AIDS and Religion: ‘The Wave of Hate Must Stop’ Part II

By The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG

Read Part I of this article here.


There are no easy solutions to the challenges that HIV/AIDS presents today to organised religion. Pessimists would say there are no solutions at all. The patriarchal organisation of religion, the vested interests, the ignorant literalism of scriptural interpretation, the anti-scientific attitude towards new knowledge, the ease of whipping up fear and hatred, and the diversions that these attitudes produce, all make it hard to turn the global response around.

Some religious leaders protest that they already have the “magic cure” to HIV. “Just say no”, they proclaim. Objective evidence shows that this strategy usually fails. People lapse. People are human. They fall into temptations for highly pleasurable activities. For one thing, telling people “just to say no” has not always worked with religious personnel themselves. How could it be expected to work with ordinary people? How, for example, can it seriously be expected that ordinary gay people will deny themselves the human endearment and life commitment of faithful companionship? Any religious leader who seriously suggests that the gay minority, numbering millions of human beings, should live a life of celibacy needs to get urgent psychotherapy. It is just not going to happen. Human realities must be faced. Those realities demand a new approach. If necessary, they require a new reading of ancient scriptural texts.

Human realities must be faced.

If religion needs such an adjustment in the current age, the realities must immediately address the minority communities that are at special risk to HIV infection. For men who have sex with men (MSM), it is essential to re-read the passages of scriptural condemnation that are often cited as divine foundations for hatred and punishment for gays. Coming to us as they do through multiple translations and from societies so different from our own, have these texts been misunderstood? Can it seriously be suggested that a loving God would hate a proportion of human beings who are gay or try to force them, against their nature, into heterosexual relations, just to please those who demand a false universal binary division of humanity? This seems as unlikely as suggesting that God hates left-handed people. Or black-skinned people. Or tall people. Variation is part of nature – of all living things. If such variation is God-given, it scarcely seems credible that God would impose on his creatures an irrational and perverse indulgence in activities alien to their nature. Or deny them activities central to their own discovery of love and human support.

Given that the solution of the present interface between religion and epidemiology is unlikely to be either the complete surrender of religion to science, still less of science to religion, a compromise needs to be found. In some religious circles, that compromise is now being addressed. It is not always easy to find. Sometimes it is painful just to explore it. But new lines must be drawn to chart the way ahead. They must be based on the urgent needs of the times, the moral necessity to reduce the damaging hate, and the immediate imperative to promote awareness, knowledge and self-protection, so as quickly to bring down the rates of HIV and the toll of death and suffering.

Specifically, what can people of religion do at this moment to help achieve such a compromise?

Religious institutions already help in many practical tasks of dealing with the consequences of the AIDS epidemic. They do so by providing the loving care for AIDS patients in hospitals and care agencies, as the Roman Catholic sisters at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia, have done from the very beginning of the epidemic. They provide comfort and support for the sick, the dying and the grieving, as religious people are doing every day in a world where deaths from AIDs still run at millions every year.

Religious schools and colleges should include truthful instruction to the young about the new and special danger of HIV that is in the midst of our societies. The young, particularly, need truthful instruction and knowledge so that they can protect themselves in the actuality of their lives. To deny such knowledge in the name of religious fidelity and in the face of the real dangers that face young people is very wrong. Somehow religions must find a means of upholding their doctrinal understandings whilst providing access to other and different knowledge for the young.

In considering notions such as chastity, virginity, monogamy and the like, religion must face, with clear insight, the truth of human conduct in the here and now. It must accept that chastity is not a path suitable to most human beings, certainly those in modern societies where they are daily bombarded by sexual messages of temptation and fantasy.

Chastity is not a path suitable to most human beings.

Access to the condom is a kind of litmus test in this respect. To ban condoms as a tool of promiscuity might arguably have been understandable in the 1950s. It became less so after the sexual revolution and scientific advances in safe contraception in the decades that followed. It became positively wrong and destructive of human life in the decades of AIDS.

It would not have required a brilliant theologian to construct a sensitive new rule that drew a distinction between condom use just for sexual promiscuity and usage to avoid spreading the HIV infection. Yet the great religious minds of the age, so skilled in dancing on the head of the pin, have not been able to wrap themselves around such a simple theological distinction. Instead, by opposing the availability of condoms and condemning their use, as religions do in many developing countries, religion has condemned many adherents to death in the actuality of their circumstances.

Secular governments have their own responsibility to ensure the spread of knowledge and the prevention of stigma and hatred. In some of the instances mentioned by Bishop Tutu, the authorities have stepped in, as police did recently in Kenya, to protect gays at the mercy of a mob. Where religions fail, there will always be dissident members and preachers of the essential messages of love and of life. Governments need to reach out to, and support, the voices of these wise prophets until, in God’s time, organised religion comes itself to listen to their wisdom.

Religious leaders and theologians need to go back to the supposed textual foundations for religious homophobia, sexual condemnation and patriarchy to search for the essential messages of love that lie at the root of all great religions. As a judge, I often saw lawyers who were distracted from the large legal themes because they confined their attention to particular words, read out of context. That, I suggest, is what has happened in the reading of religious texts interpreted as being antagonistic to gays, adulterers, apostates and others. As the world to which the religious text is addressed has changed so radically from the world in which it was first written, it behoves modern religious leaders to read the scriptural instructions in a contemporary context. Religion today, if it is to remain relevant, must re-examine its message with a light sharpened by modern scientific knowledge. When the literal truth of the creation of the universe described in the Biblical words of Genesis was cast in doubt by Darwin’s discoveries, religion gave way. Religion gave way in its struggle with Galileo and Copernicus. Most religions today do not literally demand death for apostates but respect the human right of people to change or abandon their religions. So the world of religion does move on. But a faster pace for change is needed in our current AIDS predicament.

Religion must be taken back to its basics of truly protecting every precious and beloved human life, of sanctifying human beings in all of their variety, of helping the sick, and of leaving the judgement of gays, adulterers and drug users to God. Unless religion can take this path, hate and stigma will continue to drive frightened people into ignorance. It will rob them of knowledge that is protective of their persons and thus of the persons of others. It will promote death. In the age of AIDS, we need a circuit breaker for a new relationship of religion and epidemiology.

In the age of AIDS, we need a circuit breaker for a new relationship of religion and epidemiology.


Faced with a challenge so large and complex, it is easy to despair.  How can lay people challenge the interpretations of holy texts to which the religious may devote their lives? How can the power relationships that have lasted so long be altered? How can attitudes of discomfort towards minorities be changed? Above all, how can change be secured in a very short time to meet the extreme urgency of the predicaments of suffering and the diminished capacity of our world to fund long-term AIDS treatments?

There are glimmers of hope. Never has there been a time when so many leaders of the world community have spoken so bluntly about the need to promote prevention as well as of human respect and dignity in the face of AIDS. But are the religious leaders of the world listening? Do they realise the special need for moral leadership on their part? Some are responding, as Bishop Tutu shows so clearly. But far too many are deaf or indifferent to his appeals. Some appear willing to write off the minorities in their ardent defence of unbending interpretations of old scriptural metaphors. This is a double tragedy for our time.

There are glimmers of hope.

Those who know the history of the AIDS epidemic, and what has worked and not worked in containing it, must re-double their efforts to engage with religious leaders. Urgent steps need to be taken world-wide, if possible with religious support.

All remaining criminal punishments of gay people must be removed everywhere. Consensual adult sex work and the empowerment of sex workers must be decriminalised so that they may safely insist on condom usage, amongst other things. Safe environments for sterile syringe exchange for injecting drug users (IDUs) must be provided.

We need to promote the education and empowerment of women, for they are normally the greatest teachers of the younger generation, as well as impartial education in schools and colleges of safer sexual and other practices. We need better and more candid community education and the promotion of self-awareness, laws, policies and leadership to combat discrimination and stigma.

Contacts between religious leaders and people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) must be promoted. PLWHAs are often the best advocates for empathy, understanding, love and sharing. In my youth, getting to know people of different races, cultures and lives, and appreciating that diversity is all simply part of the world’s reality, helped Australians to go beyond the “White Australia” policy. To do so, we need the engagement of epidemiologists and community representatives with theologians to encourage contextual interpretations of scripture and an awareness of contemporary urgencies.

We need to encourage and promote great religious leaders, like Bishop Tutu, whose words are always powerful with love and the true essence of their religion, and to promote the role of the secular state so as to uphold the rights of all people and to protect the vulnerable, including against the sorry instances of religious-supported ignorance and violence that Bishop Tutu describes.


This is a genuine right to life issue.

The world, in its AIDS predicament, needs an agenda for change. Is there time to make a difference? There has to be. Somehow we must reduce the continuing infections, for resources will not be available indefinitely to support treatment for the newly infected year by year.

How can we do this? We certainly know the measure and nature of the problem. We know what we can do right now to stem the hate. We must turn to religious leaders themselves to prove solutions beyond the simplistic and ineffective demands to “just say no”.

True love for the lives of others must illuminate our answers. Truly, this is a genuine right to life issue. It is past time to expect that effective answers will be given. The global challenge of HIV/AIDS demands of all of us that we be included amongst the solution. At the moment in the world, sadly, religion is all too often part of the problem of HIV/AIDS.

This is an abridged version of the address, Aids and Religion: The Wave of Hate Must Stop, given at the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance Symposium on Aids and Religion in Den Dolder, The Netherlands on 22 March 2010. The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG is a Commissioner of the UNDP Global Commission on HIV and the Law. He served as a Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1996 to 2009. He has also served as Foundation Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission.