Monday, April 27, 2009

Athiesm the New Gay-Rights?

The New York Times has an article on atheism, highlighting two groups of atheists and their outreach programs. Although atheism is still a small minority, its numbers are growing, especially in response to recent events:
Local and national atheist organizations have flourished in recent years, fed by outrage over the Bush administration’s embrace of the religious right. A spate of best-selling books on atheism also popularized the notion that nonbelief is not just an argument but a cause, like environmentalism or muscular dystrophy.
The article also discusses the discrimination atheists have experienced, Pres. Obama's respect of non-religious adherents, the growth and fostering of atheist communities, and their evangelistic outreach, including the belief of and growing lobbyist efforts for a strict separation of church and state.

I, however, found it interesting, though skeptical of its validity, that the atheists interviewed in the article compared their experiences to the struggles of the gay-rights movement:
They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.

“It’s not about carrying banners or protesting,” said Herb Silverman.... “The most important thing is coming out of the closet.”
The article provides several "coming out" stories. While I cannot speak to feelings of discrimination or to the sense of hiding one's true identity, I feel this comparison belittles the struggles that gay men and women have experienced. While my intuition is predicated solely upon anecdotal evidence of several friends, I think that atheists, while perhaps compelled to silence by sociological pressures, do not experience the sense of internalized shame that many gays feel. "Coming out" for a gay can alienate close friends and family members, and I just can't envision the same with atheists. But, I'm not an atheist. What are your thoughts on this comparison?


Darren Staley said...

Well, I think I am one of those things that you have argued in the past resemble unicorns: an agnostic.

Some view this as a cop out, and it may well be. But I truly don't know and neither side has been able to convince me in 34 years.

That said, I do see some parallels between athiesm and homosexuality in that athiests and gays, at least in some religious circles, are tagged as wrong, end of discussion.

But I tend to agree more with Drew. I've not seen many athiests, at least in the modern era, be arrested, denied equal rights under the law, beaten and killed, etc.

Also, I honestly believe that homosexuality, by and large, is genetic. Athieism is not. I could debate theology for hours and entertain thoughts of conversion as a possibility. I could not do the same on my sexual preference.

Chris Sanner said...

I'm...not sure exactly what to say about all of this...
though "some of my best friends are atheists" is accurate and snarky at the same time...

Gav Bluel does give it an interesting take in his webcomic, starting here:

the plotline is actually still running - with a few minor interruptions - even now.

Katie said...

I think that there are general similarities to the two experiences, but I tend to agree with Drew. I don't know of anyone who has been killed in the United States in recent memory for their atheism. Sadly, the same is not true for sexual orientation.

That said, I'm a religious minority at my Catholic university, and I can understand the anxiety that comes when you "come out" to your classmates and friends. It's never ended badly for me, but at the end of the day, no matter how normal you are, if your beliefs are different from the norm, you are different. And diversity is not always welcomed with open arms.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

I have several dear relatives who are atheists. Because they live in New York City, with its rich variety of religions and spiritualities, they have not experienced much in the way of discrimination.

But I also am part of a religious minority and have lived in the buckle of the Bible Belt in the South.

Most of the people I have met there were tolerant, kind, and gracious. But for a child growing up in a small town where everybody has basically the same set of religious beliefs, it can indeed be tough to be different. I can assure you the child who opted out of the "voluntary" school prayer that used to start the school day was ostracized and might have come home with a black eye.

By the time that child, if he's tough enough for his views to survive in tact, may internalize the shame of being different. Or he may be made all the stronger for it. Life is tough on the playground for anybody different.

People don't usually get killed for non belief, anymore. But of all groups, atheists are the ones for whom most voters say they would never vote because of those beliefs. That's quite an indictment. It means that most people would never vote for a person who may well be a brilliant scientist who unlocks the mystery of cancer and cures it.

Prejudice like that is ridiculous and robs society of the services of some very smart, capable public servants.

So, if your neighbor, co-worker, brother, or sister comes out of the religious closet, it may be a good thing that we begin to see that atheists are, in many ways, no different from you and me. They just have different views on religion.

And some of the worst crimes in history have been committed in the name of God. I don't think God necessarily approved of human interpretations of his will, but no faith or philosophy has a monopoly on folly or virtue.

Joel McDonald said...

As far as I know, Atheists aren't denied any rights in the United States, nor do they face the same level of opposition and bigotry from the majority.

However, I do understand the clashes religion can cause. I've seen religion divide too many families and friendships. It can be difficult to "come out" as an Atheist when you were raised as a Born Again Christian, or as a Christian when you come from a Muslim family. This isn't really about Atheist, but clashing systems of belief.

Because religion often determines how we interpret the world and process what happens to us, and forms our motives for what we do, altering or living ones chosen religion, different from those around them, creates a divide in perception. This divide isn't easily bridged.

I don't think the Ahtiest community has the same level of fight on their shoulders as the gay community does. However, both groups should have the same goal in mind. We all need to fight for greater understanding and acceptance of diversity, and use our differences as strengths rather than issues that divide. Above all, we need to resolve that all are equal, and should be treated as such.

Drew said...

Brilliant comments, all of you! I don't think that I can offer much more than that.

I would say that I do understand the cultural pressures against atheists, or other religious minorities (touching story AIAW), but that this analogy (atheism "coming out" like gay-rights) is strained. While the comparison does work on several levels, overall it belittles the struggles of gays.

And, as you all pointed out, in modern times (we aren't in Salem or Medieval Europe), civil rights are fully afforded to atheists and religious minorities. Let alone killed.

Alicia said...

Please read the following part of an article found in Newsweek titled “The end of Christian America”.

“..Percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent. The Jewish population is 1.2 percent; the Muslim, 0.6 percent. A separate Pew Forum poll echoed the ARIS finding, reporting that the percentage of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith has doubled in recent years, to 16 percent; in terms of voting, this group grew from 5 percent in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008—roughly the same percentage of the electorate as African-Americans. Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)

Drew to say that "atheist are a small minority" is true, but one that is greater than the Jewish, Muslim, and Episcopalian population of the United States is not one to be so swiped aside.

In Southside Virginia I would rather say in public that I was gay (which I am not) rather than an Agnostic or Atheist. Christian religions have come a long way to fight for homosexual rights and freedoms. Sexual freedom is now “tolerated” in the church. Can the same be said for someone who does not believe? We have come a long way from punishing people based on sexual orientation, color, religious choice . . . .but not so with the absence of religion. Trust me, we still have a long way to go. What athiest has openly run for office? Held a high office within a company? Taught your children?

I bet the list that you could name is short. Being such a large part of the population, trust me they are around, just still in the closet.