Surfing (do people still know that term?) around the internet yesterday, I landed on a Paul Elam page complaining about Free Thought Blogs – and of course I’m completely sympathetic. The more I read by PZ Myers, the more ridiculous he seems to me.
Anyway, it occurs to me in this connection that atheists are the new gay. Which is to say, if I weren’t an atheist myself, a lot of the things that turn me off about the gay movement and dampen my enthusiasm for gay rights would also turn me off of atheists and dampen my enthusiasm for their(/our) political concerns. I’ll go through the specific similarities in a moment, but I think the common thread, really, is that both the gay and atheist political movements have an inflated sense of their own importance.
Let’s start with the fact that neither gays nor atheists are oppressed enough to justify a political movement. Of course, it well used to be the case that they were – in living memory even. And in some ways they still are. There are definitely (largely overlapping) parts of America where it’s no fun – even downright dangerous – to be openly gay or atheist. But these are pointedly not the important parts of the country. It really isn’t hard as a gay man or an atheist to find a sympathetic neighborhood – and indeed, in some industries and communities, being gay or atheist actually buys you points. So, while I don’t want to trivialize the challenges that gays and atheists do continue to face, comparing it to, say, what black people used to go through in this country is just sort of ludicrous. The fight for equal protection was largely non-violent in the case of gays and completely so in the case of atheists. And this is reflected in the fact that gays and atheists seem to be as financially successful or more so than the mainstream.
Another thing that they have in common is that passing is a real possibility. Now, to be clear, no one should have to pass. People should feel free to be openly gay or atheist without fear of retribution. That’s sadly not always possible, but in those cases where it’s not the point remains that we have the option of pretending to be "normal." Black people and women didn’t.
Yet another thing that we have in common is that we’re seriously in the minority. It’s one thing when you’re anywhere from 13-20% of the population (and even more in the epicenters of oppression), as in the case of blacks, or more than 50% of the population, as in the case of women. Atheists and gays are at best 5%, and probably more like 3% in the case of gays and 2% in the case of atheists. Those are minorities so severely small that there’s only so far it’s rational to go in asking the majority to accomodate them. So, it’s one thing when the government is banning your sexual practices (gays) or actively barring you from holding public office (atheists) – that’s clearly oppressive. But when gays and atheists complain that getting elected president would be difficult it rings a little hollow as an example of "oppression."
Speaking of demographics, both gays and atheists are notoriously difficult to classify in the first place – which is to say that gay and atheist identity can be a little fluid. Some studies like to put the percentage of "homosexuals" in the population as high as 15% – which is absurd on its face, but doable when you count anything that deviates from textbook heterosexuality as "gay." Likewise, you get the 2% number above only if you insist on a strict definition of atheism – but like with "homosexuality," you can always relax the criteria to the point where we’re just talking about expressing substantial uncertainties about God’s existence. In both cases, it’s more of a continuum than a blazing white line, and there’s plenty of space between actually being gay or atheist and being straight or religious that still falls outside the mainstream and makes the mainstream uncomfortable. The definitions are moving targets in a sense, and that makes for a virtual grove for political cherry-picking. Consequently, gay and atheist partisans can come across as really manipulative to the extent they indulge in this. That said, I do admit that gays and atheists have different problems. There is nothing about being black or a woman that puts you outside of the moral mainstream – that is, there was never anything immoral about being black or a woman. But being gay or atheist really does put you at odds with at least some established values, and that’s a different kind of thing. I can see why that might lead to some confusion about just how far we’re allowed to go in defining what counts as "gay" or "atheist" politics. But of course, that merely explains the tendency to draw the definition too wide, it doesn’t justify it.
On a related point, there’s at least the possibility of proselytizing in both cases (admittedly more for atheists than gays), and that possibility is frequently overestimated by both pro- and o-pponents. The moral panic about gays "converting" people to homosexuality is of course comically overblown – human sexual desires are complex and notoriously poorly understood, so even if gays did have a program of converting people, the effort involved relative to the level of success would be collossal. That said, there’s plenty of research showing that sexual identity is less categorical than people think, and so while I doubt anyone can take a straight person and make them foresake the opposite sex forever, I do think it’s possible to awaken dormant desires in some otherwise straight people. So, the idea of gay proselytizing is less ridiculous than it often seems (even if it’s true that the moral panic version is probably false). And that’s more obviously true with atheists. Again, it’s less possible than most people think: you can’t just talk someone out of their deeply held religious convictions – especially given how irrational these generally are. But you can stoke their doubts a lot and make them realize that their belief system is a lot shakier than they previously appreciated. So, like with gays, while I would imagine that full religious-to-atheist "conversions" are pretty rare, the dillution of existing religious fervor is probably not. Again, it’s that strange case of something happening less often in absolute terms than is generally believed, but nevertheless to a greater extent than the "level-headed" probably appreciated. Point being, there’s no such parallel with minorities and women. You really do have to be born into one of those groups. The difference, of course, is that campaigning for equal rights in the case of gays and atheists gets confounded with identity issues in a way that it doesn’t for women and minorities, and this can be annoying for both outsiders and insiders alike.
Another thing that gays and atheists have in common is an annoying tendency to overestimate the extent to which people are shocked by their existence. Now, this isn’t to deny that there are plenty of people out there who continue to find the existence of homosexuals and atheists shocking – I’m just saying that the shock value of announcing that you’re a dude who likes dudes, or that you don’t believe in God, has largely worn off. Exposure has reached a saturation level where there really aren’t people who haven’t heard of these things before, nor are there many who haven’t met examples. And yet, you continute meet gays and atheists who seem to genuinely continue to expect you to be uncomfortable around them, and who are dissapointed and even ham it up a little when you aren’t immediately and visibly uncomfortable.
In that vein – it’s not completely clear that the movements have done any good to begin with. For both, one could make the case that they’re simply piggy-backing on the more permissive society that’s come about as a result of the upheavals of the 1960s. In the case of gays, the more general sexual revolution reduced the premium on sexual deviance. Once straights got more open and less inhibited about having sex out of wedlock, the natural objections to homosexuality just sort of fell away as a side effect. Likewise, once church stopped being obligatory, atheists just weren’t under that much pressure anymore, and acceptance, such as it is, was a natural side effect. And of course there’s little that’s more annoying to people than a campaign to achieve what’s already been achieved by other means!
And the matter of public attitudes is important to both. In both cases, the logic behind the political argument doesn’t keep pace with a certain emotional repulsion. Despite what people say in public, in private there’s simply an unavoidable ick factor about gayness. It’s biologically inevitable – it’s just how sexual attraction works. Personality plays a part, but then there are pheromones and physical characteristics and all sorts of atavistic, built-in physiological factors that remain poorly understood. The gay movement suffers a lot from not being clear about whether it is a movement for cultural acceptance, equal political rights, or outright normalcy – and the last bit rankles people a little. They feel pressured to pretend that something is normal which isn’t – which is actually a bit physically repellant to them. The trouble is that you can’t say that to your gay friends, because it can’t help but be taken a little personally. It’s one of those things that both parties know (because, one presumes, lots of gay people are no more comfortable with the idea of being involved in a heterosexual relationship – it’s vaguely disgusting to them in a similar way) but is best left unsaid. With atheists, I think the feeling is that there’s something mean-spirited about atheism. One thing that I hear over and over again is "religion is comforting, why would you want to take that away from people?" And it just seems pointless to the point of falsity to try to explain that false comfort is not comfort – because if we’re honest that’s only partly true anyway. Everyone says they want the hard truth, but they don’t. We’ve all been in situations where we prefer white lies, at least in the short term. Brutal honesty isn’t always good for you. It’s one thing if religion isn’t all that important to you to begin with – but if you’re one of the people in whose life it played a major role, attacks on it, however rational and politely stated, have got to seem callous. All the more so since atheists really don’t have anything to replace religion with. It reminds me of something an undergraduate religion professor once said – a bit flippantly, but there’s a point here – about the great advantage to the "demon theory of disease" (as though that were a thing in opposition to the "germ theory of disease," as he called it) being that you could at least argue with a demon. Now, he was trying to get a rise, but I understood the point to be this: yes, the germ theory has had better results, but at the end of the day we still all die, and there remain incurable diseases. The germ theory of disease has bought us some extra years of life, but at the price of a really comforting illusion. Naturally, I think it’s nonsense: the right solution is to accept that you die in the end and take the extra decade that modern medicine gives you! But I don’t think this complaint is 100% off base either, and there’s a level at which that’s an individual choice. It’s not entirely unlike continuing to smoke even after you know how harmful it is just because you rate the enjoyment higher than longevity. Sometimes people are better off with their vices. And so, like with equal rights for gays, there’s something offputting to most people about atheism itself, and this can dampen sympathy for the political cause.
A final thing that they seem to have in common – likely a result of all those other things – is a tendency of certain members to overidentify with the cause. Which is to say, a lot of things that have no obvious relationship to sexual or religious politics get smuggled in. This is the one that I was thinking about in particular with regard to Free Thought Blogs. PZ Myers and his ilk want being an atheist to be more than just lack of belief in God. The trouble is that atheism (and homosexuality) mean very specific things, and no amount of attempts to attach riders to the associated equality movements is going to change that. Related to this – and most important to me, actually – is that both movements are way more intolerant of dissent than they really need to be (which is actually the point of the link at the begining of this article with regard to atheism and the ironically-named Free Thought Blogs). I trust I don’t need to spell out every point here – but prominent examples in the case of gays would include an unfortunate tendency to assume that everyone who fails to support gay marrige is a bigot, or in the case of atheists to assume that anyone who questions aspects of evolution is a creationist.
So, were I looking at this from the outside in, atheism would seem a little exasperating to me as a political movement, I think. And you know what? Even from the inside it seems a little exasperating. PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins et al are really not doing the rest of us any favors. But of course actualy being an atheist means that unless I want to take on self-hatred (and I don’t), there’s only so exasperated I can be. At the end of the day, I still live in a world where there’s a certain amount of hostility to lack of belief in God, and so I’m obliged to be a little worried about that. It’s impossible to be completely apolitical about it – which is, I can well imagine, the same way that otherwise unengaged gays feel.
But I still think gays and atheists could be less political than they are, and I still think the claims of oppression in both cases are exaggerated. Moreover, speaking as an insider where atheism is concerned, I really don’t see the need for an atheist identity. It’s true enough that, all else equal, I relate to atheists better than other people – it’s just that there are so few atheists that "all else" is not normally "equal." So, I’m actually content with just being a politically equal member of society, thank you very much. I assume history will sort out the rest of the cultural issues, and so not only do I not see a need for people like PZ Myers, I think they unintentionally hurt me by making atheists more of an overt – and irritating – presence in people’s lives than we need to be.