Are “militant atheists” the new camp homosexuals?

Richard Dawkins

Before I go any further I want to be clear what I am and am not comparing with this analogy. What I’m comparing is the role ‘new atheists’ are playing in creating a cultural space for other atheists to openly operate in. What I’m not doing is trying to equate the discrimination & prejudice faced by atheists with that homosexuals face, so far as I can tell homosexuals not only face significantly more prejudice but for obvious reasons homosexuals who feel the need to remain closeted pay a much higher price in terms of unfulfilled lives than atheists do.

Now I’ve clarified what I’m definitely not trying to say I’ll move onto the point I am trying to make. Camp icons such as Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey rose to prominence in the decades before the initial partial liberalisation of the law on homosexuality in 1967. John Inman and Larry Grayson found fame post 67 but in a time when homosexuals were still subject to much legal discrimination and informal prejudice.

Such camp stars, even when not openly gay, played a significant role in humanising and normalising homosexuals for millions of people who didn’t know any ‘out’ homosexuals. In the process of doing so they outraged and offended many, often simply by being somewhat open about their sexualty. Aside from the expected bigots, they also offended some homosexuals who argued that they reinforced harmful gay stereotypes. That may well to some extent be true but it’s difficult to see how without such wildly popular, primetime stars taboos surrounding positive, or at least neutral, portrayals of homosexuals could have been broken.

Camp figures such as Graham Norton, Julian Clary and Paul O’Grady are still very much a fixture on British TV but significantly so are numerous homosexual presenters who aren’t in the least bit camp, and characters on soaps and other shows who are not only not camp but who just happen to be gay, without the need being felt for it to be a major issue on the show.

It seems to me that in many ways trailblazing atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have played and, the sadly departed Hitch aside, are still playing a similar role for atheism that icons of camp played for homosexuality. They’ve broken down taboos in the process, receiving lots of positive and negative reaction. They are habitually accused of being ‘strident’, ‘shrill’, ‘militant’, ‘extreme’ and even ‘totalitarian’. As with camp homosexuals some of this criticism comes from more understated atheists who accuse ‘new atheists’ of perpetuating and even generating negative stereotypes.

Alain de Botton with his Atheism 2.0 is perhaps a good example of this, he’s highly critical of Richard Dawkins yet doesn’t seem to acknowledge that his “Atheism 2.0” is attempting to occupy cultural space Dawkins, Hitchens and others worked so hard to open up.

My knowledge of ‘light entertainment’ in the US is minimal so other than Liberace I’m not aware of any camp figures who may have played an equivalent role to that of Williams and Inman here so I don’t know if this aspect of the analogy works. However such is the prejudice against atheists in much of the US that in many ways the equivalence with homosexuality is stronger, the Out Campaign is an explicit recognition by atheists of this.

Unduly critical of new atheists as I think they are, I regard the likes of de Botton’s Atheism 2.0 as a generally good thing. Just as most homosexuals aren’t camp and may even dislike camp there’s no reason to think all atheists should be happy with the new ntheists’ joyous rejection of religion and upfront opposition to it. Plenty of atheists seem to rather mourn their realisation that there’s no good reason to believe in god/s, they still like their myths and find meaning and comfort in them even though they now recognize them to be myths.  I just wish Atheism 2.0ers would ease up on the criticism of camp/new atheists a little and give them a little appreciation for all the hard work they’ve done and all the increasingly desperate personal attacks they’ve weathered.

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One Response to Are “militant atheists” the new camp homosexuals?

  1. a4thinker says:

    Fantastic article, thanks for sharing this with us. I too am perfectly fine with atheists who don’t want to make a fuss of things, I think that’s the world we’re all working towards anyway where we won’t have to make a fuss of things, however they should give the more vocal atheists some support and respect that they have in essence normalised atheism in Western societies.

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