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Austin Cline

Mailbag: Associating Atheism & Gay Rights

By July 4, 2010

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From: Mario
Subject: Gays & Gay Rights

Mr Austin Cline seems bent on associating atheism with gays and gays rights.

This complaint came because of an article in a newsletter a while ago: Protecting Marriage is No Reason for Discrimination

It's not really true that I "associate" atheism with gays and gay rights. It would, however, be true to say that I associate freethought and church/state separation with gay rights. I also associate Liberation Atheology with Gay Liberation. The reason is quite simple: bigotry and discrimination against gays today is due almost solely to religion -- and specifically, right-wing conservative religion. Anti-gay animus is also an important tool in the culture war being waged by conservative evangelicals in their efforts to undermine liberal democracy, secularism, and Enlightenment values.

Thus I believe and regularly argue that atheists who want to promote liberal democracy, secularism, and Enlightenment values must also specifically promote full civil and political equality for gays -- just as they must also promote equality for women, equality for all races, and so forth. This means supporting full marriage equality for gays as well as the inclusion of sexual orientation in anti-discrimination laws (housing, employment, etc.).

1) Atheism has nothing to do with gays or gay marriage.

I'm not sure if it qualifies as "irony" or not, but in the same newsletter that this was sent in response to, I promoted the article Atheists & Political Issues: What Do Atheists Believe About Political Issues?. In this article I state quite explicitly: "The only thing all atheists share in common is an absence of belief in the existence of gods. Beyond that, atheists may hold any position on any political issue, and in fact atheists often disagree strongly in political debates."

I even address the question of gay marriage and write:

"Disbelief in gods has nothing to do with marriage, gay or straight, but atheists are more likely to support legal gay marriage than not. Opposition to gay marriage is based more upon traditional theistic and religious assumptions which atheists don't share, so there are few arguments against gay marriage which atheists are predisposed to accept. Most atheists recognize that banning gay marriage on the basis of religious definitions of marriage is contrary to their own interests in many ways."

So Mario is right that atheism has no inherent or necessary connection to gay rights or gay marriage, but Mario's error lies in thinking that this is significant. The simple fact of the matter is, as I explain in the aforementioned article, that there are absolutely no political issues or positions on any political issues which have any inherent or necessary connection to atheism. There is nothing about mere disbelief in gods which implies absolutely anything about any political question.

If the absence of this inherent connection means that taking or advocating a position on gay marriage is inappropriate, then it is equally inappropriate to take or advocate a position on teaching creationism in schools or school prayer, posting the Ten Commandments in court houses, government support for Christianity, religious arguments for patriarchal oppression of women, religious opposition to abortion or birth control, religious wars, and so forth.

In fact, if we don't limit ourselves to just politics, then it's equally inappropriate to take or advocate a position on religion or theism. Just because I'm an atheist doesn't mean I should care about whether others are members of theistic religions or theistic in the first place, so why I am I "bent on associating atheism with" critique of religion, religious apologetics, theism, or theology? That's not a bizarre question -- I get it regularly in various forms from religious theists all the time.

The answer really isn't very difficult: the absence of any inherent or necessary connection isn't the absence of any sort of connection at all. The reality on the ground in modern America is that certain political and social positions are justified, defending, and promoted based entirely or almost entirely on religious, theological, and theistic arguments. Atheists may not be obligated to counter those arguments, even though as atheists we don't accept those arguments' premises, but I believe it is important that we do so in many cases because as outsiders to the relevant theological systems we can offer critiques, perspectives, and responses that more liberal believers would find it difficult or impossible to make.

It's not a coincidence that just about every atheist organization and atheist blogger you can find not only feels the same way, but ends up taking similar positions to what you find here. Once you strip away religion and theism, positions like opposition to gay marriage and abortion or support for patriarchy and religious privilege become almost impossible. There are reasons why atheist opponents to gay marriage or supporters for criminalized abortion are so rare.

2) I am an atheist and I am against gay marriage.

OK, I said that they were rare -- I didn't say that they were non-existent. I suppose I should accept at face value Mario's claim that he is an atheist, but I have trouble not being a little suspicious. My skepticism stems from the fact that plenty of atheists have commented here disagreeing with this or that political or social position which I have taken, but none have actually argued that I shouldn't be writing about that political issue because there is no necessary connection between atheism and that political issue.

On the contrary, they have generally been interested in debating the issue on a secular level. I suspect that, in at least some cases, they are happy to have the opportunity to discuss this and other matters in purely secular terms, without religion or theism playing any sort of role. That I disagree with them and have advocated a position they oppose is far less important than the fact that a truly secular space is created where politics can be discussed.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the Agnosticism / Atheism forum has always been filled with conversations about more than just atheism, theism, and religion. Not only are there the obvious political discussions, but also discussions about movies, sports, video games, and more. Why? Well, we can expect such discussions to develop in any online community, but there is more than that: in this forum, there's little-to-no chance that anyone is going to bring up religion or God, offer to pray, start castigating secular atheism, and so forth. Atheists have here a secular space where they can discuss all manner of issues without someone else dragging religion into it.

What's more, it's nice to be able to chat about non-religious things with atheists, too. Few atheists want to talk about nothing but religion. In this site's forum they can indeed talk about religion with other atheists, but when they get tired of that they can easily shift to talking about sports, movies, politics, and other things -- and with other atheists, thus avoiding expectations of theism and religion that are so common elsewhere.

So while it's true that anti-gay atheists exists, it's suspicious that one is so bothered that they object to another atheist who makes secular arguments on behalf of equality for gays and against faith-based oppression of gays. When you get right down to it, Mario's complaint is ultimately that there is something wrong with an atheist promoting secular arguments in favor of equality and against faith-based discrimination or oppression. Once that's made clear, though, the superficial plausibility which his complaint originally had falls away and it appears that not much more may be going on than simple anti-gay animus.

3) If Mr Austin Cline insists on using an Atheism newsletter to associate atheism with gays, and to agitprop on behalf of gays and gays rights, that can only be understood by assuming that either Mr Austin Cline is ignorant or Mr Austin Cline is homosexual or both.

It never ceases to amaze me how many homophobes seem to automatically assume that anyone who argues on behalf of equality for gays and against popular faith-based arguments for discrimination must be gay themselves. It's as if it lies outside their conceptual universe that someone outside a minority could genuinely regard discrimination against and oppression of that minority as immoral, unjust, irrational, and worth fighting.

I also argue against faith-based oppression of women through traditional, religious, patriarchal power structures. Does that mean I'm really a woman? I've argued against systems and cases where Christian privilege is used to discriminate against and oppress religious minorities, like Jews. So am I really Jewish? I've argued against faith-based systems which perpetuate racial discrimination, so am I really black? If it were common to still see religious attacks on left-handed people then I'd offer secular critiques of that as well. Would it mean that I'm really left-handed?

Put all together, I must actually be a queer, black, Jewish, female, cross-dressing atheist. And possibly left-handed. Feel free to add more adjectives as I continue to make a secular cases against various forms of discrimination, prejudice, and oppression which have been and/or continue to be justified, defended, and/or encouraged by traditional religion.

Most likely, he is acting in bad faith and he should be stopped. He is misleading people.

Was I misleading people when I pointed out that there are no political positions which are necessitated by atheism? No. Was I misleading people when I pointed out that there is nothing about atheism which necessitates any particular stance when it comes to gay rights generally or gay marriage in particular? No. Is there anything misleading about making a vigorous case for the idea that a free, secular society should recognize the equality of gay relationships and that all of the faith-based arguments against equality for gays or gay marriage are immoral, irrational, false, or just irrelevant? No.

The allegation that I am "acting in bad faith" is the allegation that I am acting on the basis of malicious motives -- that I am doing wrong, that I know I am doing wrong, and that I am doing wrong for the purpose of causing others harm. The problem here is that Mario cannot and does not show where or how I am even doing wrong in the first place, never mind that I am doing wrong from malicious motives.

On the other hand, I think I've shown above that there are valid reasons to at least be suspicious of Mario's own motives as well as the statements he makes about himself.

Comments
July 4, 2010 at 10:22 am
(1) ChuckA says:

Austin?…
I don’t know if this particular subject was purposely picked, particularly, with the 4th of July in mind…a day of celebrating Freedom; not only for Americans, but for all of humanity. It’s certainly, IMO, very relevant…
and I totally agree with your rather cogent way of defending your…erm…”stance” on the subject. ;)
Also…I’d personally like to thank you, Austin, for all the years of providing a truly great forum for expressing many relevant ideas which are so, IMO, tangentially important to what MOST atheists value in relationship to human freedom.
IOW…
Happy 4th of July (and every day?) to ALL freedom lovers!

One other (particularly current) item, if I might…
Most of you fellow atheists are probably aware of Christopher Hitchens’ recent esophageal cancer diagnosis.
Here’s a relevant link to follow his ‘progress’; and to post any encouraging comments…
http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2010/06/an-update-from-christopher-hitchens.html

July 4, 2010 at 5:05 pm
(2) Greg says:

Mario,

What is your secular rationale for being against marriage equality? Whenever I hear of a nonbeliever who does not support equality, I have to presume that they have been brainwashed to some degree by religion, and cannot or will not recognize that religion does indeed permeate our culture and society.

July 4, 2010 at 5:56 pm
(3) Warren J. Blumenfeld says:

Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States

Warren J. Blumenfeld, Khyati Y. Joshi, & Ellen E. Fairchild, editors

Today, the United States stands as the most religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges as well as opportunities. Christian denominations and their cultural manifestations, however, often function to marginalize, exclude, and deny members and institutions of other religions and non-believers the privileges and access that accompany a Christian affiliation.

Christianity is the privileged religious perspective in the United States since Christian groups, people, and organizations often have the power to define normalcy. Christian privilege comprises a large array of benefits that are often invisible, unearned, and unacknowledged by Christians. At times overt while at other times more subtle as Christian religious practice and beliefs have entered the public square, the clearly religious meanings, symbolism, positionality, and antecedents of these practices and beliefs betray claims to mere secularism.

The effect of the so-called “secularization” of Christian religious practices and beliefs not only fortifies, but strengthens Christian privilege by perpetuating Christian influence in such a way as to avoid detection as religion or circumvent violating the constitutional requirements for the separation of religion and government. Christian dominance, therefore, is maintained often by its relative invisibility. With this invisibility, privilege is neither analyzed nor scrutinized, neither interrogated nor confronted.

Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States addresses Christian privilege as well as religious oppression since the two are in symbiotic relationship: oppression toward non-Christians gives rise to Christian privilege in the United States, and Christian privilege maintains oppression toward non-Christian individuals and faith communities.

This anthology also provides historical and contemporary cases exposing Christian privilege and religious oppression on the societal, institutional, and personal/interpersonal levels. A number of chapters include sections suggesting change strategies, and in particular, ways to achieve the national goal of religious pluralism in the United States.

ISBN-10: 9087906765, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam.

July 6, 2010 at 10:20 am
(4) tracieh says:

We get mail from atheists who support restrictions on gay rights, and it saddens me every time. I agree that atheism isn’t automatically associated with gay rights–or anything outside of not believing in a god. Absolutely.

For me, though, it’s a logical extension of atheist activism–as you note separation of church and state–to denounce irrational infringements on people’s rights, when religion is the core of the abuse. The arguments in support of suppression are as weak as any apologetic. And I don’t accept that a skeptical atheist can support oppression of homosexuals under the law in the U.S. Just because atheists can buy into religious “arguments” does not mean the reason the arguments are put forward is secular. The arguments are baseless, because the root is religious irrationality. When you put forward a justification as a facade for a prejudice, it’s always observably week to everyone but the one making the defense. And the question becomes “what is your real motive?”

If we don’t start from a base of saying “there is something wonrg about being gay,” the premises fall flat.

I’ve recently begun to be concerned about the liberal Christian position “I don’t judge.” It’s insulting, I think, as it implies there is anything TO judge. If someone put forward that it’s wrong to wear braids in your hair, for example, what idiot would say “I don’t judge”? Cleary you’d say, “That’s ridiculous–what’s wrong with wearing braids?” Certainly I judge idiotic prejudices to be idiotic. “Don’t judge”? Is that meant to be supportive and liberal of you to insinuate there may be something wrong there? Better to keep your fool mouth shut in my view, as your “liberal” attitude only feeds into the premise there is a question there of any moral judgment. Best to leave it to people who ARE capable and willing to judge stupidity as just that. Make no statement at all if the only statement you can make fuels religious prejudice, hate and suppression.

July 7, 2010 at 12:23 am
(5) Seth says:

I have two words for anyone who thinks atheism and gay rights (or logic, reason, sanity, not-being-a-complete-douche bag, etc.) are necessarily associated: F1rst C0wb0y.

July 13, 2010 at 1:53 pm
(6) Keith says:

This is a nice article and I don’t disagree with your arguments, but I think I would have approached it differently. When people make claims to me and I find myself in a debate, I like to force those people to think (both for themselves as for me) through the reasons *why* they hold their positions. For example, he writes:

2) I am an atheist and I am against gay marriage.

Rather than simply respond to that statement, I would press him to explain, especially in light of your (and I agree) logical analysis that such a position seems, at least at first, untenable. Force him to defend it. He will understand his own beliefs better for it, and you will understand his position better for it (and my intention, perhaps naive on my part, would be to help him see the irrationality of his ways). The entire exposition would be aided by pushing for defenses of each statement right down to the core views that underly them.

Put another way, instead of explaining to people why they are wrong, I like to help people reveal to themselves the lack of logic that may underly their views. I think self-revelation is a stronger motive for interal change than external essay (being preached at, which is received as being talked down to and is rapidly dismissed out of hand as a result)…if you see my meaning.

That’s how I approach these kinds of things: I just keep asking questions, again and again, until I find the root of the opposing viewpoint that seems so alien to me at the outset.

Admittedly, it can require an extensive dialog and you are responding to a letter. I concede that you may not have had the time, much less the back-and-forth resources, to engage him in a debate.

Cheers!

August 4, 2012 at 3:04 am
(7) Dan says:

I’m an Atheist and do not support gay rights or same-sex marriage. The big problem with same-sex marriage, to me, is one of propagating the species. I can understand a heterosexual couple having been unable to conceive children looking to alternative forms of pregnancy. A gay couple, however, is a completely different matter. We are not animals in the sense that homosexuality is an acceptable behavior. We are supposed to be at the top of the evolutionary ladder, not with one foot two rungs down. Homosexuality should be something you do in a bedroom, not in public. The voters in the State of California vehemently disapprove of same-sex marriage and even though the gay rights lawyers tried to have our wishes repealed, they were turned down by two state courts. Now they are crying ‘foul play’ and taking their plea to the Supreme Court. This is a real thorn in the side of California voters, whether theists or atheists. We don’t want this here and yet we will probably end up having it forced upon us simply because ‘gay rights’ are politically important. From my point of view homosexuality has achieved prominence only because it seems to be a new fad, not unlike polka dots or Muppet characters. Homosexuals are forcing their way into the everyday lives of millions of Americans who are totally against it. I’m talking about theists and atheists alike. This is causing a backlash of defiance and hatred between the two groups and is not likely to go away. It causes major differences between atheists, who should actually only concern themselves with the topic of atheism, not gay rights. A gay marriage in any situation cannot of itself procreate without science.

August 6, 2012 at 9:22 pm
(8) Austin Cline says:

I’m an Atheist

I doubt that. Atheists generally know that atheism isn’t a proper noun and so isn’t capitalized. That bit of ignorance is far more common among religious theists – particularly Christians.

and do not support gay rights or same-sex marriage.

So, why did you become a bigot?

The big problem with same-sex marriage, to me, is one of propagating the species.

So, you do not support infertile couples marrying? And couples who do not intend to have kids?

I can understand a heterosexual couple having been unable to conceive children looking to alternative forms of pregnancy.

Not all do. Some don’t bother.

A gay couple, however, is a completely different matter.

Why?

We are not animals in the sense that homosexuality is an acceptable behavior.

Why not?

We are supposed to be at the top of the evolutionary ladder, not with one foot two rungs down.

So, homosexuality is “low” in an evolutionary sense? I challenge you to support that claim.

Homosexuality should be something you do in a bedroom, not in public.

You mean, like heterosexuality?

The voters in the State of California vehemently disapprove of same-sex marriage

Voters once disapproved of interracial marriage, too. They were bigots like you.

We don’t want this here and yet we will probably end up having it forced upon us simply because ‘gay rights’ are politically important.

You mean, like interracial marriage?

Homosexuals are forcing their way into the everyday lives of millions of Americans who are totally against it.

You mean, like interracial couples?

This is causing a backlash of defiance and hatred between the two groups and is not likely to go away.

No, actually, support for gay marriage keeps growing. You bigots are a shrinking minority.

It causes major differences between atheists,

Not really. Very few atheists are bigots like you.

who should actually only concern themselves with the topic of atheism, not gay rights.

Right, because atheists shouldn’t care about anything but atheism?

A gay marriage in any situation cannot of itself procreate without science.

So what? There are plenty of heterosexual marriages that need science for procreation and I don’t see you whining about them. So it’s not the procreation that you really care about. You just hate gay people and hate the idea of them leading equal lives.

No wonder you post anonymously.

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