While Christianity is said to be the most popular religion worldwide, there are plenty of people — and plenty of LGBT people — who do not follow the teachings of Jesus. This can sometimes be tough, especially when living in the Bible belt, but many in Atlanta’s gay community prefer to believe in other entities — or not believe in any at all.
Coming out as atheist
Charone Pagett, 46, of Atlanta, is an out and proud atheist. She also identifies as a queer femme. Praying to God or to Jesus is something she just never was raised with or connected to, she said.
“My family, we never really did church. Although now my father is working his way to becoming a minister,” she said.
Pagett, who grew up Greensboro, N.C., is legally blind and as a child attended a school for the blind. The school was very Christian, she said, with prayers said all the time and field trips taken to revivals.
“There was always a disconnect for me and I just figured, ‘That’s something they do,’” she said.
Revivals, often very passionate affairs for believers, were, to Pagett, “boring and pointless.”
Pagett first learned of atheism in 1994 and about four years ago she decided to start educating herself on what it means to be a non-believer and to also advocate for other atheists.
Pagett is currently attempting to organize queer atheists in Atlanta and understands the difficulty some have with not identifying as such in public. She’s formed the Q & A of Atlanta Facebook page to get the movement started.
“I started thinking, where are all the queer non-believers? Being an atheist is another level of being out, I think, and many people are not ready to deal with that or it’s not central to their life,” she added.
As an activist in the queer community, Pagett also attends plenty of social events for LGBT people. At one event, she remembered a prayer being said before everyone ate dinner.
Already a firm atheist, Pagett was offended by the prayer and walked out. One woman asked her why, and when Pagett responded she did not believe in God, the woman — a member of the LGBT community — told her, “That’s a shame on you.”
“There are more churches being involved in the queer movement, and that’s OK,” Pagett added. “I have a lot of respect for that. But I don’t see their God.”
And while she is out as an atheist, Pagett said it not always easy for other gay people.
“It’s interesting being a closeted atheist in a community you would think would understand,” she said.
“‘Why are you an atheist? What do you do? What does that mean?’ I get asked that a lot,” Pagett said. “It’s isolating.”
For queers of color, this is especially difficult because the Christian church often played a large role in their life growing up.
“The black church is all over the place. It is a controlling mechanism. It is so strong and powerful,” she said. “I can see why some folk stay in it for that sense of community — if they came out as atheist, they would lose that community.”
One thing Pagett wants people to understand is that atheists are not immoral people because they don’t believe in God. There is science, nature and other human beings to believe in, she said.
“Morality doesn’t rest within a religion,” she said.
Buddhist and gay
Sharon DeParra, 51, was raised Catholic because she was a good child and did what her parents wanted her to do.
“But at a very early age I couldn’t understand the Bible, the language. It didn’t resonate with my life,” she said.
She now feels the pedophilia and other scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church are proof that as a child she was correct in her intuition that the church was no place for her.
She met her first Buddhists — two women — after leaving a gay bar with her former girlfriend more than 20 years ago.
The Buddhists invited them to a meeting and so she went to see what they were talking about.
“My first impression was so amazing, they were so friendly. The sounds of chanting were strange but familiar. I felt an instant connection,” she said.
There are many gay Buddhists, Deparra explained. In Atlanta she practices Buddhism at the Soka Gakkai International community center on 14th Street where all people are accepted.
“I know of no other religion that embraces gay people so much. We even have an LGBT conference each year in Florida,” she said.
Buddhism really speaks to DeParra because she said it easy enough for her to understand while also allowing her to be herself.
“Buddhism is based on the philosophy of universal law. There is the constant reminder that every thought, word and action are making a cause and there will be an effect,” she said. “This keeps me conscious of my being. That grounds me.”
A gay Wiccan
Wicca can generally be defined as a modern form of witchcraft, but not in the spooky, Halloween kind of way. For many Wiccans, the religion is based on the worship of the god and goddess that varies in the numerous denominations.
Dannie Lane, 41, of East Point, is a massage therapist who works with the Atlanta Bucks rugby team. He said he learned about Wicca in 1998 and started reading more.
“I wasn’t raised in any one religion. I went to a Catholic elementary school but I asked a lot of questions and was always reprimanded,” he said.
Even as a young child he knew he was looking for something other than a mainstream religion, but just not what that might be.
“There is no hard and fast rule for being Wiccan, but it is all inclusive,” he said. “And if I had a question, they had an answer. The symbolism also made me feel very welcome — Wicca is non-judgmental.”
Lane is a solitary Wiccan, meaning he doesn’t belong to a coven, and that is mostly because he has Native American ancestry and he likes to include Native American beliefs into his practice.
“There are quite a few groups in Georgia but I never fit in with that,” he said.
He stressed that the worship of dual deities, a god and goddess, are central to Wiccan theology.
“They are two halves of the same thing,” he explained.
It’s also important for Wiccans to live their lives by being conscious of not causing harm to any living thing.
“It’s more of a way of life,” he said.
The biggest misconception is that Wicca is a form of Satanism. That is not true, Lane said. In fact, Wicca doesn’t believe in good or bad or the devil — rather the religion understands that to understand peace there has to be chaos, to understand happiness, there has to be sorrow.
The earth also plays a large role in Wicca. In high school, Lane already practiced Wicca and said one teacher kept trying to get him kicked out of school. But most people left him alone.
“I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina and when I would hang a herb with thorns around it on my porch for protection, people would just say they remember their grandparents doing the same thing,” he said.
Top photo: Lesbian Buddhist Sharon DeParra of Atlanta says chanting is a way to keep herself grounded (by Lucy Estephanos)