Massey University’s Professor of Social Work, Mark Henrickson, rebuttals Richard O’Brien’s recent Express Magazine op-ed on homophobia’s religious roots.

It looks like we’ve entered religion-bashing season again. I have often said that it is easier to be religious and gay than it is to be gay and religious. That is, in general, contemporary religious organisations are a lot more tolerant of gender and sexually diverse people than gay communities are of people who affiliate with a religion, or at least Christianity. As an avowed and practicing Christian gay person, I speak from inside both camps. There, I said it. Such a relief to get that out in the open.

The main problem seems to be confusing the people who claim to be religious with the religions themselves. I completely concur with Richard O’Brien when he writes that ‘a supernatural being that imposes his/her/their laws upon everybody, is not acceptable’. Confusing divine and human agendas, I think, is where the problems begin. 


Religion (and for that matter spirituality) has been described as the human experience of developing a sense of meaning, purpose, and morality. It is a way of making sense of the world around us. There are over 4200 religions or faith systems in the world today, and heaps more if we count the ones that have arisen and disappeared over the last few thousand years. Meaning-making seems to be a basic human need. We want to make sense of the chaotic world we live in, and spiritual, religious, and philosophical systems are a way to do that. Religious texts are a way to record those efforts.

The problems arise when those efforts are taken as final answers for everyone, not a best guess by a few.

Thanks to colonisation, mercantilism, and trade, a few religious systems have come to dominate the globe, including, as O’Brien writes, the Abrahamic ones (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their offshoots). They were the ones with guns, germs, and steel who took whatever they could from wherever they wished for empires and profit. There are also hundreds of millions of adherents to Indian or Eastern faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as Confucianism, Taoism, and their offshoots). There are also countless indigenous spiritualities, including pre-colonial Māori wairuatanga and tikanga, of course. 

History suggests to us that while almost all these systems proclaim peace, harmony, some kind of love, and service to humanity, just as many fail in those lofty aims. The answer to Rodney King’s question seems to be that no, we can’t all just get along. Human arrogance, fear, and intolerance demand that there is only one right way to make meaning of the world. 

I will be the first to acknowledge that people acting in the name of Christianity (among others) have done some absolutely gobsmackingly shocking things, including (but not at all limited to) the crusades, inquisitions, colonisation, missionisation by force, slavery, and so-called ‘reparative therapies’. Yet even the Athenians made Socrates drink hemlock. The deadly conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia, and Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar regularly make the news. 

The real problem is the human inability to accommodate diversity, yield privilege, and share power. 

Human arrogance perverts faith systems into personal or private agendas. Just as when we hear ‘law and order’ we know election season is coming, just as when we hear Putin (or anyone) complain about transpersons or sexual diversity, so you know that there is some personal or political agenda that is coming close behind, expecting to unite people in hate. We queer people make tempting targets.

The irony is that queer Christian church history has been suppressed. John Boswell, the late gay Yale historian who died of AIDS in 1994, claimed that the marriage rites of the church were originally devised for same-sex couples, but happily co-opted by cis-hetero opposite-sex couples, then vigorously defended when we said we wanted them back. Their Precious had to be protected. Now we queer people can all mimic happy heterosexuals, who mimicked same-sex couples in the first place.  

There have been and will always be Destiny churches and Gloriavales that call themselves Christian. (And yes, I would even point the finger at my own slowly evolving denomination.) They demand the world conform to their very limited worldview. It’s no coincidence that those examples are structured to preserve male privilege. The answer, I think, is not to dismiss religion as inherently oppressive or ridiculous, but to know more about it in order to expose the frauds for who they are.