Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


With talk of tolerance and equality, one group is still forgotten: atheists

The amount of religious language used during this election year was alarming, but the marriage-amendment conversation was particularly loaded.

August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists, was the only prominent atheist I recall hearing from in the last 18 months about LGBT rights.

I’m probably not alone in expressing relief that the 2012 election is over. A month later and no hanging chads, recounts or legal challenges to draw the proceedings out for weeks.

David Philip Norris
David Philip Norris

We’re also without a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage — an effort that drove the costliest ballot campaign in Minnesota history, as reported here on MinnPost, with over $15 million spent.

As a gay man, I was invested in the outcome of that campaign, and like many Minnesotans was glued to my laptop on Nov. 6 and into the following morning. When the race was called at 1:48 a.m., 52.5 percent of the state (source: MPR) and I breathed a sigh of relief that had been building for nearly 18 months.

So while I’m thrilled that we can start talking about the possibility of voting “yes” instead of “no” for same-sex marriage in Minnesota, I’m still left feeling frustrated. In addition to being gay, I’m also a secular humanist. And an atheist. With candidates and party conventions making declarations about faith and belief in God, the amount of religious language used this year was alarming, but the marriage-amendment conversation was particularly loaded.

A menu on the website for Minnesotans United for All Families, the group that opposed the amendment, is labeled “Faith.” This directs to a page with resources for “Minnesotans of Faith,” and links for the Clergy Coalition and to participate in “Faith Conversation Drives.”

‘Because of our faith’

The website says: “We are challenging narrow views of what it means to be people of faith; we act not in spite of our faith, but because of our faith.” I’m deeply indebted to the 1.5 million people who voted “no” (source: MPR), most of whom are (statistically speaking) likely Christian and believe their God doesn’t care whom I love – or at least that government shouldn’t take sides in religious matters. But while I understand the campaign rationale to reach out to and focus on people of faith, I still couldn’t help feeling somewhat … excluded.

Article continues after advertisement

I wondered where my voice was in the conversation, where my link was on websites, and why more atheists weren’t speaking up on my behalf. In September, I attended a public forum on the amendment featuring panelists who shared their reasons for opposing it. All but one  – August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists — was religious. His arguments against the amendment were so sound and appealing that I was amazed they weren’t being used in MN United’s talking points. But Berkshire was the only prominent atheist I recall hearing from in the last 18 months about LGBT rights.

On Nov. 1, Minnesota Public Radio held a debate on the marriage amendment between members of each community (for and against), two of whom were clergy. The hourlong conversation was dominated by theological discussion, with Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church saying at one point: “The core of what we believe is that marriage was ordained by God, as given in the Bible. If you add to it, then you change my belief system.”

I thought: What about my belief system?

‘A lonely creed’

Sarah Vowell writes in her essay, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot”: “… in September [of 2001], atheism was a lonely creed. Not because atheists have no god to turn to, but because everyone else forgot about us.”

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, just under 20 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. That’s one-in-five. Thirteen million (6 percent) of us identify as atheist or agnostic. That’s more than the estimated 4 percent of the U.S. population that’s LGBT (source: the Williams Institute). If we apply that percentage to Minnesota’s estimated 2011 population of 5,344,861 (source: U.S. Census Bureau), there may be over half a million atheists and agnostics in this state.

So where were we?

Eric Murphy suggested in Minnesota Daily that atheism has a PR problem, with the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher coming off as “smug and harassing” at times. “The word ‘atheist,’ ” Murphy wrote, “becomes a synonym for ‘annoying contrarian’ in the minds of many people as a result.” And he’s not wrong. Some atheists can be rudely dismissive and just as aggressively evangelical as the religious extremists they oppose.

Murphy points out that it’s often easier to keep one’s atheism quiet, to avoid having to “defend or explain themselves every time it comes up.” Results of research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggest that atheists in the U.S. are trusted as much as or less than rapists (source: Science Daily).

While many LGBT Minnesotans have faith of some kind, there is much that is shared in common with atheists: the recognition of basic human rights and dignity, the freedom to realize one’s full potential as a human being, and the right to live free of harassment, discrimination and abuse. For these two groups and anyone who believes in these aims to not work together will only hold progress back longer.

David Philip Norris is a writer and musician from St. Paul.


Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright.