The organization American Atheists (AA), perhaps best known for its provocative advocacy in favor of atheism and against religion, has once again stirred heated debate. Yet this time its critics are not religious believers, but atheists*.

This most recent controversy started on Friday evening when AA posted on its Twitter account (that’s called “Tweeting” for the non-Twitter crowd) a photo of protesters for marriage equality in Utah with the hashtag #religionispoison. Walker Bristol (full disclosure: my friend) quickly pointed out that the religious activists in the crowd would almost certainly object to the hashtag.

AA’s response, in part: “It doesn’t make sense to say that religion inspired them to advocate for LGBTQ equality.”

(For those unaware: LGBTQ = lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons).

A lengthy exchange between AA’s Twitter account — or, more precisely, whoever was running AA’s account at the time — and several other commenters ensued, during which AA argued that, “if you’re a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter, you’re doing one of them wrong.” Later AA would amend statement to: “An LGBTQ Christian is not being true to Christian doctrine.”

Does AA have a point? Well, not really.

In regards to AA’s initial remark, it makes almost no sense for atheists on Twitter to claim they know better the motivations of Christian LGBTQ activists than the Christian LGBTQ activists themselves. It is a fact that many LGBTQ activists are Christians. It is also a fact that many of these activists are driven to action by their Christian values. AA must be familiar with these facts; they are widely known.

Which raises the question: what was the person running AA’s account trying to say? In reading through the entire Twitter exchange, and knowing atheists and their positions rather well, I suspect AA’s argument actually goes something like this: what Christians do is irrelevant to what Christians ought to do. 

Consider a parallel argument often made by atheists: many scientists are religious, but that doesn’t mean scientists should be religious. In the same way, AA might argue that while many Christians support LGBTQ rights, Christians should not support LGBTQ rights.

This argument does hold weight, but if and only if you think the entirety of Christianity must be based, in some significant way, on one line of scripture in a 2,000-page book.

To be sure, Christian institutions, such as the Catholic Church, have played a significant and harmful role in holding back the advance of LGBTQ equality throughout history. But, as is true for most religions, Christianity is not a monolith. Each Christian sect, and each Christian, treats LGBTQ rights differently; some are ardently opposed, others ardently in favor. And there’s no reason, factual or philosophical, to say Christians must choose between fundamentalism and atheism. Why should living according to a specific passage of the Bible function as the the sole indicator of a person’s merit as a Christian? Is not Christianity much more than a single line in a 2,000-page book?

This is important not just because it’s worth knowing what’s true and what’s not true, but also because there is practical impact to this debate. Christian involvement with the LGBTQ rights movement has been a major reason for the rapid advance in LGBTQ equality. If Christians were convinced they could not support LGBTQ rights, and the LGBTQ rights movement was comprised solely of atheists and LGBTQ persons, the movement would almost certainly not be where it is today.

To their credit, AA admits that it does not work with Christians and Christian groups. And that’s fine. AA does not exist to build and work with broad coalitions on a range of social issues. It exists to promote and build the ranks of atheism, and that can be a good thing.

But while AA is entitled to its own organizational goals, it is not entitled to its own views on the relationship between Christianity, atheism, and LGBTQ rights. And forcing Christians to choose between fundamentalism and atheism is going to help no one in the long-term push for political and legal equality — except, that is, Christian fundamentalists.

To me, the bottom line is this: if you’re a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter, great. If you’re an atheist and an LGBTQ supporter, great. What matters is not which church you do or do not attend on Sundays. What matters is whether you support LGBTQ rights.


*Unfortunately I must note this is not the first time AA has drawn criticism from atheists for its public statements on this issue.