Are atheists the new gays?

That's the big question I take away from a surprisingly fascinating exchange on the what I thought was a tired "how to promote atheism?" debate, in which ...

... Jake Young of the Pure Pendantry blog makes a respectable, if somewhat lengthy, attempt to argue that linking science with atheism too intimately will scare off people of faith and turn science into even more of an elistist community, and Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog counters that atheists need to make their case more forcefully if rational philosophy is ever to find a position of influence in society. Both, including the commentary, are worth reading if you have the time and care about this sort of thing. Their main points are not entirely mutually exclusive, but they do disagree on the fundamental question of how someone comes to embrace atheism. Jake says we just wake up one day and say "You know that invisible man business doesn't make sense." Jason says enlightenment comes from social movements, and uses gay rights as an example of how it's done. So who's right?

First, I think Jake misses the mark when he argues against scientists forcefully making the case for atheism through critical analysis of faith and religion, as Harris,Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennet, (H2D2) have done. Even if he's right that people come 'round to atheism through a personal philosophical quest, the converts still need provocative literature to spark that initial skepticism. Which is where H2D2 come in.

As Jason writes:

I think we can do more than simply wait around for people to come to their senses. I think that you can help those people in class to wake up by writing books showing them there is something other than the religious attitudes in which they have been steeped for much of their life. I think most of the time people are happy to go on sleeping until some noisy troublemaker gets their attention.

But is Jason correct when he compare the process by which gays are claiming their rights as respectable and full members of civil society to the struggle facing atheists?

My initial response is a qualified yes. It seems that breaking down the walls of prejudice, which are primarily built of religious bricks, but also more primal elements of xenophobia and psycho-sexual hang-ups (which, of course, also have a religious dimension), is exactly the challenge atheism must take on.

Atheists must be willing to "out' themselves as Dawkins would have them do with the red "A" campaign. They have to, as Matt Nisbet says, seize positions of community leadership and make no bones about their lack of faith. They must organize, network and lobby -- do all the things that those with homosexual proclivities have done over the past couple of decades.

Though I am sure it has been frustratingly slow for most members at times. in historical terms, the gay movement has been a remarkably rapid success. Marriage laws and benefits packages are among the last vestiges of institutional bias.

But who among us believes that atheism will be able to achieve a similar level of recognition and respect in a comparable time frame? What distinguishes the gay movement from the efforts of atheists to assert themselves? I don't know enough about the sociology of either movement to say. Are atheists really the new gays? Any suggestions?

More like this

See my comment in Jason's thread. I think that the analogy of comparing the "New Atheists" to homosexual rights activists doesn't apply. The reason is, homosexual rights activists were demanding respect and recognition, but didn't claim that there was anything inherently stupid or evil about being straight. The "New Atheism" on the other hand *are* attacking the religious as being deluded, wicked, etc.

Never underestimate the need of the "shepherds" for a Wolf to scare the sheep right put of their pelts. They had Jews for a long time before the heady days of "race mixers" and "communists". But time dulled those teeth and racism wasn't profitable any more. They lamely tried "secular humanists" but the sheep didn't understand that or "progressive humanists". They brought out Homosexuality and the "War on Christmas". The homosexuals are fighting back- and winning- so there is a "War on marriage". Then the Atheists suddenly get uppity so they've a real "War on God" to blow trumpets about. Whatever the excuse, the sheep are duly shorn.

To my knowledge, there are no credible arguments indicating that heterosexuality is bad or incorrect.

There are plenty of arguments, and lots of evidence, indicating that religious people are either deluded or liars.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 14 Sep 2007 #permalink

At least atheists can marry, and share health benefits, unless they happen to be gay. Various
ethnics can marry and share benefits, but that
doesn't mean bigotry is gone.

Historically, didn't Jews go to Unitarian Churches to gain community respect? That's basically institutionalized atheism (except for a UU church in Boston, which is still highly Christian). So, that should be an avenue for atheists... On the other hand, if what you object to is sitting around while someone talks at you, you could just stay home. That seems to be working for GW Bush.

The real problem is for atheists growing up in families of the faithful. "Are you saved?" could have a response like "In every way that matters."
Even for the Christian, the "Are you saved?"
question is highly insulting. It warrants the reply:
"It's not your problem." It's one of the seven
signs of highly insensitive people. For potential
friends, you can move on. But you're stuck with
family.