Sweet Vindication

January 31, 2013

For a decade I've been writing that secular humanists and other atheists need to compel greater social acceptance by making themselves "irresistibly visible." Now social science has backed me up.

Way back in a Summer 2003 FREE INQUIRY editorial, "No Passing: Time to Leave the Closet Behind" (not available online), I recounted the success of what was then called the gay and lesbian movement in forcing one of the most remarkable attitudinal shifts since Americans north of the Mason-Dixon Line decided they really, really disliked slavery in the South.

"Circa 1950, homosexuality was universally reviled," I wrote. "Today, people expressing a broad variety of sexual orientations are embraced by many Americans and accepted by most, excepting staunch conservatives. Gay interests are reflected in literature, political discourse, and popular entertainment. What made this happen? The gay community achieved irresistible visibility. ... The Stonewall riots, pride marches, and equal-rights legislation all helped to shift attitudes. But the gay movement’s most powerful strategy was also the simplest — its relentless call for gays and lesbians to 'out' themselves. Each person out of the closet made self-disclosure that much easier for the next. After millions came out, most Americans discovered that yes, they did know gays and lesbians firsthand as valued neighbors, coworkers, fellow students, fellow citizens. America’s gay minority delivered on its slogan, 'We are everywhere'; that’s the real reason attitudes changed."

I closed by calling for secular humanists and other nonbelievers to learn from this example and do likewise: "As individuals, we must seize every opportunity to out ourselves. As a group, we need to become a more effective minority, willing to plead for our privileges, willing to inflict legal and emotional costs when opponents violate our rights. We need to make ourselves more obvious, occasionally even at the price of making ourselves obnoxious. If we unbelievers were merely as vocal, as sensitive, as any other recognized minority in this culture, more Americans would know that we exist. More Americans would be aware of knowing people who live without religion. And attitudes would change."

I repeated that call in a February/March op-ed, "Why the 'A' Word Won't Go Away" (Feb/Mar 2008; this one is available online, at https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=flynn_28_2 ).

Of course, that position was never based on more than my common-sense observation. And no end of critics warned that too much assertiveness would make conditions worse, not better, for secular Americans.

If only the social sciences could weigh in and offer a judgment one way or the other.

Ah, they have.

In a January 29 piece on Examiner.com (https://www.examiner.com/article/science-says-atheists-should-come-out-of-the-closet-for-their-own-good), journalist William Hamby reports on a 2011 study by University of Kentucky social psychologist Will M. Gervais published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Spoiler alert: Hamby's piece was headlined "Science Says Atheists Should Come Out of the Closet for Their Own Good." According to Hamby, reserarch by Gervais spectacularly confirmed the hypothesis that "If Christians were to realize just how many atheists there really are, their conceptions of atheists would be challenged, since so many of their neighbors -- and often dear friends -- are secretly atheist."

You know, exactly what I've been arguing for a decade.

Among the findings, as summarized by Hamby: "When prejudiced religious people come to believe that atheists are very common, their opinion of atheists shifts away from distrust towards more acceptance ... the message for individual 'closet atheists' is remarkably clear. By doing nothing other than publicly identifying as atheists, they can play a valuable part in reducing anti-atheist prejudice nationwide."

In all mock humbleness, it's nice to have one of my pet talking points receive such unequivocal support. Now I think  I'll sit back and wait for conclusive proof that the Santa Claus myth damages children.