Atheism is not the “new gay marriage” (or the new anything else)

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A few months ago, Bill Maher made a claim that I regularly hear from other atheists: “[Atheists are] out there, they’re thinking it, they’re just afraid to say it. But that’s changing,” he said. “It’ll be the new gay marriage.” He’s certainly not the first person to have made the comparison. Earlier this year Todd Stiefel, […]

  • Tony

    I think there is a flaw in the logic used to make this article. It is easier to hide being an atheist than it is to hide being gay. If that wasn’t the case the christofascists would be able to show their intoralance of both communities equally.

  • Paul Kiari

    First, you ignore all of the gay atheists that do make the connection. Here is a post by a gay, atheist, ex-clergy with a PhD in Biblical Studies: Are they just “co-opting another community’s narrative” too?

    I don’t see how any of the comments you cite are saying that everything between the two communities is exactly the same or that they are they same by degree in every single category. Who cares. Like the article I cite, people are trying to build bridges between marginalized communities instead of burning them. I’d rather focus on the commonalities and build connections than the differences so we can go our separate ways.

    Second, You focus on physical violence and ignore other measures of prejudice. For instance in Pew’s long ongoing studying currently 30% of Americans would not vote for an otherwise qualified Gay candidate while 43% – almost 50% more – wouldn’t vote for an Atheist one. The article I cite discusses how in another way atheists have it worse than gays.

    Who cares if you’ve never been physically beaten up over being an atheist? Is that such a stark difference to you? It’s different in kind, yes, but not different in degree when you get disowned by your family for not believing in God or lose a job app because they find out you worked as a counselor at Camp Quest. We should bond over our lost families and jobs, than over who gets into more fights.

  • Paul Kiari

    Also, there is a huge rights component for atheism, if not to the degree you want in the US. When I lived in Indonesia a few years ago, there were only 5 recognized religions and Humanism/atheism isn’t on the list. Even when I registered my phone I had to put down Christian. But this is only to tip of the iceberg to those that are being jailed on Blasphemy charges;

    Maybe the Atheist Civil Rights Movement is global instead of local?

  • Queer atheist here. Atheist rights aren’t “the next gay rights” for the simple reason that it’s not an either/or thing. I don’t get up one day and think “today I’m going to fight for my right to housing and employment and education and health care as a queer person” and then the next get up and think “i did queer rights yesterday so today i’m going to fight for my rights as an atheist”. I don’t get to replace one struggle for the next, they both are one within me.

  • Stephen Minhinnick

    Atheism and LGBT rights are intertwined. Do you think that anti-gay prejudice would be so strong (or even exist) without being driven by religion? And there is no other group outside the LGBT movement that is so supportive of it as atheists. I would say that is because our opponents are the same people.

  • Stephen Goeman

    Very thankful for this crucial article. As Chris says, while the LGBT and atheist movement share many facial similarities, the comparison is ultimately harmful. I think the number of atheists who see the inability for atheists to hold public office and the prevalence of violence perpetuated against queer folks as equatable is deeply troubling (if only for the morally obvious fact that violence is obviously far more serious than not being liked). I’m grateful we have Chris working in both the LGBT and the atheist movements to thoughtfully tackle these nuanced concerns and keep us in check. I want to be a good ally to my LGBT neighbors, and claiming the trauma of the queer identity because I’ll never get to be president isn’t exactly a thing for a good ally to do. So excited for the next post in this column!

  • Nate

    I am truly sorry to all LGBTQ folk who have experienced persecution at the hands of Bible or Quran or Gita toting fundamentalist haters. Truly sorry. But please also remember that for as long as there have been LGBTQ rights movements in the US, religious voices have been part of that. Maybe a small part at first with only a few gay clergy- Episcopal, Catholic, Protestant- speaking out.

    But that support has grown and evolved, and LGBT rights would not enjoy the support it does today without a SIGNIFICANT number of religious folks –including clergy like myself — who have come to believe that Jesus’ words “love your neighbor” includes the support of full human rights and dignity for LGBTQ folks. So please don’t commit the prejudiced stereotype that all religious folks are monolithic on anything, including stances toward LGBTQ folk (or humanists for that matter).

    I also understand that atheists and humanists feel persecuted. And I think loving my neighbor also means my atheist neighbor. But I also find it infuriating to argue with fundamentalists of any stripe or ideology, from Fundamentalist Christians to Dawkins followers.

    There is a type of worldview that neurotically needs to be right about everything, and many things can be at the center of that worldview. For the Fundamentalist Christian, their rather small and parochial god is at the center. And all people everywhere for all time who have thought differently are damned. For the Dawkins brand atheist, their vitriolic anti-god is at the center. And all people everywhere for all time who have thought differently are irrational sub-humans.

    So, if you are an Atheist or a Christian of a fundamentalist stripe with a martyr complex, perhaps the first step to feeling less persecuted is to do some therapy to discover how much you may be mis-perceiving the world, and how much you may be inviting negative feelings from others by the way you treat them.

    I would encourage everyone, including myself, to reject stereotypes of “the other” as some type of monolithic whole that always does this and always thinks that. I would ask that we all hold our explanations of the universe with a bit of humility, knowing that we are probably not wholly right and everyone else who disagrees if probably not wholly wrong.

    And no, it is not a logical contradiction to say “I’m claiming to be absolutely right in saying no one can be absolutely right”. Rather, in a universe of infinite potentiality, it is logical to say that any finite interpretation of the universe, held by a finite interpreter, is going to be by definition finite. And thus by definition also capable of being modified and corrected as one takes more of the universe’s infinite potential into its data set.

    And thus, there is the possibility that no matter how large the Theist has drawn their “god” it may not actually describe “God”. And likewise for the Atheist, there is the possibility that no matter how many “gods” they have rejected, they have not actually rejected “God”. The Buddha– who was certainly no theist or atheist in an ordinary sense– told us not to confuse the moon with the fingers we use to point to the moon. Perhaps this 2500 year old nugget of wisdom would help dialogue today.

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  • James Barkeep

    I’ve known dozens of people who refer to their religion as “Catholic” or “Baptist” but have never once attended church, not even as a child. Perhaps it’s to have an identity or to avoid the hateful stares that one gets from Bible Belt conservatives who equate non believers with child molestors and devil worshipers? I don’t really know and I never asked but certainly found it beyond bizarre when all they knew about Jesus as “he was born on Christmas and died on Easter”. Oddly enough, I was a devout Christian until heavily researching it this past year and now perceive it as mass brainwashing.

  • Samuel Johnston

    It has been the theists who have politicized religion, not the non believers. A
    ‘community’ of non theists is no community, because it represents no point of view or condition, it is a mere negative. I have met with groups of so called atheists who strike me as mere negative Christians. Having struggled to fee myself from an intellectual prison where I was told what to think and how to judge, I have no desire to have anyone else speak for me.

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  • Linda LaScola

    When I hear someone say “Atheism is the new ___” I don’t take it to mean atheism is just like ___ , or that atheism supplants ____, but that these other movements have something in common with atheism and that their existence is making acceptance of atheism a lot easier.

  • Goldstein Squad Member

    And if atheists had political control they would be persecuting believers just like they have every time they had the power to do so.

    Etc. Etc. Etc.

    What else is new?


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  • Ian

    What is the point of trivializing the atheist movement compared to the LGBT movement? Are we trying to rank groups from experiencing the most discrimination to the least? To interpret Bill Maher’s quote as describing the atheist movement akin to LGBT discrimination is far fetched conjecture. Bill Maher is not claiming that the struggle against violence for the LGBT movement is analogous to the Atheist one. Perhaps he wants to emulate the effectiveness of the LGBT movement at changing policy and social acceptance. Let’s not forget the amount of elected politicians who are atheist. He is certainly trying to encourage more non religious people to become more active in the movement. His comment did not in any way shape or form mean to be interpreted as a slight against LGBT violence.

  • Heidi H.

    No, they aren’t the same. But at the same time the goals run fairly parallel. Atheists/agnostic activsts want a secular government that doesn’t favor one religion over another, and many in the LGBT community want a government that doesn’t disfavor them over certain religious beliefs that are used to justify their discrimination.

  • Atheists DO face discrimination in housing and employment. If you do not believe me, try stating you are an atheist in the south on your housing or employment application. You have to hide this fact in the south. That IS a fact.

  • N

    “The prevalence of violence in the U.S. motivated by an anti-atheist bias, however, is more than eclipsed by violence motivated by heterosexism.” So only the U.S. counts? What about all the places in the rest of the world where violence against both groups happens? How are thousands of death threats against atheist bloggers less important than other kinds of abuse? Violence is violence, whether it’s physical or emotional. Also, you fail to notice that the first people to draw the connection between movements were LGBTQ people. Greta Christina has been talking about this for years. And why is disgust somehow worse than fear? Both cause dehumanization and damage. As others have noted, it’s neither possible nor desirable to say that one group or the other is more persecuted given all the possible contextual differences. The point of connecting these two movements is to recognize the detrimental effects of having to hide, and the subtle ways in which not having the same freedoms as others causes pain and suffering for all. I get the point you are trying to make, but making value judgments about what’s worse is disrespectful to everyone. As a bisexual atheist, I am equally afraid to reveal either identity, for different but equally disturbing reasons. There are places in the world where I could be killed or imprisoned for being either.

  • Jen

    I’m a straight atheist. I’ve thought this for a while. So easy to stay in the closet as an atheist, and you’re right, it’s not the same level. You’re right in the difference between disgust and distrust and where that leads, and I’m shocked that this isn’t being spoken of more elsewhere. As a white atheist straight person, I’m immensely privileged and find it shocking that people want to compare themselves to queer people. I’m not under any stress to come out. In fact, I would be willing to bet that my mother and brother are both atheists if you pressed them, but I don’t know if they are or not and they don’t know I am. That’s in my own family! I realize some families aren’t like that, and some people push harder, but it’s just not the same at all.

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  • They still looks like he’s 30. Amazing.

  • Jon Abel

    Just so people don’t forget – there are still some straight atheists. I am one of them. I am 42. I have the unique experience of witnessing first-hand what trying to mix secular & alternative sexual orientation groups together – can do. Fargo’s ex-mayor (Jon Lingren) drove a 15 year lawsuit against Fargo, ND to get a 10 Commandments monument removed from the court-house lawn. This got the secular community to take notice. His group is called the Red River Free Thinkers. Being a scientist and an atheist, I decided to check it out. Unfortunately, the group turned out to be not well-rounded, and had no scientific members. Members were primarily LGBT – regardless of age demographic. There were even gay ministers in the group – this wasn’t a group for atheists, anymore – if it ever was I find that very discouraging that ex-mayor decided to camouflage his LGBT group at the expense of having any straight atheist members. Kind of hard to meet women that way, Lingen – don’t you think? Thanks for moving to Iowa.

  • Jon Abel

    Hi Jen,

    I hid my atheism for many years. I was a Catholic School “convert”. Anyway, nice to know there are a few straight one’s left. Thanks.

  • Jon Abel

    I agree, LGBT motivations against religion are different – than scientific motivations driving atheism. It is not the same. One is based on bullying, the other is based on convictions born of scientific thinking. It is a slippery slope to think that secular activism will be the same from both groups.

  • Jon Abel

    If you are a straight minister, then why would you come to this blog?

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