was that my original last name (which I never changed through two marriages) was very obviously Jewish. While there’s nothing more wrong with Judaism than with any other theistic religion (from my perspective), I felt strongly that I wanted to assert my own identity, not my father’s.

I took the name Gethen from The Left Hand of Darkness, a book by Ursula K. Le Guin about a planet with no gender roles, as all of the humanoids are literal hermaphrodites*. Being in the family of nonbinary people makes sense to me. And yet, I haven’t felt entirely comfortable in that “tribe” either. Nonbinary people, as with trans and other gender-variant people, have widely differing attitudes and life experiences. I attended a local genderqueer peer support group briefly, but felt it only highlighted how different my feelings about gender identity and expression are from most people.

Coming out as bisexual and, later, polyamorous, predated my coming out as trans by many years, and I did actively participate in bisexual and polyamory-focused events for awhile. But eventually I stopped going to these because I realized that sexual orientation and choice to have multiple partners were not enough of a common bond for me to spend time with others on just that basis. Changing my identity from bi to queer, and becoming much less sexually active, further distanced me from these communities.

Animal rights activists are another “tribe” I’ve tried to integrate with, but I’ve found that vegans and AR activists who are also staunchly against human oppression are seriously lacking. I’ve met some good friends through Direct Action Everywhere, but I haven’t been attending actions or meetups lately, for reasons I’ve written about previously. (Edit, August 2018: I left DxE in 2015.)

Musicians are the group I’ve had the most trouble with. While I have sung or played some kind of musical instrument since the age of three, I’ve never been able to maintain connections with other musicians outside of structured, paid settings, like the band workshops I took at the Blue Bear School of Music or my singing in the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco. I’m in an uncomfortable middle area where I’m frustrated with casual, inexperienced musicians, but not skilled enough to join the ranks of serious amateurs or professionals. The effect of testosterone on my vocal chords has further limited my ability to make music with others, though private lessons are helping.

It’s possible that I simply don’t have a “tribe,” and I should be OK with that. Over the last few months, I’ve preferred to spend as much time alone as possible, so not having any regular commitments to meet with others helps me relax a bit. But I do feel isolated and lonely at times.

I keep returning to the idea that there’s some group out there that relates to the world in the same way that I do. A community of nonbinary vegan atheist anarchists or socialists would be close to ideal, I suppose. But for now, I’ll continue to write and read and learn about the world around me, and hope that I find the inner peace I need to become a more effective activist.

* While appropriate in this fictional setting, the term “hermaphrodite” should never be used to describe humans with variant sexual anatomy. “Intersex” is the preferred term.

Animals are people, not property

[Image: Lisa, a pit bull with tan and white fur, relaxes on a sofa.]

Edit, June 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). My points about animal personhood still stand.

An insightful article about what it means to be human published yesterday on the Aphro-ism site got me thinking about how we define what a “person” is. Since I got involved in animal rights activism a year ago, the core of my philosophy has been that animals are people, not property. I’ve had this slogan as my profile photo on Facebook since soon after it was taken at this year’s DxE Forum (as part of The Faces We Fight With photo directory):

Pax: Animals are people, not property.
[Image: Pax holds a sign reading “Animal Liberation because… Animals are people, not property.”]

But what do I actually mean when I say “animals are people, not property?” Entire books have been written on this subject, with lots of academic jargon that many find inaccessible. I’m a grad school dropout and have no credentials in philosophy or any other academic subject, so I’ll try to keep it simple.

First of all, I’m an atheist, and I reject any notion that humans have a soul or other spiritual characteristics that set us apart from other animals. Anything written in a religious text that states or suggests that animals were created for humans to use is completely irrelevant to me. (I’m aware that many religions have a different conception of human-nonhuman relations, and that many believe that all living beings have souls, but I don’t want to stray into a discussion of comparative religion; I’m speaking from my own perspective, here.)

Second, there is no universal characteristic that humans have that other animals do not. Non-human animals have language (even if we humans can’t fully understand it). They make friends. They have families. Some of them use tools. Many modify their environments. The fact that humans have modified our environment to the point that we’ve taken over the Earth like a cancer does not, to me, merit granting us the exclusive title of “people.”

Many seem to confuse “person” with “citizen,” or at least “civilized person” (which, as the article I linked to at the top points out, is a white European conception of personhood). Some people make ridiculous, derailing statements about animal rights activists wanting to grant nonhumans the right to vote or to marry. The legal right to vote or marry does not define whether a human is a person or not. Societies that have these human rights defined must grant them to all regardless of race, gender, or other irrelevant characteristics, but species is not an irrelevant characteristic here.

A free-living animal has no use for voting or marriage. These are human concepts useful in a human society. Our votes do affect the lives of nonhuman animals, but this is because we insist on treating them as property, and on displacing “wild” animals from their homes for our own human developments.

Justice and equity are the goal of animal rights, not a false “equality” that pretends there’s no difference between a human, dog, pig, fish, or chicken. The most important things all of these animals have in common are the ability to feel and the desire to live, and none of them can consent to be used as the property of another. Until animals are viewed as individual persons, they will never receive justice, no matter how many welfare reforms are put into place to make them more comfortable while they are exploited and killed by humans. A person who is the property of another can never truly be free.

I’m well aware that my view is controversial, and outright offensive to many. Women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people who have been viewed as sub-human for centuries often do not take kindly to being lumped in with other animals. As a queer black agender trans male, I am a member of several of those oppressed groups, and speak out frequently against sexism, racism, heterosexism, and cissexism. I hope this might convince others that the argument that nonhuman animals are people, too, is not merely a tool of privileged white veganism. I am an animal, and I am a person, and I seek to liberate all animals from property status.

Privilege is not an on/off switch

[Image: A collage of people holding signs, with a question mark in the middle and the Direct Action Everywhere logo at the bottom.]

Edit, June 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), as have several others pictured in the above collage. My points about privilege and ranking oppression still stand.

A lot of people misunderstand the concept of privilege. White people and cis men in particular get very defensive when called out on speaking from a place of privilege. “I’m not privileged,” they cry, “I’m not [rich/straight/Christian/American/etc.]”

Here’s the thing. Privilege is not an on/off, yes/no switch. Nor is it something you can assess with an overall rank, despite what well-intentioned but misleading quiz memes might tell you. Privilege consists of many components, including but not limited to: Race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, physical and mental ability. Today’s article in Everyday Feminism addresses a lot of common misconceptions about this topic.

As a queer black trans atheist, I am a member of several oppressed groups. Despite this, I still enjoy many privileges. I am financially stable, college-educated, US-American, and English-speaking, for starters. I am also relatively able-bodied and slim.

But none of these privileges completely erase the disadvantages I have. My skin color makes me a greater target for police profiling and violence, independent of my class or education. Being a nonbinary trans person means that I experience social dysphoria on a daily basis, even though I have financial access to hormones that help with the physical dysphoria. Being queer means I face possible harassment and violence if I am affectionate with my male spouse in public, even though same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty US states. And being an atheist means that I am in one of the most despised groups of all in this country, independent of anything else about me.

When it comes to privilege, I find it unhelpful to rank oppression. Many animal rights activists correctly point out that we all enjoy human privilege. But as I’ve argued in my post about veganism and white privilege, that in no way means that racism, sexism, or other human issues are trivial by comparison. Rather than telling women, people of color, and others in disadvantaged groups to stop “playing the victim” because they supposedly have it so much better than non-human animals, we should be recognizing and honoring their struggles alongside our fight to end speciesism.

We should all use what privileges we do have to amplify the voices of those who do not share our advantages. The montage at the top of this post shows some of my fellow animal liberationists from Direct Action Everywhere; I took these photos at our annual forum. As also seen in our most recent video (I can be seen briefly at approximately 3:13), we represent a wide variety of races, genders, and nationalities, in a movement that is dominated by cis white voices. We come together to speak for the non-human animals whose voices have been silenced. I will be joining my DxE friends in San Francisco this Saturday, as we light the path to liberation.

Pope Francis is no ally of mine

Originally published on LiveJournal.

It seems every time Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic Church, suggests that we might not want to torture or outright kill people who don’t look or act like us, progressives fall all over each other to embrace him as an ally. Saying “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” landed him on the cover of The Advocate as “Person of the Year”. And now, saying “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly” has garnered the praise of animal rights organizations, and even the “Abolitionist Approach” vegan anti-welfarist Gary Francione.

Let’s look behind the curtain at what this man is really about. As head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis supports equal rights for one and only one category of people: Straight cisgender monogamous human males. He does not support reproductive rights for women (or anyone with a female-assigned reproductive system). He does not support same-sex marriage. He does not support gender transition. He does not support anyone other than straight cisgender men taking leadership roles in the Catholic Church.

In these regards, he is no different from any other Pope before him. Many individual Catholics feel differently, but it is the Pope specifically who is being praised by LGB and animal rights organizations. And as a queer trans person, I cannot tolerate this hypocrisy. This Pope, like all other Popes before him, is unapologetically sexist, heterosexist, cissexist, and speciesist.

I chose the words “heterosexist” and “cissexist” rather than the more familiar “homophobic” and “transphobic” to highlight that I don’t necessarily believe Pope Francis hates or is afraid of LGBT people. But whether he loves us or hates us is irrelevant; he is oppressing us. He makes theism, celibacy (in the case of gays and lesbians), and non-transition (in the case of trans people) prerequisites to his acceptance of us as worthy humans. Having compassion for someone and not outright condemning them is not allyship. If the Pope – or anyone else – does not support full and equal rights for all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation, he is not an ally.

In animal rights terms, the Pope’s language about “needless” suffering and dying is a welfarist smokescreen unless he follows it with a clear declaration that animals are not property for humans to enslave and kill for their flesh, eggs, milk, or any other purpose. Again here, it does not matter whether or not the Pope truly loves animals. I disagree with those who say that you cannot simultaneously love animals and be non-vegan. It is entirely possible, sadly, for someone to love an animal and still believe it is OK to enslave and kill them, because we live in a deeply speciesist society.

What matters is the perspective of the victim: The animal who is suffering and dying. And all farmed animals suffer and die needlessly, regardless of whether they are imprisoned in a factory farm or a backyard. As long as animals are considered the property of humans, this will not change, no matter how many encyclicals the Catholic Church releases talking about the value of animals in the eyes of the Lord. It is lip service, it is political, it is empty. “Humane” farming is the ultimate betrayal, visible in the terrified eyes of every fish, pig, chicken, calf, and lamb whose throat is slit for their flesh, skin, eggs, milk, or wool. Animal farming itself is, indeed, “needless”. But you won’t hear that from the Vatican.

I don’t want to hear about baby steps. Humans who make purchasing decisions are adults, not babies, and don’t need a religious figurehead to decide for them whether or not to enslave and kill animals for their meals, clothing, and entertainment. As a queer black trans human who seeks total animal liberation, the Pope is no ally of mine.