This week, the rights of women and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people have been a big topic of discussion in the atheist blogosphere—with some asking whether or not homophobic or sexist atheists actually exist.
The conversation began when Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, gave an interview while attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and claimed that there is “a secular argument against abortion.” A number of atheist bloggers responded to this statement, arguing that Silverman was pandering to abortion opponents in an attempt to make inroads among conservatives.
Silverman continued the discussion on Twitter, stating that while he does not oppose reproductive freedom, some atheists do. But he also claimed that he’s never met an anti-LGBTQ atheist and that the arguments against LGBTQ rights are “100% religious.”
Silverman is correct that there are atheists who oppose a woman’s right to choose, but his position that homophobia does not exist among atheists is wrong. (Update: Some commenters have suggested that he wasn’t arguing that, but Silverman has confirmed that he was in fact claiming that there aren’t anti-LGBTQ atheists.)
Pew data suggests that around 20 percent of self-identified atheists and agnostics don’t support same-sex marriage. That number is less than among other groups, but it certainly isn’t zero. (Also, I’ve previously addressed the mistaken claim that the roots of homophobia are “100% religious.”)
And then there’s this astonishingly hateful letter from Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of Silverman’s organization, which calls the male recipient a “c-ck-sucker” who “like[s] men and boys” and encourages the subject to “form your own group of c-ck-sucking Atheist Marxists.”
I don’t know if O’Hair opposed LGBTQ rights, but I do know that wielding crude accusations of homosexuality in an attempt to insult clearly constitutes a form of homophobia.
Discussions around sexism among atheists have been gaining momentum for years, but it’s clear that sexism is still a problem in certain segments of movement atheism. I’ve seen manifestations of it, and I am far from alone. And regarding anti-LGBTQ attitudes: I’ve heard from atheists who say that I’m too “effeminate,” that my being gay makes atheists seem “like freaks,” or that my “obvious homosexuality” makes me an ineffectual voice for atheists.
Of course, not all atheists are homophobic or sexist. Neither are all theists. But every community struggles with homophobia, racism, transphobia, misogyny, and other dehumanizing attitudes—and atheists are no exception.
The bottom line is this: Atheism is not an inoculation against prejudice. Being an atheist does not prevent you from being influenced by the homophobia and misogyny that permeate our culture. It may seem like an obvious point but it’s important to remember, lest we operate under the false idea that atheists are somehow immune.
Whether you are an atheist or a theist, we must all recognize that these attitudes exist and do what we can to address them—wherever they appear.