A Religion Without the Divine
A few months ago my doorbell rang unexpectedly. In the spirit of curiosity, I went downstairs to see my surprise guests, who quickly revealed that the purpose of their visit was to share with me the good word of the Lord. I graciously expressed my lack of interest, and thanked them for stopping by. To their credit, they left agreeably, and neither tried to make me feel like an unrepentant sinner, a hateful reactionary, or someone who was actively obstructing their ability to exist. We went our separate ways without conflict, something only possible in a culture that values freedom of religion.
Which includes our culture, for the most part. It’s a standard tenet of classical liberalism: you believe how you want to believe. Even for those who see the United States as a “Christian nation,” most are content to let others have their different faiths, so long as they’re not proselytizing or engaging in acts of violence. Live and let live.
Door-to-door evangelism is a kind of activism I can respect, even when I disagree with the message. Compare this to the kind of activism happening at Kellie-Jay Keen’s ‘Let Women Speak’ events: people screaming at and physically assaulting people with whom they disagree. Even if we aren’t completely aligned on exactly how much free speech we should tolerate in a civilized society (shouting fire in a crowded movie theater? I say no!) and whether there is a meaningful difference between objectionable words and physical violence (I say yes!), it remains true that every person has a right to express their thoughts and feelings. Likewise, opponents have a right to express their disagreement. But they do not have a right to respond with physical violence.
The question of “when is violence justified” is out of scope for this essay. However, I think most people would agree that when those Jehovah's Witnesses showed up at my door and tried to persuade me to join their church, neither of us possessed the right to bring physical violence into that conversation.
Gender identity ideology, the belief that there is a gendered spirit that exists separate from the body, is a religion in all but name—and its successful penetration of our institutions depends on it not being seen as a religion. What makes it a religion and not ‘a natural progression of enlightened thought,’ as gender activists claim, are three things:
A hysterical disregard for evidence-based, reproducible research. ‘Children are dying! No time to wait for studies!’
The levels of initiation (like Scientology), in which one can ascend up the ladder from ‘cis ally’ to some variant of ‘trans’ (or chic alternative), often combined with increasingly complicated and risky “gender-affirming” surgeries.
Resistance to any kind of critical inquiry (of even its most extreme positions). “Trans voices” have unquestionable authority and must be treated as gospel.
Understand that I'm not attacking religion here. I’m saying that gender activists framing their belief system as the only morally justifiable worldview and calling for all unbelievers to be shunned is the type of thing that religious fundamentalists would do, not civil rights activists.
Nor am I attacking gender identity ideology. I just want it to be understood for what it really is. As an increasingly alienated leftist, I’ve seen too many of my own friends absorbed into this leaderless cult, suddenly unwilling to contemplate or discuss any other perspective. Whether they’ve adopted it intentionally or through community osmosis, the believers argue that gender identity ideology is true, has always been true, and to express anything other than wholehearted support is equivalent to injury.
I do think it's possible for people to believe in gender identity without resorting to intolerance or the worst excesses of the self-appointed revolutionary vanguard. But those people, quietly trying to live their lives, are not the theatrical attention-seekers who publicly delight at forcing ideological compliance. Part of my motivation in writing this is to inspire a more nuanced conversation about "trans rights" in the culture wars. It is a legitimate subject worthy of discussion. What rights do trans people have, and not have? In what cases, if any, are their rights more important than the rights of women who want to have single-sex spaces? If the gender identity activists truly want to create long-term change that actually benefits their demographic, they will need to do politics instead of just bullying their neighbors into submission.
It is the lack of willingness to have discussions about the thorny areas where their wants come into conflict with the wants of others that make this such an intolerant movement. And the one message we keep hearing is that if you do not believe as the gender activists do, you are a problem, and your lack of proper belief justifies the use of violence against you. This is a textbook example of religious extremism.
What is the significance of it being religious in nature? Because religion occupies a special niche in our culture: it shapes our ideas of the sacred and the profane. But even though there is widespread disagreement on the specifics of what constitutes each, we've managed to form some kind of common ground along the lines of respecting each other's personal freedom to act and believe as we choose, so long as our actions and beliefs don't interfere with others exercising their own freedom. ‘The Golden Rule,’ if you will. Most people, I think, would argue that people are free to worship however they choose. Of course, this ideal picture of tolerance is not always the case. History is full of crusades and jihads and persecutions for heresy under various names. Human society has a long relationship with the virtues and the horrors of religion. We know what it is, even if we still struggle with it.
So we can recognize, understand, and even empathize with a person motivated by religious fervor. We can respect the passion shown by a person in a state of religious ecstasy. But none of that requires that we unconditionally lower our psychic boundaries and adopt their beliefs at gunpoint. If such a person can accept that they will not convert you, and go their own way, there is no issue. But if that person threatens you with social repercussions or even physical harm for not assimilating, that is extremism.
Therefore, we hold religious people to certain standards. We accept their idiosyncrasies, while reserving the right to arrive at one’s own faith uncoerced. If we see gender identity ideology for what it is—a religion dressed up as a civil rights movement—we would be much less willing to entertain those ideologues in our schools and institutions. Also, in the United States, thanks to the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the legal standing for gender identity ideology in government goes away completely once it is accurately classified as a religion.
Gender identity ideology as a religion further means that we can (and should) have reasonable boundaries around how children are exposed to it. Here's a fun thought experiment: Would you be OK with a devout Christian, Jew, or Muslim going into your child's public school kindergarten class to lecture them about Jesus, Moses, or Mohammad? Probably not. If you were at the grocery store and you ran into a 6-year-old wearing a crucifix who told you that you were going to hell unless you devoted yourself to the church, you'd probably walk away from that encounter thinking, “well, that was weird and disturbing." But right now, gender disciples around the world are perfectly on board with a 6-year-old girl telling them with complete certainty (to the extent a 6-year-old can be certain about anything), "I am not a girl, I am a boy." No need to critically examine the circumstances, because it is a holy sign. Even the Abrahamic religions have a concept of Age of Majority, but in the world of gender identity, no age is too young to be sacrificed on the altar of hormones and surgeries.
Here's another thought experiment: next time you read the words “transwomen are women,” imagine it says “Jesus is Lord” or “Praise Allah.” It’s the same thing!
The most important difference between gender identity ideology and other religions is that it has no concept of the divine. There is no greater power at the center of the belief. The highest authority of gender identity ideology is the self. Thanks to social media, never before have young narcissists been able to organize with middle-aged narcissists so effectively, and then claim to speak for all queer people. The rest of us are not given the choice to opt out. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are forcibly conscripted into this doctrine, or we are excommunicated.
Humans are social animals. We are deeply influenced by each other. It’s one of the reasons that politics and religion exist. So, considering this kind of cultural dispute isn't anything new, why is the conversation about transgenderism so fraught?
Because the issue of men trying to be women (and vice versa) mirrors the central, much larger conflict in our society right now: the issue of humans trying to be God. There is a mischievous aspect of our nature that seeks to be subversive, to upend conventions, to do the impossible. This inclination to push against our limits has brought us the great technological gifts of the modern era. Yet this mischievousness is a double-edged sword, like so many other aspects of human nature that walk a fine line between adaptation and maladaptation. The only way out of this unsolvable predicament is to put down our fantasies, and to stop the foolish exercise of insisting to be that which we are not.
Am I anti-trans? No. I am anti-delusion. I want to live in a world where people are free to play with gender expression in self-love and with full, conscious acceptance of their bodies. The notion that anyone could be born in the wrong body is among the cruelest ideas to emerge from the unholy marriage of postmodernism and late-stage capitalism. There’s no profit to be made in teaching us how to love ourselves, but every gender-nonconforming person that embarks down the pathway of medicalization becomes a prisoner of the gender industry, and a customer for life.
We can argue all day over how much of the self is caused by nature versus nurture, but understanding the mechanics of our own existence is secondary to finding the ability to live at peace with one another, and to share in both the joys and hardships of life. Let us not be children, demanding that we submit to each other’s capricious, imaginary worlds. Let us be adults, willing to talk to each other as living beings worthy of mutual respect.
The author is a bisexual man living in the Northeastern U.S.