Leaving the Church During the AIDS Epidemic

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This reader, J.E. Park, doesn’t have HIV himself, but the way he saw many religious leaders talk about the afflicted—including someone very close to him—made him deeply cynical of organized religion:

When I was young, 12 or 13 or so, the U.S. was reaching the zenith of AIDS hysteria. Back then, an HIV diagnosis was a virtual death sentence, as there were few ways of treating it. And to complicate the situation, there was a huge stigma that went along with the discovery that one was carrying the virus. We had a very young child in our family who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, so we were all too aware of the horrible social consequences of this affliction: isolation, harassment, rejection, being forced out of school, and, in extreme cases, assault.

Obviously we were very sensitive to the fear and ignorance surrounding HIV, so we kept this child’s condition a secret, constantly listening to people pass judgement upon an afflicted, powerless segment of the population because they knew no better. I soon discovered that those most vocal and zealous in their condemnation of HIV victims were the very religious.  

Don’t get me wrong; there were churches and devout Christians taking a very active and compassionate role in caring for these people. But the worst of those persecuting these sick folks did so because they felt that AIDS was God’s way of removing homosexuals, prostitutes, and drug addicts from this world so that He could torment them in Hell.

I found that at best, these misguided religious leaders were blinded by their interpretation of their scripture. They just could not conceive that AIDS was not some sort of divine plague upon the wicked. At worst, I thought many of the more vocal instigators were just playing upon the tragedy to gain more publicity for themselves and their churches.

Either way, I discovered as a young teenager that religious leaders were just as ignorant and gullible as the rest of us and enjoyed no more of a special insight on man’s place in the universe than anybody else did. I eventually concluded that the more consumed a person was with their religion, the less connected with reality they were, even in matters that had little to do with the divine.  

By the time I graduated high school, I had little patience for church and no desire to participate in it, in any manner whatsoever. Sure, I went when my family went, and I’ve always been respectful of others’ religious beliefs, but at its core, I considered the Bible little more than a collection of fundamentalist fairy tales, something developed by early rulers to keep those they ruled acting in the manner that they wanted them to.

Funny thing is, I am not an atheist. I think that there is a place where science ends and God begins, but I have no idea where that is. I think of God as an entity that is just far too complex for the mortal mind to really comprehend.

After decades of meditation and contemplation, I have concluded that our purpose here is not to spend the eight or so decades we have on Earth praying and tithing, but rather to embrace the gift of life that we have been given and live it to its fullest, experiencing all that we can and learning all we can possibly learn until our time here expires. I am not enlightened enough to know to what end this serves, but if I am certain of one thing, it is that no one else does either.  

My best guess is that we use our knowledge to advance to a higher life form, be it in a trans-humanist conversion to the next step in the evolutionary ladder or the promotion to a higher level of some spiritual plane, but I cannot say for certain. I have no doubt that if God wanted me to know what my purpose in life was, He would possess the power to make me know it.

My life after rejecting conventional religion was truly liberated. My unwillingness to follow the herd allowed me to take novel approaches to my life choices. Seeking the answers to life’s big questions gave me an overwhelming curiosity of other people’s views and caused me to travel the world extensively to learn from them.

If you or someone close to you has HIV and it affected the way you thought about your religious faith, send us a note.