Frying Feelings – When Common Ground is Scorched Earth

David was distraught: the treatment wasn’t working. He had hoped this time would be different, that this time he would be cured, but even though the outward symptoms were under control he didn’t feel like anything had changed inside. Clearly, he wasn’t getting enough medication – he needed just a little bit more. So David went home after his treatment session, and stuck his fingers into an electrical outlet. As the current ran through his body, he knew – he knew – that soon, once he was no longer a homosexual, he would be loved by Jesus.


Luckily for David, the next thing he did was call Marc Adams. Adams runs a nonprofit called HeartStrong, which assists young gay people struggling through private religious educational institutions. For almost fifteen years, he has offered hope and support to students who receive neither from their schools and families, crisscrossing the country on a shoestring budget to speak in forums, visit schools, and perform outreach.

Some time after meeting Marc, David traveled with the HeartStrong outreach team back to his former university, and to the church where he had attended ex-gay therapy sessions.  Only this time, David was leaving HeartStrong outreach materials in the hope that someone still trapped in what Adams calls “the idolatry of acceptance” would find the path to personal acceptance and peace that he himself had found.

I raise the story of David (told to me by Marc Adams at a recent event at Harvard – thanks to Adams for extra details of David’s story) because, while the interfaith goals of State of Formation are worthy, I wonder if there always is common ground between people of differing faith traditions. When faced with stories like David’s, I question if I live in the same moral universe as some religious fundamentalists.

You see, David’s story is not unique, although it is extreme. Participants in so-called “gay conversion therapy” sometimes undergo utterly grotesque “treatments” to “cure” their condition. Youth in the Crosshairs, a report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute published in 2005, quotes the following from a 2001 study by Shidlo and Schroeder:

[The therapist would] lead me through different scenarios. Put myself in a nice beach, these men would come down, beautiful homosexual men, with Speedos. I would be attracted to them. As they opened their mouths, feces would come of their mouth, urine dripping out of their eyes and nose. The therapists would then take me to a peaceful place where Jesus would minister to me.

Another respondent describes their own experience with electro-shock therapy:

It was horrible. I was trying to destroy a part of myself. [It was] a form of suicide, of psychic suicide, where I was trying to kill something vital in myself, something natural, powerful, normal, and I was trying to electrocute it. Like I was frying feelings.

Take a moment to read those two statements again. And now recall that the speakers are subjecting themselves to this treatment because they have been convinced, through their religion, that such torture (is there any other way to describe it?) is good for them.

These are, again, extreme examples, and not all therapists who offer “conversion therapy” use such perverse techniques. But the whole enterprise of gay conversion is twisted, inhumane and ethically bankrupt. Increasingly, too, groups like Exodus International (“freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ”), Focus on the Family, and the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuals (NARTH) are targeting young people like David with their programs (see p.2 of the Youth in the Crosshairs report).

When I spoke recently at a rally against anti-gay bullying, in the wake of a batch of highly-publicized suicides of gay youth, I said the following:

We can all agree, if we have kids in our lives that we care about, that we don’t want them to suffer bullying because of their identity. Imagine, if you can stomach it, what it must be like to come back home to see a strange shape swinging from the tree in your back yard, twisting gently in the breeze, the creak of the branch as it bends with weight. And as you get closer, the feeling deep in your gut as you realize what it is, hanging there. Who it is. Who it was.

Because that was Seth Walsh, 13, who hung himself from a tree in his garden. It was Billy Lucas, 15, who hung himself at the home of his grandmother. It was Raymond Chase, who hung himself in his dorm room. And it could have you’re your brother, your sister, your son, your daughter or your friend. All these senseless deaths within the past few weeks, and these are just a few names in a very long list.

I thought I was drawing on a common source of values when I spoke those words. I thought we could all agree that condemning children to misery and self-hatred is wrong. But after hearing David’s story from Marc Adams, I am unsure. You see, David thought what he was doing to himself was the right thing to do. His parents, who presumably consented to the electro-shock “treatment”, thought so too, as did the helpful “therapist”. Midland, Arkansas school board official Clint McCance, who posted the following on Facebook, clearly felt he was doing the right thing, despite his later retraction: “The only way im wearin [purple] for [LGBT Youth who killed themselves] is if they all commit suicide… I like that fags cant procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die.”

It would be easy to say that these people did not love their children, did not care for their patients, and had no compassion for their fellow man and woman. But I think instead that they did “love”, they did “care” and they did have “compassion”. It’s just that their frightful fundamentalist religious beliefs twisted these concepts out of all recognition, making them think that doing harm to others, and wishing them dead, was the best way to secure for themselves and those in their care an eternal reward in the afterlife.

When David stuck his fingers in the electrical outlet, when his parents encouraged him to pursue “conversion therapy”, when the “therapist” applied the electrodes and when McCance said “I would disown my kids if they were gay”, they were displaying what counted for them as “love”, in a way entirely consistent with a theology which elevates heavenly reward above any amount of human misery in this life.

That is the danger of religions which promise life after death. When the basis of human empathy has been warped out of all recognition, when feelings of love and compassion have been fried by dogma, there is no common ground: only barren earth, scorched by buzzing electrodes.

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16 thoughts on “Frying Feelings – When Common Ground is Scorched Earth

  1. James,
    this is a riveting and thought provoking piece. Before I ask a couple of questions, I want to say that I’m not defending religion or eschatology and I’m not trying to rationalize the horrific treatments used in the “conversion therapy.” That being said, there are some Behaviorist psychological treatment regimens similar to what you mention above for OCD, and it’s considered serious science. Since one of OCD’s symptoms is the desire to wash the hands, some behaviorists get patients to use the visualizations you mention, handle “deposits” in public restrooms etc. My question is, aren’t these ‘therapists’ using a non-religious, in fact an anti-religious solution here, regardless of their justifications? Along this line, medical ethicists discount this sort of treatment but not on religious or eschatological grounds. I raise these because my religion includes people who say they speak on behalf of and in the name of religion, but always seem to rely extra-religious means to achieve their goals, and I wonder whether that inconsistency can’t be turned against extremism instead of against religion. Just thinking out loud though.

  2. Thank you for your comment Garfield! I recognize you are not trying to defend these practices.

    As you say, there are “some Behaviorist psychological treatment regimens similar to what you mention above for OCD, and it’s considered serious science.”

    The crucial distinction here is that OCD, in its extreme forms, is a debilitating condition which makes people miserable and unable to function effectively in the world. It is fair to class it as a mental disorder. Being gay absolutely is NOT: it is the entirely normal, expected variation of sexual preference in a complex species such as ours, mirrored in myriad other species.

    So while the treatments you describe for OCD might be unpleasant, they are at least aiming at improving someone’s quality of life. Gay conversion “therapy” aims at changing an aspect of their identity which in a loving environment would not cause them distress in the first place.

    What the religious teachings have done here is 1) convince people like David that they have a disorder when they do not and 2) rationalized their pain and misery by banking it against future spiritual rewards. Naturalists like me don’t engage in 1) and reject the premise of 2), so it seems hard to see how this isn’t directly related to a religious ethical code bolstered by belief in the afterlife…

  3. James,
    I appreciate your piece and feel the same horror that you eloquently express at the inhuman treatment these young people experienced from a faith community that should have supported them.
    That said, I must respectfully disagree with you that the problem is religion. The problem is characteristically ‘us-them’ syndrome, where the ‘other’ is seen only as representing the opposing ideology and is stripped of their humanity.
    I feel compelled to remind you that homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder that was subject to “treatment” until the 1970s. Morality has been overlooked for the sake of scientific advancement on more than one occasion in history.
    We (the U.S.) annihilated millions of citizens at Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the sake of a political and military upperhand.
    Human beings are capable of stunning atrocity thinly veiled behind any ideology they can get their hands on. Honestly, I don’t think it’s logically consistent to blame the dogma, or doctrine, or beliefs of a particular religion for atrocities that humans commit, when members of the same religion, holding to the same beliefs, doctrines and dogmas condemn and actively oppose such acts. I want to remind my fellow non-religious contributors and readers that secular ethics are every bit as susceptible to warping in the heat of a good ideological fervor, in whatever costume it dons – be it political, scientific…etc.

    1. I’m glad that this post is prompting discussion! Thank you for your reply, Allana, which I find both thought-provoking and honest. There are a number of things I want to say, which I doubt will fully resolve this issue, but may clarify some ideas and advance others.

      First, on “us-them syndrome”: it seems to me that the promise of eternal reward in an afterlife is a rather ingenious way to get an “us” to do terrible things to a “them”. This is simply not a weapon which is in the arsenal of the naturalist, however twisted their ideology: you simply cannot convince someone who does not believe in heaven to do something to get to heaven. You can promise them riches, power, sexual pleasure etc. but NOT eternal salvation. Since an ETERNAL reward logically trumps all other conceivable incentives to action this makes religions with an afterlife particularly dangerous when combined with humankind’s tendency to separate ourselves into in- and out-groups – this is the thrust of my article.

      Of course, the logic works the other way – the threat of eternal punishment should outweigh any sort of naturalistic punishment, and therefore the concept of an afterlife is a great tool to STOP people doing things as well. But just look at the sorts of things fundamentalists get most worked up about in this country (and remember my post specifically targets fundamentalists): sexual ethics, teaching accurate science in schools etc. They choose the wrong things to care about, and so prohibit life-affirming actions and promote harmful ones. Surely we can join together in opposing that?

      On the fact that homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder until recently, one has to ask the question why that might be. There have certainly been societies in human history which did not seem to have such a problem with homosexuality, so why did modern developed nations fall into this trap?

      You seem to suggest it was their scientific bent which led them astray, but I rather think that scientists are only human, and would be affected by the societal and cultural messages in which they were brought up. It just so happened that those messages included a concerted and centuries-long effort by many religious denominations to demonize gay people and their sexual expression as perversions from a godly ideal. My suspicion is it was that which stopped scientists recognizing their error earlier. The fact that NARTH, the primary organization to still promote the idea that homosexuality is a disorder, despite claiming to be a legitimate scientific organization, regularly collaborates with sectarian religious groups like Focus on the Family, and that much of their support comes from religious people, seems to support this idea (

      Finally, I want to respond to this very important point: you say “I want to remind my fellow non-religious contributors and readers that secular ethics are every bit as susceptible to warping in the heat of a good ideological fervor, in whatever costume it dons – be it political, scientific…etc.”

      I want to argue that this is false, but articulating the whole argument would take a while. In short form, what I would say is that secularism on its own does not protect you from extreme, inhumane dogmatism. It does, however, rob people of the powerful goad of an afterlife, as I have been arguing. So, while I think it is true that Secular worldviews are “susceptible to warping in the heat of a good ideological fervor”, they are not, I think, AS susceptible to warping in the heat of a good ideological fervor as religious ones.

      But simply getting a secular worldview is to not go far enough – you need more. Secularism PLUS an evidence-based, fallibilistic ethical stance DOES give you the means to guard against ideological fervour and success. Luckily for us all, a lifestance with these characteristics is available, and has been doing good work, without any extreme warping whatsoever, for many decades if not longer.

      I’ll let my readers guess what it is… =D

  4. James- in so many ways, you and I are singing in the same choir– though maybe in a different section. Thank you for your voice.

    I agree that religions which have calcified and supernaturalized to the point of overemphasizing some future life at the expense of this life are significantly to blame for many of society’s ills. Great religious figures like the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus and the Buddha were ‘secularizers’ of their time: Not the supernatural religion of the Temple, but the realm of God is within you when you cure the sick and care for widows and orphans; not the supernatural Atman/Brahman and the oppression of the Self, but the liberation of and from the Self from those oppressive supernatural structures– and this liberation is available to any person.

    Back to the violence– I hope you will admit that there has been a recent shift in Christianity at large away from a killing-for-the-faith-to-save-the-lost ethic (centuries of religiously rooted pogroms, inquisitions, crusades, wars, genocides, colonialism are firmly in our past, right? We can hope.). That said, it seems to me that the last fashionable place where otherwise good Christian folk still explicitly wield the weapon of their faith in this deadly manner is against gay people. I am persuaded by your language that to repress or to try to erase one’s sexuality is a kind of homicide– or a kind or suicide. And the bullies who torture and humiliate someone to death in the name of Christ (or God, or Country, or Nature) are Inquisitors and Crusaders, to be sure.

    In any case, the larger phenomenon of killing and dying for the faith is alive and well under the guise of nationalism and materialistic consumerism: we make heroes of those who kill and die in our patriotic wars, and we make royalty (as in stinking rich, richer-than-God!) out of Transnational Corporation CEOs and Wall Street Bankers, people who are responsible for generating suffering and death in staggering proportions. So, the fanatical impulse lives on in other visages– and these violences are absolutely condoned by the culture.

    At least religion still has its fingers in the pie: some of us have learned how to feel outrage against the sins of religion. I pray (and write here, and talk with my friends, and choose where and what to buy– I do not merely pray!) this sensitivity will spread so we can learn outrage against the sins of our other ideologies in addition to supernaturalistic religion. If we can, maybe we can do something to stem the tide of suffering issuing forth from them, as well.

    1. Thank you for your reply, Paul!

      I agree with much of what you say. I want to make it clear that this post was not meant as an attack on any particular religious faith, but on fundamentalism and the concept of an afterlife (which is common to many faiths, as you know).

      One thing that gives me pause in your response is this:

      ” the larger phenomenon of killing and dying for the faith is alive and well under the guise of nationalism and materialistic consumerism: we make heroes of those who kill and die in our patriotic wars, and we make royalty (as in stinking rich, richer-than-God!) out of Transnational Corporation CEOs and Wall Street Bankers, people who are responsible for generating suffering and death in staggering proportions.”

      I agree entirely that nationalism can become a dogma for which people will do almost anything, and in my mind this must be challenged, like all dogma. However I do not myself want to put “materialistic consumerism” in the same category. As a Humanist I value people’s freedom to choose where they place value in life, and to engage in transactions with others in order to attain what they value. At root, this is all “consumerism” is – the attempt by free agents to engage in voluntary exchanges to satisfy their needs and desires.

      Where this results in obviously oppressive outcomes, we should challenge this process. But it seems to me that the correct response is not to challenge voluntary transactions themselves, but to move aside barriers to others who are unable to engage in such transactions.

      This is a long discussion, but I think I’m going to be an outlier on this amongst most of the SoF group. “Transnational Corporation CEOs and Wall Street Bankers” have, collectively, hugely improved our standard of living, and I am not convinced that this has happened at the expense of anyone else.

  5. James, thanks for these stories and reflections. We might disagree with one another on a lot of points… but then I pretty much disagree with everyone about everything (ask my wife, professors, & friends!).

    In this particular instance, what I disagree with most is your insistence that religion is the problem and that secular ethics is the solution. It seem to me that in order to argue that, you would have to argue that these people (Focus on the Family, NARTH, etc) are adhering to the logical conclusions of their faith positions… that is, they are logical people who start from a false premise. Maybe that is what you think. If so, that is where we disagree. I think these folks are mostly driven by passions, ignorance, fear, and misunderstandings (e.g., thinking that homosexuality is a psychological disorder). Were their epistemological presuppositions to shift from a religious starting point to a secular one, they would not magically become logically people – they would still be people driven by passions, ignorance, fear, and misunderstandings.

    Alternatively, confronting the “idolatry of acceptance” that you mention is, I think, a wonderfully apt approach. This is something that, I hope, we can all agree on. And it cuts both ways – it may help explain why someone would subject themselves to such treatments, but it might also help us understand those who administer these barbaric practices – their need to be “normal” and the standard by which others should be judged.

    Kudos to you for provoking such a lively discussion! By the way, Paul, what do you mean by the phrase “the supernatural Atman/Brahman”?

    1. Disagreement is healthy, and discussion is what we’re here to do, right? So thank you for your comment, Brad!

      I’m not sure that I was arguing something quite so broad as “religion is the problem”. I am trying to make a more specific claim. I wish to argue that a fundamentalist adherence to an ideology which combines belief in an afterlife, in which one can be rewarded for moral actions in this life, with a set of moral principles which include oppressive and dehumanizing beliefs among them, gives you a logical route toward doing dehumanizing and oppressive things in order to secure your heavenly reward.

      Even if people are not driven entirely by that logic, that logical route (and moral justification for their actions) does exist, while it does not exist for any secular ideology. Indeed, I shall make my claim stronger: if someone really DOES believe that if they let their son make love to a man their son will go to hell, then it is not only logical for them to prevent their son from doing so by any means necessary, but morally mandated that they do so. It would be immoral NOT to send them to conversion therapy if that is what you truly believed.

      And one only has to look at the websites of Focus on the Family etc. to see that those are precisely the arguments that ARE used to justify these sorts of prejudices. When a politician, faith leader, teacher or “therapist” say that homosexuality is a “sin”, the force of their moral condemnation comes from the fact that they are essentially saying that by being homosexual one risks one’s soul – indeed, I have never been given any secular grounds whatsoever as to why homosexual activity should receive moral opprobrium.

      So when you suggest that “Were their epistemological presuppositions to shift from a religious starting point to a secular one, they would not magically become logically people”, I agree. But an extremely powerful tool in their arsenal would be removed – they would not be able to trade off misery in this life against eternal reward in the next.

      To me, that sounds like progress.

      1. James – thanks for the response – and I agree 100% that disagreement is healthy (at least, when it manifests in good discussions like this one!)

        I find your argument here much more compelling, and much narrower, than the position I garnered from the original post. If someone is being logical and dispassionate (vairāgya – a reference to my earlier post: ), then I, as a theologian, can at least engage them on historical, scriptural, traditional, and doctrinal grounds that may (hopefully) be somewhat convincing… at least, that is the wager I am making with my life and career path!

        For example, I would argue that “an ideology which combines belief in an afterlife, in which one can be rewarded for moral actions in this life” is not actually a moral position, because it is transactional/economic. There is no more “faith” in such a belief than there is in my “faith” that my contractor will follow through and put a new roof on my house now that I’ve given him a check. More than this, though, I would argue (against FoF folks) that such a belief directly contradicts the literal meaning of the Bible – Matthew 25 being just one of many examples, but certainly the best known.

        I suppose what I am trying to say (and what I think Paul, Allana, and Garfield may have been saying – though I don’t want to speak for them), is that we do have diverse faith positions, but this does not necessarily mean that we have different moral positions. We can each, in our own way, argue against immorality, oppression, and injustice. My hope is that this blog (and especially discussions such as this one) will help us to learn how to confront immoral actions and positions (like the “idolatry of acceptance”) together… the idea being that our diversity is not an impediment to our pursuit of social justice, but can actually be a tremendous benefit.

        1. Thanks Brad – I join you in the hope that “our diversity is not an impediment to our pursuit of social justice, but can actually be a tremendous benefit.” In general I believe this to be true. But at the margins, as I tried to express above, I sometimes wonder if it IS true. This is what my post was really trying to get at (although it does seem to have sparked a rather different discussion!): where can I find common ground with the sorts of individuals I describe?

          I would LOVE some ideas!

  6. The reason why religion is the culprit here is because religion is the reason why people fall victim to the idolatry of acceptance from that religion. People who are part of a religion like this example have already done many similar things just to be acceptable to whatever god they believe in. It’s the first step to being part of this version of christianity. You can’t be part of this version of christianity without desiring that acceptance from the chosen diety.

    So people who are part of this version of christianity who are trying to deal with items like sexual orientation and gender identity are just doing the same thing they have done in other parts of their lives… sacrificing everything for that acceptance.

    This idolatry of acceptance that takes hold of people in this version of christianity and other versions of other religions stems from that basic human need to be accepted and loved. However, in a great deal of religious living, humanity is discarded (in some instances it is a requirement) and thus, people will go to great lengths to maintain that acceptance.

    The reason that religion is the culprit here is that I have never known a non religious person to pursue electro shock therapy to change their behavior from homosexual to heterosexual. This is a unique issue to those who are part of a religion.

    Again, it all stems back to that loss or denial of one’s humanity which makes the person incapable of responding to the lack of acceptance in a human way so they seek any and embrace anything that promises that hope of acceptance. And when that acceptance contains what they think is their hope for eternity, it’s more often than not, too great a temptation.

    It’s a sad thing. But all the more reason for people to make every effort to help GLBT people who are struggling to stay connected to their humanity.

  7. I find it rather disturbing that intelligent people don’t see the lingering homophobia in this society emanating from organized religions. Where else would it be coming from? The Federal and state governments are rapidly disavowing it. The secular educational systems are no longer teaching it. The medical establishment has long dismissed it from ethical clinical practice. Ask any LGBT adult where they get the strongest homophobic vibes. He/she will NOT say, “From agnostics, atheists or secular humanists”. I guarantee this. Pointing a finger at that religion or that other religion just doesn’t cut it with me. I think it is avoidance of the basic fact that MOST religions on the planet still unify their flocks by making LGBT people ‘the other’. Doing it in the sin-not-the-sinner way is, in my opinion the most evil method of expressing this homophobia in some warped way of trying to appear compassionate.

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