Durban – Is religion fuelling hate in South Africa?

That’s what some experts have felt for some time and now a visiting pastor’s anti-gay utterances, which had local church-goers cheering, has strengthened their belief – and concern.

Dag Heward-Mills, visiting the Grace Bible Church in Soweto, said homosexuality was a sin and if same sex animals were not having sexual relations, why should humans?

“You don’t find two male dogs or two male lions, two male impalas, two male cats, even lizards, two male elephants. There’s nothing like that in nature, it’s unnatural,” he said.

The comments sparked outrage.

For clinical psychologist Suntosh Pillay, a member of the Africa LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and/or intersex) Human Rights Project, which is part of the Psychological Society of SA, this was further proof South Africans lived in a homophobic society and religion fuelled hate.

“Organised religion creates a mob mentality that gets people to think and act like zombies. When congregants cheer happily at hate speech, it’s tragic evidence of a very colonised, un-liberated mind,” Singh said.

“I am sure not all churches are like this, but the problem is deeper. People conveniently turn a blind eye to the hateful aspects of religious books in terms of sexism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. So the solution is not for there to be more liberal, open-minded churches. We have to challenge how religious books are interpreted and for whose benefit.”

Pillay said more people with a public image like gay Idols judge Somizi Mhlongo, who had stormed out of the sermon before venting on social media, needed to expose discrimination at their religious institutions.

“We must never, ever normalise discrimination. Every new instance of it must be exposed and reported on by the media.”

He questioned the nature of a church that invited a speaker and had no idea what the person would say.

“Do they not brief speakers on what is constitutionally acceptable in this country? This is a secular country. The constitution has the final say and our constitution is explicitly anti-homophobia and pro-human rights. We are lucky we have a constitution that protects everyone equally.

“But we have the responsibility as active citizens to make sure the legal rights we are entitled to are translated into cultural and social capital. Therefore, we must constantly call out discrimination when we see it, hear it or feel it. And people in powerful positions, like pastors, need to preach with a clean heart, free of hate and stupidity and use religion as force for social good.

“We already live in a country where hate crimes against LGBTI people are soaring. Homophobic churches are actually contributing to higher levels of crime, more hate in society and fuelling mental health problems such as depression, trauma and anxiety.

“All faith-based organisations need to really ask themselves what kind of society they are contributing to and if they think LGBTI people are part of the problem, then they are awfully misguided.”

He said true religion and spirituality should be about spreading universal values of love, compassion, empathy and wisdom.

“If you preach hate, you are the problem. Research and science shows over and over again that sexual and gender diversity is a completely normal, natural variation of human experience; it is not an immoral choice, nor an evil lifestyle. If you think it is, you have a hell of a lot of homework to do – liberate your minds.”

Professor Shakila Singh, associate professor of gender education at the School of Education at UKZN, said it was unfortunate people with power and influence, like church leaders, would use the platform to institutionalise prejudice and hatred.

“The pastor, in his sermon, presents homosexuality as an abomination and as unnatural. However disturbing the cheering from the congregants is, it is evidence of how widespread homophobia is.

“Having conservative, oppressive ideas validated by biblical and biological interpretations of what is legitimate, leads to entrenchment of these ideas that often result in violent expressions.

“Religious leaders are held in high esteem and their wisdom is seldom questioned. Sometimes misinformation is used to further particular agendas.”

Singh said religious leaders had a responsibility to address exclusions and injustices.

Archbishop William Slattery, spokesperson for the Catholic Church in South Africa, told POST he had felt uneasy when he read about the incident.

“It was an unsuitable statement. It was cruel. Gay people are people. They, too, are the image of God and must be treated with the utmost respect. To refer to gay people as animals is totally out of place.”

Anthony Waldhausen, the director of Gay and Lesbian Network, said Heward-Mills’ comments were uninformed and inflammatory.

“He comes from a country where they have criminalised gay and lesbian relationships and these inflammatory comments only serve to fuel hatred towards gay people.”

Waldhausen said gay people were also spiritual people and are now being forced to find solace with God elsewhere.

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