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Oct 24 2011

Coming Out Atheist Is Different from Coming Out Queer — But Still Sort Of The Same

(This is Part 2 of a two-part post. You might want to read Part 1 first.)

So if coming out as atheist is different in important ways from coming out as queer… what does that mean?

In Part 1 of this post, I talked about an important difference between coming out as queer and coming out as atheist. I pointed out that coming out as queer doesn’t imply that straight people are wrong to be straight — but that coming out as atheist does imply that believers are wrong to believe. And I argued (among other things) that coming out atheist is always going to be inherently confrontational, at least a little bit, and is likely to always be at least somewhat divisive and upsetting… in ways that coming out as queer doesn’t have to be.

However.

That being said.

Even given this important difference between coming out as atheist and coming out as queer, there’s still a parallel between them — and it’s a parallel we can learn from.

Coming out queer doesn’t imply, “You’re wrong to be straight.” But it does imply, “You’re wrong to be homophobic.”

When queers come out of the closet, we aren’t asking straight people to change their minds about being straight. But we are asking them to change their minds about us. We’re asking them to change their minds about whether being queer is moral, healthy, stable, socially sound, etc. In fact, we’re asking them to change their minds about a lot of things, things that have implications in their own lives and not just in ours: ideas and feelings about sexuality, about gender roles in relationships, about what it means to be a man or a woman, about how we define a family. We’re not just asking them to change how they feel about us. We’re asking them to change how they feel about themselves.

Now, that was somewhat more true in previous decades than it is today. When LGBT people come out today, straight people are a lot more likely to already be on board. Queers have successfully changed the culture to a great extent, and we’ve changed a lot of people’s minds: not only about queers being okay, but about gender and sexuality and family and so on. But that’s very far from universally true. Anti-queer bullying in high schools is evidence of that. And subtle forms of homophobia and heterosexism still exist in people who are basically pro-queer. There are a lot of people who haven’t changed their minds yet, in large ways and small — and we’re asking them to do that.

When we come out as queer, we’re not telling them that they’re wrong to be straight. But we’re still telling them, in many cases, that they’re wrong.

So atheists need to remember that. Yes, coming out as atheist means telling believers, “I think you’re wrong.” But it’s okay to tell people, “I think you’re wrong.” That’s one of the ways we get people to change their minds. And there is no way to ask people to change their minds about us without asking them to change their minds about themselves.

That’s true for queers — and it’s true for atheists. We need to accept this, and embrace it. We’re not going to get very far if we don’t.

39 comments

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  1. 1
    Hank Fox

    Fantastic piece! Thank you!

    ………………..

    I’ve been thinking for a while about writing something on … well, on giving people ROOM to be wrong. It strikes me that there’s something of a meanness in the way some people treat those of us who make the mistakes.

    For instance, as an admitted doofus, I make mistakes all the time.

    Sometimes I get the friendly reaction to being wrong — that is, people point it out but also give me a sort of good-willed permission to fix things. Such as apologize sincerely, correct the side effects if I can, etc. And then we both move on.

    Other times, I get treated like I’m evil incarnate, and deliberately planned my action so as to hurt the maximum number of innocent bystanders. I once got into a completely unintentional tiff with some people online, over one less-than-well-thought-out remark, and they actually followed me to other websites to spit hate at me. It went on for more than a week.

    The problem with the second approach, for me, is that if the individuals involved are going to treat me like a full-throttle Nazi, I’m waaaay less likely to give a shit about engaging the issue of repentance or apology at all. And I’m more likely to see them as unreasonable, as undeserving of concern on my part, in future.

    Ringleaders of movements such as the Tea Party or the GOP, or conservative talking heads in full charge of their own message … I don’t worry about them too much, of course, because I think they ARE going at it with full-throttle malignant intent.

    But people like me? No.

  2. 2
    savoy47

    I think that we forget that believers actually believe. The stakes are very high for them. They believe in eternal damnation. They believe that there are agents that are actively out to steal their soul for the devil. Think about that, think how you would react if it were true.
    Just as queers advance their cause by getting across the point that: No one is out to recruit you and turn you gay, we just want to live our lives and enjoy the same benefits of life as everyone else.

    I found that, when talking to believers, admitting up front that god can neither be proved nor disproved and telling them that, they might just be correct and I could be wrong, goes a long way in changing the, “you are wrong” dynamic. From there the discussion of privilege can be discussed as a political issue of “equal under the law”. That is less threatening than you are wrong. After all, we just want to live our lives and enjoy the same benefits of life and liberty as everyone else.

    Use their well worn neural pathways to your advantage. They have been programmed over many generations to fear, fight, and run from Satan and his agents. They have also been programmed to reach out to, rescue and save lost souls.

    This approach does not work on everyone, but as uncle Vito would say, “Give a man the chance to do the honorable thing before you resort to kneecapping him.”

  3. 3
    Beth

    Excellent! This really brings out so eloquently things that have bothered me but I could never articulate. Thanks for writing this.

    I think the idea that ‘It’s okay to tell people you think they’re wrong.’ Like Hank, I’m a doofus. I make mistakes all the time. Big ones, little ones, all sorts. I’ve had to come to terms with being in error. It’s best to just correct myself and move on.

    It’s okay to be mistaken. I think it’s important to acknowledge that because if we don’t have the freedom to be wrong on questions like ‘does god exist’, then we aren’t free.

  4. 4
    Rational Human

    And there is no way to ask people to change their minds about us without asking them to change their minds about themselves.

    And that’s a problem when asking them to change even one thing about the way they think is challenging their entire world view.

    Here in Tennessee, I work for an openly gay boss, but I can’t risk openly being an atheist. (Yet. I’m an optimist!)

  5. 5
    John K.

    Great article.

    I find that although all the benefits of coming out align in atheist and LGBT movements, the main difference is the comfort level of the “closet” for each group.

    I cannot really comment on what it is like to be closeted and gay, but to be a closeted atheist all you need to do is use strategic silence in most cases. Most religious people are fine with “I’m not religious” or statements that you just don’t know that particular thing about god. He is supposed to be mysterious after all. If I don’t press the issue, I don’t need to have atheism or prejudice against it influence most of my relationships. The most I have had to do is bow my head through prayers and not say anything to keep my cover.

    Being closet gay, on the other hand, takes over your sex life and dominates your personal relationships. Without an unreasonable standard of chastity, extreme covertness seems necessary. How can this not dominate a huge portion of your life? Moreover, the bigoted reaction to being out-ed as gay is generally far more violent in the extreme examples I have heard of.

    I agree that there are great parallels to be drawn, and making a statement about being gay is mostly just about yourself, not about how you think the universe should be understood. Harvey Milk was awesome, and it would be foolish not to learn from successful movements like his. I cannot help but feel I have it much easier, though.

  6. 6
    Retired Prodigy Bill

    Just as anecdotal evidence, I’ve found that most atheists are much more prepared to accept, “You’re wrong about idea X,” as, “You’re wrong about idea X,” and not, “There is something wrong with you as a person because you believe idea X.” Yes, coming out as an atheist to a believer is inherently confrontational, and there are various ways that we can fit into the diplomat/firebrand continuum, but there is also an uncontrollable element to the situation: how personally the audience is going to take the disagreement.

  7. 7
    James K.

    “And subtle forms of homophobia and heterosexism still exist in people who are basically pro-queer.”
    I think this is an idea that could use a lot of “unpacking” in our society: I think there are many people of my age cohort who intellectually are accepting and supportive of LGBT people and issues, but are old enough to have been encultured to be unconsciously (subconsciously?) homophobic.

  8. 8
    Steerpike

    How timely! I was actually having this exact conversation with my own 13 year old daughter just the other night. We talked about the parallels between “coming out” as gay and doing the same as an atheist, and how important this was to both communities, to force the majority straight and believing populations to accept us, and realize that there are more of us than they might have thought, and that we could be accepted as good, upstanding, moral people, instead of the immoral degenerates we are portrayed as.

    The difference is, I told her exactly the opposite of what you did: proudly letting your believing friends know that you are an atheist absolutely does not mean that you are telling them that they are wrong to believe. All it means is that you are saying that you have no reason to believe what they believe.

    I told her that if she decided to become a believer some day, I would not be offended, and I would not try to stop her from joining a church if that was something that made her happy, but she needs to understand that by believing in God, then she would have to hold the belief that I am wrong not to believe. Not only that, she must believe that everyone else who does not belong to the same church, with the same beliefs, must also be wrong.

    “What do you mean?”

    I took a pair of examples from among her friends. “Suppose you decided to become a Catholic, like your friend Cindy,” I said, “or like your own grandfather. Then you would have to believe that your other friend, Cassie, whose family is Mormon, is wrong. Period. They believe different things about God. Things that cannot both be true.”

    “Like what?”

    “Well, lots of things. Let me give you an example: suppose you met two people with different ideas about the shape of some planet clear on the other side of the galaxy, one that no one has ever seen” I said. “One person believes that planet is a cube, like a square box, and the other one believes that the planet must be in the shape of a pyramid. Which one is right?”

    “I don’t know,” she replied, after thinking about this idea for a minute. “Aren’t all planets round?”

    “Maybe,” I said. “But we really don’t know. Maybe somewhere off in space there might be planets with other shapes. Maybe it’s possible that there could be planets somewhere in the universe that are shaped like squares, or triangles, or dodecahedrons”

    “What’s a dodo-heck-a-dreedon?”

    “Never mind. The questions is, which one of these people would you believe? Which one is wrong?”

    “Well how should I know?” she asked. “You said no one’s ever seen it.”

    “Exactly! So all you can say is that there are three possibilities: One, the first person is right, the planet is a cube, and the person who says it’s a pyramid is wrong; two, the second person is right and the first person is wrong; or three, they’re both wrong, the planet is round, or dodecahedronal, or toroidal or some other shape. What you cannot say is that they’re both right. A planet cannot be both a cube and a pyramid at the same time, right?”

    “Sure. It has to be one or the other.”

    “Or maybe something else entirely. Maybe the planet doesn’t even exist. We just don’t know–that’s the point. You can’t say either one of them is right or wrong. All you can say is that you don’t have any reason to believe either one of them. That’s what being an atheist is like. I don’t believe in God. I have no reason to believe He exists. I don’t criticize people who do feel that they have reasons to believe in Him, or in Allah, or Vishnu, or Zeus, or Zoroaster or Santa Claus or invisible fairies. What other people believe doesn’t have anything to do with me. I don’t have any problem with beliefs other people have. But if I changed my mind, and I decided to become a Catholic (like my wife’s father), or a Methodist (like my father), or a Mormon, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or a Presbyterian, Baptist, Jehovah’s witness, whatever, then I would have to have a problem with all the others, because I will have decided that all the others are wrong

    “I think I get it,” she said, and I really believe she did get it. “I think I’ll just stay an atheist like you. That way I don’t have to think that anyone else is wrong.”

  9. 9
    infinite improbability

    @Steerpike

    That feels like a rather disingenuous approach. Obviously, as an atheist, you must believe the religions are wrong, in the sense of factually incorrect. (Not necessarily morally wrong, that’s a different argument).

    I do hope your daughter keeps her skeptical approach and doesn’t too often encounter the sort of religious evangelical wannabe hero who thinks an atheist is asking for confrontation by their very existence.

  10. 10
    Ariel

    First, to sum it up. You sketch differences and parallels between coming out as queer and coming out as atheist.

    (1) Difference: one is implying “you are wrong about what the world looks like” in the second case but not in the first.
    (2) Similarity: in both cases one is implying “if you are prejudiced against people like me, then you are wrong”.

    It looks like some commentators have voiced their doubts about (1) – they indicated that in many cases coming out as a queer implies also questioning the people’s beliefs about the world, e.g. that God condemns the queers or that being a queer is ‘unnatural’ in some decent sense of this word or … you know, insert your favorite. All in all, it could look like the difference is neither very deep nor a very clear cut one and similarities prevail.
    These worries can be answered by reformulating (1) as:

    (1’) Difference: one is implying “you are wrong about what the world looks like in one of its most central aspects” in the second case but not in the first.

    Then also your comment “I strongly suspect that relations between atheists and believers are always going to be a little conflicted, a little divisive… in a way that relations between straights and queers don’t have to be” can be easily understood. The reason for the conflict is that coming out as atheist implies questioning one of the most central beliefs of the religious people. Their beliefs about queers are rarely so central, and here lies the difference.

    One more comment, this time specifically about (2). Compare two cases: (a) an atheist coming out in a religious society; (b) a believer coming out in an atheist or at least indifferent society (a situation more and more realistic in some countries). There may be a difference between these two cases (how deep? I’m not sure). With religion becoming more and more ‘civilized’, it might – just might – be feasible to achieve a reasonable level of acceptance and tolerance for atheism. But as for the believer’s ‘coming out’, the situation is perhaps more complex. The believer’s opposition to “if you are prejudiced against atheists, then you are wrong” may not be particularly strong – they may be convinced e.g. that some atheists go to heaven after all, or that many atheists are really “anonymous Christians” – you know, that sort of stuff. In general: it may well be that the believers convictions of the type (2), questioned (implicitly) by the atheist’s coming out, are not very central to his worldview. In contrast, consider the situation of the type (b). Consider a believer saying or implying “if you are prejudiced against the believers, then you are wrong”. This is more troublesome, because some of these “prejudices” – e.g. that religious beliefs are irrational, or even immoral (check “the ethics of beliefs” in google) – may lie at the very heart of atheist’s worldview. Then (a) and (b) are not on a pair, with an atheist having a significantly greater chance for success.

  11. 11
    CanadianSteve

    Fantastic article Greta,
    It’s timely and thought provoking. Working in a high school I see how much homophobia is out there, but I do think it’s getting better, because of the efforts of the LGBT community. When it comes to atheist I think it would shock religious people how many of us are out there, because we aren’t as visible. I make no attempt to hide my atheism, but I know that most people assume I am religious. Religion is if anything a more taboo subject to talk about in our school that sexuality, unless of course you’d like to run a christian student group.

  12. 12
    Wendy

    I’ve been struggling with this one. I think my devout friends are mistaken, and I’m a little embarrassed for them. It’s hard to not sound like a condescending d-bag.

  13. 13
    Rieux

    Ariel:

    (1) Difference: one is implying “you are wrong about what the world looks like” in the second case but not in the first.
    (2) Similarity: in both cases one is implying “if you are prejudiced against people like me, then you are wrong”.

    It looks like some commentators have voiced their doubts about (1) – they indicated that in many cases coming out as a queer implies also questioning the people’s beliefs about the world, e.g. that God condemns the queers or that being a queer is ‘unnatural’ in some decent sense of this word or … you know, insert your favorite.

    Unless I’ve missed a relevant comment or three, your plural reference to “some commentators” is actually just referring to singular old me. And I’ll note that the comment of mine you’re referencing began thus:

    Greta, I don’t know how major an issue this is, but as a caveat to the contrast you’re drawing here, we should probably note….

    As that makes clear, I’m not exactly declaring Greta’s contrast to be nonsense.

    I think your “in many cases coming out” sentence, quoted above, is a generally fair synopsis of my point (except that I’m not a “they”)… but this certainly isn’t:

    All in all, it could look like the difference is neither very deep nor a very clear cut one and similarities prevail.

    I did not assert that, nor do I believe it.

    If you’re going to question, or offer a friendly amendment to, the point I’m making, I’d appreciate it if you’d quote what I wrote rather than inaccurately paraphrasing it.

    .

    These worries can be answered by reformulating (1) as:

    (1’) Difference: one is implying “you are wrong about what the world looks like in one of its most central aspects” in the second case but not in the first.

    Really? Gender and sexuality are not among life’s “most central aspects”? It’s rather surprising, then, that conservative religious believers go so batshit over the news that

    • their child is gay, or

    • their local school is teaching tolerance of GLBTs, or

    • there’s a “man in a dress” teaching at said school, or

    • someone is suggesting that gay and lesbian couples they’ve never even met and nearly all of whom live hundreds of miles away from them should be able to enter into a civil marriage contract, or

    • someone is arguing that God loves queers and as a result Those People don’t have to choose between leaving their “lifestyle” and burning in Hell.

    I’d say that the way conservative believers react to public manifestations of queer identity indicates that, to them, the issues being raised are extremely “central,” actually. (And, as a straight and heavily pro-GLBT-rights atheist, to a significant extent I agree.)

    .

    The reason for the conflict is that coming out as atheist implies questioning one of the most central beliefs of the religious people. Their beliefs about queers are rarely so central, and here lies the difference.

    I think you’re simply wrong about that.

    The contrast Greta is drawing, especially in Part I of the two-part post, is a legitimate one—but it is so (as I said) only because of the reasonably broad acceptance, even among straight people and even among a fair proportion of religious believers, of the standard model of sexual orientation and normal human variation of same. Nonetheless, theological ideas that directly conflict with that model, and under which visible queerness constitutes open defiance of God (and as such a very “central” issue), are also extremely widespread.

    I thought that was a caveat worth noting, and I don’t think “central”ity is an issue that diminishes it much at all. To the many people who would perceive “I’m gay” as a challenge to their beliefs, it is very, very frequently a challenge to some of their central beliefs. Obedience to God—when that god is one that doesn’t want anyone to be gay or transgendered—is obviously not a minor theological point to millions of religious believers.

  14. 14
    karmakin

    Well, there are two core differences. The first is the big issue of privilege. As Greta said in the first post, the privileges are entirely different. Negative vs. Positive privilege. Also, I really do think that religious privilege, just because of the nature of the major religions we’re dealing with, are more ingrained, and harder to fight against.

    The second, really is, if you pull that one block out..can everything else stand? I think that some people want to think that we can pull, or at least push to the side, theism out of the whole structure of religion without it collapsing (To be fair, I would like to do this as well. I just think less and less that it’s possible), but it’s increasingly clear that the focus of at least a substantial amount of the population is on theism.

    Theism is, at this point, more important than religion.

    This is why, if the focus was on religious identification itself, well, we’d be just another group. Just like Muslims or Jews or whatever. But that’s obviously not the case.

    But in the end, the problem with religion (and theism) is the privilege. It’s the privilege that allows them to claim “special status” for their beliefs, and hold them to a much higher standard.

  15. 15
    hoverfrog

    Believers are (probably) wrong. I’m willing to grant that there is an infinitesimal chance that I might be wrong but when I explore my lack of belief in gods and my reasons for it I cannot see an error. Whereas I can see dozens of errors on the part of believers and huge gaps in their arguments. I’m not saying that my arguments for not believing in gods are perfect but they are better than the opposing arguments.

    The best thing is that it isn’t our fault. They are the ones who hold to beliefs without evidence. They are the ones without compelling arguments. They are the ones who lack convincing reasons. Merely pointing out the lack of evidence, argument or reasoning isn’t confrontational. Their reaction and investment is what makes it confrontational. All we’re saying, as sceptics, is “Hang on, that doesn’t seem quite right.” That they get upset because they can’t is a problem with their beliefs, not ours.

  16. 16
    lenoregore

    Greta,
    I love your 2-part article, and all the insightful comments. As someone who now works at an atheist advocacy organization after being involved in LGBT activism for years, this is an incredibly important discussion to be having–so important that I am joining the conversation on your blog for the first time.

    Whenever you say “queer,” you then tend to then refer to a gay/straight binary, and you rarely discuss how queer also refers to transgender individuals. For me, “queer” implies understanding BOTH gender and sexuality on a spectrum, and as such, it inherently calls into question society’s understanding that “gay” and “straight”–or “man” and “woman”–are distinct, essential categories. Coming out as “gay” is thus very different from coming out as “queer,” and I believe that by coming out as “queer,” someone calls into question gender and sexuality in a way that coming out as “gay” doesn’t.

    I think this difference between “gay” and “queer” is extremely relevant to the argument you are making, and warrants further examination, and I disagree with your points here:

    “Coming out queer doesn’t imply, “You’re wrong to be straight.” But it does imply, “You’re wrong to be homophobic.”

    When queers come out of the closet, we aren’t asking straight people to change their minds about being straight.

    I believe that coming out as “queer” DOES imply to a straight person that they are wrong in thinking they are straight–because “straight” is a non-existent category, a by-product of modern understandings of sexuality and gender. The concept of heterosexuality is a modern invention that only came into the English language in the early 20th century, AFTER homosexuality, or “inversion,” became a widely-discussed phenomenon.

    As acceptance of being “gay” becomes increasingly mainstream, it unfortunately helps cement “straight” as an immutable, essential category. Personally, I make a point of always referring to myself as “queer” rather than “gay” because I want to constantly challenge people’s dogmatic understandings of sexuality. I also prefer the term queer because I don’t see myself as either essentially male or female–I inhabit a “queer” gender, and while I choose to live and present as a woman, I would consider myself to be “genderqueer” rather than . Thus understanding my sexuality as “gay” or “lesbian” just doesn’t make sense, but understanding my sexuality as “queer” does. Queer for me thus also challenges the essential categories of male/female and man/woman and helps open up the possibilities for other genders.

    I don’t want atheism (and humanism) to fall into the trap of normalizing the terms “atheism” and “humanism” to the point that “coming out” doesn’t challenge theists to question their beliefs. That is why I think your article is so important–as atheists and humanists argue for wider acceptance, they must also continue to challenge theism and dogmatic belief systems. I think one of your most important points is that “coming out” as atheist has to be strategic–done the right way, an individual or group of individuals “coming out” as atheists can really challenge believers, but done the wrong way, “coming out” also has the ironic potential to normalizes theists as being seen as having equally valid claims to truth as atheists.

    Atheists and humanists should learn from not just the successes of the LGBT movement, but also learn from the collateral damage to non-normative queer identities that mainstream champions of “gay rights” have inflicted on the LGBT community by normalizing “gay”/”lesbian” at the expense of marginalizing queer identities including genderqueer, bisexual, and transgender identities

  17. 17
    random ntrygg

    the problem is that for some people, gay is oppositional and threatening

    I’ve had a few straight folk, after freaking out that I am different and telling me in no uncertain terms that they don’t want to have sex with me

    when I tell them that I consider them a friend and not in the “have sex with” category

    end up just as mad that I am not attracted to them

    telling someone you’re different than them, no matter what the quality is, does challenge their assumption of normality or correctness or possibility

    after all, if a person was raised religious and just quashed whatever individuality they had in favour of conforming

    just knowing that a person doesn’t have to conform

    can be life altering

  18. 18
    NatalieB

    I kind of articulated this better in a comment I just made to the first part… but it IS entirely possible to come out as LGBT without challenging someone’s beliefs about the nature of sexuality or gender. You can say “this is who I am, and this is what I’m doing” without saying “you need to accept, support and understand this aspect of who I am”. Being queer is just a simple fact of one’s experience. It exists independent of beliefs about what it MEANS. Whether or not Ted Haggard accepts that there’s nothing inherently wrong about being attracted to men, he’s going to go right on being attracted to men. The realities of queer experience exist independently of what we believe about those realities, and coming out (in and of itself) is just informing someone that this is part of your reality, and doesn’t necessarily mean they have to change their perspective. They can go right on telling you you’re going to hell for being a lesbian, or using male pronouns even though you’ve transitioned. Usually, coming out entails a bunch of other stuff that may challenge their beliefs about sexuality/gender, like asking that they be supportive, but just informing them of it doesn’t. People come out to intolerant families all the time, and those intolerant families can accept the fact that someone is gay/lesbian/bi/trans without having to change a single one of their beliefs about what that means.

  19. 19
    Rieux

    Natalie:

    I kind of articulated this better in a comment I just made to the first part… but it IS entirely possible to come out as LGBT without challenging someone’s beliefs about the nature of sexuality or gender.

    I responded back at Part I, but again, I’m afraid you’re just not taking seriously what millions of conservative religious people (not all of them Christians) believe homosexuality and transgenderism are. The very notion that (for example) sexual orientation exists is itself a challenge to a large number of people’s “beliefs about the nature of sexuality or gender.”

    You can say “this is who I am, and this is what I’m doing” without saying “you need to accept, support and understand this aspect of who I am”.

    Sure. And if you’re talking to one of the millions of people who believe, nearly always on religious grounds, that “that” is not “who you are” but rather a decision you have made, a temptation you are giving into, a sin you are committing, your statement “this is who I am” is a direct challenge to what they believe.

    Being queer is just a simple fact of one’s experience.

    That is your assertion. And I certainly don’t dispute it. But a very large number of other people do. It appears you’re just ignoring their existence.

    Whether or not Ted Haggard accepts that there’s nothing inherently wrong about being attracted to men, he’s going to go right on being attracted to men.

    Says you! Lots of “ex-gay” people claim that they’ve “overcome” same-sex attraction and no longer “suffer from” it. (Haggard himself says he’s not gay.) Those claims do tend to melt away under critical review—but so what? We’re talking about what conservatively religious people believe about sexuality, not what the reality is that they’re deluding themselves about.

    The realities of queer experience exist independently of what we believe about those realities….

    Indeed—but much more importantly for the particular contrast Greta is drawing, conservative religious beliefs about the nature of transgenderism and homo- and bisexuality exist independently of the realities of queer experience, and indeed of queer people. And it’s those beliefs that open assertions of queer identity directly challenge.

    People come out to intolerant families all the time, and those intolerant families can accept the fact that someone is gay/lesbian/bi/trans without having to change a single one of their beliefs about what that means.

    That depends entirely on what they believe to begin with. If they hold some of the very widespread religious conceptions of what transgenderism and homo- and bisexuality are, your statement is simply incorrect.

  20. 20
    NatalieB

    P.S.

    Although I guess the *existence* of queer people does challenge certain traditional concepts of gender and sexuality… and those concepts would go unchallenged if we were ALL, collectively, to stay in the closet. I think that a huge part of the Gatekeeping system erected around transgenderism was more about protecting cisgender society from the implications of transgender people than to protect the actual trans patient. We were to be rendered as invisible as possible, such that the assumed structure of gender as a mutually exclusive binary wouldn’t fall apart. Likewise with non-consensual genital operations performed on intersex infants. And maybe the general hostility towards gay, lesbian and bi coming out, too?

    But I guess that’s sort of an issue of the community as a whole being Out and what that means for people’s beliefs, rather than an individual person and what that means for those to whom they come out? But then again, it’s our individual actions that end up creating and defining that community… I worry about that stuff a lot. To stealth or not to stealth? Having an easy, quiet life and being accepted as who I am and not having to deal with all the usual discrimination, chasers or idiotic questions vs. helping to ensure that my community isn’t marginalized or shuffled off into invisibility, and helping to gradually educate and build awareness? I don’t know. It’s a tricky thing, when your existence itself ends up being tied into people’s beliefs, and challenges assumptions that they’ve built their actual identities upon. If I want to just shut my mouth about my atheism, I can. But I can’t turn off my gender.

    Sorry for the multiple comments. It’s just a thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

  21. 21
    NatalieB

    Ah! Sorry again! I just typed up that “PS” comment while you were posting yours!

    I see what you’re saying. But I just mean that saying “I’m gay” is not necessarily the same thing as saying “being gay is not a choice, there’s nothing wrong with being gay, you should be supportive and acccepting of this”. And the belief that your son is gay is not at all in conflict with religious beliefs that homosexuality is a sin or what-have-you. It’s not technically even in conflict with the idea of it being a “choice”. Hypothetical Intolerant Dad can just believe that that’s the “choice” his gay son made. They’re just not contradictory beliefs the same way that “I believe there is no God” is to “I believe there is a God”.

  22. 22
    Rieux

    One other thing: there’s also a (warped) moral element to much religious homo- and transphobia. Even to the extent that phobic believers accept that people can be GLBT (as opposed to “suffer from same-sex attraction,” etc.), they generally believe that that’s a very bad thing to bring up in any context that wouldn’t be an appropriate place or manner to confess other heinous sins. Coming out generally means treating “I’m queer” as something that’s not shameful—which means, again, that coming out is a challenge to a widespread ’phobic belief.

    Even if a particular homo- or transphobic believer is willing to accept that queers can’t be blamed for being who they are, (s)he can certainly still blame them for daring to publicize such an ugly and inappropriate thing about themselves. Saying “I’m gay” (perhaps in the presence of children!!!eleventy!) is a direct defiance of that idea.

    …And a much needed one, of course. The religious beliefs I’ve been writing about badly need to be defied. At the very least.

  23. 23
    Rieux

    Hypothetical Intolerant Dad can just believe that that’s the “choice” his gay son made.

    But the specific way that millions of very Real Intolerant Dads (and Moms and Nasty Assholes Messing With Other People’s Children) conceptualize that “choice” is that it isn’t what the son in question is. It’s a mistake the kid has made (akin to driving drunk), or a condition he suffers from (akin to alcoholism). So when the son says “I’m gay,” he’s denying something that Dad believes.

  24. 24
    Rieux

    Looks like we have dueling “PS”-es. :-P

  25. 25
    NatalieB

    I typed up a response in the other thread. Very good point about the moral dimension and the idea of coming out as being in “poor taste” or whatever, though.

  26. 26
    Almulhida

    I just want to second pretty much everything Rieux has said, so so hard. The degree you can come out without challenging someone’s beliefs on the nature of sexuality and gender is the degree the gay movement in the west has been successful. That’s not so much the case for us Arabs, where we have to deal with the twin stupidities of “gay arabs don’t exist” and “homosexuality is a western concept.” I know this is aimed at a western audience, but what I hear out of the Muslim communities and the rightwing Christians in the US is very nearly identical, and depending on where you are, coming out as gay entails explicitly challenging people’s religious beliefs.

  27. 27
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I once got into a completely unintentional tiff with some people online, over one less-than-well-thought-out remark, and they actually followed me to other websites to spit hate at me. It went on for more than a week.

    Fuck, and I thought being borderline-stalked from Pharyngula thread to Pharyngula thread that one time was bad enough. :(

  28. 28
    davericks

    Steerpike, it seems to me you’re trying to build on top of one definition of “atheism” — a lack of belief in the existence of gods — but even if we tried to limit “atheism” to be about only the existence or nonexistence of some gods, we would still be defining or identifying those gods up for consideration in terms of their characteristics or properties.

    For example, would you say that Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church have their reasons to believe in the existence of his fag-hating god, while you and your daughter simply lack their reasons to believe in the existence of his fag-hating god — and you can’t or don’t or won’t say that Phelps and his WBC are wrong?

    You quoted your daughter saying, “I think I’ll just stay an atheist like you. That way I don’t have to think that anyone else is wrong.” I find that very disappointing, if you taught that her “atheism” means she doesn’t have to evaluate whether Phelps and his WBC are incorrect (in their facts) or wrong (in their morality). That would be a huge surrender of her moral responsibility.

    Maybe your philosophy is based on a moral judgment that making moral judgments is morally wrong — if so, then feel free to judge yourself morally wrong for the basis of your philosophy. My position is that sometimes it’s good to evaluate beliefs to be incorrect (on facts) and to judge beliefs to be wrong (in morality). I hope your daughter can learn that, and feel comfortable with the confrontation that accompanies that.

  29. 29
    Aquaria

    I’ve been thinking for a while about writing something on … well, on giving people ROOM to be wrong. It strikes me that there’s something of a meanness in the way some people treat those of us who make the mistakes.

    This would be very nice to pull off–to get people to realize we all make mistakes, and that a good and genuine person, like Keynes, re-evalutes what they’ve been thinking or doing, rather than persisting on the path of stupid and wrong.

    However, being willing to admit you’re wrong means that you can’t be100% certain about things 100% of the time, yet even the smallest smidgeon of uncertainty is anathema to a shocking number of theists. The reason they’re attracted to the delusion is because it gives them certainty in an uncertain world.

    I found that, when talking to believers, admitting up front that god can neither be proved nor disproved and telling them that, they might just be correct and I could be wrong, goes a long way in changing the, “you are wrong” dynamic.

    Lucky you. With the theistic nitwits down here in Texas, giving an inch makes them take the proverbial mile if I give them any hint of uncertainty or doubt. If you give at all, then they think that you’re conceding their point, and then you have to spend years relieving them of delusion. Or, yet another of their delusions.

  30. 30
    Ariel

    Rieux #13

    Unless I’ve missed a relevant comment or three, your plural reference to “some commentators” is actually just referring to singular old me.

    Fair enough. I read the whole bulk of comments and I reacted afterwards without differentiating between them.

    As that makes clear, I’m not exactly declaring Greta’s contrast to be nonsense. […] I did not assert that, nor do I believe it.

    Of course you are right again. But actually my formulation was more cautious than that. Mind the “it could look like …” phrase. I was trying to describe a general (possible) impression of someone who reads your arguments. Admittedly, it still remains true that it’s better to state clearly what is a part of the described view and what is not.

    Now to the crucial part.

    Really? Gender and sexuality are not among life’s “most central aspects”? It’s rather surprising, then, that conservative religious believers go so batshit over the news that their child is gay, or […] I’d say that the way conservative believers react to public manifestations of queer identity indicates that, to them, the issues being raised are extremely “central,” actually. (And, as a straight and heavily pro-GLBT-rights atheist, to a significant extent I agree.)

    The question is what we mean by “central”. Before discussing it, I will quote one more fragment from your comment.

    I thought that was a caveat worth noting, and I don’t think “central”ity is an issue that diminishes it much at all. To the many people who would perceive “I’m gay” as a challenge to their beliefs, it is very, very frequently a challenge to some of their central beliefs. Obedience to God—when that god is one that doesn’t want anyone to be gay or transgendered—is obviously not a minor theological point to millions of religious believers.

    Consider the following beliefs:

    (1) A benevolent deity exists.
    (2) We should be obedient to God.
    (3) God doesn’t want anyone to be gay or transgendered.

    All three beliefs are engaged in the issues we are discussing here, aren’t they? And I still think that something like “centrality” is a useful concept here. It should come however with one qualification (not mentioned before): it’s gradable. Instead of saying “this and this belief is central, and that one is not” we should be saying rather “this and this belief is more central than the second one”. And the observation would be that coming out as atheist questions (implicitly) more central beliefs than coming out as queer. I don’t have a very good measure of “centrality” at the moment, but I’m considering something like this: try to see how large bulk of your beliefs you would have to sacrifice together with a given one. I assume that (1) and (2) are central to a very large degree. Rejecting those would mean in practice that your whole religious worldview would fall apart. (3) is not like that – that would be at least my guess. In fact we observe nowadays a lot of effort put into reconciling (1) and (2) with the rejection of (3). This suggests that (3) is less central; and that would account for the difference between coming out as atheist and coming out as queer.

    [Saying this, I must admit that I’m not completely sure for how many people the rejection of (3) would be really tantamount with rejection of the whole religious worldview. E.g. what would most of the Catholics do if their church changed its mind? My guess is that – as it happened so often in the past – they would just go for it, saying “Oh, but our church has never officially condemned the homosexuals – these were just private opinions!” Obviously one can ask the same question about other denominations.]

  31. 31
    Steerpike

    @ Infinite Improbability and Daverick:

    I stand by my position and the advice I gave my daughter. I don’t wish for her to pick fights about religion, evangelize or lose friendships over the issue. She doesn’t need to be militant and obnoxious about it like you seem to want her to be. She 13, for crying out loud! Would you really prefer my discussion with her to have gone, “That’s right, honey, people who believe in God are silly, wrong and stupid. You should tell them that every chance you get, and if they insist on still believing in religion, you should shun them, ridicule their beliefs and make fun of them.”

    Really?

    There are plenty of good, honest, intelligent and highly educated people who believe in God; the last thing my daughter (or any other atheist)needs to do is to act smug and superior to them. What she (and we) should recognize is that these intelligent people don’t agree with each other. They all have their reasons for believing the things they do; we just don’t share those reasons. That doesn’t mean we need to hate them, argue with them, or even think less of them.

    There are plenty of atheists who take it as their role to debate theists; Greta is one of them, along with stars like Hitchens, Harris, Dennett and Dawkins. I enjoy reading all of these people, and will be happy to direct believers who have honest questions about atheists and atheism to their books, blogs and recorded debates. I don’t consider myself articulate, educated or patient enough to take on that role; and I certainly would encourage my daughter to do so. She needs to be confident in her position, and able to articulate her beliefs if asked. She doesn’t need to be an asshole about it.

    And to Daverick especially, way to jump to acting like I am telling her to approve of something as odious as WBC. We should come up with an atheist equivalent of “going Godwin”. By saying we can accept and befriend sincere believers is the same thing as endorsing Fred Phelps? Nice, Go ahead and call me a Nazi, why don’t you? I mean seriously, what the fuck? A healthy, skeptical outlook is the best possible defense against mindless extremism. She doesn’t need to become the atheist equivalent just to pass your purity test.

  32. 32
    Josh Slocum

    Steerpike – honestly, take a step back. You’ve just created a bunch of wild criticisms on the part of those who disagree with you out of whole cloth. No one said they thought you should advise your daughter to be smug. No one said they thought you should advise her to insult her friends at every turn. No one. Where are you getting that from?

    People did suggest that pretending epistemological conflicts don’t exist is disingenuous. They did suggest that you’re avoiding the (obviously extremely and provocatively so to you) uncomfortable reality that yes, we do make moral judgments, and yes, there is a tension between being an atheist and being a believer. You simply aren’t being entirely candid with your daughter when you encourage her to believe that she’s “not judging” the content of others’ beliefs.

    This is different from someone screaming “Nazi” at you. You just made that up. Do you recognize that you did that? Why?

  33. 33
    Steerpike

    Why is so important to insist that atheists must believe that religious believers are “wrong”? Don’t you see that this adds ammunition to those who would dismiss atheists as merely believers in another “religion”? I don’t consider my father-in-law to be wrong to be a practicing Catholic, for example. I emphatically do not consider his beliefs to be wrong; I simply do not have any reasons to share them. If he were to engage me in a debate about religion, I would absolutely defend my position as an unbeliever, and I could point out any number of flaws and inconsistencies in his church’s doctrine, but I know he would never initiate such a debate. He respects me as a person, and understands that my positions are honestly held, even as he disagrees with them. Likewise I would never call him out or criticize his faith in his presence. I like and admire him, and have no need to foment conflict with him.

  34. 34
    Rieux

    Ariel @30:

    I was trying to describe a general (possible) impression of someone who reads your arguments.

    Okay. I appreciate the quotation style (I may be showing my Usenet heritage) in this response of yours.

    .

    The question is what we mean by “central”.

    Indeed. And, as I explained, I think the amount of energy and resources conservative believers expend on gender issues reveals that these questions are very much central to them.

    .

    Consider the following beliefs:

    (1) A benevolent deity exists.
    (2) We should be obedient to God.
    (3) God doesn’t want anyone to be gay or transgendered.

    All three beliefs are engaged in the issues we are discussing here, aren’t they?

    Definitely.

    And I still think that something like “centrality” is a useful concept here. It should come however with one qualification (not mentioned before): it’s gradable. Instead of saying “this and this belief is central, and that one is not” we should be saying rather “this and this belief is more central than the second one”.

    Okay—but that implies that the contrast Greta is drawing might be a difference of degree rather than of kind. To say (1) and (2) are merely “more central” than (3) (which is a notably different assertion than the ones that I disputed from your original comment) is to acknowledge that coming out as queer has a notable parallel with coming out as atheist—each act defies and/or disputes at least one of those more-or-less “central” religious ideas.

    .

    For whatever it’s worth, I’d also add that the standard conservative-Christian (maybe conservative-theist, but I have very little firsthand experience with other forms of religious homophobia) reading of “out” homosexuality/transsexualism is that it violates (2), not (3). The idea that “God doesn’t want anyone to be gay or transgendered” is widely taken as an obvious it-goes-without-saying kind of point—not least because there’s solid scriptural support for it. With that as a given, being out-and-proud about such a self-evident evil is taken as an obvious defiance of God (pride is a defiant sin!), not a dispute about what He wants from us.

    The same is true, really, of atheism: on the right-wing Christian script, our sin is defying (2), not (1). Again, scripture makes it reasonably clear that atheists, notwithstanding what we claim, actually know that God exists; we just hate and/or want to disobey Him. (Then there’s the nasty ad hominem stuff in Psalms 14 and 53, and so on.)

    I suppose all of this really just goes to the nature of conservative Christianity, which is heavily focused on obedience to a very rule-conscious deity. I’d venture to say that “God Says X” is a more “central” point to standard right-wing Christianity than even “God exists” is—notwithstanding the petty demands of, y’know, logic.

    …Demands that you take as a given, at least “implicitly”:

    And the observation would be that coming out as atheist questions (implicitly) more central beliefs than coming out as queer.

    Arguably, perhaps, but as I’ve laid out, I don’t think it’s nearly a clear a contrast as you’re making it out to be.

    .

    I don’t have a very good measure of “centrality” at the moment, but I’m considering something like this: try to see how large bulk of your beliefs you would have to sacrifice together with a given one.

    But that test only examines the logical coherence (and logical dependence, etc.) of a given belief system. I don’t think that’s a terribly useful tool for examining conservative religion.

    It seems to me to make far more sense to evaluate “central”ity by identifying the beliefs, rules, dogmas, etc., that believers demonstrably care about the most. Religious believers in general don’t tend to be major sticklers for examining the implicit underpinnings of their beliefs; if they were, I suspect there would be many fewer religious believers. By your method, various ideas that billions of theists have never even considered and don’t evidently care about much—such as, say, the premise that a mind can exist without a brain—are more “central” than are things like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “Christ died for your sins.”

    From the perspective of a logically constructed belief system, that makes sense. But we’re not talking about logically constructed belief systems; we’re talking about hodgepodge piles of intuitions and indoctrinated notions and scriptural snippets and whatnot. Logical foundation be damned, it’s several of the ideas that are farther “up” the structure that clearly matter more to millions of believers than foggy foundational stuff does.

    And so it’s just not self-evident that overtly declaring there is no god attacks a more “central” religious idea than overtly declaring that I’m queer is. You’re judging “central”ity from without, and based on an evaluative method that bears very little resemblance to the way the belief systems are actually built.

    .

    E.g. what would most of the Catholics do if their church changed its mind? My guess is that – as it happened so often in the past – they would just go for it, saying “Oh, but our church has never officially condemned the homosexuals – these were just private opinions!”

    Sure—and that’s where Greta’s contrast is most obviously correct. The last three decades or so have seen millions of religious believers decide that (3) just isn’t true, and that sexual orientation is a part of human identity, no less than ethnicity or handedness or what-have-you is. Given that premise, “I’m gay” isn’t a challenge to religion at all (except to the extent the believer worries about the “moral” issue I mentioned @22… and that attitude is melting away swiftly, too).

    But millions of other religious believers demonstrate with their behavior that asserting a queer identity is a severe assault to the way they see the world. I don’t think that it makes much sense to minimize that fact—which, of course, has horrendous effects on the lives of millions of innocent people—on the grounds that, according to some arid and external evaluation, the religious beliefs behind raging homophobia and transphobia are less “central” than other ones.

  35. 35
    Tony

    > I don’t consider my father-in-law to be wrong to be a practicing Catholic, for example. I emphatically do not consider his beliefs to be wrong; I simply do not have any reasons to share them. <

    If we are to assume (hate that word) that atheism is "lack of belief in a higher power(s)" then stating that one is an atheist is telling a believer their beliefs are wrong…at least that's how they see it. To many believers, you're not saying:

    "I don't believe what you believe"

    you're saying:

    "There is no god. Your beliefs are wrong."

    So many believers are unable to accept that religion is merely a hypothesis about the world. They think that God does exist. They treat it as fact (though with such a loose definition of "fact" the word loses all meaning).
    At some point, your daughter is likely to encounter believers who engage her in arguments (if it hasn't happened already) and she may be taken off guard if she doesn't understand that believers very often DO take "I'm atheist" as "your beliefs are wrong".

  36. 36
    infinite improbability

    @ Steerpike

    Wow! Sorry if what I wrote could be taken the wrong way. (I echo most of what Josh Slocum said). I certainly didn’t intend to suggest your daughter should be combative about it, though I’d hope she would be “confident in her position, and able to articulate her beliefs if asked”. (In your words.) In fact most of what you said I agree with, except for the bits you ascribed to my viewpoint .

    I do hope though that she won’t be too shocked if some religious person does take her polite disagreement badly.

    However, as a point of logic, and contrary to what your daughter assumed, atheists and religious believers can’t both be right (as in, factually accurate). Either God exists or He doesn’t – not even God can do both at once. So one or the other must be ‘wrong’ in their belief (of course, they could both be wrong). But certainly, 99.9% of the time, nobody bothers to make an issue of it.

  37. 37
    Fil Salustri

    This is a great post.

    However, I wonder if there aren’t other choices we make that are similar in that they imply a wrongness to other views. Like being liberal or conservative in one’s politics.

    Granted, one doesn’t really “come out” in choosing a political philosophy, but couldn’t one argue that being liberal is tantamount to saying conservatives are “wrong”?

    I wonder if the really interesting question is the process of coming out, rather than what one is coming out about.

  38. 38
    Spanish Inquisitor

    When Hollywood feels comfortable to create an atheist equivalent of Will and Grace, one that intelligently deals with atheist’s perspectives, that then becomes a big hit, that’s when I’ll think we’ve arrived.

  39. 39
    Beaux

    Love yo face Miss Gretna!

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