Yup. Coming out is hugely important for atheists. I assume this is not a wildly controversial statement. Coming out — and making our community a safer place to come out into, and making the world a safer place to come out in — is pretty much Number One on atheists’ To Do list. And yes, atheists have a huge amount to learn from the LGBT communities about coming out, not just the why but the how: what to say, when to say it, how to say it, who to say it to, what to do if people freak out. There are tons of parallels between the LGBT movement and the atheist movement, and the importance of coming out is one of them — as are many of the specific strategies about doing it.
But I want to talk about something else today, something we don’t talk about as much. I want to talk about some important differences between coming out atheist and coming out queer. I think we have a huge amount to learn from the queer movement about coming out — but there are some places where our experiences diverge, and I think we need to pay attention to them.
And one of the most important is this:
Coming out as an atheist means telling believers we think they’re wrong.
There is something inherent in saying, “I’m an atheist” that implies, “You are mistaken to be a believer.” Even if you’re not saying it explicitly. Even if you couldn’t care less about persuading people out of religion. Even if you’re actively opposed to the idea of persuading people out of religion. There is no way to say, “I don’t believe in God,” without implying, “If you do believe in God, you’re wrong.”
That’s not true about coming out queer. There is nothing about coming out as queer that implies, “Straight people are wrong to be straight.” Contrary to the homophobic canard, queers are not trying to recruit. (And even if we wanted to, it wouldn’t work.)
Queerness is a personal, subjective experience. As is straightness. If it’s true for you, then it’s true. So saying, “I’m queer” has no implications about the sexual orientation of the person you’re talking to. But atheism is a conclusion about the external, non-subjective world. And inherent in that conclusion is disagreement with people who’ve reached a different conclusion. When we say, “I’m an atheist,” we are implying, “There’s a question on the table about what’s really true in the world — and I think I’ve reached the right answer, and I think people who disagree are wrong.”
I think atheists need to cop to that.
I think we need to acknowledge that, for us, coming out is an oppositional act. That’s not all it is, of course. It’s also an act of visibility, of community building, of personal honesty and integrity. It helps overturns myths and misinformation about us. It helps normalize atheism and make it seem less scary, both to believers and to incipient atheists. It makes it easier for other atheists to come out… which helps make our communities stronger… which, in turn, makes it easier for still more atheists to come out.
But it is also an oppositional act. Even in its mildest forms. Even when all we do is put up billboards saying something as innocuous as, “You can be good without God,” or, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone”… we are saying, implicitly, “If you believe in God, you’re mistaken.”
Now, I want to be very clear here: I don’t think this is a horrible thing. I actually think it’s an excellent thing, and I definitely think it’s a completely reasonable thing. We tell each other that we’re wrong about stuff all the time — about politics, science, morality, art, medicine, pop culture, philosophy, sports, etc. — and we don’t see it as a grotesque form of bigotry or personal insult. We actually consider it one of the finest things about a free society: the fact that we can openly disagree, and that it’s not only legal but socially acceptable to do so. I see no reason why religion should be the exception.
And if a believer tries to tell atheists how confrontational we’re being by coming out so flagrantly, it’s worth remembering — and reminding them — that the flipside of this is also true. When someone says ,”I’m a Christian” (for instance), they’re telling atheists that we’re wrong. And they’re also saying, “You’re wrong” to Muslims, and Jews, and Buddhists, and Neo-Pagans, and every other believer who doesn’t share their beliefs. Even the most ecumenical, Kumbaya- singing, “We’re all finding God in our own way” believer has things they believe are true and not true about their God. If nothing else, they think they’re right about how everyone can find God in their way — and they think fundamentalists are wrong about how you can only find God in one particular way. And, of course, they think they’re right about God, you know, existing. Being openly atheist means telling people you think they’re wrong… but so does being openly religious.
So yes, coming out as atheist is inherently oppositional. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I actually think there’s a lot that’s right with it. I think religion is a mistaken idea, and mistaken ideas should be opposed.
But I think we need to cop to it. And I think we need to realize that there are consequences to it.
For one thing: 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. When atheists are trying to get along with believers — whether politically and culturally in alliance work, or personally with the friends and family in our own lives — the reality is that, unless one of us changes our minds, we’re always going to disagree about this whole God question. And for many of us, both atheists and believers, the God question is a pretty important one, one with implications that resonate through our lives and the ways we see the world. That doesn’t mean we can’t have relationships with believers… but it does mean that this disagreement is always going to be present. And we’re going to have to find ways to manage it.
And I think it means that, when believers accuse atheists of being confrontational simply by coming out… they’re at least a little bit right. And when atheists deny that, I think it makes us look a little disingenuous. I think we need to cop to it. I don’t think we all need to be super- confrontational in our approach to atheist activism and community building — as I’ve written and said many times, I think there’s room for both diplomats and confrontationalists in our movement, and I think we’re stronger with both methods together than we would be with either one alone. In fact, I think the “diplomat/ confrontationalist” divide is pretty misleading, and that it’s much more of a spectrum than an either/ or split. But… well, that’s actually exactly my point. “Diplomat/ confrontationalist” is not an either/ or split. It’s a spectrum. And there’s a little bit of confrontationalism even in the most diplomatic, “I don’t want to change anyone’s minds about religion” atheist… simply in the act of saying, “I am an atheist.”
That being said.
(To be continued in Part 2.)