December 31, 2008

Atheists and Gays: Time For An Alliance

Gay rights demonstration at the Democratic Nat...Image via WikipediaThe role of many branches of the Christian church in passing Proposition 8 in California and Obama's selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his presidential inauguration suggest that an alliance between the atheist and LGBT communities might be worthy of serious consideration. We have a great deal in common. We also share a common "enemy" in Christian extremists, a group determined to treat us as second-class citizens with restricted civil rights. In this post, I'd like to address what I perceive as the two primary obstacles to such an alliance.

At the outset, let me be clear in stating that I recognize that there are probably many obstacles to such an alliance than what I will mention here. I am focusing on the two I perceive to be the most serious. I would also like to mention that I believe that both of these obstacles can be overcome.

Obstacle #1: Atheists Have Yet To Embrace Activism

Of course, there are many atheist activists, including some who have been leaders in this regard. However, there is still far too much apathy among atheists. The mindset of just wanting to be left alone by one's religious neighbors is far more common than any true activist impulse among atheists. Too many of us resist any sort of organization and turn our backs on the politics which has alienated us for so long.

In the so-called "new atheism," we have witnessed the beginnings of what might be described as an awakening; an awakening in the sense that some of us are beginning to realize that sitting idly by imperils us all. There is a genuine undercurrent of atheist activism building, but it is still being resisted by many.

To make real progress, we need to recognize that the atheist movement is about civil rights. We need to learn that by working for the good of all atheists, we are simultaneously helping ourselves, opposing religious extremism, and making it easier for future generations of atheists to be themselves. Getting involved in atheist activism can start small, but it does need to start.

Obstacle #2: Attitudes Toward Atheists in the Gay Community

What I am about to say may be unpopular, but it needs to be said. One of the main obstacles preventing an effective atheist-gay alliance is anti-atheist bigotry within the gay community. Since I am not gay, I realize that I may have precious little credibility here. For this reason, I'd like to draw your attention to an excellent post written by Greta Christina about her experience as an atheist in the gay community. She describes her experience as follows:
And yet I'm finding that I feel more at home -- more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood -- as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community.

Like, a lot more.
In her post, she describes many experiences of being made to feel like less of a gay activist because of her atheism. There are probably many reasons for this. Certainly, there are many gay people who are also religious. Even among those who aren't, there are differences of opinion regarding how best to work with those in the religious community.
I've heard the LGBT movement described as divided into two distinct groups: the reasonable ones who want to work with religious groups, and the unreasonable ones who think that religion is a delusion.
Sound familiar? See, I told you we had a lot in common!

Greta Christina perceives the atheist community as being very supportive of gay rights. I agree. I recognize that this is not a universal sentiment, but it is good to hear that it seems to apply to the majority. She attributes much of the difference (i.e., atheists tend to be more supportive of gay rights than gays do of atheist rights) to the length with which each movement has been active. I think this is an excellent point. We've had 40 years to learn about LGBT Americans and only a couple to learn about atheists.

Greta Christina offers many useful suggestions for how members of the gay community can ally with atheists. Best of all, her ideas apply to members of any group interesting in allying with atheists. And if you are an atheist, make sure you read what she has to say too. Unfortunately, I see some atheists making many of the same mistakes she highlights here (e.g., there is no such thing as a "fundamentalist" atheist).