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Stand Up and Be Seen

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

Sometimes it seems so hopeless; we non-believers are so few and the religious are so many, so influential, and so entrenched. But I want to tell you why it isn’t hopeless, and that we can, over time, and with intelligence and effort, push religious superstition off center stage.

I realize that here on I am “preaching to the choir,” but I think it is important to constantly remind ourselves that religion is not just a benign comfort for the masses. It is all too often harmful or even dangerous. Belief can even be a matter of life and death. President Bush the Younger declared that his god had told him to invade Iraq, and as a result of that invasion hundreds of thousands of Americans and Iraqis (and several hundred soldiers from other nations) died. In the end, democracy came to Iraq, which was then re-founded as an Islamic state by a new constitution. And the Sunnis and Shiites there continue to kill one another over a 1,400 year-old dispute.

On the negative side of religion’s influence let us add indoctrinating children with a sometimes debilitating fear of hell, failed “prayer healings,” religious trauma syndrome, the harmful idea that prayer actually helps situations (so actual physical assistance is not necessary), clergy advising women to stay with abusive husbands, lack of factual sex education among indoctrinated teenagers, the stubborn insistence on failed abstinence-only “sex education,” the general promotion of scientific ignorance and refusal to learn science. And, and, and . . . any list I could put together here is bound to be partial since there are so, so many negatives.

In general, religion distorts believers’ views of reality, how the world really works, and sets them up for bad decisions which can affect us all. Children are the main targets of clergy and other proselytizers since they are a captive audience and the easiest to convince of any kind of propaganda. As I once wrote in a letter to the editor, “The real world is filled with wonders; to fill children’s eager young minds with superstition is a shame. The future belongs to those who accept reality and seek to understand it. Superstition should always be aggressively discouraged and shown for what it is – a damaging wound to individual human minds and a destructive impediment to the progress of mankind.”

But, what can we do? We are vastly outnumbered in America by the religious, and they hold the reins of overwhelming political power.

I recently read an eye-opening book which provides part of the answer. It was a collection of writings by the American historian, author, and social activist, Howard Zinn (1922 – 2010). The collection, edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy is titled, “The Indispensible Zinn: The Essential Writings of the “Peoples’ Historian.””

In one of his last interviews, Zinn said he'd like to be remembered "for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality," and "for getting more people to realize that the power which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it. Black people in the South used it. People in the women's movement used it. People in the anti-war movement used it. People in other countries who have overthrown tyrannies have used it." And, I would add, that people in the LGBT struggle have used it.

Another wonderful example of a seemingly powerless minority stepping up and changing the world can be seen in the Enlightenment, which underpins the legal systems of the modern Western world. In seventeenth century Europe, organized religion held as much or more political and military power as all the monarchies combined. Then a few philosophers and other writers dared to suggest that authority should be questioned, and that evidence matters - in science, philosophy, politics, moral systems, in everything. Secularism was born and has since prospered. In the Western democracies, laws are made by the people, not by the Bible or the church. The Bible says that homosexuals, adulterers, disobedient sons, and those who work on Sunday should be killed, but none of our laws allow this because there is no evidence that such laws would be good for us.

Zinn said he wanted to be known as "somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn't have before.” He wanted us to believe that even the smallest minorities can force change; that we have the power and we need only choose to use it.

There are many things we non-believers can do, but history and recent research has shown that the most important is probably to just stand up and be seen, as I shall explain.

When I graduated from high school about 50 years ago, a school of roughly 1,200 students, I was not aware of a single gay person, student or staff, in that school. They were there, of course; modern surveys estimate that about 4% of American adults self identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. That means there were probably 50 such people in our student body. But, no one was “out” in those days, the social costs were simply too great. Then came the Stonewall riots in 1969, when the LGBT community started to step out of the shadows and push back against discrimination.

In time, one began to hear, “But I didn’t know that Rock Hudson was gay!” Or Johnny Mathis, or Leonard Bernstein, or Ellen DeGeneris, or that nice man who runs the local pharmacy, or my cousin. It seems that just knowing there are a great many of them in our world (9 million in the US) makes a difference. Today, there are millions of us “straights” who not only support equal rights for gays, including gay marriage, but actively contribute time and effort to their cause.

Over time, we can push religious superstition to the margins of our societies, but, to do so, we must stand up and be seen. Tom Rees wrote a fascinating op-ed in the October/November 2011 issue of Free Inquiry magazine which helps explain this sea change in attitudes toward LGBTs, and gives us another important clue to how we non-believers can move forward in our fight against religious superstition.

The article, titled “Trust in Numbers,” outlines the findings of some recent research by Will Gervais, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. Gervais has been studying why atheists are so disliked in America. For example, a 2011 Gallup poll found that only 49% of Americans would vote for an atheist for President. Yet, Australia’s prime minister and the U.K.s deputy prime minister are open atheists.

Through a series of tests, Gervais teased out that most religious people have a gut reaction against atheists. It seems they consider atheists untrustworthy. He found that, to many religious people, atheists can be smart, good employees, and good company, they simply can’t be trusted. In other words, you can hire them to do anything, of any difficulty, just don’t let them handle the money.

In tests, when Gervais pointed out to the religious that at least 20% of Americans aged 18 to 25 are atheists, he found startling results. When the religious subjects learned that atheism was far more common than they thought, it effectively abolished their distrust of atheists. Gervais got the same results when he asked the religious to read two essays and then report how they felt about atheists. One essay affirmed that only 5% of the university’s student body were atheists, while the other claimed the number was 50% (the truth was half way between). Those who read that half the student body were atheists were far more likely to report higher levels of trust toward atheists.

Gervais' findings correlate well with voting results around the world. In those countries where a high proportion of people dare to tell pollsters they are non-believers, even the religious are more willing to vote for atheists.

These results suggest that the atheist billboard, bus banners, and “out” campaigns can be very helpful in making atheists appear more mainstream and thus more trustworthy. If you are considered trustworthy, then your opinions in articles, letters to the editor, etc., are more likely to receive serious consideration.

So, Howard Zinn has shown us that overwhelming majorities can be, and have been, overcome by courage and perseverance, and Will Gervais has shown us that the biggest step to being trusted and heard by those majorities is to let them know there are a whole lot of us.

Over time, we can push religious superstition to the margins of our societies, but, to do so, we must stand up and be seen. Toward that end, I encourage all of you (who are able) to make your non-belief public; to write articles here and elsewhere, to write letters to the editor, to wear “Out of the Closet Atheist” ball caps, use bumper stickers, etc.

I understand that for some of you the social and family costs of “coming out” would be enormous, but you can still help by supporting the cause anonymously, by supporting this and other non-believer sites, and by supporting the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and/or other freethought organizations.

Together, bit by bit, we can change the world. It’s been done before, against overwhelming odds, and it can be done again. And the very best and biggest thing we can do for the movement is to simply stand up and be seen.