By David Madison, PhD Biblical Studies
The message on our placard was straightforward: “It’s Not Complicated: I Want to Marry the Man I Love. Case Closed.” My husband and I carried that sign for many years in the New York Gay Pride Parades—long before we had legal married status.
A few months after our 30th living-together anniversary, we were finally married in California in 2008. A few weeks later, voters passed the mean-spirited Proposition 8, which halted marriage equality in that state. A court subsequently ruled that the 18,000 same-sex marriages that had been performed were not nullified by the vote. We breathed an enormous sigh of relief. It had been a wonderful wedding on a riverboat in the Sacramento River, with our daughter Deb Sweeney co-officiating, and our granddaughter Cathleen as flower girl.
In 2011, after marriage equality became law in New York, we got married here too—as it happened, exactly three years to the day after the Sacramento ceremony. Our lawyer suggested that it would be a good idea to have legal status in our home state, and—believe it or not— Governor Cuomo himself told my husband that we should get the knot tied here too: at a serendipitous meeting at a movie premier, shortly after the new law was passed, David (yes, my husband is also David) thanked the governor for his vigorous leadership on the issue. He told Cuomo that we’d been married three years previously in California. The governor said, “Do it again here!”
Who Would Have Thought?
So, we had two weddings, and these two events serve to illustrate how attitudes have shifted. When we held the two wedding parties in 2008 and 2011, many relatives showed up to help us celebrate—even those whom we knew to be conservative Republicans. Over the years, our status as a couple had become obvious to our families. No: we were not just good friends. We were proud of the photos of us carrying the placard, and in 1999 we were featured (along with thirteen other couples) in a book entitled, When Love Lasts Forever: Male Couples Celebrate Commitment. In 2008 the wedding banquet was held at our favorite restaurant that was owned by a devout Catholic family. When I asked the owner, “You don’t mind having a gay wedding here?” she said to me, “My parents taught us not to look down on anyone” –a lesson lost, obviously, on the Catholic hierarchy.
In 2012 the president who had endorsed marriage equality and ended Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell was re-elected—and on that election night voters in four states approved marriage equality. Previously we had always lost at the ballot box.
The trend in public opinion is clear, and in 2013 the Supreme Court may (or may not) give our cause a major boost. But surely 25 or 50 years from now marriage equality will be considered part of the fabric of a just and fair society committed to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens.
Will Atheists Be Welcome Out of the Closet Too?
Even when I was a teenager in rural Indiana in the 1950s I knew I was gay, and I would eventually come to terms with that. It took another 20 years for the religious indoctrination I’d been brought up with to wear off, and I was openly atheist as well. Not surprisingly, those conservative Republicans who showed up for the wedding are far less forgiving about that.
But, in general, has there been a parallel softening of attitudes toward atheists?
Polling evidence indicates that the number of non-believers has been increasing, and we may be under-represented in the polls because many folks are afraid to admit that they’re atheists. I suspect that belief has been eroding as a consequence of the flood of atheist writings in the last decade—with several books on the best seller lists. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens come to mind, of course, but there are hundreds of other authors who have taken deadly aim at Christianity especially.
And they’re all on YouTube. There has never been such easy access to the atheist message. When the gay rights movement was finding its full voice, one critic lamented that it was impossible to get “the love that dare not speak its name” to shut up. And the very vocal atheist movement is here to stay as well. The full frontal assault on religion now resonates with many people.
But will the church folks—the preachers, ordinary believers and theologians—be willing to bury the hatchet with atheists? Will acceptance of atheism follow the same trajectory as the acceptance of gay people? I suspect that the struggle will be much more protracted.
Wanting to Get to Heaven
And here’s why: is it really a big deal for straight people to say, “Well, why not let gay people get married”? The sky has not fallen in the states that allow it. I suspect that opinion on this has shifted because straight folks can sense the violation of fair play—and they know that their own marriages are not in jeopardy. They now count enough gay people among their friends to know that the lurid lies told about us are rubbish. All of the dire warnings about gay people now seem pretty silly.
But atheists are another matter. Atheism does seem to represent a palpable threat.
People want a friendly Cosmos, the kindly ‘man upstairs,’ and—above all else—the formula for escaping death. When you mess with the myths to which people cling for dear life, then it’s personal. They don’t want to hear our carefully reasoned arguments against the gods and their hope for heaven. There was once intense white-knuckle rage when people saw a black man dating a white woman; that’s pretty much a thing of the past. And the sight of two men kissing rates a ho-hum these days; ten years ago network TV didn’t dare show such a thing. But there is still a high quotient of white- knuckle rage when people hear the atheist message. Being told that your religion is false is a sharp stick in the eye. They don’t want that message to have equal time.
Honest Thinking Is Better Than Wishful Thinking
However, the desire and need for a rational society pulls us forward, and I can no more hide my atheism than I can or should hide that I am married to a man. The religious folks are out and proud; they ring our doorbells, have “god” printed on our money, enjoy tax breaks in blatant violation of the Constitution, and whine in the media when religion is criticized. They’ve dominated the conversation for too long.
Those of us who are atheist and gay, or atheist and straight, have an opportunity now to redirect the conversation. The heavily privileged god tradition in the United States is matched by a rich and robust atheist tradition that is largely ignored. We’ve not invented atheism from scratch; of course we welcome the widely-published atheists of the last decade, but we need to talk about Robert Ingersoll, Mark Twain, H.L. Menken, Clarence Darrow, Albert Einstein, Katharine Hepburn, Madelyn Murray O’Hair, Francis Crick, James Watson, Carl Sagan, Natalie Angier, Gretchen Christina, Neil deGrasse Tyson and so many others.
Clearly, for reasons of their own, many atheists and gay people choose to remain in the closet, but I’m out on both fronts, and understand this as an opportunity to be an advocate—on both fronts.
David Madison, PhD (Boston University) David Madison received his PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University in 1975. For ten years he was an ordained Methodist minister, but belief eroded. He agrees with Dan Savage that he didn’t lose his faith; he saw through it. He made a successful transition into a business career, but is still keenly interested in Biblical Studies, especially ongoing research into the historicity of Jesus. He is currently writing 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, but is also planning a series of secular commentaries on the gospels and Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
This article is republished with permission from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Rutgers University Newsletter