Commonalities between Homosexuality and Atheism

Kevin J. Zimmerman

At age twelve, I was at church camp, nestled among the pines and the crisp air of Arizona’s White Mountains. I had loved my first experience at camp the summer before. The counselor asked each of us boys to introduce ourselves and to say why we were there, if we had been to camp before, and what we liked about camp.

When it was my turn, I said that camp was a place where I could show my true colors. I’m not sure exactly what I meant by that. I certainly didn’t mean that I could be openly gay—I don’t think I even identified as gay at that point, and I would not have recognized the rainbow flag as a symbol for the LGBT movement. I was likely thinking of a beautiful television commercial for Kodak film that had aired the previous holiday season. It was shot in an enormous church illuminated by a brilliant kaleidoscope of stained-glass windows and resonating with the sweet harmonies of a boys’ choir singing an adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s 1986 hit: “I see your true colors, and that’s why I love you. So don’t be afraid to let them show. Your true colors, true colors, are beautiful like a rainbow.”

It turned out that my use of the phrase “true colors” had sounded just a little too suspicious to a group of preteen boys who, I found out later, began surreptitiously calling me “T. C.” At the end of camp, one of the boys apologetically admitted that he understood what I had meant and that he also felt that camp was a place where he could be authentic, whatever that meant for him.

The irony of my experience at church camp, and of the setting of the Kodak commercial, of course, is that nearly every community of faith is more concerned about conformity than authenticity. According to Nicholas Wade in The Faith Instinct, unifying a group of people is the purpose of religion and is the evolutionary advantage that religion gave our ancestors. Even the Latin root of religion, religare, means “to bind together.” The singing, the dancing, the rituals, and the shared stories all serve to unify individuals within a group. This sense of belonging is wonderful for those who can genuinely be themselves while being a part of the group. But what happens when an individual ceases to believe the supernatural claims of the group, or is gay, or is the wrong color? Some differences, such as one’s theological opinions or atypical sexual attractions, can be suppressed or hidden, but that is to the detriment of the individual’s integrity.

After becoming disaffected with the Presbyterian Church—I suspected that most of the silver-haired congregants were more interested in the free coffee and doughnuts, whereas I wanted to be more serious about my religion—I joined the Mormon Church, a serious church indeed! I married in the temple, had three children, and later came out as both an atheist and gay. I am still happily married to a rather open-minded Mormon woman. Weird, I know, but it works for us. Although most mixed-orientation couples separate shortly after the disclosure of one of the member’s nonheterosexuality, we belong to a special group of mixed-orientation couples who have decided to remain together because we genuinely love one another and want to stay married.

Recently, I went with my wife, who is still an active Mormon, to the American Atheist convention, where she noticed a large constituency of homosecular gaytheists and fagnostics. “What’s with all the gay atheists?” she asked. “What’s the connection?” It’s a good question, and I can only offer my observations and experiences by way of a speculative answer. I have met many gays and lesbians who have cited Christianity’s general tendency to deprecate homosexuality as their reason for leaving the religion of their upbringing. For many members of the LGBT community, abandoning religion, or at least organized religion, is the only way they feel they can have any meaningful partnerships with people they are attracted to, and so they simply stop going to church and move on with their lives. Perhaps these are the lucky ones, since an alarming number of religiously devout lesbians and gays, suffering from immense guilt and shame over being an abomination in the sight of God, join the 40 percent of suicide victims who are lesbian or gay. Of course, many other lesbians and gays are able to reconcile their homosexuality with their religious views; witness Gene Robinson, the openly gay former bishop in the Episcopal Church. Even in my most religious years, I never suffered much religious angst over my homosexual attractions. Neither did I attempt to reconcile being gay with being Mormon. I was dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue-through-and-through as much as one could be, and my attraction to men was just an irrelevant eccentricity. My pathway to atheism, therefore, may differ from others who left religion on account of their homosexuality.

My atheism is the product of a naturalistic worldview that developed over time and with more reading and education, both formal and informal—“line upon line, precept upon precept,” as they say in the Mormon Church. I became an atheist when I came to value evidence over tradition, authority, revelation, feelings, and faith. When I came out, both as atheist and then as gay in short order, my wife and some others assumed that I had “decided” to be an atheist (as though one could simply wake up and decide to be an atheist) in order to live a life without any moral constraints (as though atheists have no morals). More enlightened individuals who recognized that sexual orientation cannot be reduced to a choice regarded my atheism as a way to accommodate my homosexuality.

Initially, I did not think that my sexual orientation had anything to do with my atheism. In fact, I was confident that one had nothing to do with the other. On further reflection, however, I realized that I was simply rejecting the incorrect accusation that I was choosing to call myself atheist in order to pursue the gay lifestyle (whatever that means). But I had come out both as an atheist and as gay at about the same time, hadn’t I? So what was the connection?

Here is one: I had realized that I needed to be authentic.

For much of my life, I had felt silenced. Growing up in a homophobic society but attracted to men, I felt I had no other option but to be heterosexual. I learned not to share much; being naturally introverted probably abetted this tendency. I, like many queer individuals, felt isolated and alone in my religious community because allies were largely invisible. Church meetings and activities are not places where members feel psychologically safe to express comments that are affirming or accepting of queers. There are real social risks to doing so, which is why most church members, even if they are supportive, remain silent on the issue of homosexuality. The same can be said of those whose faith in the supernatural begins to founder, as mine did. Again, I felt like I dared not share my thoughts. I did not feel safe enough to be honest, and those sympathetic to my doubts, if there were such people at church, would have jeopardized social capital in even feigning compassion for my “struggles”—as one church member later labeled my atheism—lest there be any suspicion that they shared my doubts.

 

So now, in my mid-thirties, I’ve undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. I’ve come to value authenticity over conformity. This means that some people like me more, while others like me less or not at all—but in the end, I can’t be overly concerned with who likes me. I can’t be everybody’s flavor.

Earlier in our marriage, when my wife, Roseli, would ask me for an opinion, I would reply, “Whatever you want” or “Whatever makes you happy.” This drove her nuts. A couple years after my comings-out, she told me that I’ve finally developed a personality. I’m still exceedingly accommodating, but I’m less afraid of voicing my opinion, and not just on theological issues—we actually seldom discuss religion—but on everyday issues too, which for us largely revolves around caring for our boys. So what caused this change? Much of the credit rests with being in a university environment, which generally values diversity and privileges truth over appearances. I’ve known a couple of professors who are socially and politically committed to social-justice issues and who serve as role models of living with courageous honesty. Some of the credit likely also goes to the increased self-confidence that comes with age.

I believe that there is yet another connection between non-heterosexuality and skepticism, and it is this: The ability to think critically transfers from sexual orientation to religion. To clarify what I mean by this, I should first lay a foundation by explaining a couple of very useful concepts from the field of sociology.

Heterosexuality and Christianity are both social constructions. A social construction is a concept or a practice that emerges from the social interactions within a particular group. In other words, an individual person in isolation cannot possess the innate quality of heterosexuality—what would heterosexuality even mean without another person to regard as a sexual object? Rather, the quality that we call “heterosexuality” is dependent on the individual’s social interactions with other individuals. If you are heterosexual, you likely realize this because out of all the male-bodied and female-bodied individuals that you have encountered, you find that you are predominately sexually attracted to individuals of the other sex.

Similarly, what we call “Christianity” is dependent on one’s social context. Again, an individual in isolation, even one who believed there is a god, would not conceptualize this god as the Christian God, let alone the particular Christian doctrines of God’s son dying as a sacrifice to save one’s eternal soul or the necessity to symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood. Rather, Christianity can be understood only with reference to canonical texts, doctrines, beliefs, and lessons that are communicated in writing or orally and in practicing certain rituals, such as singing hymns, praying, or taking communion, all of which emerge from social interactions within a Christian community.

In addition to heterosexuality and Christianity being socially constructed, they are both privileged identities. What I mean by privileged is that they are advantaged as the standard, institutionalizing and furthering the idea that all people are or should be heterosexual and Christian. Heterosexuality is privileged in every society to a greater or lesser degree, and Christianity enjoys privilege within most Western societies and certainly within the United States.

With an understanding that heterosexuality and Christianity are both socially constructed and privileged identities, what do I mean when I say that an ability to think critically can transfer from sexual orientation to religion? Being attracted to men was at odds with the prevailing heteronormative scripts regarding what relationships, love, and sexual expression are supposed to look like. Because these scripts didn’t match my own experiences, I had reason to begin thinking critically about them. All of society was saying that men love women and women love men, but I was crushing out on boys and having no idea what to make of girls who fell in love with me. This disconnect between the socially privileged identity of heterosexuality and my subordinated identity as a homosexual served for me as a kind of decryption key, enabling me to deconstruct and examine with detached curiosity the nature of heterosexual scripts.

My crackpot theory is that once one possesses such a decryption key, it can be used to deconstruct other socially constructed phenomena. In other words, once one develops the ability to think critically, those skills transfer, in my case from the domain of gender expression to other socially constructed domains such as religion. This trend can work the other way as well. Heterosexual atheists are overwhelmingly in favor of gay rights, perhaps because they likewise see through the socially constructed nature of gender roles and relationship scripts.

There may be yet another reason that many nonheterosexuals are secular and why so many secular people favor LGBT equality. Most secular and nonheterosexual people have encountered and developed a sensitivity to discrimination, which enables them to sniff out the stench of bigotry and injustice wherever else they might encounter it.

What about the coming-out process? Are there parallels between coming out as an atheist and coming out as gay? Having been involved as a graduate student in both the university’s LGBT student organization and in the university’s Atheist and Agnostic Society, I have heard this proposition discussed enough times to suspect that there are real commonalities between the two. Both identities are marginalized, and both are not immediately obvious at a glance in the way that, say, dark skin is obvious, so it is possible to “pass” as a member of the heterosexual or Christian majority, and many do so in order to fit in. Furthermore, both identities are usually realized over time. Many individuals fail to recognize or are unable to acknowledge that they are gay until their young adulthood and sometimes much later. Similarly, one’s transition from Christian to atheist is often a long process.

Within academia, there are some stage models of coming out as gay, and other stage models of coming out as an atheist, which follow four general stages: (a) awareness—that one is gay or that one has doubts about religious claims; (b) exploration—learning more about homosexuality or about skepticism; (c) deepening commitment—which includes greater comfort with the emerging identity and richer social networks within the community; and (d) integrated identity—regarding homosexuality or atheism as a satisfying and valid identity and being generally comfortable being out to others.

There is a final, very important way in which homosexuality and atheism are joined at the hip: Both the gay rights movement and the struggle for atheist acceptance are part of the continuing civil rights movement. Although there is a substantial constituency of atheists who are really apatheists (“Don’t know. Don’t care.”) with a corresponding apathy regarding social or political issues, many atheists are struggling to elevate atheism to a position of respectability. Atheists belong to a marginalized group who are too often kept “in the closet” out of fear of people’s responses to their unbelief. They’re regarded as immoral, degenerate misanthropes who are corrupting American society. It’s complete nonsense.

When both atheists and gays are outspoken about their true selves, they are often accused of impropriety. Outspoken atheists and outspoken gays are told they’re being disrespectful, and they are asked to tone it down, to silence themselves, and thereby disempower themselves. They’re told to be polite and diplomatic, when history shows that polite diplomacy works far, far better in a social-change movement when the oppressed refuse to hide, when they are willing to speak up and to speak out.

The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the modern feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the antiwar movement in the sixties, the Occupy moveme
nt—you name it—all of them have been met with accusations of impropriety. I am widely considered to be a gentle man, polite in my interactions with others, but I’m willing to be called “improper,” “offensive,” or “insulting” when I assert my rejection of all things supernatural, because I care about the truth. I can be critical of religion’s unsupported hypotheses while remaining respectful of religious people, and there is a difference between people and their beliefs.

 

The battle for LGBT equality began with marches and riots as early as 1965. Forty-five years later, public polls indicate that public support of same-sex marriage in the United States has grown to 50 percent. In contrast, the so-called “new atheism movement,” which has been regarded as neither new nor a movement, was ushered in not by marches and riots but by a series of best-selling books, beginning in 2004 with the publication of The End of Faith by Sam Harris. Will it take forty-five years before polls indicate that 50 percent of Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist for president?

My hope is that atheists will continue to promote civil equality by taking advantage of the “gay friend effect.” Survey data indicating the widespread distrust of atheists have received much attention in the freethought community, but recent research seems to support the gay friend effect and indicates that coming out may be one of the best antidotes to what Robert J. Nash has termed atheophobia, or “the fear and loathing of atheists that permeate American culture.” In a 2011 article published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the University of British Columbia psychology professor Will Gervais reported the findings of four studies indicating that the more prevalent people perceive atheists to be, the less prejudice and distrust people harbor for them. In other words, people who know an atheist are less likely to discriminate against atheists. “Isn’t discrimination a bit strong?” you might ask. Discrimination takes many forms, but they all involve some form of exclusion or rejection of entire groups of people. To remain silent about one’s atheism is the easier route, to be sure, but silence is an implicit endorsement of the belittling stereotypes of atheists that pervade U.S. culture. The more atheists come out, the greater is our progression toward a society in which all people are treated with fairness and respect.

 

Kevin J. Zimmerman

Kevin J. Zimmerman is an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Sciences at Bridgewater College in Virginia. He is a licensed marital and family therapist with a particular interest in relationship quality.


“I have met many gays and lesbians who have cited Christianity’s general tendency to deprecate homosexuality as their reason for leaving the religion of their upbringing.”

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