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.
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