Is religion necessary?

Uganda is often held as the beacon of light in Africa for an example of how to fight AIDS and HIV infections. The country saw its first case of AIDS in 1982, and infection rates spread rapidly. In 1991, 15 percent of all adults, and 30 percent of pregnant women, were HIV positive and there was little knowledge among the people of how to prevent the spread of the disease. But after the introduction of a national campaign that number dropped to a mere 5 percent by the year 2000.

The success was largely attributed to the program that was implemented throughout the 1990s that focused on Abstinence, Be faithful and Condoms, or the ABCs. The ABC program executed a multi-regional and source approach. The United States and other nations helped fund this educational campaign. The government authorities developed a strong relationship with community groups, religions organizations and the ABCs became a mandatory lesson in schools. The government also launched an aggressive media campaign with billboards, radio and television ads that touted the ABCs as the best ways to avoid HIV and AIDS. Approximately 120 to 150 million condoms were distributed every year to help curb the spread of the disease.

Other African nations were encouraged to follow suit and take a similar approach to the Uganda ABC system and until 2002, the country’s infection rate was on a constant decline. After the conservative takeover of the White House and Congress, a new approach was advocated for the Uganda AIDS relief program. Bowing to pressure from conservative religious organizations, the Bush administration made AIDS funding contingent on certain so-called moral standards.

First, abstinence must be the main focus of all the education. And second, condom use should only be taught for “high-risk” groups such as truckers and prostitutes. The conservative groups argued that the abstinence only education would be the best avenue to avoid infection.

This new approach was welcomed with open arms by the First Lady Janet Museveni. She was a convert to born-again Christianity and was a firm believer in the abstinence-only programs. She helped usher in the change. The progress that had been so hard fought for began to change.

Instead of 120 million condoms being donated, only 35 million were donated in the year 2003. The percentage of people living in Uganda that were infected with the virus began to rise slowly. The Bush administration was patting itself on the back because it increased the amount of AIDS and HIV-prevention funds by nearly 50 percent. But all of the funding followed the same stipulations and infection rates began to slowly rise again. Then came three evangelic preachers to ‘help’ the country prevent the spread of the disease.

All three were famous for their controversial theories on homosexuality and were convinced that the AIDS epidemic was due to a tolerance of homosexuality. Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer hosted a conference in the capital city of Uganda, Kampala. The conference featured talks and recordings from the three who were viewed as experts. There were presentations about how to turn gay people straight. Other presentations warned of the evils of homosexuality and how gay men often rape young boys.

It was only one month after the conference that a bill called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 was introduced in Uganda. The bill called for the execution of homosexuals.

The introduction of the bill and the lack of a realistic well-rounded approach to AIDS prevention were the direct result of a religious interference into a government’s affairs. While religious groups have done immense good, the harm that is done in the name of Jesus Christ is still very much present. The evil nature of the anti-homosexuality bill and the implicit approval from the evangelic Christians is palpable.

With so much immorality performed in the name of a moral god, is religion still necessary? We no longer need a Sun God to explain why the sun rises and sets. Can science and good old-fashioned human decency simply replace religion? Morality is not an extension of religion and the two are not mutually exclusive. From the closeted-Mormon boy who suffers everyday because he knows he’ll never be the same as his peers, to the institutionalization of deadly homophobia, the poison of religion runs wide and deep in our nation.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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One Comment

  1. Seth,

    You are right on target. The rampant homophobia that is killing people in Uganda is directly due to conservative evangelicals from the US. Harper’s did a story on this called “The American roots of Uganda’s anti-gay persecutions” so this knowledge is out there, but largely ignored.

    Thank you for writing about this issue. Julie and I were in Africa recently, a few miles from the Uganda border, and as lesbians the threat in the air was palpable. “Mobs of Justice” stone gays at will.

    Is this caused by religion? You bet. To quote Anne Lamott, it’s stuff like this that makes Jesus want to drink gin straight from the cat’s dish.

    Julie and I are starting a church where this stuff is not only exposed, but rallied against. Our critics call us “anti-Christian” but given their definition of what Christian is, that’s a compliment.

    Co-Pastor, Cathedral of Hope Salt Lake City

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