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Activism, Atheism

Greta Christina: LGBT and Atheists

Greta Christina is one of my favorite bloggers for several reasons.  After seeing this speech, she’s become one of my favorite activists as well.  You should take the time to watch this whole thing.  It’s an hour long, but it’s well worth it.  The bulk of the talk is her take on what the Atheist Movement can learn from the LGBT Movement which, after all, has been doing this activism thing for about thirty years longer than the atheists.

Greta focused on several key successes of the LGBT movement, but more importantly in my mind, she pointed out several glaring failures which atheists would do well to learn from.  Here are a couple of key points that I really liked, along with my own thoughts.

  • Lack of Diversity.  The LGBT movement has generally been dominated by gay white men for most of its history.  Like the LGBT Movement, the Atheist Movement is mostly headed up by white men.  There is a woeful lack of resources for black atheists, female atheists, or perhaps most importantly, poor atheists.  Let me explain.  I’ve been to lots of conferences in my life.  And every one of them has ended up costing me upwards of a thousand dollars after airfare, hotel, conference fees, and food.  I know these things take money to put together, and I’m not suggesting that we stop having them or dumb them down, but more thought needs to be put into local, affordable events in addition to what we already have.  We need to all encourage women, blacks, and other minorities to get involved at all levels of atheist organizations.
  • In-Fighting.  There has been lots of in-fighting between gays and lesbians, gays and trans, butches and lipsticks, and just about any other sub-groups you can think of.  Only recently have some of the walls been coming down, and that’s a shame.  The discrimination has always been against all non-straights, and there never has been a clear line between straight, gay, bi, or “other.”  Similarly, there are sharp divides within the atheist community.  In my opinion, the most damaging one is the line between accommodationists and hardliners.  The “softies” think Dawkins and PZ are destroying all the good will we might have and the hardliners think we’ve put up with too much already and it’s time for decisive action.  And they’re both right.  What we atheists are essentially doing is teaching theists to either (A) become atheists, or (B) treat atheists fairly while remaining theists.  People learn in different ways.  Some need a hard teacher and others need to be given space to work things out on their own.  We need both approaches, and all the time spent bitching at each other is time wasted.  All that energy and time would be better spent focusing on our common goals.
  • Forcing Identity. Words like “bisexual” and “gay” are convenient labels which sufficiently identify a large group of people.  But they’re very inexact words.  Greta calls herself a bisexual while self-identifying as a 5 on the Kinsey Scale, which is nearly as far towards homosexual as you can get.  Someone else who is a 5 might strongly identify as gay.  They’re both right, because that kind of identification is about how we feel about ourselves.  If we “feel gay,” we’re gay.  If we “feel bi,” we’re bi.  I feel straight, so I’m straight, even though I’m probably a 2 on the Kinsey Scale.  Given the right circumstances, I could probably be aroused by another man.  But I don’t have any desire to.  So I’m straight.  The parallel in the Atheist Movement is pretty obvious.  We’ve got agnostics, atheists, hard atheism, soft atheism, Brights, Skeptics, Humanists, and twenty other names for supposedly precisely delineated philosophical boundaries.  But the fact is, most people in the movement could easily be described by lots of different labels since there are so many perceptions of what each one means.   That’s not important, though.  What is important is that people are comfortable with their own labels.

I’m going to plead guilty on this last one.  I’ve spent an awful lot of time harping on the difference between agnosticism and atheism.  And I’m guilty of telling agnostics that they’re really atheists.  But on reflection, that hasn’t done anything to improve our position with theists.  It’s just fostered divisions within our group.  If someone doesn’t believe in god, or disbelieves in God, or feels certain there cannot possibly be a god, or remains unconvinced by the evidence even though he’d like to believe in God — it’s all the same as far as theists are concerned.  And that’s what matters.

So I’m going to practice what I preach and be a good scientist.  The evidence has convinced me that I’ve been wrong about the division between atheism and agnosticism.  I’ve been wrong to get aggravated by people who won’t admit to being atheists.  (I still maintain that from a linguistic point of view, all atheists are agnostics and that the two words refer to different qualities, but that’s a linguistic concern, not a political one.)  Being right about the technical meaning of the word doesn’t matter.  The thing that matters is whether a person feels comfortable with his identity.  And if it takes being called agnostic, then I’m all for it.  (You may have noticed that I’ve been using the word nonbeliever a lot more recently.  I’ve been working up to this for a while.)

In the future, if someone asks me about the linguistic distinction between agnosticism and atheism, I’ll be happy to explain it.  But otherwise, if someone tells me they’re agnostic, I’ll happily tell them that I’m one too.  I’m going to stop creating divisions where none need exist.  And as much as I can, I’m going to start using the term “nonbeliever” as a way of including anyone and everyone who just doesn’t buy into the whole God thing — for whatever reason.

Having examined myself and found some lack, I’d like to encourage all of my readers to watch this whole video and see if any of it applies to you, and if so, what you can do to make this whole movement a better place for everyone.  Can you help to make us more diverse?  Can you help cut down on in-fighting?  Can you help organize inexpensive local resources or think of new ways to reach out to minorities?  Let’s learn from the LGBT movement and avoid making the same mistakes they did.  Granted, things are still working out for them quite well, all things considered.  But maybe if they’d been more inclusive and less divided from the beginning, they could have been where they are today, only ten or fifteen years ago.



8 thoughts on “Greta Christina: LGBT and Atheists

  1. Well, to be fair, isn’t “you agnostic are really also an atheist if you think about it” usually a reaction to an agnostic calling you fundamentalist? As such it would still have its place.

    Posted by Alex SL | August 13, 2010, 11:04 pm
  2. I didn’t watch the video, but I did read the entire blog, and you bring up some great points. I have a question though (with a little lead in).

    I am straight, and I fight for same-sex marriage. I do this because I know what it feels like to have ideals pushed down my throat.

    Wouldn’t that be a good rallying point to bring us all together?

    Atheists fighting on behalf of the LBGT community for their right to be recognized as worthy of respect like any “straight” person, and the LBGT community helping in the fight to have religion taken out of schools so that people can make informed choices at an age of reason?

    Seems a powerful thing, if you ask me.

    Posted by portableatheist | August 14, 2010, 9:11 pm
  3. Yeah, it does seem very powerful. Since practically all objections to non-straight marriage are religious, we atheists are de facto LGBT activists. So we definitely make good allies. But there’s a flip side to it. Inexplicably, lots of gays are also Christian. It’s baffling to me — I’d have a very hard time adhering to a religion that called for my execution. But there it is.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 14, 2010, 9:34 pm
  4. Yeah, and that whole discussion is wrong-headed. Atheism is typically not the foundation of a belief system. It’s a conclusion. In that sense, atheism is the opposite of fundamentalism.

    If we use the words agnostic and atheist to refer to “knowledge” and “belief,” respectively, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that all atheists must be agnostics, and that all but the most epistemologically confused agnostics must be atheists. But culturally, the words are used to express differing degrees of certainty. Most people who claim to be agnostic mean that they don’t think there is a god, but they don’t want to take a firm stand on it. Most people who claim to be atheists mean to imply that they feel very certain there is no god.

    Frankly, I think the difference is trivial, since both kinds of non-believers typically think imposing religion on non-believers is a pretty shitty thing to do.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 14, 2010, 9:38 pm
  5. I agree with Greta Christina’s platform and I really like her suggestion that we let the strident be strident and the diplomatic be diplomatic. I’d be very happy if that became the message within the movement.

    That being said, she’s wrong about the white male thing. The only atheist any American could name off the top of his head 15 years ago was Madalyn Murray O’Hare, and Ayn Rand would have been a close second. The movement we have now, which is attracting young people for the first time in the history of the movement, is due to four white guys. These young people are mostly white and male themselves, but unlike in the early days of the LGBT movement, these dudes are mostly heterosexual; there is no natural border to female integration. I’d say there’s more of a clamoring for it. They also grew up in a post-Civil Rights world, where racist attitudes are effectively stigmatized.

    There’s one more big difference here, too. The LGBT movement’s membership did not need to be convinced of the rightness of the cause, given that sexual orientation is not a choice. But atheists are made, not born. We cannot recruit people that do not exist. Obviously as new faces show up, we need to be welcoming, but they have to find their own way to the big tent.

    Posted by Clint | August 15, 2010, 12:14 pm
  6. Hmmm… I dunno. Bertrand Russel was the first atheist I ever heard of. But I get it. Madalyn is certainly one of the most influential early atheists out there. But since her, I can only really think of one or two prominent female atheists, and they’re only prominent if you’re “in the know.” All the prominent atheist authors are male and white. All the TV interviews are with them. Ask anyone who wrote “God is Not Great,” and they’ll probably know. Ask anyone what happened with the Boy Scouts a while back and they’ll tell you there was a court case, but they won’t be able to name Margaret Downey. When I think back to the conferences I’ve attended, I can’t recall a black speaker, male or female. Outside of the Infidel Guy, I’m having a hard time coming up with any black atheist activists.

    I think one of the borders between females and atheism is the difference in “male culture” and “female culture.” I’ve written about this before. I think there are probably more closet female atheists than men because of how damaging it is for a female to come out to an all Christian cohort. Women travel in packs. Men are more comfortable going out solo. So I guess I’m saying there needs to be extra effort to encourage women to come out.

    Black culture is especially Christian oriented. It’s much harder for a black of either sex to come out than for a white. It seems like Greta is right in saying that we need to encourage minorities, especially blacks, to take prominent roles in atheist culture.

    I have never been gay, so it’s hard for me to say how much the early LGBT movement had to “convert” people who really were gay but had been denying it their whole life. I don’t have much problem believing there’s a connection between that and people who are functionally atheist but have never wanted to identify as such publicly.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 16, 2010, 4:15 pm
  7. Outside of the Infidel Guy, I’m having a hard time coming up with any black atheist activists.

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali

    Posted by Evan | August 16, 2010, 6:48 pm
  8. Ah yes. Witness my total racist sexist brain fart. I’ve even met her. So that’s two.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 16, 2010, 7:24 pm

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