I am speaking as both an atheist and as a 60-year-old gay man who has personally witnessed the amazing liberation that gays and lesbians have brought about over the past 50 years through an agressive program of gay pride and individual coming out.
While things are still far from perfect for gays, I think even conservatives will often admit in their heart of hearts that reverses like Proposition 8 are just temporary setbacks.
It is my contention that the present situation of atheists, especially in America, (arguably the most religious of the western democracies) most closely parallels that of gays in the 1960s.
Admittedly, there are some comparisons with black pride and the black civil rights movement as well.
But consider this: It is now a proven fact that a majority of Americans will vote for a black man for President. But polls also show that a large majority of Americans would NOT vote for an atheist. And they answer this to the pollsters without even knowing anything about the hypothetical candidate or his/her platform!
The situation of gays and atheists is most comparable because:
[li]Gays and atheists are mostly invisible, unlike blacks[/li][li]Coming out of the closet is a form of social activism that initially upsets the majority and can lead to backlash[/li][li]But in the long term, the more members of this invisible minority come out, the more they challenge and destroy ignorant stereotypes.[/li][LIST]
[li]Both gays and atheists are victimized and demonized by Churches and by conservative religious believers.[/li][/ul]
In the early 60s, one or two small gay lobby groups existed, very timidly and almost disguised, in a world of intimidation and misunderstanding. In Washington, a group called “One” (i.e. homos=same) had a small office identified only by the letters “ONE” on the door.
Now I realize the American Atheists are somewhat better organized, less timid and have a web site, but I am convinced they represent only a tiny proportion of atheists.
In 1960, Richard Nixon could say in the TV debates that Kennedy’s being Catholic should not bother anyone, and that voters should only reject a candidate who had no religion. To my knowledge, nobody criticized that comment.
Almost 50 years later, Mitt Romney said something along the same lines during the recent primaries when someone brought up his Mormon religion, and he received relatively little criticism for what is in effect a grotesque and scandalous call to discriminate against some 16% of Americans.
About 2 years ago, CNN held a panel discussion about whether or not atheists are subject to discrimination in America. Incredibly, the panel did not include any atheists. It included religious leaders who essentially dumped on atheists as cry babies. Can you imagine for one second any other group being excluded from a discussion about them? After protests, CNN did allow the American Atheist Association some air time, but only in a format in which they were attacked by religious leaders. If you can find the items on Youtube please share the URLs.
I have seen footage of the few marches in Washington held by “Godless Americans” and they remind me of nothing so much as the initial, timid gay rights demos of the early 60s.
In retrospect, what really produced the amazing progress of gays and lesbians over the past few decades were the individual acts of “coming out of the closet.” They began with trickle of incredibly brave individuals who risked and endured physical attacks and discrimination, and eventually the trickle turned to a torrent. And with each gay person who came out, some ignorant stereotypes fell.
No doubt, atheists will be accused of having an “agenda”. Atheist teachers who go public will be accsed of trying to “recruit” their students and “destroy their faith”. The tricks of reactionaries and religious conservatives rarely change. But reactionaries are reactionaries because they are reacting to something. And that something can be the tens of millions of “no religion/atheist/agnostic” Americans who are ready to come out of the closet, who refuse to hide and remain invisible.
Here is a funny personal story. I work as a volunteer in a home for HIV/AIDS sufferers (most of our residents are not gay BTW). I am HIV negative personally, and so I work very hard scrubbing toilets, cleaning floors, painting, and helping those who are not as fortunate as I am. One day, one of the Directors, apparently impressed with my level of devotion, asked admiringly what religion I was. Now, the funny thing is, the fact that I am gay is of no importance to anyone in that home. But when I said I was an atheist, a few eyebrows shot up. It was not an expression of hostility but of mild surprise. I would like to think that a few stereotypes bit the dust that day.
So how about it? For starters, how about watching this “atheist pride” video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T27kB4BjbEg