December 30, 2008

Could Same-Sex Marriage Bring the End of Christian Extremism?

Older LGBT Community
Older LGBT Community (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I fully realize that I will not live to see the end of Christian extremism in the United States. Far from being a source of despair, this encourages me to do what I can while I'm here. In fact, I'm feeling a bit optimistic at this moment that we may finally be nearing the beginning of what is almost sure to be a long and tortured decline of at least one form of Christian extremism. Specifically, I am very encouraged by what I'm seeing in the LGBT community in response to having the recent blow to their civil rights in California and elsewhere.

The Atheist Experience posted a great rant that really got me thinking. Here is an excerpt:
What a sickening cesspool of hate and fear Christianity has become. How can so many of its adherents live with themselves, when they actively take steps to bully, victimize, and bring misery to the lives of a group of people for the sole crime of being different? Word comes from California that it isn't enough for the supporters of Proposition H8 that they've banned gay marriage. Now they want to nullify the thousands of marriages that were performed in the few brief weeks that gays and lesbians actually got to see what having a basic human right was like.
Of course, the Christian extremists referenced in the first couple of sentences do not interpret what they are doing as bullying and the like. That is okay. The point, and the source of at least some of my optimism, is that others are starting to do so.

The degree to which hatred of LGBT persons is socially acceptable has declined substantially in the U.S. during my lifetime (except for when it is directed at atheists). Homophobia and anti-LGBT bigotry are still with us, to be sure. However, for a variety of reasons (mostly attributable to the LGBT community itself) it is somewhat less possible to express them with impunity than it used to be.

I believe this trend will continue, much as it has for racism and sexism. I will not live to see the end of Christian extremism, but I am confident that I will live to see the day when the majority of Americans not only accept same-sex marriage but look upon the current period of homophobia and bigotry with embarrassment. Children will grow up as puzzled by what they hear about gay rights as some of us have about equal rights for women or African Americans. It will not occur to them how they ever could have been a period in history when it was not okay for two consenting adults to marry.

What does this mean for the atheist movement? Plenty. First, I worry that anti-atheist bigotry may actually intensify as anti-gay bigotry becomes less acceptable. We have done such a poor job of organizing and becoming a political force that we are going to make an easy target. And if there is one thing we better have learned about Christian extremists by now, it is that they need a target.

But the news is not all bad. The second implication for us is that we have an effective model in the LGBT community from which we can learn a great deal. There is no need to start from square-one. We have a viable map if we are willing to use it.

Third, the Christian right (and to some degree Christianity itself) is at a real crossroads. Christian extremists have attached themselves so pervasively to bigotry and hatred of anyone who does not believe as they do that they are decreasing their odds of surviving in a multicultural world. Moderate Christians, on the other hand, have been doing some remarkable and praiseworthy things lately (e.g., working to end global poverty, fighting the spread of AIDS, protecting the environment, etc.). As gay rights becomes the norm, the gap between the extremists and the moderates will continue to widen. Perhaps moderates will finally realize that they can truly elevate their religion by jettisoning the extremists.

If my atheist readers are tempted at this point to protest that even such an improved religion would still be a religion and therefore bad, I'd have to say that I'm not sure I agree. Yes, an elevated sort of Christianity such as what I describe here would still make use of faith and would therefore be inherently irrational. But such a revitalized form of Christianity could end up being a genuine force for good. Imagine a religion focused on improving our world for all people. I'm not saying I'd join up, but I'd certainly see such a religion as a step in the right direction.