What Can Atheists Learn from the LGBT Movement? August 6, 2010

What Can Atheists Learn from the LGBT Movement?

At the Secular Student Alliance conference a couple weeks ago, Greta Christina gave the keynote address on the topic “What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement.” (An earlier, briefer version of her talk can be found here.)

You often hear analogies about how coming out as an atheist has parallels to coming out as gay or lesbian, but Greta pointed out that there’s waaaaaaay more to the analogy than just that.

It was one of my favorite talks all weekend and I urge you to make time to watch the whole thing:

There were a few things she said that I’d never considered before.

One was at the beginning:

Since the LGBT movement is roughly 35 years, by my estimation, ahead of where the atheist movement is right now, I think that the atheist movement right now is about where the LGBT movement was in the early 70s right after the Stonewall Riots. I think we have a unique chance to learn from that movement, both from its successes and from its failures.

I had a chance to ask Greta later what she considered to be our “Stonewall” — what event did she feel mobilized atheists in a way never before seen?

Before I tell you her answer, can you guess what she said? (Her response is at the bottom of the post.)

The other notable moment for me came at the 47:00 mark, regarding the pride we feel about coming out as atheists because it feels good to be among the (relative) handful of Americans who are rational and sensible when it comes to matters of faith and god:

We need to be prepared — not this year, probably not even in a few years, but eventually and sooner than we might think — for atheism to become mainstream.

And when that happens, we need to really, really be prepared to let go of any ideas we might have about atheists being special. About atheists being more independent, better at critical thinking, less willing to just believe what we’re taught, better informed about religion, more thoughtful about ethics and the meaning of life, more anything.

… I think that that “amazingness” is doomed. And, more to the point, I think that it should be doomed.

Seriously, a great talk. Go watch it.

So, what was Greta’s response to what our version of Stonewall was?


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  • Citizen Z

    Exactly what I thought, and exactly right.

  • Brian Holly

    Yep, time to out oursevles; time to protest the soft bigotry of people like Prothero.

  • No surprise at that answer at all. I was an atheist well before 9/11 but that was the event that made me more vocal about the harm of religion and not just the absurdity of it.

  • Thanks for the love, Hemant! And I love that screenshot. Very “Talk to the hand.”

    Your talk at the conference was awesome too, btw. Much food for thought. Hope the video of it goes up soon!

  • Hitch

    Wonderful talk. She’s spot on on really everything.

    That silly infighting hurts us, and I’ve been working hard against it. How are we to deal with people like Greg Epstein who rather thrown themselves behind people who stereotype atheists than defend them? It’s very tricky.

    And absolutely diversity too.

    I think we have a lot to learn from all movements that fight ingrained cultural stigmas.

  • I think there’s one difference: at the time of the Stonewall riots, it’s not as if Americans could go to other countries where being gay was already significantly more mainstream (though there were certainly countries where it was easier). You can, however, already go to countries where atheism is mainstream. Much of Europe, indeed, is already as open to atheism as it is to homosexuality. In fact, in the early twentieth century, it was hard to be openly gay in many parts of Europe, but perfectly acceptable to be an atheist, and things have not got harder for either group. Occasionally I fear that religion will rise again, however; hopefully it’s a swansong.

  • bigjohn756

    Oh, Greta, um, believe me, you do not want, um, to see me in a woman’s t-shirt. Woman’s shirts, um, go in at the waist; I go out at the waist, um,…a lot.

  • Icaarus

    Conclusion: we need more Jens and Hemants, who is up for some cloning action.

    In all seriousness, thank you for posting the video, I think we all needed to see that. I know I did.

  • trixr4kids

    That was AWESOME. We all need to take it to heart. I’m going to encourage everyone I know to listen to this.

    GC rocks.

  • Who is this wonderful lady and why haven’t I heard of her before? Another Atheist secret that was being held from a ‘newbie’. 😉

    I think the part that hit home the most with me was talking about having childcare at Atheist gatherings or more family oriented meetings. As an Atheist mommy, it’s tough to find kinship. Most mommies are Christian in my neck of the woods. And most of my family no longer talks to me since I came out as a non-believer in regards to their woohoo, including my mother. Finding a ‘soft place to land’ after jumping ship from religion is difficult for a lot of people.

    Learning from a very powerful movement like the LGBT movement would definitely behoove us.

    When I first happened across this website almost a year ago when I first realized I may be :::gasp::: an Atheist, one of the things that struck me was how smart and collected most people on here were. It helped hearing the strong passionate comments and the calm collected reasoning. The religious humor didn’t hurt either. 😉

    Greta has made a bunch of really amazing points. And I know she is right because I was once lost, but now am found. All because I was able to find other Atheists.

    I will be forever indebted to Hemant for creating this website.

  • There are many lessons to be learned from past radical movements.
    Greta Christina has a firm grasp of the “good cop-bad cop” approach. I like.
    It would be beneficial to have the “good cops” and “bad cops” coordinate campaigns …from time to time.

  • Speaking as a lesbian atheist, I think there is one huge difference between the challenges queers and non-believers face. Queers are winning social acceptance, but the laws still lag behind. Non-believers are still fighting to be accepted by society, but we already have won the legal battle: establishment clause anyone?

  • J. J. Ramsey

    It would be beneficial to have the “good cops” and “bad cops” coordinate campaigns …from time to time.

    I don’t know. I find the whole good cop/bad cop analogy problematic. Some old thoughts I had on it are archived here: Good Cop, Bad Cop, and the Gadfly Corollary.

  • Greta is totally my hero.

    I’m especially a fan of the message that diversity, even if it is not our fault, is our responsibility. Diversity does not form spontaneously, because there is a positive feedback loop causing those in the majority to remain in the majority. It must be actively promoted.

  • Hermes
  • Seymour Skinner

    @J. J.: I loved your post “On being a skeptic first, not an atheist first”. Too many atheist organizations focus on atheists meeting atheists without giving a damn about helping people understand why they should think atheism is true. The skeptic organizations seem more interested in truth, while the atheist organizations seem more interested in pointless socializing.

  • Hermes

    Leilani, one nit. It’s atheist not Atheist; atheists aren’t theists. That’s it. Keep in mind that atheists are a very diverse group, as are theists (not just Christians, but all believers in a god or gods).

    As Greta points out at the 47 minute mark, atheist may currently be a special group in general but that won’t always be the case.

    I’ll actually go further, though. I would bet that most atheist don’t know that they are atheists. They are just normal people who don’t believe there are any gods even if they go along and mouth the words as if they do. These atheists are from all areas of society.

  • Hermes

    J. J. Ramsey, as I often take up the role of the bad cop (usually out of frustration), one of the things that is an added annoyance is that the good cops seem to not get the hint that my being a jerk has left them with a golden opportunity to draw out other issues.

  • Thanks for posting the video! I’d heard the shorter version before, but I’d never heard the longer one. She makes a lot of good points.

    Greta’s awesome. She has some really great writing on her blog.

  • Aj

    I call myself an atheist because I heard Russell’s argument, about it being closer to my views when conveying to the common person. I called myself an agnostic for the majority of my life and I’m fine with using that but only if people know what I mean by that. I don’t want to argue semantics with anyone, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to argue the best way to convey meaning. Fuck labels, I care about meaning and conveying meaning.

    I get nervous when people start referring to white males. It’s fine if you think “diversity”, whatever the fuck that is, is inherently valuable, but understand that I do not value it. As much as you think that a lack of “diversity” is dangerous and self-perpetuating, I think categorizing and treating people as predefined groups not individuals is dangerous and self-perpetuating. For instance, the apparently separate “issues” of white men, females, and minorities (I am reminded of the NOFX song “Don’t call me white”). Favouritism to counteract perceived bias is wrong, it also seeks to divide people, which is strange coming from people who claim to support “inclusivity”. Go colour blind and feminist, not doing so is screwing it up.

  • Hermes

    Aj, I call myself an agnostic … and an atheist.

    The two don’t overlap.

    An agnostic (or gnostic) position is about knowledge. As I do not know for a fact that there are no gods, I’m agnostic on the claim to knowledge; I do not claim to know for a fact.

    An atheist position is based on belief. As I believe there are no gods, I’m an atheist as well.

    So, together, I’m an agnostic atheist.

    That said, there are some deities that I am glad to state that I know for a fact that they do not exist. In the case of those specific deities, I am a gnostic atheist.

  • Aj


    I don’t argue semantics. The way you use the words they don’t overlap, but the way other people use the words they do. Words are meaning carriers. People who use the word differently aren’t wrong, there’s no correct usage of words.

    The term agnostic was coined as a position about knowledge, that’s the way I use the word. So I could have a conversation with you with absolutely no trouble. However, commonly people mean something different by it. I called myself an agnostic atheist for a while but that just confused the shit out of people.

    That’s basically the point of Bertrand Russell’s argument, he called himself an agnostic to fellow philosophers and an atheist to people he met on the street. Keep the audience in mind when speaking.

  • Hermes

    It’s not semantics. The words have a common meaning.

    You agree with the word agnostic having to deal with knowledge.

    The word theist is well defined. An atheist is not a theist.

    The combination is about as simple as it can get.

    I’m both. Do you deny me that?

    If you — personally — do not want to name what you believe separate from what you know, that’s your choice. I choose to be precise.

  • Hermes

    (BTW, as much as I appreciate Russell, I think that we can claim some ground since he was making the lecture circuit.)

  • Aj


    We use language all the time that has corrupted etymological routes. It’s not about precision, your definitions make more logical sense in terms of structure. However that’s not how language evolves, context and usefulness play a part. What’s the point of attempting to be “precise” when people understand the words you use to mean different things? The words you use aren’t for your benefit. I’m not denying anybody anything, I’m suggesting that if you want to convey your position to people outside this community, “atheist” is the best label to do that.

  • Richard Wade

    I want to grow up to be like Greta.

    9/11 was certainly my turning point. I had not believed in any kind of supernaturalism for a long time, but I didn’t care about it one way or the other. But that morning I realized that our very existence is threatened by the lunacy that is religion. As I’ve said before, the two towers going down were the last two nails going down into the coffin of my already dead interest in any kind of magical thinking, and my apathy. There will be more 9/11’s if we do not continue to cure ourselves of this madness.

  • Mark

    I agreed with most of her video, but didn’t like her trying to usurp atheism as a “progressive” cause (the way Americans use the term covers a spectrum from feel good welfare-stateism to communism.). There are those of us who know the value of a free market and individual liberty. I guess we’re not welcome in her world.

  • Our Stonewall moment would be an interesting poll. For me, it was a combination of the run-up to the Iraq War and the re-election of Dubya. (I was a registered Republican until 2003 too.) It’s also what convinced me that we needed to think about atheism in terms of politics and organizing and do less philosophizing.

    BTW, Andrew Sullivan has a great though these days infrequent series of posts on his blog called “End of Gay Culture Watch”, showing how the mainstreaming of gay culture means that basically gay culture is disappearing, and how that is a great thing. I think this is what GC was alluding to in her speech about not being special. I can’t *wait* until atheists are utterly unremarkable!!!

  • elNabot

    About atheism becoming mainstream, garic and hermes are right. I’m french, and here people mostly don’t care about religion. Separation of state and church is a well established, and well protected, fact. Religious extremism is punished when it goes against the law.

    The big exception is about islam, but even there, it is as more about basic racism and xenophobia against arabic people than about religious intolerance.

    Christianity is part of our cultural background, and for most, it stays there. Still many people get baptized or marry at church because that’s what we are used to do, but many others decides it is time to let go and just don’t care anymore.

    We are used to religious diversity, and for most people i know, their main concern when they ask about another’s religion is to know if that person has any forbidden food or beverage.

    In fact, i know very few active atheist. If ever religion becomes a problem most (if not all) reactions will take a humanist and/or secularist point of view.

  • mai

    She is so on about women and people of color. As a feminist, I often feel really unwelcome in the atheist movement even though I really thought we were on the same side. Comment threads about, say, the Girls Gone Wild debacle turn nasty really fast. I see the same slut-shaming, your-privilege-is-showing, sexist BS in atheist circles as I see everywhere else…

  • I am surprised no one has mentioned this yet, but 9/11 is what compelled Sam Harris to write his first book.

  • Geek Gazette

    I think just the act of becoming more organized into a coherent “movement” would do wonders for atheist and other non-believers. I also think that a clear cut platform, like the humanist manifesto, would help.

  • ManaCostly

    [tokens of praise and agreement]

    The video is out of sync.

  • ManaCostly

    I seem to have left out the most important factor in my previous post.


  • @Mai, what exists of the atheist movement is still a boys club (especially on the atheist blogosphere) But don’t worry, I’m sure our movement will mature out of the middle schoolish “girls are icky” phase it’s going through. It does seem counterintuitive though that so many atheists are caught spewing sexist BS since they’re the first to criticize religions for their patriarchal ideologies.

  • Aj


    I think the Girls Gone Wild debacle is a perfect example of how pseudo-feminists are counter productive.

    They accused people who argued that it was not or should not be illegal to film in public spaces they agreed with the “implied consent” defence, therefore supported assault on a person. Obviously people and countries disagree on consent when filming others in public spaces, and there are problems with all the approaches. I understand both sides of the argument, which perhaps the pseudo-feminists need to do. Accusing people of something they didn’t do and calling them names doesn’t exactly make them feel welcome either.

    Calling people dicks because they’re not against sexual expression. Pseudo-feminists are anti-porn because they’re authoritarian on how sexuality should be expressed, to Victorian proportions and beyond. People who enjoy videos of women consensually exposing themselves are dicks? These women are being “taken advantage of” because they’re drunk? They got themselves drunk, possibly because it makes them less inhibited. What have these people got against breasts and sexuality anyway? The retort is to mention abuses that happen like in the case of GGW, but that’s a red herring, these people criticized sexual expression in general without abuses.

    I haven’t seen any slut shaming in the atheist community. Have you got any specific examples? I do see sexism in the atheist community, ranging from mild to fucking egregious. The popular personalities and bloggers are clearly better than general society, they’re for equal rites and against enforced gender roles. I haven’t seen any justification of rape on an atheist site, compared to the many times I’ve seen it on other sites.

  • Aj

    rites rights* I should lay off writing about religion for a while.

  • ihedenius

    Great talk. Inspiring. Everyone should hear it.

    On diversity. Here’s a suggestion for someone to ask. The Infidel Guy. Reginald Finley. I find it a bit embarrassing that he hasn’t been asked (that I know of) to speak (for example) at various atheist gatherings.

    I think this is an example of unconscious racism.

  • Claudia

    That was an amazing talk. I wanted to jump up and down every 10 minutes and say “Yes, that’s it, my thoughts exactly!”. I agree with…well I agree with all of it wholeheartedly really and have had similar thoughts myself (though I doubt I could express them as well). A few thoughts:

    Atheist vs. agnostic and gay vs. bi. I am SO there. I consider myself an atheist and do disagree with many agnostics on terminology. But the word-wars are a huge waste of time and energy. A peace-treaty is needed: agnostics won’t say that atheists have a positive belief in the nonexistence of god and atheists won’t ssay that agnostics are atheists without balls and then we can ALL get on with making the world better for nonbelievers.

    The diversity thing is also huge. I especially find it frustrating that the instant reaction whenever feminism or racism is brought up is to dismiss out of hand the sheer posibility that there could be a problem in the community and loudly proclaim that sexism and racism are impossible because I’M not sexist and I’M not racist, so therefore I must be incapable of either. Pretending race and gender issues don’t exist won’t make them go away. If you don’t believe me, go ask the people who campaigned against Prop 8.

    As for atheism going mainstream, all you have to do is look at Western Europe to see the future. Atheism or other flavors of nonbelief are quite common here, and saying you don’t believe in god raises no eyebrows. But you don’t get a lot of “coming out” because you aren’t asssumed to be a believer neccesarily. Many of my friends a totally mystified as to why I’m so passionate about these issues, because to them religion is no big deal at all, and hasn’t been all their lives.

  • JJ

    Maybe I am just slow, but I don’t see how 9/11 would be similar to the Stonewall Riots at all. In my opinion for an event to be something similar for atheists it would have to specifically target atheists and the event itself would be impossible to discuss without discussing atheism and how atheists are marginalized. The terrorist attacks just doesn’t fit the bill IMHO.

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