I’m Not Gay, But I Am Jealous

6 things the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement.

I give two cheers for the NBC/WSJ poll that shows Americans would prefer a gay presidential candidate to an evangelical one. That, to me, is a twofer — acceptance of gays and discomfort with evangelicals. But I don’t yet give three cheers because Americans would still prefer an evangelical president to an atheist.

Since 1937, Gallup has been asking people whether they would vote for a generally well-qualified presidential candidate nominated by their party if the nominee happened to be a Catholic, Mormon, black, female, atheist, etc.

Gays were not even included in the survey until 1978, and they ranked last. Today atheists are at the bottom. The good news is that there is now less discrimination against all minorities — and in 2012 for the first time a poll indicated that a slim majority (54 percent) would consider voting for an atheist.

Another advance for gays but not atheists is in the Boy Scouts. That organization’s modified policy now allows gays to become scouts and leaders. Atheists, however, continue to be excluded, apparently because the Boy Scout oath implies that an atheist boy can’t be “morally straight” unless he can do his “duty to God.” Perhaps one day the Boy Scouts will become as tolerant as the Girl Scouts, who don’t discriminate against any girls.

While I may be jealous of gays because they have advanced more rapidly than atheists, we are on the same team. Religious conservatives use their ancient holy books as weapons to demonize both gays and atheists — and an advance for either group usually helps the other.

It’s important to understand how homosexuality shifted in public opinion from being considered less respectable to being more respectable than atheism — and what the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement. Here are 6 lessons:

1. Come out of the closet.

The most obvious and effective lesson is to come out of the closet. Attitudes toward gays changed rapidly when people learned that their friends, neighbors, and even family members were gay. Attitudes about atheists are slowly changing as atheists are coming out. The mission of Openly Secular is to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance by getting secular people to be open about their nonreligious beliefs.

2. Form a big tent.

Gays are gay, regardless of what they wear or how they act. They learned that discrimination against some hurts all. I use the word “atheist” in a big-tent sort of way to include those who identify as agnostics, humanists, secular humanists, and more. Such non-theists must organize, form communities, and cooperate on the 95 percent of things they have in common, rather than arguing about labels.

3. Get allies.

You don’t have to be gay to march in gay pride parades or support gay marriage. In fact, the majority of straight people in our country now support gay rights. Atheists need to reach out to and work with progressive religionists who support separation of religion and government, and who judge people more on their deeds than their creeds.

4. Get political.

There are a number of openly gay politicians, in part because of a well-organized LGBT constituency, but currently no open atheists in Congress. Secularists are organizing and cooperating to encourage politicians to come out of their atheist closets or at least show support for their non-theistic constituencies.

Many politicians think they must choose between ending their speeches with “God bless America” and ending their political career. We want to change that misconception. Recently a new PAC, the Freethought Equality Fund, has formed to endorse and help elect secular candidates who will keep American government secular.

The Secular Coalition for America (of which I’m president) incorporated in 2002 as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of secular Americans. It started with all volunteers and now includes 17 national nontheistic member organizations. With a staff of five in Washington, it’s not quite what the religious right has, but it’s a start. The Secular Coalition advocates for millions of Americans who live responsible and ethical lives without god beliefs.

5. Get local.

While the Secular Coalition is working hard to make its voice heard on Capitol Hill, 50 state secular coalitions are working to combat some of the most egregious church-state violations that occur at state levels.

I know. I live in South Carolina, where atheists were prohibited by state constitution from holding public office until 1990. To challenge this obviously unconstitutional prohibition, I ran for governor as the Candidate Without a Prayer (also the title of my autobiography) and won a state Supreme Court victory in 1997.

6. Enlist young people.

Gays may be winning the culture war more rapidly than atheists, but young people are helping both. In another generation, I expect people will ask what the gay marriage controversy was all about. Every new Pew survey describes rapid movement away from Christianity and into either the “none” or the humanist/atheist camp — especially with Millennials.

If this trend continues, I look forward to an America where the influence of conservative religion is mainly limited to within the walls of churches, not the halls of Congress.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Herb Silverman
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  • gapaul

    What I’d love to see the atheist movement develop is a concept of the “ally.” An LGBT ally is someone who doesn’t identify as gay, but wants to see LGBT people thrive and be present and celebrated across the culture. An atheist “ally” is someone who is religious, but wants to see atheists thrive and be present and celebrated across the culture. There are plenty of us, but unfortunately, religion is so often seen as having only conservative voices. Tolerant religious voices are often ignored or dismissed as not much different than their fundamentalist cousins. Befriend progressive religious voices and work with them to open doors and minds. The goal is someday to have a world where a parent might introduce their children, one gay, one not, one an Episcopalian and one an atheist. We simply don’t have to hate each other. There are enough problems in the world we can work on together.

  • Ed Buckner

    Well said, Dr. Silverman–as usual. We–atheists, secular humanists, rationalists, freethinkers, agnostics, and others of similar views–need to take these ideas seriously. Thanks, Herb.

    • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

      Haven’t Muslims already taken these ideas seriously when they invented “Islamophobia”?
      And don’t both Muslims and atheists desire the removal of every Christian cross in sight, only by different means?

      • Herb Silverman

        Atheists don’t have a problem with crosses displayed in churches or private property. However, atheists oppose government endorsement of Christianity or any religion.

        • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

          Wasn’t that the same charge made by American Atheists concerning the display of a cross-shaped beam at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in NYC?

          But the court said: “the Establishment Clause is not properly construed to command that government accounts of history be devoid of religious references.”

          The First Amendment separates church from state, but not religion from public life.

          • rtfazeberdee

            “The First Amendment separates church from state, but not religion from public life” Individual citizens are free to bring their religious convictions into the public arena. But the government is prohibited from favoring one religious view over another or even favoring religion over non-religion. – now that last sentence is the one christians have a problem with because they love to have priority over every other religion and non-religion.

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            Christians like President Obama who said: “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam”?
            How is that a “priority over every other religion….”?

          • niktu70

            You failed to cite the very next sentence from Obama: “But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.”

            Hmm, I wonder why you would omit that part?

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            What part of Christians (like Obama) supposedly having “… priority over every other religion and non-religion” didn’t you understand?

            Hmm, I wonder if you even read rtfazeberdee’s comment before you posted to my response of it?

          • niktu70

            Oh, so your point is that Christians in general don’t really want special privileges because of that one Obama quote.

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            Is your point that all Christians have a problem “… because they love to have priority over every other religion and non-religion”?

        • lolatheists

          what about government endorsement of atheism? how is that fair? sure, you believe we’re delusional and you’re right, but can you really prove that you’re not the delusional one? if we let you live your own fake reality, please let us live our own reality. but you’re not, and you’re literally saying that just because someone is a christian that makes them a bad politician, and that’s just as unfair as the law you worked against banning atheists from being politicians. please erase your hypocrisy.

      • P.Brain

        You could be onto something there.Whilst Islamophobia can’t be real as it’s not an irrational fear, atheistophobia is an irrational fear. Could we lower ourselves to play that card? ha

        • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

          atheistophobia: the fear of being sued to death by pro bono lawyers.

          • niktu70

            I believe you’re thinking of Scientology.

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            Why would Scientology sue over crosses displayed in public when one of its own symbols is a cross, which is often displayed on top of its own buildings?

          • niktu70

            It was a joke. Scientology is infamous for being very litigious against those who criticize them. Atheists usually only sue when theirs or others’ civil rights are being infringed upon.

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            Or even when a cross-shaped beam is displayed in the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in NYC?

            And that’s no joke.

          • niktu70

            It was my understanding that taxpayer money was spent on the memorial, but I could be wrong. I’m not sure of the technicalities of this particular case. Anyway, I did say “usually” in my comment.

      • rtfazeberdee

        i have the desire to remove all religious privileges not matter what religion they belong to (though all privileges seem to belong to the Christians). Believing in a man made deity is not the best place to be rational, but if they wish to believe these delusions in the privacy of their own homes and keep it out of the law, schools etc then I have no problem with that.

        • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

          So is our currency – which carries the phrase “IN GOD WE TRUST” — “irrational,” or do you pay everything by charge and check?

        • bakabomb

          It has been only a relatively short time since the words “In God We Trust” were added to our currency, in much the same way that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in my lifetime. The ancient Israelites didn’t stamp “In God We Trust” on their shekels either.

        • lolatheists

          delusions? really? hm, who are the people who believe that it is POSSIBLE FOR MATTER TO COME OUT OF NOTHING?
          man made deity? ha. are you keeping your own delusions about that in your home? no? oh the sweet, sweet hypocrisy.
          keep your evolution BS about matter appearing from nothing and denying the laws of science out of schools and then everything will be fair. but oh no~ we can’t have a God existing! that would mean… our lives would have to change! we might actually go to hell like those “crazy” preachers say! let’s bend science, then!
          remove the ridiculous privileges of atheists, please!

      • DannyEastVillage

        that sounds awfully broad-brushed to me. That’s like saying “don’t all Black people have rhythm?” “aren’t all gay men good at interior decoration?” “All white people are selfish racists?”

        You’ve got a lot to learn about the world you live in.

        • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

          The East Village world that you live in is all too obvious.

          And exactly what race is Islam such that you could ever justify using such bogus stereotypical comparisons ?

  • RichardSRussell

    Let me tell you how I’m going to “get local”, as Herb advises. I’m going to send a link to this column to all my infidel friends, acquaintances, family members, and organizations. (I checked off the “coming out” part about 50 years ago.)

  • Nicole Introvert

    #2 – NOPE!! No thanks. I don’t have 95% in common with most of the people in the “big tent” and am not fighting over labels. It’s over much more than that.

    • bakabomb

      I’m with you on that. Just because I’m a Christian, don’t anyone think for a moment I’m agreeable to being lumped with the Westboro Baptist Church.

  • Bonnie McGuire

    I am not jealous but I am gay. I am Atheist too. I would say one thing to all of this in contradiction and that is the fact that most gays are religious and Atheist haters . Having said that you have to surmise that being religious is the “in” that gives gay opposed to Atheist the advantage. Most GLBT are not on the same team as Atheist they are on the God team and do not let yourself be fooled into thinking they are not. The six strategies mentioned are excellent strategies I am not opposed to them. I am saying never turn your backs to your enemies and see them as allies because that is when they will “get you from behind”. Pun intended. Never be jealous of a religious person either. Our two communities do have a common enemy but NOT and enemy in common.

    • cajaquarius

      “… and that is the fact that most gays are religious and Atheist haters.”

      [Citation Required]

      It seems you can take the religion out of Right Wing Authoritarianism and have the RWA survive. Fascinating.

    • Anticollective

      I am an Atheist, you are an Anti-Theist. It is not enough for you to merely live without god, you have to shit on people who choose to. A pox on your house.

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    Dr Silverman (in his comment below) opines that “Atheists don’t have a problem with crosses displayed in churches or private property.”

    However, I, as a Secular Humanist Pantheist, do have a problem with “displayed crosses.”

    Why? Because “crosses” originally served the same primary purpose as “swastikas” — both were intended to terrorize anyone who rejected the dominant creed.

    Please share the following wisdom with those adhere to metaphysics instead of science and reason..

    Philosophy: Is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.

    Metaphysics: Is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.

    Theology: Is like being in a dark room, and looking for a cat that isn’t there,
    and shouting “I’ve found it.”

    Science: Is like being in a dark room, finding a light switch, and turning it on.

    • Herb Silverman

      I support the free speech right of people to display symbols on private property, whether it be crosses, swastikas, or confederate flags. People don’t have the right to commit terrorist acts.

    • lolatheists

      obviously, terrorizing people with crosses is wrong because you as a flawed human have the right to make up moral standards and put them as laws!! right??? its totally not forcing your opinions on other people like the STUPID christian people do, how non hypocritical and sweet of you.
      and christians totally killed like millions of jews right. using the cross. because they were racist pricks. oh boy we’re both so good at history!! yay!!

  • supup

    Thanks for another great column. I agree that atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers need to come out of the closet. There will still be some discrimination, but maybe not as much as you think!

  • Loretta Haskell

    What a great list of action steps for atheists to take to remove the stigma against atheism. It is indeed great news that Americans would elect a gay president over an evangelical president. At the same time, there are many gay men and women who are also atheists. What is unacceptable about the thought of an atheist being elected to lead the nation? I haven’t read the research but I would like to see what is behind the thinking that would discriminate between gay and atheist. Once people talk openly about their impressions and biases and challenge each other’s thinking processes, limiting beliefs can open entirely new possibilities that can lead to a more humane and rewarding way of living for us all, evangelicals included.

  • Will Moredock

    Herb offers a wonderful six-point plan for making this country a lot more sane, rational and easy to live in. Thanks.

  • Gunga Din

    It was a nice article, but he’s missing a major point. When the LGBT community was fighting for equal rights and mainstream acceptance, there wasn’t a vocal section of the group screaming that being straight was stupid or irrational, that the world would be better if you wiped heterosexuality off of it, and generally being obnoxious about it. The atheist community has to contend with the overtly counterproductive antics of people like Richards Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Until sophomoric blowhards like that are shouted down and more reasonable atheists and agnostics replace them, the fight for mainstream acceptance will be futile.

    • bakabomb

      I don’t think the fight will be futile, but it will certainly be hampered by the kind of behavior you describe. And that’s unfortunate, because there’s no need to belittle others in order to validate one’s own personal position.

  • Jeremy Rawley

    Nobody should have the right to refuse to vote for an atheist candidate for POTUS. We are a secular nation and our White House must reflect this as per the First Amendment and the Constitution’s science & useful arts clause (Article I, Section 8). If they refuse to vote for us, they must be forced to.

  • mike

    Atheists need the lord just like the queers and the rest of America we are nothing without him and this country is going to hell

    • cajaquarius

      Lots of gays are Christian. Matthew Vines comes to mind,

  • bakabomb

    It’s absurd that in this century, in this country, we continue to harbor hidden and not-so-hidden prejudices against atheists. Shame on the Boy Scouts, for starters.

    However, I can’t get too excited about Point #6, “Enlist the Youth”. My issue is with strident proselytizing across the board, whether undertaken by Bible-thumping Talibangelists or militant atheists. I have just as big a problem whether it’s a fundamentalist Christian or a fundamentalist New Atheist mocking someone, deriding them, belittling them whether it be for their lack of faith or for their faith — I, a Christian, have that problem with another professed Christian below even though he isn’t discriminatory; he belittles all alike — atheists, Muslims and even Christians who don’t profess the same catechism he does. I do have a big problem with that.

    So when setting forth to “enlist the youth”, try to do that by some other means than “separating the sheep from the goats”. Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs and faith practices, and it’s not up to us to calumnify them for their choices.

    • lolatheists

      oh yea, shame on the boy scouts for believing in a God and believing he sets up a moral system! crazy, right! we should just all invent our own morals and live up to them! that will go so well! we shouldnt have our own beliefs! it’s not like the boys scouts is a PRIVATE organization or anything

      • bakabomb

        First of all, how many truly hardheaded atheists are there in the Boy Scouts’ age range? Most of them are kids who like typical kids might just be going through a phase. Second, what better way to show them that Christians are likeable people and our faith has something to offer? Third, the Scouts don’t keep out those of other faiths, including some who certainly don’t believe in the same type of God that Christians do. Why pick on atheists then?

        • lolatheists

          But we do believe that at least there is a God, how is saying our beliefs picking on atheists? Despite the fact that atheists do not believe in God, we still believe there is a God, and that he placed a moral system in them. We don’t have to hide our beliefs. These are just kids, but we can still show them that the idea of believing in a God is not relevant. If we don’t talk about God, that’s just as good as pushing them towards the atheist side.
          I know many truly hardheaded atheists, one kid that I know attacked me first by saying “YOU BELIEVE IN CREATIONISM? SO DUMB” when he learned I was a Christian. It’s not like atheists are some exotic animal, these days.

  • DiegoTomba

    What a orribile expression is “gays are gay”. If being gay does not justify discrimination, it does not justify even the idea that LGBT are a homogenous group, with the same desires and ideas. There are only individuals

  • lolatheists

    Since when did being a Christian or atheist have to do with how well politics were run? Personal beliefs can get mixed up with politics with any ideology, and one can’t deny that atheism is a belief system. So much for the “tolerance” that you advocate.

    • Herb Silverman

      I’m not attacking anyone. I’m criticizing those who demonize gays and atheists as a group. I don’t think, for example, that Muslims tend to be more accepting of atheists and gays than Christians are.

      • lolatheists

        But then you’re relegating Christians into a box labeled “haters” and demonizing Christians yourself, and being no better.

        • Herb Silverman

          I’m not stereotyping Christians or anyone else as haters. Some are and some aren’t, just as with any other group.