Nearly half of LGBTQ Americans are non-religious—let’s embrace it

American Atheists logo on top of Rainbow Flag
American Atheists logo

LGBTQ people and atheists are obvious allies.

For many LGBTQ Americans, coming out can trigger an onslaught of religious bullying. For me, it started in ninth grade at Wayne Valley when a “friend” outed me as gay to the entire school.

incidents of biblically justified bullying helped me affirm my non-religious identity

During a speech class that year, a classmate and I debated two other students about legally recognizing same-sex marriage. Not only did they rely heavily on religious arguments to condemn marriage equality, but at one point, they even joked, “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” as they pointed right at us. While I had never felt particularly religious, this and similar incidents of biblically justified bullying helped me affirm my non-religious identity—and it’s nice to finally know I’m not alone.

In fact, nearly half of LGBTQ Americans (47%) do not identify with any religion, according to recent research from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). That’s nearly twice the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans (24%) in the general population.

But that’s not all—more than one in three LGBTQ Americans (39%) self-identify as explicitly non-religious rather than merely religiously unaffiliated, according to additional data provided by PRRI. One in 10 identify as atheist, making LGBTQ Americans three times as likely to adopt this identity, compared to the general population of Americans (respectively, 10% and 3%). Seven percent of LGBTQ Americans identify as agnostic (versus 3% of all Americans), while 22% of all LGBTQ Americans say they are “secular, not religious (SNR)” (versus 13% of all Americans). And when it comes to the a-word—atheist —those are likely conservative estimates.

A 2017 study conducted by psychology faculty at Eastern Kentucky University found that many nonbelievers do not reveal their atheist identity (even when they remain anonymous) to pollsters.

It’s safe to say that we LGBTQ Americans are a non-religious bunch—but that’s not a bad thing. Secular Americans comprise the major religious demographic most likely to favor LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. For example, 86% of agnostics, 85% of atheists, and 79% of SNR Americans support LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, according to the PRRI data. The next sizable religious groups most in favor of these protections—Hispanic Catholics and Jewish Americans—are both at 75%.

As the Religious Right sets out to chip away at the new federal LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections in the workplace by using a contorted theory of “religious freedom,” we atheists are the group most consistently on the side of LGBTQ people and on the side of social justice, in general.

Amid nationwide protests, atheists are staying woke. Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor, found that atheists and agnostics are the religious demographic least likely to say that racial problems are rare, isolated situations—even less likely than Black Protestants. Atheists and agnostics are also the group least likely to hold racial resentment toward African Americans—surprisingly, scoring lower than Black Protestants.

And non-religious Americans are not just sitting around, screaming into the void. More and more research suggests we are one of the demographics most actively fighting to ensure equality. Burge determined that atheists are the most politically engaged group in the United States. Similarly, according to a 2018 poll by The Atlantic and PRRI, activism is the highest among non-religious Democrats.

What’s more, LGBTQ people and atheists are obvious allies. While our experiences differ, we lead lives perceived as outside “the norm” by many religious people and, as a result, face stigma and discrimination. American Atheists recently released Reality Check: Being Non-religious in America, the first report from the U.S. Secular Survey, the largest survey of non-religious Americans ever conducted. It found that discrimination and stigma against non-religious people are widespread in the United States, and sadly, the more religious a community, the more intense the stigma against non-religious people.

LGBTQ’s with unsupportive parents had a 71.2% higher rate of  depression

Thankfully, I grew up in secular New Jersey, and my friends and family accepted me for who I was, but not everyone is so fortunate. The Reality Check report found that LGBTQ nonbelievers were significantly more likely to have had “very” or “somewhat” unsupportive parents, with 43% of respondents reporting family rejection, compared to 35% of non-LGBTQ participants. This has a profound effect on mental health. The report shows that participants with unsupportive parents had a 71.2% higher rate of likely depression than those with very supportive parents.

With all of that in mind, I hope that queer spaces act as affirming places for atheists like me. While it’s important to remind LGBTQ people that many religions and denominations do not reject queer people, many of us have experienced religious trauma. As the United States continues down the path of religious disaffiliation, it’s now more important than ever that queer spaces adjust accordingly. After all, the well-being of millions of non-religious LGBTQ Americans—and New Jerseyans—is on the line.

Tom Van Denburgh is the Communications Director at American Atheists, a New Jersey-based civil rights organization that, as part of its mission, works to eliminate stigma and discrimination against non-religious people and prevent religion from being used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ Americans.