What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Community February 17, 2010

What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Community

Greta Christina has an excellent piece on what the atheist movement can learn from the gay movement.

There’s another lesson that I think atheists can learn from the LGBT movement; one that the LGBT movement took a little while to learn. And that’s to let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats. We need to recognize that not all activists pursue activism in the same say; we need to recognize that using both more confrontational and more diplomatic approaches makes us a stronger movement, and that both these approaches used together, synergistically, are more powerful than either approach alone.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t debate our tactical differences. On any given issue, it’s sometimes worth debating whether diplomacy or confrontation (or a combination) will be a more effective tactic in that particular case. But I’d like to us stop treating these debates as if they were larger questions of morality or character that have to be resolved in one direction or the other once and for all…

You would think we’d have an advantage here, being able to learn from any of the GLBT movement’s mistakes… but we continue to argue over petty things like language and don’t do enough to work together on bigger issues.

There’s some progress on that front, but not enough.

What would be ideal is to have a grassroots movement arise where atheists everywhere just begin to come out to their friends and families in droves.

If every adult in America personally knew an “out” atheist, I think most of the issues we have with regards to discrimination and social opposition would begin to disappear.

To make that happen, we have to reach out to them. That takes a variety of tactics and manpower. National organizations can’t spearhead things like that. It takes all of us, encouraging other atheists to be more vocal about their beliefs.

(via Greta Christina’s Blog)

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ugh! So many of us within the LGBT movement are incredibly frustrated! And what’s worse, the LGBT movement seems content to throw atheists under the bus of religious privilege, as I just wrote about yesterday. Despite the obvious parallels between the communities, it seems as if the LGBT folks would prefer the atheists stay in the closet.


  • So does this mean that Jerry Coyne should stop using “faitheist” as an apparent epithet?

  • Googlesironman
  • Points I have made myself for some time. Great post.

  • Alexi

    I couldn’t disagree more.

    From what i’ve witnessed the LGBT’s struggles for progress can be characterized as Christian struggles. What with shoving it people’s faces. Labeling those as bigot who won’t profess whole hearted acceptance. Denouncing defeated pro-gay legislation as discrimination just because people have the right to vote no. That ain’t right. Neither were the Stonewall riots.

    Disbelief shouldn’t mandate an “atheist coming out day” or flag or pride. The last thing atheists need is a provisional wing with jackboots & arm bands. We’d be feeding religulous paranoia.

    Common sense doesn’t require activism. Let not the firebrands be firebrands.

  • Matt

    I find being open about my lack of belief has really helped Christians see there’s nothing evil or scary about atheists. They more or less just see me as a nice person they disagree with on some or a lot of issues. Finding common ground has really done a lot though. I’ve worked together with Christians for charities, shared what humanistic beliefs we hold in common, and ultimately I think we were all better for it. I’m still trying to help them understand Christian privilege, but it’s hard to grasp, much like white privilege is when you’re living from an ivory tower and everything is so nice.

  • Alexi,

    Are you married? Have you ever held your lover’s hand in public? Have you ever been threatened with violence for doing so? Have you ever been fired from a job for mere honesty about a trait about yourself that you can not change? Have you ever had the police beat you for your mere existence?

    I fail to see how demanding that we be treated like human beings with full and equal rights is throwing something in someone’s face. I nearly committed suicide when I was younger due to the Christians teaching me that I was as bad as a murderer or a rapist and that I would grow up to be a pedophile who would “recruit” others into my “perverted” lifestyle. They taught me that I should kill myself if I chose the “perverted lifestyle” so as not to lead others to sin and damnation. Why should any child have to suffer through that?

    What would you have gay people do? Continue to have the shit beat out of us and be harassed by all other segments of society?

  • Epistaxis

    I was in the room when she gave this talk, and it was even more amazing. I hope the video is posted soon.

  • We need firebrands in both movements. Otherwise the religious bullies will continue to run roughshod over us.

  • Miko

    It’s worth emphasizing that our goal is to achieve equal rights and equal protection under the law, not to convince others to be atheists. The kind of firebrand who wants to deconvert the world is often just annoying. The rights firebrand, conversely, is extremely useful, primarily as a means of bringing the diplomats into the movement. (My goal in a broader political sense, as a radical firebrand, has always been to get people to agree with me 25% and get them to become diplomats advocating that 25%. If I can do that often enough and if I convince each person of a different 25%, then it seems that the political center should logically move towards my position.)

    @Alexi: Denouncing defeated pro-gay legislation as discrimination just because people have the right to vote no.

    Assuming that you meant anti-anti-gay instead of pro-gay*, people don’t have the right to vote “no.” Sadly, this all too often doesn’t stop them, but from a moral perspective the fact that you want to oppress other people doesn’t give you the right to do so.

    (*) Try to name even one piece of “pro-gay” legislation; the closest you can get is legislation preventing firing/etc. based on sexual orientation, which is a) the norm in other areas anyway and so not specifically a gay rights issue except among bigots to want to single out gays as a group to deny this protection, and b) something that companies would be forced to do anyway in order to stay competitive in a freed market.

    That ain’t right. Neither were the Stonewall riots.

    Curious fact. People who think they should have the right to vote on other people’s liberty also often think that it’s wrong for those people to attempt to protect themselves. “It’s perfectly right for me to vote away your freedoms, and, once I’ve convinced 50.1% of your neighbors that it’s okay to oppress you, it’s also morally wrong for you to defend yourself.”

    Sorry, but what you do in a voting booth isn’t binding on me in any way. If you pass a law I don’t like, I’ll ignore it. If you try to enforce it by committing violent acts against me, I’ll consider the option of acting in my own self-defense to be morally legitimate. If you try the same thing against a large group, you’d better make sure you have the firepower to back up your claims, since the claims certainly don’t have morality to back them up.

  • Excuse me, Alexi, the Stonewall Riots weren’t right?! It was wrong for the patrons of that bar to retaliate after years of harassment by NYC police. It was wrong after years of gay men being arrested for no other reason than associating with others like them? It was wrong for the gay men of NYC to stand up for their rights after countless beatings at the hands of the police? If all that is wrong, then I don’t know what is right.

    The problem is that, unlike race or sexual orientation, religious belief (or lack thereof) IS a choice.

    Will atheists ever have the civil rights struggles like the racial and sexual minorities have had? No, because it is fundamentally different, but they can learn a few things from them. That is what the article is pointing out; no one said sexual orientation and religious belief are the same thing.

    And it is patently offensive to call GLBT struggles the same as “Christian stuggles”. Christianity has been the number one cause of hatred against gays and lesbians in modern history. to say we share the same goals and tactics is wrong and offensive.

  • Alan E.

    Alexi, watch this chapter of the Prop 8 Trial where Prof Chancey describes the history of gays and lesbians in America, and tell me that the Stonewall riots weren’t right.


    It was about time, in my opinion.

  • JD

    “let firebrands be firebrands, and to let diplomats be diplomats”

    What is this “let”? People will be who they are, with few exceptions. If for some reason we all told Richard Dawkins to STFU, do you think he actually would? I doubt that.

  • @Alexi,
    You wrote:
    “Common sense doesn’t require activism. Let not the firebrands be firebrands.”
    I’ll keep it short and sweet. Nothing worthwhile would ever happen if everyone had your outlook and attitude.
    ’nuff said.

  • muggle

    Zackford, thanks for the link. I especially liked this: “The message I receive is, “This is a religious conference; we are all participating in and supporting religious practice.” That isn’t the intent of the conference, and I know that, but it is a message that very much leaves me feeling ostracized and helps keep atheism in the closet.” That’s exactly the way I feel whenever any public forum includes prayers, hymns, and/or sermons.

    As for what Greta says, within reason, yes. But only within reason. I am both — at times diplomatic and often very outspoken. I draw the lines for this in two places: either being so diplomatic as to give in and not progress at all and at this damnable anti-theism thing that is as bigoted as the bigotry we’re trying to fight.

    No, we don’t understand the believer; they don’t understand us. However, unless they’re of the ilk that wants to — as Drew Carey put it on his show — go out and punch an Atheist in the nose — or forcing religiousity on us in the public square, there’s no need to be less than tolerant ourselves. Live and let live those who do likewise.

    That’s religious freedom and we, of all people, shouldn’t want to force our worldview.

    And I continue to beg to differ with all those who claim religious belief is a choice. It’s not something you’re born with or something that can’t change but one cannot help if a claimed thing sounds credible to them or not. Yes, if more thought about it, most would not find it credible. The majority of people don’t and, hence, do find it credible. Sucks but there it is.

    I don’t give a hang if they believe as long as they handle said belief peaceably and are respectful of those who don’t believe as they do. As should we all.

  • catherine

    “From what i’ve witnessed the LGBT’s struggles for progress can be characterized as Christian struggles. What with shoving it people’s faces.”

    Actually, it’s more like Christians (at least the noisy fundamentalist types) complaining about gay people ‘shoving it people’s faces’ anytime we dare to do anything other than cower in fear and stay hidden in the closet.

  • Revyloution


    Thats what I’ve been saying all along. If Chris Mooney wants to be all nice and huggy with the theists, fine. If PZ Myers wants to call them all idiots, great. When they spend time criticizing each other, they aren’t spending time reaching out.

    Atheism isn’t just for philosophy professors anymore. It’s a big tent, and we have room for everyone.

  • J. J. Ramsey


    If PZ Myers wants to call them all idiots, great.

    You do realize that what you just said amounted to saying, “If PZ Myers wants to spew bigoted crap, great.” It’s one thing to be blunt. It’s a whole other thing to caricature the opposition, and that goes double for a movement that purports to promote critical thinking, not just atheism.

  • ckitching

    Denouncing defeated pro-gay legislation as discrimination just because people have the right to vote no.

    How right you are. Next I want to see a bill restricting the rights of the Irish from owning property! We can seize all this property, sell it off, and send a cheque to all the non-Irish residents!

    If we have the right to a popular vote against the rights of one minority, we should have the right to a popular vote against them all! There will be nothing to prevent you from being on the wrong side of that minority/majority gap.

  • Alexi

    What happened to free thought & free enquiry?

    I’d have gays prove they’re born that way. Thus solidifying their claim to civil rights. Rather than guilt trip me into acceptance. After all, why should an Atheist, such as myself, reject God for lack of proof, but not homosexuality?

    On the other hand, Gays do have the freedom in the States to make up their own religion. Worked for the Mormons. Clearly Homosexuality is based more on faith anyway, so you’re halfway there. Turn it into a religious freedom issue. What right would government have to interfere then?

    It’s highly hypocritical that no one had a problem with name calling in the face of adversity. What. Atheists should embrace the playground tactics Christians & LGBT employ?

    Acknowledging choice in the voting booth is a far cry from fact of what may or may not be my personal views regarding oppression, but nice rant.

    Correct. Violence is never right, nor were the Stonewall riots. What could Atheists hope to achieve and to what “worthwhile” end by violence? Wow. I’m having to defend that? Really?

  • TychaBrahe

    “Violence is never right”? Seriously?

    Tell that to the slaves in America who were freed by the Civil War. (Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation technically freed the slaves. It wouldn’t have mattered much if the states of the south had been able to form a separate nation in which that law didn’t apply.) Tell that to the people who were rescued from Auschwitz. Tell that to the Muslims of Kosovo. Tell that to the Cambodians who survived the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

    Violence, properly applied, has liberated more people than legislation.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    “Clearly Homosexuality is based more on faith anyway”

    You’re spewing nonsense, Alexi. Homosexuality is no more based on faith than heterosexuality is. Is your sexuality based on faith? And what does that even mean anyway?

    Clearly you’re struggling to justify your anti-gay feelings, which is exceedingly hard to do for someone who is (presumably) not religious, since you can’t thump a Bible passage like so many anti-gay Christians can do. And you’re clearly turning a deaf ear to some of the commenters here who have shared a bit about their struggles dealing with growing up gay in a world that is still bigoted against LGBT people.

    Reading your comments is an exercise in watching heterosexual privilege at work. You have a very easy time writing off the struggles of LGBT people because you do not have to struggle in that way. It’s depressing to see.

    No LGBT person should have to justify their right to have rights to you, simply because you do not feel like even trying to understand or use a bit of empathy. To me, one of the most frightening things to ever encounter in this world is a person with a lack of empathy, whether that person is a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or atheist.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    What happened to free thought & free enquiry?

    Um, are you under the impression that having people criticize what you say is a violation of free thought and enquiry? You’re free to say and think what you like. Others are free to point out that you don’t make any sense. And you don’t.

  • Revyloution

    J. J. Ramsey,

    I was referencing a specific event by mentioning Mooney and Myers. Mooney is an accommodationist, and Myers is the fire breathing dragon. Mooney wrote a book called Unscientific America, where he advocated for being nice with theists in order to advance science education. Basically the honey and medicine technique. Myers harshly criticized Mooneys book as accommodationist and said it won’t work.

    My argument during that event was that it was a waste of time for Mooney to write a book trying to convince those who choose the abrasive method, and a further waste for Myers to spend so much time and effort criticizing it.

    Mooney should be working as the nice guy. Sucker them in with a nice smile and calming platitudes. If they don’t learn their science, then we have Myers to slap some sense into them.

    But specifically to your charge of endorsing ‘Bigoted crap’, I fail to see how PZ is bigoted. Perhaps the word might fit, but I always associated that word with ignorance. PZ’s criticisms are scathing, blunt, often rude, but never ignorant or without merit.

  • Revyloution

    I don’t want to gang up on Alexi, but I noticed this in her last comment:

    ‘I’d have gays prove they’re born that way.’

    Homosexuality has been shown to have a clear genetic component. It’s common in many animal species, not just our own. Black Swans are often brought up as examples. Nearly 30% of all male Black Swans are homosexual, they form long term relationships with other male swans, and even steal eggs from hetero couples and raise families. The male swans raised by homosexual couples have exactly the same chance of being homosexual as those raised by heterosexual couples.

  • Alexi, you are being stupid in numerous ways. Revyloution has just answered your question about homosexuality being in-born adequately, but IMO misses the more important point: why the hell should gays *have* to prove anything to you? In any free society worth the name, we all have the right to engage in behaviour which harms no one else, period. Whether the behaviour (or underlying motivations) are chosen or compelled by biology is *irrelevant*. The state has no business interfering, or we have tyranny. The fact that some large fraction of population may vote to deny personal freedom to a minority does not make it right — look up “tyranny of the majority”. That’s why civilized countries have things like Bills of Rights to guarantee that unpopular minorities cannot be oppressed by bigotted majorities. Seriously, this is PoliSci 101.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    But specifically to your charge of endorsing ‘Bigoted crap’, I fail to see how PZ is bigoted.

    You had written, “If PZ Myers wants to call them [theists] all idiots, great.” Theists are not all idiots, and saying that they are is, well, bigoted. In short, you endorsed the idea of Myers saying bigoted things.

    Now to be fair, Myers has said that not all theists are stupid, etc., (which unfortunately hasn’t stopped him from playing the game of how to call theists stupid without calling them stupid). Also, I’d say that when Myers said of Ed Brayton of Dispatches From the Culture Wars that he “loathes atheists, and would like to see them silenced,” I’d say that was without merit. Sometimes Myers just goes batshit, and that’s not good for anybody.

  • Revyloution

    JJ,when Myers attacked Brayton, I was saying the same thing I’m saying now. Infighting over methods of outreach serves little purpose. The only benefit atheism got out of that behavior was the abominable piece on NPR about the coming schism in atheism.

    I think the comparison to the LGBT movement is very astute. When a loudmouth atheist desecrates sacred cows, many news media outlets cover it. Many also let ‘moderate’ voices onto the programs to talk about what brought on the desecration. This is a win/win situation for a philosophy that has been traditionally closeted. The more press atheism gets, the more people are forced to talk about it,and address its complaints.

    I’m not much a firebrand myself. The last person who found out about my atheism told my sister ‘He’s an atheist? But he’s so NICE!’. She then asked me about those crazy atheists who were trying to take ‘In God We Trust’ off our money. She stared with ‘You don’t support those guys who want to take the motto off our money do you?”. That was a great opportunity for me to educate her on the McCarthy era, and how they changed our currency. After we talked, she understood why so many atheists are offended by the motto. She had her eyes opened, but it required offensive atheists with litigious actions to get her asking questions that a friendly atheist could answer.

    Its the one two punch. Shake em up with something shocking, then console them with a nice explanation of why the shaker is so strident.

  • AxeGrrl

    ckitching wrote:

    If we have the right to a popular vote against the rights of one minority, we should have the right to a popular vote against them all! There will be nothing to prevent you from being on the wrong side of that minority/majority gap.


    Alexi, any response to that point?

  • Dan Covill

    @ Hemant

    To make that happen, we have to reach out to them. That takes a variety of tactics and manpower. National organizations can’t spearhead things like that. It takes all of us, encouraging other atheists to be more vocal about their beliefs.

    (emphasis mine)
    I agree that there is not only a place, but a need, for more than one approach. But I wouldn’t want some high command arguing over whether this is the time for the carrot or the stick. Let each of us pursue the matter in our own style.

    (Well, now that I think about it, maybe some of us could work a bit on improving our style! )

error: Content is protected !!