Educating atheists on religious aces

This is being cross-posted to A Trivial Knot.

Recently, I wrote an article for A Trivial Knot about how aces are affected by Evangelical Christian beliefs about pre-marital sex. This is an important topic, but also an iffy one for me to talk about. While I’m ex-Christian, I’m not ex-Evangelical, and the experiences described are not so similar to my own. Basically, I’m repeating and condensing stories I’ve heard from primary sources, such as the Aces in the Church zine and various bloggers. I worry that maybe I shouldn’t be talking about it at all, except to boost other voices.

But the fact of the matter is that a lot of atheists, especially politically active atheists, already have their own prejudices and presumptions about the experiences of religious aces. I have this platform that reaches a moderate number of progressive atheists, so I feel at least a bit responsible to get them on the right track. Also, atheist activists are not such a friendly group that I want to just send them to primary sources.

This was fresh on my mind at the 2017 SF Ace Unconference, so I attended a session for religious aces. The personal stories shared in that space were confidential and I will keep them that way. I did, however, ask them if they wanted me to share any particular message with my atheist readers.


One thing they felt important to emphasize is that there’s a distinction between asexuality and celibacy. While many Christian communities (all attendees were Christian) may value abstinence or celibacy, they tend to notice that asexuality is different, and be very suspicious of that difference. When other Christians fail to see the difference, that too can be uncomfortable as it is clear they do not really understand.

Also mentioned, religious orders that require celibacy are a deep commitments involving many factors–it is not something to be lightly suggested just because a person is asexual. It just doesn’t work that way.

Many atheists assume that aces get along with Christianity just fine, and it is important to counter that assumption. But I observed that there is also an opposite tendency, to sift through the stories of queer aces to find the one element that just proves that religion poisons everything. In other words, they use our stories as tools. For example, whenever religious queer people are mentioned, it’s common for atheists to say, “Why would they ever stay with their oppressors?” Well, gee, if you were actually listening to people’s stories rather than using them as tools, you would already have some answers to that question.

So why are religious aces staying with their “oppressors”?

The first answer is that they can find communities that aren’t oppressive. Everyone in the session was involved in a relatively LGBT-positive Christian community (which tends to come hand-in-hand with ace-positivity). Some of them had come from more conservative communities, but had left them. Atheist activists focus most of their efforts on what they see as the most harmful religious traditions–justifiably enough. But however justified, religious aces (and religious queer people in general) may not find this very relevant to their experiences. And obviously, if one of your major arguments against religion is based it being a big source of homophobia, that’s inapplicable to churches that aren’t.

Another attendee said that their Christianity was about their relationship with God. It wasn’t about having a community. If the community is bad, then that’s a problem they face in their life, but not a reason to stop being a Christian. (I note that some people do leave Christianity because they have issues with their communities, but that was not the experience of this attendee.)

I could ask an analogous question for atheists–why would any woman want to be an atheist? The atheist community is terribly sexist, and it’s like these women are siding with their oppressors. But as it turns out, people don’t become atheists just for the community. And women who want atheist communities can try to find progressive ones. So it isn’t any real mystery.

So what’s the general lesson for atheists? The relationship between Christianity and asexuality is neither as negative, nor as positive as you might think. It’s okay if you don’t entirely understand the complexities of the relationship, but please admit that you don’t understand them, instead of prejudging what they should be.

For the religious aces out there, please help by keeping me accountable, and grounded in real experiences.

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
This entry was posted in activism, Articles, Intersectionality. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Educating atheists on religious aces

  1. “Another attendee said that their Christianity was about their relationship with God. It wasn’t about having a community. If the community is bad, then that’s a problem they face in their life, but not a reason to stop being a Christian.”

    This quote pretty much sums up my own feelings and approach to being Muslim.

    One thing I would note is that a lot of non-religious and atheist people seem to assume that religions all love celibacy. This isn’t even true of many forms of Christianity, and it doesn’t apply at all to many other religions, like Islam. Rather, what is stressed is chastity before marriage – but the pressure to get married can be very strong. Islam as a religion discourages celibacy and strongly encourages marriage. It can be especially difficult for people who identify as or are commonly taken to be women, because of beliefs that being a wife and mother is a “womanly ideal”. Also, there’s a huge difference between someone in their teens or 20s who may still be perceived as “saving themselves” for marriage, and being a 44 year old “spinster” with no plans to get married, which is my own situation.

    I definitely agree that before people jump to conclusions about what the experiences of religious aces are like, they should listen to those who live it. And, don’t assume that everybody is Christian, or that all religions are like what you know about Christianity.

  2. Writer Ace says:

    As someone who is atheist, I find this really interesting. I’ve definitely seen a number of the opinions you mentioned, and I do think that the nuances of celibacy are hard to understand without a religious background.

    As a woman who is an atheist, while I understand your point about posing the analogous question, I’m kind of uncomfortable with this presentation as atheist being something you necessarily “become”, or that being an female atheist means choosing to side with oppressors. While your experience as being an ex-Christian may mean that you became atheist as some point in your life (I’m assuming from this post that you’re atheist, though please correct me if you’re wrong), some atheists (including me) were never anything before being atheist. It was never some sort of choice for me, because I just never believed in any deity. It’s not that I want to be an atheist, it’s just that I don’t believe in a deity and so by definition am. I may be being overly touchy (I’ll be the first person to admit it happens), but particularly because you singled out female atheists when discussing this, your phrasing feels a bit like another aspect of that general idea that atheism inherently belongs to men, and women are the hangers-on or latecomers.

    (And now that I’ve made this all about me, I’d be really interested to hear religious aces views on what the post was about.)

    • Siggy says:

      I hold the position that babies are not atheists, and therefore all atheists had at one point become atheists. But it’s not a point I care enough to argue about, it’s just something that might have unconsciously affected my word choice.

  3. Rivers says:

    “Another attendee said that their Christianity was about their relationship with God. It wasn’t about having a community. If the community is bad, then that’s a problem they face in their life, but not a reason to stop being a Christian.”

    This pretty much sums up my experience with being a Christian ace. Though I do like a lot of the different aspects of the community I am in, it is not the reason I am a Christian, and I would be a Christian even if I wasn’t in a Christian community. I was thirteen when I actually became a Christian through experiences completely out of my Christian community even though I had been in a Christian community all my life.

  4. Rachel says:

    – As an aro ace and a practicing, relatively devout Roman Catholic, I share the general view point of ace-muslim and Rivers, that faith is something that is worth pursuing even in midst of bad communities.
    – Vocal atheists, I’ve noticed, tend to treat Christianity as a single monolithic entity, ignoring the breadth and diversity of Christian traditions. Like… a lot of the stock criticisms run on the “Christianity is Catholic” trope (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ChristianityIsCatholic), except when that’s no longer convenient. The whole “Christians really dig celibacy” thing should really say “Catholics really dig celibacy.” The next point illustrates why:
    – Catholicism has a long tradition of monastic celibacy, and celibacy is broadly respected, even if marriage is still treated as the default for the laity. Protestantism, having forfeit monasticism and celibacy as a respectable life-style, lurches toward compulsory sexuality as a result, which is a pointed problem for aces regardless of their religious status. Protestant aces, please elaborate or correct me if I’m out of line here.
    – Setting aside, for a moment, the use of celibacy as a bludgeon against LGBTQ+ people in modern times… Historically, Catholic monastic celibacy probably served as a refuge for many LGBTQ+ people, especially women. Monastic celibacy was a common and laudable alternative to the marriage-and-babies route that was otherwise expected of women, and offered a alternative means of self-fulfillment.
    – The Catholic stance on celibacy and marriage both, while still broadly unfriendly to LGBTQ+ people, and indeed ace people like me, still validates my choice to remain single and abstinent, even if my orientation is not validated. And that’s a big step up from how I’m received by a lot of atheists (You’re asexual and religious? *Cue every single one of the misconceptions that our community has listed concerning asexuality and religion*).
    – In general, if atheists expect me, as a religious aro ace, to take their criticisms of religion-and-LGBTQ+-politics seriously and regard them as friendlies, then they absolutely need to have their facts straight.

    • Siggy says:

      Last year I had another post targeted at atheists talking about clerical celibacy.

    • ettina says:

      Yes.
      As an aspiring homeschooler, I’ve had a lot of unwelcome exposure to conservative Protestant creationists when looking for homeschooling resources. (Made worse because what currently appeals to me most is the Charlotte Mason style of homeschooling, and she came from that background.)
      And in that culture, while unmarried youth are expected to not even think about sex too much, married people are expected to have sex and lots of babies, and everyone is expected to find an opposite sex partner to marry.
      Also, the abysmal quality of their sex education, combined with their strongly negative views of sexual feelings in unmarried youth and the strong expectation that dealing with those feelings will be a constant battle, results in many aces mistaking other kinds of attraction for sexual attraction and feeling very guilty about it. An example here:
      https://homeschoolersanonymous.org/2013/05/24/asexuality-and-purity-teachings-can-be-a-toxic-mix-christine/

  5. Coyote says:

    I appreciate that Siggy can write about sensitive topics while still making me laugh.

    (“Also, atheist activists are not such a friendly group that I want to just send them to primary sources.”)
    (“But as it turns out, people don’t become atheists just for the community.”)

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