A program of the Center for Inquiry
. . . Gay brothers and sisters. . . . You must come out. Come out to your parents. I know that is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers. To the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you. . . .
—Harvey Milk, Gay Freedom Day, June 25, 1978
Who could have predicted that such a simple act of personal courage, multiplied a millionfold, could result in a cultural and legal revolution?
Harvey Milk could. A member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and one of the nation’s first openly gay elected politicians before his assassination in 1978, Milk knew the power of owning one’s truth. He knew that homosexuals were despised and feared because they were viewed with suspicion as an alien class and that the mere act of gentle confrontation by someone familiar who happens to be gay would change attitudes.
He exhorted the crowd that day to “once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions” through people-to-people connections. It was the secret sauce that changed the trajectory of life for millions of gay and lesbian Americans.
The Openly Secular campaign is an attempt to follow that formula for atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and the nonreligious. While secular people do not face the same regime of discrimination, hate, and violence as do gays and lesbians (at least not in the United States, though thirteen nations make atheism a capital offense), the tactic of coming forward is the right one for our community, too.
In 2014, a handful of secular organizations—the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science (now merging with the Center for Inquiry), the Secular Coalition for America, the Secular Student Alliance, and the Stiefel Freethought Foundation—launched Openly Secular as a highly sophisticated and multi-pronged public relations campaign that asked secular people to step into the light to reduce social hostility and stigmatization. CFI and nearly two dozen other secular organizations quickly and in solidarity joined as partners. By changing attitudes together, we hope to change a nation.
Openly Secular has many component parts working in tandem toward the goal of increasing social equity for nonbelievers and the nonreligious. This is not a campaign that criticizes religion or religious people; rather, it is a call for fairness and equal treatment for the secular community.
Openly Secular borrows from the previous “Out Campaign” of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, as well as the “It Gets Better Project,” which features user-created online videos to assure LGBT youth that others have felt the alienation they are feeling, that they are a part of a larger, caring community, and that life will improve. Openly Secular has gathered hundreds of videos of everyday people discussing their secularism to encourage others to do the same. The videos show the joy of acceptance as well as the pain of rejection experienced by people trying to live as their authentic selves. Here are some examples:
To give people the tools and confidence they need to come forward (our take on the famous “coming out”), Openly Secular has designed a range of toolkits to further understanding, all freely available at www.OpenlySecular. org.
To build awareness and broader public support, the campaign reaches out to find allied organizations, such as People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union, willing to stand with secular Americans.
The most powerful aspect of the campaign may be its celebrity videos from entertainers, notable athletes, and politicians: some of these are Representative Barney Frank, Bill Maher, actor John de Lancie, comic Julia Sweeney, entertainer John Davidson, Penn & Teller, athlete Chris Kluwe, the symphonic rock band Nightwish, and National Football League star Arian Foster. Having famous people talk about their nonbelief paves the way for average people to do the same. It also shows the general public—the believing public—that in fact they do know, like, and respect someone who rejects religion and the supernatural.
Academic research bears out that this is the most promising way to break down pernicious stereotypes. Will Gervais, an assistant professor of social psychology and director of the Beliefs and Morality Lab at the University of Kentucky, has found that prejudice against atheists by religious believers is markedly reduced in countries where there is a prevalence or a perceived prevalence of atheists. The more they know us, the more they like us.
Using the parallel of the gay and lesbian experience also points to coming forward as the best way to change attitudes. A Pew poll from May 2015 found that 73 percent of people who say they know gays and lesbians are in favor of same-sex marriage, compared with the 59 percent of people who say they don’t know any gays or lesbians and oppose same-sex marriage.
Why is it important to break down the latent hostility and distrust directed toward nonbelievers? For the love of country.
Despite the accelerating growth of the nonbelief community, there are no openly atheist members of Congress, and a recent Pew poll finds that 51 percent of Americans say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate for president who is an atheist—a trait that polls worse than adulterer.
People willing to be truthful about their nonbelief are virtually precluded from elective office. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts congressional representative who represented one of the most progressive districts in the country, admitted to being an atheist twenty-six years after he came out as gay, and even then only after he retired from Congress. The one and only member of Congress who was an open atheist, Pete Stark of California, was defeated in his reelection bid in 2012 (though there is no suggestion that he lost due to his atheism).
Openly secular people are denied a seat at the public-policy table when vital issues such as stem-cell research, climate change, faith-based initiatives, same-sex marriage, birth control and sex education, school vouchers, and evolution teaching in schools are debated and decided. The exclusion tilts the law to privilege religious ideology and theologically grounded positions.
Yet, even with so much at stake, it is a challenge to get secular people to engage if they are not already activists. This is where the LGBT parallel falls away.
Gay and lesbian Americans have a personal stake in changing society. Acceptance for the LGBT community means they can form families with people they love—and few impulses are as basic to humanity or as fundamental to a happy life. For most nonbelievers, the payoff for acceptance is a more attenuated social good.
In some ways, LGBT acceptance might be an easier sell. Once people became convinced that being gay is a biological imperative, not a lifestyle choice, their concern over gay recruitment fell away. The hysteria that once gripped society with bugaboos over children being taught or raised by gays and becoming gay themselves largely evaporated.
In contrast, the prospect of convincing others is a real one. We nonbelievers may firmly believe in religious freedom, but we also view atheism and humanism as the most valid world- view—and we can be very convincing on that score. Some in the religious community may feel they have a stake in keeping us a suspect class.
But ultimately, Americans believe in fairness. It is how, in the blink of an eye relative to the sweep of human history, African Americans, women, ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, and other once-marginalized people were granted full citizenship, legal equality, and eventually widespread acceptance.
Nonbelievers are next. If we join the effort and work together, we will win the coveted prize of a collective shrug when the word atheist is mentioned in connection with a political candidate.
Being openly secular will “break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.” Harvey Milk’s recipe is foolproof.
*They are Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudia Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Robyn E. Blumner is the CEO of the Center for Inquiry.