Religion made me try to end my life
Gentle, loving Jesus – not fundamentalism – drove this queer teen to suicide attempts
What I believed almost once killed me. More precisely, I almost killed myself because of it and didn’t fail for want of trying.
It didn’t happen the way people think.
When I say religion made me try to end my life, they assume it was a fire-and-brimstone Christianity I followed, self-harming in a haze of biblical gay shame. The truth, I’m afraid, is much worse.
It wasn’t irrelevant that I was queer – bisexual, ish, if that matters – when I overdosed at fifteen. Teens who are LGBT are several times likelier to turn to suicide, with religion a commonly cited factor: especially but not just in the US, the fragile gay teen convinced God hates him is a borderline cliché. (“I prayed and prayed”, a Northern Irish colleague told me a few years ago who’d hoped to be transformed.) Somehow or other though, that wasn’t me.
As a preteen I certainly saw Christian homophobia. In my mother’s charismatic phase she said all kinds of things about gay men molesting children, bisexual ones spreading AIDS and walking a ho-mo-sexual being dangerous. These comments were couched in the secular language of early nineties headlines – paedophilia, paranoia, HIV – but I’m certain they were made first by members of her church, where the preacher’s wife thought even blow jobs were of the devil.
Mum’s views were always too confused to be entirely her own, and got watered down along with along with her religious beliefs over time, but at any rate they never quite stuck.
Somehow, and it sounds odd to say it now, whereas I bought even her most far-out claims about God, thinking Satan had possessed me once and marching through town in prayer on Halloween, what she said about “gays” never seemed rational. (As far as she was concerned, there were no other queer people.) One way or another, liking men never bothered me as time went on.
I was twelve when I stopped assuming I was straight and sixteen when I first called myself an atheist. Before that I’d returned to a gentler, more traditional church faith that made a point of being cerebral – mine was the Christianity of Irenaeus, Augustine and Aquinas, not guitars and quaking knees, and religious studies, where weekly I mouthed off in its defence, was my best subject. You’d think identifying with those men might have made me as homophobic as they were, and theoretically it might have, but intellectualism provides wiggle room.
Theologians told their texts suggest a cruel and violent god perform interpretive contortions with the suppleness of champion gymnasts, and I was equally double-jointed when it came to liking boys. Jesus said nothing about it after all, and I knew God’s destruction of Sodom was really a punishment for rape; likewise I knew it was pederasty, not consensual gay sex, Paul’s letters condemned – or else we all sinned one way or another, or else all were one in Christ. These are standard “LGBT-affirming” Christian arguments: traditionalist though I was, I always found progressive readings when I needed them.
Only once, at about twelve or thirteen, do I remember praying about being queer. Walking through the school gates, I asked silently not to be fixed but for God to accept me as I was. Unsurprisingly then and now, I immediately felt sure he did. Soundbites like “God is love” grated on me, sidestepping tritely the question of what scripture actually said, but my god was without a doubt the kind, cuddly one of liberals and revisionists. I no more feared a lightning bolt from him than any other, and in fact my faith was a shelter from secular homophobia, of which there was a lot where I grew up.
Liking men didn’t bother me, but people bothered me about it, and although that never made me feel bad about being queer, it did make me feel bad. For teenagers in the mid-2000s “gay” meant shit, and this sentiment was fired in my direction every day. I was spat on by classmates and much younger children, shouted at on my town’s streets and pelted with objects from passing cars; at school my possessions were taken – some hidden, some kept, some destroyed – and I was hit about the head with bags, footballs, empty chairs. Most boys found it enough to punch or kick me, but others deemed groping a means of sexual humiliation.
Day in, day out, this went on for years, and by my fifteenth birthday I was afraid to go outside. My faith was my one consolation: for whole evenings I submerged myself in prayer, absorbing every imagined drop of divine love that I could like it was morphine. I identified too with the suffering serenity of Jesus, pure enough to forgive his own killers.
In maths lessons where my back bled from the pairs of compasses driven into it, thoughts of his love for his enemies and prayers for those who persecuted him – his teachings to turn the other cheek and not live by the sword – were all that kept at bay the thought of suicide.
Atheists are sometimes balked at for not grasping religion’s power to comfort, its function in Marx’s words as the heart of a heartless world. Few understand this like I do.
But it doesn’t stop me thinking we’d be better off without it – and more specifically, that I’d have been. God was my morphine, but self-medicating is dangerous, and over time the effects wore off.
When in the last days of 2006 I swallowed whole boxfuls of painkillers, it was because prayer hadn’t worked. In self-righteous religious masochism I’d let go and let God – sat passively for years through intimidation, violence and abuse, convinced it was the virtuous response and that with infinite love on my side, I could survive anything. I couldn’t.
God or no God, a mind can only take so much before it breaks, and the truth is it was my own reserves of mental strength that I drew on – reserves that once push came to shove proved all too finite. Liberal believers tell me fundamentalism is the problem; faitheists say “dogmatism and totalitarianism”; but the idea God never gives us more than we can handle – that with him, we can weather any storm – is none of these things. It’s nice, it’s mainstream and it’s deeply dangerous.
Without gentle, loving Jesus to inspire compassion and restraint, I’d never have reached that point anyway. My progressive, non-fundamentalist faith taught me to turn the other cheek and not resist being stabbed and spat on, instead forgiving and praying for my assailants: had I instead chosen to defend myself, I’d never have needed the whole armour of God. This teaching too is nice, mainstream and dangerous, pushed in my church community, spouted in primary schools and cited even by atheists as wise. You can guess how the latter makes me feel.
Confining criticism of religion to the most far-out versions is diplomatic, but it silences people with stories like mine. It wasn’t Fred Phelps or Leviticus that drove me, as a queer fifteen-year-old, to suicide – nor even the fiery, damnation-obsessed Christianity I’d known as a child. It was the peace and love of an all-accepting god worshipped by “progressives” everywhere, and believing in him harmed me more than fundamentalism ever did.
Editor’s note: The image used to illustrate this piece was taken from this site which, in 2011, reported:
Lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) teens are five times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, says a new study, but living in a supportive community can help mitigate this effect. In addition, suicide attempts by gay teens – and even straight kids – are more common in politically conservative areas where schools don’t have programs supporting gay rights, a study involving nearly 32,000 high school students found.