June 4, 2009

Atheist Activism: Lessons From Gay Rights

Milk (film)Image via Wikipedia

I finally got around to watching Milk. Not only was it a great film with strong acting all around, but I found it quite thought-provoking. I have repeatedly suggested here that the atheist movement could learn a great deal from the gay rights movement. Reasonably fresh from seeing this film, I am now more convinced of that than ever.

General Observations

One of the things that really struck me about both Milk and the various documentaries I have seen about gay rights at this point in history was how similar today's opposition to gay marriage is to the opposition to gay rights in the 1970s. At both points in time, the opposition has a Christian extremist core. At both points in time, the opponents were generally well-funded and relied heavily on fear-mongering via misinformation and bible quotes.

A second observation, more from history than the film itself, concerns the ongoing nature of the broader civil rights struggle. It is undeniable that great progress has been made. And yet, the fact that gay marriage is even controversial today, much less prohibited in most of the U.S., shows just how much work remains. Racism is alive and well, and even fleeting exposure to Lou Dobbs shows that anti-immigrant sentiment is similarly present. In many sectors, American women still earn less money for performing the same job than their male counterparts.

Essential Questions for Atheists

One of the key lessons we atheists must learn from Milk is that achieving equality is going to be a long and difficult struggle that will require sacrifice. This appears to be particularly true when those most vehemently opposing atheist equality are afflicted with religious extremism.

There are many questions we should ask and re-ask of ourselves and each other as we consider what lies ahead:
  1. How many of us are still denying our atheism to ourselves?
  2. Are we willing to fully "come out" as atheists in all spheres of our lives?
  3. If we have not personally been the victims of anti-atheist bigotry or discrimination, are we still willing to work for those who have and those who will be in the future?
  4. Are we willing to embrace atheist activism as a means to accomplish goals such as atheist equality?
  5. Will we strive to educate others about the meaning of atheism and correct the misconceptions we encounter?
I do not pretend to have all the answers. I am still struggling with some of these questions myself. But one thing I am starting to recognize is that the real enemy is not those who seek to keep us invisible or to demonize us; the real enemy is our own apathy.

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