What atheists can learn from the gay rights movement

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I’m not gay. But I am jealous. How did homosexuality shift in public opinion from less respectable than atheism to more? And what can the atheist movement learn from the LGBT movement?


The psychiatric community considered homosexuality a mental disorder until 1974, and it wasn’t until 2003 that the U. S. Supreme Court declared sodomy laws (same-sex sexual activity) unconstitutional.When the public is polled about a willingness to vote for a well-qualified person for president who happens to be gay or atheist, gays are now ranked ahead of atheists.

The most obvious and effective lesson atheists are learning from gays (including all LGBTs) is to come out of the closet. Attitudes toward gays changed rapidly when people learned that their friends, neighbors, and even family members were gay. Attitudes about atheists are slowly changing as atheists are slowly coming out.

Gays are more likely to come out publicly because it’s easier for atheists to remain in the closet. There aren’t many excuses to give your mother (or anyone else) about why you’ve been living for years with someone of the same-sex and not dating.

Like most Americans, I gave little thought to fundamentalist, soul-saving Christians until they began to focus on politics. I’ve never been a closeted atheist, but I was an apathetic atheist for most of my life. While a graduate student in New York and later a math professor in Massachusetts in the 1970s, my friends and I had more important things to discuss than religion. For instance, our sex lives. Most of my friends were probably apathetic atheists, and some of them, unfortunately, felt the need to be closeted gays.

Written By: Herb Silverman
continue to source article at washingtonpost.com

23 COMMENTS

  1. Is being an atheist truly comparable to being gay in the US? I know about the preferred president polls but I really can’t imagine atheists routinely being beaten up or atheist teenagers killing themselves. (I don’t want to belittle anyone’s troubles––I’m just curious.)

    • In reply to #1 by Lapithes:

      Is being an atheist truly comparable to being gay in the US? I know about the preferred president polls but I really can’t imagine atheists routinely being beaten up or atheist teenagers killing themselves. (I don’t want to belittle anyone’s troubles––I’m just curious.)

      I think in some cases atheists in the US can face serious discrimination, particularly in the military and certainly anyone coming out as an atheist who’s brought up in a strict religious community will have no support group. maybe the number of atheist teenage suicides is something that hasn’t been considered up to now. usually teenage suicides are related to feelings of isolation so it could happen. for all we know some have been labelled as gay suicide because it’s less embarrasing than having an atheist suicide in the family.

      not coming from the US i have no insight though, but i know my catholic mother would have much prefered i turned out gay than atheist

    • In reply to #1 by Lapithes:

      Is being an atheist truly comparable to being gay in the US? I know about the preferred president polls but I really can’t imagine atheists routinely being beaten up or atheist teenagers killing themselves. (I don’t want to belittle anyone’s troubles––I’m just curious.)

      I share your scepticism. Not being based in the US I have no direct experience but I am not sure whether the results of that poll about the presidency should be generalised to everyday life as an atheist/homosexual.

    • *In reply to #1 by Lapithes:

      You are not familiar with the experience of Jessica Ahlquist? Beginning as a sophomore (~15) in high school, ongoing harassment by an entire community and death threats over her objection to a prayer banner illegally displayed in a public school? Here are some links for you to followup:

      (1) Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/us/rhode-island-city-enraged-over-school-prayer-lawsuit.html?_r=0

      (2) Jennifer Ahlquist Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Ahlquist

      (3) Story archive at the Providence Journal http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/jessica-ahlquis.html

      (4) Freedom from Religion Foundation award, text of her acceptance speech and Q+A http://ffrf.org/outreach/awards/student-activist-awards/item/11995-jessica-ahlquist-thomas-jefferson-youth-activist

      (5) Online videos from various secular event where she speaks about her experiences; for instance, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzdHTeif5ko

      I’m surprised that the concepts of prolonged harassment, ostracism, verbal and psychological abuse and bullying, tantamount to torture, don’t leap to mind as easily as getting “beaten up”. I think it’s a miracle of her resilience, courage, intellect, family support and support from ACLU and FFRF that she has, from all appearances. emerged strong, healthy and forward-looking. Lacking some or all of those resources, I have trouble seeing how one could emerge without lasting damage.

      I have no doubt that far less intense persecution can and does have consequences up to and including suicides, murders or both. How can this be a surprise? These kinds of encounters rise to the level of a life-or-death struggle. Maybe that isn’t apparent In US or European society but the attempted assassination of 15 year old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan makes it obvious that that is exactly what is at the base of such reactions, wherever they take place and no matter how much smoke obscures the reality of it. *

      Is being an atheist truly comparable to being gay in the US? I know about the preferred president polls but I really can’t imagine atheists routinely being beaten up or atheist teenagers killing themselves. (I don’t want to belittle anyone’s troubles––I’m just curious.)

    • In reply to #1 by Lapithes:

      Is being an atheist truly comparable to being gay in the US? I know about the preferred president polls but I really can’t imagine atheists routinely being beaten up or atheist teenagers killing themselves. (I don’t want to belittle anyone’s troubles––I’m just curious.)

      Yes, living in the American South as an out-of-the-closet atheist can be just as dangerous, if not more dangerous these days than being openly gay. We have openly gay bars, and I haven’t heard of any hate-crimes of that nature in my area in quite a while.

      The reason it’s not as apparently as you might expect is exactly what this article is exposing. We are still, mostly, in the closet. I can be a quiet atheist and go to any bar. But if my atheism came out in a local bar, I would genuinely fear being beat down and left for dead.

      At least many gays may also still believe in god, in their eyes. There is no saving a smug, godless atheist.

  2. Once a person leaves the “big cities” like NY or LA, then one enters areas of the USA where one might be reluctant to declare one’s atheism openly.

    It’s interesting to think that religious people have less of a problem with Gays than with atheists. But I guess it makes some sense in view of the fact that many openly Gay people profess some religion. Atheism is a big, fat “thumbing of the nose” at what many Americans hold sacred. I think it truly makes people crazy to think that there are other people who live their lives without any concern whatever regarding their “immortal souls”.

  3. There is a series of videos on youtube “anything but an atheist” which gives an account of a community turning on a single family for being atheist. Not sure exactly which segment it is though.

    No suprises at all I’ve lived in towns where the community has choosin to pick on an entire family for the actions of a couple of there members including kids. Which is sad but its typical of any small community anywhere in the world.

  4. As a Gay man and an Atheist, I find it much harder to come out as an Atheist in many settings. There seems to be similar verbal hostility and disbelief towards Atheists now than when I came out in 1986 at the age of 16. Atheists will become the new target as the GOP loses its ability to use anti-Gay animus as a wedge issue.

    An example of the similarities, I have indicated to my parents many times that I am an Athiest, but they don’t acknowledge it and I don’t want to offend them by pushing the issue too much. They are 75 years old. On my being gay, I was and am uncompromising. I am gay and this will not change. They quickly came to accept my being gay. With Atheism and being Gay, you must establish that you are not confused, lost, young, angry at something, have not found the right whatever, were tormented during childhood, possessed by demons/devil/Satan, rejecting God, sexually abused, etc.

    Another example is a Gay friend of mine who does not attent church and is not religious, freaked out and shut down when I showed him Betty Bowers bible marriage skit. He did not want to watch it. Too sacrilegious for him!! Unbelievable!

    So yes, the Atheist movement can learn a lot from the gay rights movement.

    My suggestion is to COME OUT and focus on commonalities between Christians and Atheists
    1) Highlight common “moral” conserns. Helping the poor, fairness, compassion, love, understanding, forgiveness, redemption for the fallen, justice, etc,
    2) Consern for the well being children.
    3) Protection of American values and PERSONAL religious freedom.
    4). Do not miss opportunities to capitalize on the intolerance and hypocrisy of Radical Religious wackos and charlatans. Get media and political attention.
    5) Examine both the success and failures of the gay rights movement.
    6) Highlight religious bigotry, hate, hypocrisy, violence, sex crimes, crimes against humanity in other counties (such as accusation of witchcraft against young children, etc.)

    • The second most important lesson, after the importance of coming out, is the importance of being nice. Atheists need to be nicer! We can learn a lot from the LGBT community about this.

      Instead of “There is no God”, go with “There is no hell”. Call religion not a “delusion”, something you should be ashamed to have, but a “confusion”, an honest mistake that could happen to anybody. Someone who confesses her faith to you shouldn’t get hostility or courtesy (which creates distance) but amazement and wonder at how an otherwise wonderful person could have such a ridiculous notion (which invites a deep discussion).

      • In reply to #8 by Denial:

        The second most important lesson, after the importance of coming out, is the importance of being nice. Atheists need to be nicer! We can learn a lot from the LGBT community about this.

        Instead of “There is no God”, go with “There is no hell”. Call religion not a “delusion”, something you should be ashamed to have, but a “confusion”, an honest mistake that could happen to anybody. Someone who confesses her faith to you shouldn’t get hostility or courtesy (which creates distance) but amazement and wonder at how an otherwise wonderful person could have such a ridiculous notion (which invites a deep discussion).

        Yes, good on the GLBT community – but let’s not go too far in following them into the divisive politics of GLBT vs LGBT which has happened without consultation or consent.

      • In reply to #8 by Denial:

        The second most important lesson, after the importance of coming out, is the importance of being nice. Atheists need to be nicer! We can learn a lot from the LGBT community about this.

        Instead of “There is no God”, go with “There is no hell”. Call religion not a “delusion”, something you should be ashamed to have, but a “confusion”, an honest mistake that could happen to anybody. Someone who confesses her faith to you shouldn’t get hostility or courtesy (which creates distance) but amazement and wonder at how an otherwise wonderful person could have such a ridiculous notion (which invites a deep discussion).

        “Nice” the way Hitch, Harris and Dawkins – to whom we owe our greatest gains in recent history (next to being right)- have been and continue to be lambasted for NOT being? Not only by the mainstream media in their politically correct stupor but worse yet by some of our side’s finest e.g. the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Noam Chomsky, Martin Rees et al.

        How much niceness would you like in the face of worldwide systematic child rapes, child rape enabling and coverup, systematic brainwashing of children, condom prohibition, genital mutilation, honour killings, decapitations, suicide attacks, acid in little girls faces etc. ad nauseum?

        Be “nice” (not honest) to your 90-year-old incorrigibly devout catholic grandmother where the discomfort caused her by any “stridency” (being honest) on your part is not worth subjecting her to for the remote likelihood that any enlightenment can be gained. But let’s not hesitate to put our foot down in the presence of presumably responsible thinking adults. The benefit of which is reflected in every before and after poll taken at debates where antitheists can be heard NOT being “nice”.

        • I think this is the biggest problem with the movement. People confuse the soundness of the arguments with the personality of the speaker, and the coherence of the atheist movement ends up being undermined because some people don’t like the way the message is conveyed by other people. Then we end up arguing with each other.

          There is a pragmatic case to be made for tailoring the message to the recipient, but only once you’ve argued that the recipient is not responsive to reason, and not without either lying or being deceptive. BioLogos and Templeton have for years been trying to feed an accommodationist line to make science more compatible with religion, for example, and the result is that they’ve resorted to rewarding people with money and bowing down more to the religious side than to the scientific side, because that’s the way the public swings.

          Accommodationism doesn’t work. It’s practitioners confuse a reconciliation between people with a reconciliation between ideas. People can negotiate, but ideas don’t, and you end up with contradictions, evasions, fallacies, and ad hoc rationalizations when you try. The result is to alienate the “hard-liners” and to patronize the “soft-liners”.

          The atheist movement is, first and foremost, an intellectual movement, not a lifestyle one. It can only work superficially if it merely wants to get itself tolerated. If it’s going to be more profound than promoting a mindless “live-and-let-live” attitude, then unlike the gay rights movement, it can’t simply ask people to be nicer and less intolerant. It has to get at the root of the problem, which is that reason, science, humanism, secular philosophy, and Enlightenment values are neither appreciated nor fully accepted, and that faith, pseudoscience, bad ethics, theology, and Romantic or anti-Enlightenment values are far more prevalent.

          In reply to #19 by godsbuster:

          In reply to #8 by Denial:

          The second most important lesson, after the importance of coming out, is the importance of being nice. Atheists need to be nicer! We can learn a lot from the LGBT community about this.

          Instead of “There is no God”, go with “There is no hell”. Call religion not a “delusion”, something you should be ashamed to have, but a “confusion”, an honest mistake that could happen to anybody. Someone who confesses her faith to you shouldn’t get hostility or courtesy (which creates distance) but amazement and wonder at how an otherwise wonderful person could have such a ridiculous notion (which invites a deep discussion).

          “Nice” the way Hitch, Harris and Dawkins – to whom we owe our greatest gains in recent history (next to being right)- have been and continue to be lambasted for NOT being? Not only by the mainstream media in their politically correct stupor but worse yet by some of our side’s finest e.g. the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Noam Chomsky, Martin Rees et al.

          How much niceness would you like in the face of worldwide systematic child rapes, child rape enabling and coverup, systematic brainwashing of children, condom prohibition, genital mutilation, honour killings, decapitations, suicide attacks, acid in little girls faces etc. ad nauseum?

          Be “nice” (not honest) to your 90-year-old incorrigibly devout catholic grandmother where the discomfort caused her by any “stridency” (being honest) on your part is not worth subjecting her to for the remote likelihood that any enlightenment can be gained. But let’s not hesitate to put our foot down in the presence of presumably responsible thinking adults. The benefit of which is reflected in every before and after poll taken at debates where antitheists can be heard NOT being “nice”.

        • In reply to #19 by godsbuster:

          In reply to #8 by Denial:

          Chomsky’s criticism of the new atheists is more of what they don’t say than what they do– he complains about them ignoring what he calls the “state religion” of official enemies and allies, finance-driven corporatism, etc. I don’t recall him saying they weren’t nice enough. I’d be interested to see an interview or essay where he puts that view.

          • In reply to #21 by PERSON:

            In reply to #19 by godsbuster:

            In reply to #8 by Denial:

            Chomsky’s criticism of the new atheists is more of what they don’t say than what they do– he complains about them ignoring what he calls the “state religion” of official enemies and allies, finance-driven corporatism, etc. I don’t recall him saying they weren’t nice enough. I’d be interested to see an interview or essay where he puts that view.

            You are correct as is Chomsky and I lament the attitudes of both sides of the unnecessary and unfortunate Chomsky vs New Atheist feud (both sides are right): in depth on this page at comment #24

  5. @OP – When the public is polled about a willingness to vote for a well-qualified person for president who happens to be gay or atheist, gays are now ranked ahead of atheists.

    I think this is an American political and media thing.

    It is more to do with bigoted hate-preaching and demonizing of atheists by right-wing religinuts and fundamentalist preachers, than any aspects of individual atheist’s characters.

    The figures on US jail populations show that atheists are a very much smaller proportion of jail-birds than Xtians, in relation their percentage of the population.

    In the UK, there is a long list of atheists as politicians and politcal leaders.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List-of-atheists-in-politics-and-law#United-Kingdom

    To pick out just a few:-

    • Clement Attlee 1st Earl Attlee, KG, OM, CH, PC (1883–1967): Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951, under whose government the National Health Service and Welfare State were established.

    • James Callaghan KG, PC (1912–2005): British politician, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1976 to 1979 and the only person to have served in all four of the Great Offices of State

    • Alastair Campbell (1957–): Director of Communications and Strategy for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2003

    • Charles Clarke (1950–): British Labour Party politician, a Member of Parliament since 1997 and former Home Secretary

    • Nick Clegg (1967–): current Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Lord President of the Council (with special responsibility for political and constitutional reform), and the British Liberal Democrat Leader since 2007.

    • Donald Dewar (1937–2000): British Politician and Scottish first minister, from May 1999 until his sudden death in October 2000

    • Shreela Flather, Baroness Flather (1934–): British Conservative peer in the House of Lords, the first Asian woman to receive a peerage

    • Michael Foot (1913–2010): British politician and writer, leader of the Labour Party 1980–1983

    • Roy Hattersley PC (1932–): British Labour Party politician, author and journalist, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party 1983–1992

    • Neil Kinnock PC (1942–): British Labour politician, Leader of the Opposition and Labour Party leader 1983–1992

    • Ken Livingstone (1945–): Mayor of London 2000-08.

    • David Miliband (1965–): British Labour politician, Foreign Secretary from 2007 to 2010

    • Ed Miliband (1969–): British Labour politician, Leader of the Labour Party from 2010 to the present.

    • Mo Mowlam (1949–2005): Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

    • Michael Portillo former British Member of Parliament for the Conservative party, former Minister of Defence .

  6. I’m always a little bit reluctant to join in comparisons between being gay and being an atheist. I think the difference between a chosen position and one built-in by biology is relevant when it comes to talking about human rights and bigotry.

    A person’s attitude about religion tells you a lot more about what they think on a wide variety of issues than a person’s sexual preference does.

    • In reply to #11 by Steven Mading:

      I’m always a little bit reluctant to join in comparisons between being gay and being an atheist. I think the difference between a chosen position and one built-in by biology is relevant when it comes to talking about human rights and bigotry.

      A person’s attitude about religion tells you a lot more about what they think on a wide variety of issues than a person’s sexual preference does.

      It may not be totally correct to compare the two but there are good comparrisons.

      being gay is biological. as far as we can tell, it’s something you’re born with even if it doesn’t manifest until you become sexually aware.

      atheism is also something you’re born with, albeit by default rather than chance.

      on the issue of chosen position, I disagree. I was brought up christian. that was not my choice of course and eventually it was my choice to stop going to church but atheism was not a choice. chosing what you believe is a luxury only afforded by ignorance. for me to revert to christian beliefs I would have to unlearn everything that led me to atheism (and I took an interest in science very young). I know pwople who dispise religion but I see them as having made a choice because they fill their heads with new age nonsence or david icke beliefs in alien lizard people so in my opinion they could be converted to religion if a charasmatic enough preacher got to them.

      most of us however have reached our conclusion in a method more akin to natural selection, our brains are the environment and if we have a harsh unforgiving brain (i.e. a reasonable one) certain memes are unable to survive for very long.

      for me, choosing to not be an atheist is exactly the same as a gay person not to be gay. It’s possible to convince others, but that’s it

      • In reply to #15 by SaganTheCat:

        I think you’re right that there are certain kinds of personality that find it far harder to be religious, essentially because they care about beliefs and their linguistic and logical renderings, rather than caring about the (direct experience of) various other intuitions that allow world-perception (mental anticipation, social status, comfort-orientation, a drive to aesthetic discernment, notions of life essence, motive force, intentionality, etc, etc) and having beliefs constructed from those, which I think are able to sustain contradictions that readily impinge on a rational-oriented mind. On the other hand, 1) there are accurate (at least probabilistically so) intuitions that are not apparent to such a mind, but easily to other types. 2) a rational-oriented mind can be convinced of far greater, systemic, totalizing absurdities when parts of it are overridden by other intuitions less familiar and accessible to the self. 3) Reason by itself is a cutting tool. It can be used to make wonderful engravings, but more often it pares and destroys– at best the absurd and ill-considered, but sometimes the poorly understood, the deliberately misunderstood and so on. Further, other ways of thinking must construct before there is anything to consider and keep or dismiss. This is not necessarily obvious, because these assemblies can occur beyond the perception of the rational thinker.

  7. As someone who is an atheist but not gay, I have no experience with comparing them, but if I had to guess I’d guess that it’s easier for an atheist to live a lie pretending to believe in god than it is for a homosexual to live a lie pretending to be heterosexual.

    In other words, being a closeted homosexual probably takes more effort than being a closeted atheist.

    If this is true, on the one hand it would make life for gay people in homophobic areas harder then life for atheists in bible-belt areas, but it also would be a factor that slows down the rate of atheist acceptance.

    Every out-and-proud member of a maligned group serves as a counterexample to help break the stereotypes people have about that group. If it’s easier for atheists to stay closeted, then it’s also easier for atheist-phobes to sustain their stereotypes about atheists.

  8. This kind of duality is not new. If anyone remembers Shirley Chisolm, the black female congresswoman, she always said it was harder in public life to be a woman than black. There will always be a hardcore group of people against “you,” whomever the you is. The deal is that over time that minority gets louder and louder in protest, yearning for those always non existent good old day, when those fags, or coloreds, jews, papists, you get the idea, knew their place. That’s why they are so loud now. They are scared knowing that their view will be lost. Humanism is next. the drumbeat now is just where gay rights was in the 60s or so. Generations have to switch.

  9. I think it’s very specific to who you are and what enviroment you were brought up in.
    I’m English and both gay and atheist, and whilst I don’t bring atheism up unless the conversation is heading that way I’ve never had a problem being out and atheist, it’s treated as just another opinion like which football team you support or political party you vote for. For the most part I can agree to disagree agreeably.
    By contrast having been brought up in a conservative environment I find that even being assumed to be be gay got me some unwelcome attention at school from various bullies.
    In a former workplace when I complained about the dodgy health and safety practices involving storage of toxic resin the dusty long-neglected health and safety noticeboard aquired an alarmest pamphlet from the 80s about AIDS in the workplace overnight. One of my co-workers there openly bragged to a colleague of his intention to go gaybashing on the weekend. I have never experienced that as an atheist.
    My mum still treats my sexuality as our dirty little family secret that I can’t share with other close relatives and chimes along with whatever archbishops say about gay marriage being ‘the end of civilisation as we know it’ on the BBC news, so for me coming out as gay is a much tougher outing by a long chalk.
    Perhaps in certain fundamentalist or evangelical communities especially in the US or the middle east atheism is the bigger hotbutton issue, but I don’t think it’s as clearcut as one group having it easier than the other.

  10. I am totally in favor of making sure there is absolutely no discrimination against gays. A persons sexual preferences should be their private business. Regarding gay marriage, personally I think the State has no business regulating marriage at all except for providing for assistance to raise the next generation as healthy citizens. Obviously a gay couple can’t procreate, but they can adopt and for me that would be just fine.
    However, that aside , the other side of the gay movement is the desire of some people to openly define their personal essence by what type of sex they prefer and to attempt to force others to accept them on that basis. That to me is bizarre and dangerous and can lead to a very unbalanced personality. I don’t accept heterosexual people because of what sexual preferences they have, but because they are scientists, doctors, engineers, etc etc. The same should be true of homosexuals and their sexuality should be private and not stuck in peoples faces. I don’t want to know what sex you prefer…really.
    I don’t practice formal religion, but I don’t consider myself an atheist, because truly there really is no meaningful definition of God, so you can’t affirm or deny him. Conventional religion boasts of belief in God by faith alone, which is just as well, because I can guarantee that not one person in these religions has ever seen anything remotely like intelligible evidence for the existence of a God. But unfortunately for the atheist of the Dawkins cult, in my opinion, that’s exactly what you would expect. If I could use an analogy, it is like flatland. If you are confined to live in a 2D plane and another entity lives in 3D or higher complexity universe, you simply will never see the other until his trajectory intersects your plane, and at least in the 2D-3D case it is possible to prove mathematically that the 2D being can never calculate the 3D trajectory from anything he sees in his world. He will just see mystifying glimmers of something greater. This is an analogy, because in terms of the universe we don’t even know what “dimensions” exist beyond our own and we never will. That should not be a surprise. Your dog lives in your house and sees everything you do, but will he understand the extra “dimensions” of communication on the Internet? I doubt it. So why has a few genetic mutations made us any different. So, I don’t demean atheists. I just think they are seriously misguided in exactly the same way as conventional religious people who believe in angels and demons and a large God figure with a beard living in a place called heaven .

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