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

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, […]

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, a prominent atheist activist and generous philanthropist, took the analogy a step further when speaking with CNN:

“I consider myself working on the next civil equality movement, just like women’s rights, LGBT rights and African-American Civil Rights.”

Austin Cline claims on About.com’s atheism section that “atheists [are] hated more than gays,” and bestselling author Richard Dawkins has frequently compared the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) rights movement to the atheist movement—drawing heavily from the LGBTQ rights movement for his “Out Campaign,” which encourages atheists to “come out.” And these are just a few examples in a long line of well-intentioned atheist activists and organizations—who generally consider themselves LGBTQ allies—comparing the LGBTQ rights movement to the atheist movement.

Bill Maher

Bill Maher

There are things about this comparison that, on the surface, make sense: atheists and LGBTQs are marginalized communities that deviate from normative ideas about how people should live, that often share an experience of needing to reveal our identities to others (sometimes with terrible consequences), and that experience social stigma.

I understand the desire to compare our communities, and I think a useful partial analogy can be drawn for the sake of the atheist movement looking to and learning from the LGBTQ community. However, the extent of the comparison made by a number of atheists frustrates me. There is often a problematically broad equation of the challenges our communities face—that atheism is “the new gay marriage,” or “the next civil equality movement,” or other such claims—and I strongly object to that. Here’s why.

Hate crimes

Anti-atheist bias does exist, of course—particularly in other parts of the world—and it should be strongly condemned and combated. The prevalence of violence in the U.S. motivated by an anti-atheist bias, however, is more than eclipsed by violence motivated by heterosexism.

In 2012 the FBI reported that the largest percentage of reported hate crimes were those motivated by racial bias. After that, the next largest percentages of hate crimes were motivated by bias against sexual orientation and against religion (primarily against Jews and Muslims). But of the reported hate crimes motivated by bias against religious belief (18.7% of all hate crimes), only 0.9% stemmed from an anti-atheist/agnostic bias. In other words, the magnitude of violence against atheists and agnostics does not begin to compare to what many other communities experience.

Personally speaking, I rarely fear for my safety as an atheist in the U.S., but I frequently do as a queer person. I have been physically assaulted for being queer, and many of my Muslim and Jewish friends have also been the victims of hate crimes. This is not to say that anti-atheist hate crimes do not happen, but statistically they are extremely less common. Like other atheist activists and writers, I have received anti-atheist death threats—but there is a significant difference between threats and completed acts of violence, and the numbers aren’t at all equivalent. So when an atheist like Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins—powerful, influential, financially comfortable, heterosexual white men—implicitly or explicitly attempts to parallel his experience of life to those of people in other marginalized communities, it’s difficult not to cringe.

And that’s far from the only flaw in the equation of LGBTQ experience with atheist experience.

“Atheist rights”?

I’m passionate about challenging anti-atheist bias and actively do so in my day-to-day work, but the legal challenges atheists and queer people face are entirely different. It’s true that there are several states with laws saying that an atheist cannot hold public office—there isn’t much precedent for these laws being enforced, but that doesn’t mean that their existence isn’t a clear sign of bias or a violation of the separation of church and state. But it’s difficult to sympathize with the idea that issues like “In God We Trust” on our money or “One nation under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance are at all comparable to the fact that in many parts of the U.S. LGBTQ Americans—transgender Americans in particular—are not afforded essential protections under the law such as non-discrimination in employment or housing.

This distinction isn’t meant to minimize the sense of alienation that legally reinforced religious privilege or religious homogeny can create for nontheists, particularly for young nontheists who may feel like the only kids who do not believe in any gods when their peers recite the Pledge. These are important issues of inclusion and of the separation of church and state—issues that impact other non-Christian religious minorities as well—and they have my full support. But they are substantively different from the legal barriers many queer people still face. For the most part, few atheists suffer from a lack of legal protections in the U.S.

Thus, it seems untenable to claim that the American atheist movement is a “rights” movement in the same sense as the LGBTQ rights movement. Instead, the primary challenge atheists face is one of social stigma and of being excluded. The LGBTQ community faces this issue, too—but the equation of atheists and LGBTQs fails in this regard as well.

Disgust vs. distrust

I anticipate that some atheists might respond to this article by saying that the comparison between LGBTQ rights and the atheist movement is apt because the root of discrimination or stigma against both atheists and LGBTQ people grows out of a shared source: institutional religion. But while the roots of anti-LGBTQ and anti-atheist attitudes are far too complex to unpack in this piece, it is clear that religion alone is not responsible.

A myriad of religious and political institutions have perpetuated and sustained anti-LGBTQ attitudes throughout history, and these attitudes are still frequently expressed and enforced through religion—but calling religion the source would be misguided. (Besides: if atheists consider religion to be human-created, then it follows that anti-gay attitudes come from humans who sometimes express them through religion.) Instead of originating from religion, studies suggest that negative attitudes toward gay people are influenced by intuitive, moral disapproval linked to the emotion of disgust. An important series of studies from Paul Bloom and Joshua Knobe at Yale University, David A. Pizarro at Cornell University, and Yoel Inbar at Tilburg University suggest a strong link between disgust and negative attitudes toward homosexuality. Because of this link, anti-gay attitudes are frequently articulated through the rhetoric of disgust or dehumanization—“homosexual activity just isn’t natural” or “homosexuality is an illness” being two common examples. Sometimes this rhetoric is religious, but it seems to reflect an emotional source that’s ultimately not.

Anti-atheist sentiment, on the other hand, appears to be most strongly linked to distrust rather than disgust. In a set of studies from the University of British Columbia, Will Gervais and his colleagues found that atheists are highly distrusted. Trust is important when it comes to maintaining positive feelings toward a group, and this may explain why, for example, a 2013 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that Americans think that atheists are changing this country for the worse more than any other group.

To equate the two, however, is a stretch. Disgust is a very dehumanizing, visceral, and moralized emotion, whereas distrust is not—it’s the difference between denying someone’s humanity and simply avoiding them. This is perhaps why you see serious and widespread anti-gay prejudice in the U.S., but not such violent and frequent manifestations of anti-atheist prejudice. Thus, in addition to facing different legal challenges, the social stigma atheists face seems rooted in a different emotion and expresses itself differently.

Intersecting oppressions

As a queer atheist and as an activist, I understand the desire to connect the marginalization of atheists and LGBTQ people. In fact, I’ve done so myself. It’s tempting because such a connection can help suggest that people should reconsider a prejudice in light of its parallel to another. But appealing to intersectionality as a way of suggesting that marginalized groups’ experience of oppression is the same is shallow at best and erasure at worst. Rather than implying that the experiences of marginalized groups are the same, intersectionality is a way of recognizing that our struggles are systemically connected.

I feel the same kind of frustration over “atheism is the new gay” as I do when members of the LGBTQ community say that the fight for LGBTQ rights is the new civil rights movement. Such statements imply that the fight against racism is somehow over (I’m looking at you, recent GOP tweet), or that (white) queer people experience the same kinds or levels of discrimination that people of color do. That kind of relativism helps no one. Statements like “atheism is the new gay” are generally unhelpful for the same reason.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a parallel to make.

Though our communities face different (but connected) challenges originating from different (but connected) sources, we share an “outsider” status. Our identities deviate from the norm, and as “others” we must work to challenge the norm.

Challenging the norm, building relationships

In this vein, a number of atheists have pointed to the gay rights movement and said that in order to move the cultural needle as the gay rights movement has, the atheist movement needs both conciliatory atheists and aggressive ones (or “diplomats and firebrands”). But here again there is an important difference: the “confrontationalists” of the gay rights movement have worked to fight against heterosexism and legally supported discrimination and bias against queer people, but as a whole they haven’t worked to eliminate heterosexuality. Many vocal atheist activists—perhaps even the majority—name the elimination of religion as a primary goal. That is a very different fight than working toward freedom of—and freedom from—religion, or for greater societal acceptance for nontheists. In fact, the explicitly stated goal of ending religion may make the work of attaining allies—which has been crucial to the advancement of societal acceptance for LGBTQ people—much more difficult, if not impossible.

Unfamiliarity and outsider status is a shared challenge for atheists and LGBTQ people. In this regard a parallel is actually quite helpful, as atheists can benefit from studying how other marginalized communities have addressed this challenge. The Pew Research Center found that of the 14 percent of Americans who shifted from opposing to supporting same-sex marriage—a historic, monumental shift over such an incredibly short period of time—the top reason given was having “friends, family, acquaintances who are gay/lesbian.” Studies have shown that positive attitudes towards LGBTQ people are correlated with socialization. So while education is important, having a relationship with someone of a different identity seems to be the key to transformation.

This can of course apply to nontheists as well. The fewer relationships we have with people of faith, and the more often our activism is defined in the negative and focused on what separates us from others, the worse we will be perceived. But if atheists focus on building relationships with religious believers, much like the LGBTQ community has—while also vocally sharing our atheistic worldview in the affirmative—I suspect we will make major progress in combating anti-atheist bias based in distrust.

Toward a better world

Rather than co-opting another community’s narrative, let us see ours as a distinct part of the larger human story—the greater human quest for justice and progress. As the late agnostic astronomer and author Carl Sagan said in Cosmos: “Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group.” Relationships across lines of difference can help usher in this awareness. Or, as Sagan continued in Cosmos: “Groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together [is] surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.”

As we move ever closer to this recognition of our shared humanity, we must also recognize that our communities face unique challenges. Until Sagan’s vision of a united human community is realized, different communities will continue to face particular challenges rooted in our distinct histories. While we can learn from other movements like the LGBTQ rights movement, atheists will have to carve out our own particular path to justice. As we broaden our loyalties, let us avoid broadly equating our experiences.

We are not the “new gay,” or the new anything else. We are our own movement, and it would serve us well to remember that whenever we are tempted to broadly equate our experiences to those of other groups. While that may not be as pithy or as catchy as saying “atheism is the new gay,” it will bring us one step closer to a world undivided.

Please note: The views presented in this column reflect those of the author, and not necessarily his employers or any organizations or individuals he is affiliated with.