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What Atheists Can Learn from the LGBT Movement August 13, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I watched this video of a presentation by Greta Christina earlier this week and many of the points have been swimming around my brain since then.

I have heard many people compare the recent atheist activism to the activism of gays 20-30 years ago, and this is perhaps the best presentation on the subject I have seen to date. (This is not to say there are no more comprehensive presentations, only that I have not seen them. If you know of another comparable one, direct me to it, please.)

And certainly there are parallels between the two movements, but since I am not gay (even though I have done activism in support of issues relating to LGBT rights) my commentary will not carry tremendous weight, so I will not say much about how similar they are. I’ll leave that to more authoritative commentators, such as Greta Christina herself, who does talk about many of the same issues as this very blog.

I will point out that the OUT campaign, affiliated with the  Richard Dawkins foundation, is in part modeled on the movement to “come out of the closet” that was started by queers of all types, and which has become part of our cultural language such that atheists’ use of the phrase automatically draws the parallel for most people.  I often wear a scarlet letter T-shirt that signifies this coming out, and will often get asked if I’m an adulterer, making obvious reference to The Scarlet Letter.

(The irony, as some friends have pointed out, is that the concept of adultery takes on different connotations as a polyamorous person.  This is not to say that adultery is impossible within poly lifestyles, only that not all extra-marital sexual relationships will be considered infidelity, causing one to re-think the concept of adultery in such contexts.)

Now, the double reference of the scarlet letter and the coming out movement, wrapped in a symbol like this will cause confusion for most, but it is one that leads to conversations.  Conversations are important to have.  I have have countless (and often) short and friendly conversations explaining what the symbol stands for, what atheism is all about, and why I wear it.  Small steps.

Now, whether the larger atheist community will learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement or not, is yet to be seen.  I know I am certainly guilty of some of the errors of which Greta Christina speaks.  But it is important for us to keep in mind the lessons that previous social movements have to teach, so that the future will not reflect the past that we have learned from.

And I do believe that there will be a time when atheist (as well as polyamorous) social movements will be unnecessary.  As she says in the video, it is the goal of a social movement to make itself obsolete. Will this happen in my lifetime? I don’t think so.  But if we stop now, it may never happen.

Here’s to making social activism obsolete!

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