Who has the bigger closet, gays or atheists?
Since writing and directing The Ledge, a film with an atheist lead, I've been going to more atheist events. At the American Atheist's conference in Iowa a few weeks ago, I found myself drinking with a couple of prison guards, a world-famous physicist, a female department store "loss prevention specialist" who used to be a Humvee driver in the Marines, a Turkish-American linguistics student, a guy who started an enormous video game company, and a couple of soldiers. There were a lot of soldiers. Of the thousand attendees, well over a hundred were either military or ex-military personnel.
I also met a large number of closeted atheists.
It sounds almost comic, I know, but if you've spent as much time as I have meeting religious people in small-town America, it's easy to imagine what "outing" yourself as an atheist could mean in such a place. 70% of Americans believe in hell. They think you'll go there if you're an atheist, and some are not shy about giving you a taste of it now in order to "save" you from it later. Listening to the painful stories of atheists who did come out reminded me of all the stories I've heard from gay friends in similar circumstances.
I know this analogy might offend some gay people. Homosexuality is no longer considered -- at least among the informed -- a choice anymore; but is your philosophy a matter of choice either? I know that for me it is literally impossible to believe in any of the gods on offer, and as Thomas Paine wrote, "It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself."
The comparisons between atheists and gays in America is numerically apt too. According to a Pew Forum poll, 4% of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic, while exit polls in the last general election found 4% of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. In both cases these percentages are probably lower than the truth. In the Pew Forum poll, for instance, a further 12.1% wrote "none" when asked what religion they held, and in most polls on sexual preference, many straight people admit they've had a few gay encounters here and there. This is, I believe, what's called "a wide stance."
Whatever the size of these two unfortunate closets, the atheist one is less known but arguably more uncomfortable and justified. Popular culture -- music, movies, TV, (and need I mention the Broadway musical?) -- is littered with positive gay characters, while all atheists have in the mainstream is Gregory House in (weirdly) Fox's House, and Bill Maher on the excellent Real Time. There are more out gays in Congress than atheists, and for good reason. A 2007 Gallup poll found that 55% of Americans would consider voting for a homosexual presidential candidate but only 45% would do the same for an atheist.
Numerous studies have shown that atheists tend to be better educated and more tolerant than believers, but even so... why such antipathy when we have more in common than not? Atheists don't believe in unprovable gods who are frequently cruel and often ludicrous. Believers believe exactly the same thing -- except when it comes to their own god or gods. Christian, are thought to represent about 30% of the world's believers so they are atheist about the other 70%. Atheists go the whole way, but really, what's a 30% difference among friends?
Can atheists narrow this gap and reduce the antipathy? Only if they learn from the gay rights movement that the first step toward acceptance is the one that takes you out of the closet, hard though it may be.
And there couldn't be a better time. Obama acknowledged non-believers in his acceptance speech. The Book Of Mormon just won nine Tony Awards and is doing great business. And my film, The Ledge, a thriller with an outspoken atheist lead, is already doing exceptionally well on VOD and comes out in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on July 8th. So maybe it won't take as long as we think for people "of faith" to stop making life hard for gays and atheists and instead encourage them to openly contribute their considerable talents to this country.
God-fearing straight men have had a monopoly for a very long time, and many peculiar decisions have been made.
Matthew Chapman is the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, author of two books, and writer and director of the new film 'The Ledge' starring Liv Tyler, Charlie Hunnam, Terrence Howard, and Patrick Wilson.
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