Ronald Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, has a column in the Huffington Post about the importance of coming out as an atheist — and the differences between coming out as an atheist and coming out as gay. While there are some similarities in terms of countering public misconceptions, he points out that there are big differences as well:
So there’s little question that encouraging fellow atheists to come out is a good thing; we will not make substantial progress unless people do come out, and coming out is a tactic that will have some success.
However, here I have to register a note of caution. I don’t think coming out will have the same level of success for atheists as it’s had for LGBT individuals. Why? Because even after we come out, some fear will persist. For some, the level of fear, the sense of being threatened, may actually increase.
There’s a big difference between being gay and being an atheist. Someone can persuade you to be an atheist; no one is going to persuade you to be gay (no matter what the extremist anti-gay propaganda says).
I don’t foresee a best-selling book entitled “The Straight Delusion” or “Heterosexuality Poisons Everything.” The LGBT community wants acceptance; they don’t want to persuade others to join their “team,” and even if they had that objective, they would strive for it in vain.
By contrast, the amount of literature that has been produced in the last decade criticizing religious belief is extensive and continues to grow. Moreover, these critiques of religion seem to have had some effect.
Of course, many atheists have little or no interest in persuading the religious to abandon their beliefs. They merely want to be treated as equals and to end the influence that religion has on public policy. That doesn’t matter. The realization that many atheists once were religious and then “lost” their faith has an unnerving effect on some of the religious. How far will atheism spread? Will I be next? Or my children?
Gays are different, but they don’t send the message that heterosexuals are mistaken about their sexuality. On the other hand, not only are atheists different, but explicitly or implicitly, they are telling the faithful that they’re mistaken about a core commitment (for some the core commitment) of their lives. As the number of open atheists increases — and this seems likely — we can expect some religious to become more defensive, more strident in promoting their beliefs. They will regard themselves as under attack.
These differences can be both positive and negative in terms of public acceptance and resistance.