A Broad Spectrum Of Disbelief

Here’s something that’s been bugging me, so allow me a little rant.

It seems like every time an atheist makes a comment about some aspect of religion that bugs them, they are quite forcefully and specifically told to shut up. Religion is not a topic one is supposed to discuss in polite company (along with politics and sex, and we know how often that rule is broken). Atheists are made to feel like every time they criticize theism, they are stepping over some boundary of propriety. Due to my upbringing, I often find myself gauging the sensibilities of my listener to see if I might offend them, but I notice that never does a Christian (I don’t have much contacts with Hindus, Muslims and members of other religions) stop and think before they “thank god” or “god bless me” or otherwise inject their religious beliefs into a conversation.

Recently, in my locality the local non-believers in conjunction with the local chapter of  American Atheists, put up a billboard in reaction to the Pennsylvania State Assembly’s enactment of a resolution declaring 2012 as the Year of the Bible. The billboard can be seen in the graphic. It was specifically designed to provoke, as all atheist billboards are designed to do. Not to provoke hurt or resentment, but thought and discussion, with a view to changing minds. That’s the American way. Provoked discussion is an excellent way to effectuate change for the good, or avoid change for the bad. Our First Amendment is specifically designed to encourage public discourse this way, without governmental influence. We learned that when we separated from Mother England. Broadsides and pamphlets were commonly published and disseminated to provoke what eventually became the insurrection that resulted in the good old US of A.

However this particular billboard used the issue of slavery to show the PA legislature that celebrating a book, that in turn appears to celebrate slavery, might not be a wise thing to do. Is the Bible a a guidebook of perfect morality? No, clearly not. Yes, that’s the billing it receives from its proponents, but it falls far short of perfection. It contains no admonition on the issue of slavery, and even when it is discussed, it assumes that slavery fit nicely in the natural world. Is this controversial? It shouldn’t be. The billboard message very clearly implies that slavery is bad, pointedly noting that the cited verse was used in antebellum times to justified slavery’s continued existence. Yet for some reason the people who reacted negatively to its message were the African-Americans, who claimed it was hurtful and disrespectful, and even racist. Those who commented often did so in religious terms, claiming that their god was also offended (ironically underscoring the message of the billboard.) Many loudly demanded that it be removed. One former director of the state Human Relations Commission (himself, black) went so far as to report it as a hate crime. Clearly, African Americans completely misunderstood the message, which was that:

  • The state should not be in the business of celebrating one particular religion
  • especially by proclaiming the goodness of that religion’s scripture that endorses evils such as slavery (not to mention child abuse, misogyny, genocide and other human horrors).

So blacks (and many others) demanded its removal. Before 24 hours were up, it had been vandalized, and then removed by the sign company, not to be replaced. In effect, the atheists were silenced for having the temerity to point out the unconstitutional encroachment the state was making into religion, and vice versa. Yet billboards proclaiming religious nonsense are rarely defaced (and never so quickly), and are never controversial; they are erected without any objection from anyone. I know this reflects the minority/majority  nonbeliever/believer dichotomy of the culture, but still it’s irritating that the theist majority feels so threatened by the atheist minority that it must go to great lengths to feign religious persecution while it suppresses all contrary opinions.. Why? What are they afraid of? If the message of the billboards is not true, the lack of veracity of the message should be obvious, and simply ignored. Would they get so upset if we put up a billboard declaring green cheese as the composition of the moon, because that’s false?

No. They would laugh and ignore it.

I know the billboard was provocative, and I know it was purposely so, and of course many feel that it was asking to be defaced, and when it was that the atheists simply got what they asked for. Clearly the controversy was in the implicit message that religion is not true. And maybe we did get what we asked for, because the discussion that ensued, while pissing off the many, may also have managed to convince the few. We’ll take anything we can get.

However,  much objection came from atheists themselves, who felt that in-your-face atheism such as this is not good for atheism in the long run, that it actually reflects badly on an otherwise desired movement towards rationalism.

I think that atheists, on an individual basis, lie along a broad spectrum of disbelief, just as Christians (to take a specific subset of theists) lie along a broad spectrum of religious belief (there are probably more varieties of Christian than there are of non-believers). There are atheists who simply disbelieve, and give it no other thought, happily accommodating their religious neighbors on the theory that as long as their pocket isn’t being picked, or their limb broken, there’s no harm, no foul. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those that might, disingenuously, be called militant atheists, who take every opportunity to point out how silly even a sneeze-induced invocation of god is, on the theory that the culture is so imbued with religion that their pockets are being picked and their limbs broken continuously. And then there’s everybody in between who takes a little of each position in the measure that makes the most sense to them, and formulates a personal sense of disbelief.

There’s room for all these people; the former because they offer a quiet example of how a lack of gods has absolutely no effect on day to day living; the latter because they point out to the intransigent delusional on a daily basis just how stupid their beliefs are. You can’t dislodge a rock with a feather; you sometimes need a big-assed lever and fulcrum. Those in the middle contribute in proportion to their means. Taken cumulatively, you have a movement that encompasses everyone, and that should tolerate the means and methods of all.

You don’t like our billboard?  Then get the message out your own way, in your own time. In the end, the billboard  is just a board with words and pictures on it. Sensibilities, while hurt, heal quickly. Who cares? We should be more concerned with the effects that religion has on real people than the hurt feelings of theists, such as genital mutilation, honor killings, reactions to Qu’ran burnings, the cultural war on woman we’re watching in this Republican Presidential race, the Taliban, priestly pedophilia and the Vatican cover-up, the unfair exemption of churches from taxation, the religious war on science and knowledge and the concomitant embracing of ignorance, antisemitism, and so much more.

There is no one way, or the right way, to move from a culture of god-bothering to one or rationalism, non-supernaturalism and reason. All participants in the process have the right to their own means of effectuating change, within the limits of the law. This whole internal conflict that atheists and humanists have been having, setting up the accommodationist/non-accommodationist camps, is silly. They are both equally valid.

We’re all in the same camp. We just have different roles to fulfill. In tandem, we can reach everyone, because for every hardline atheist, there’s a soft-sell Christian, and for every fundamentalist rigid, Christian there’s…well…no hope.

OK. So we can’t reach everyone.

20 thoughts on “A Broad Spectrum Of Disbelief

  1. The irony of that billboard is that when it got vandalized, they left the bad message intact,but destroyed the atheist objection to it. In effect saying, slavery is great.

    • They were probably short people and couldn’t reach that high.

      Moral: Christianity stunts your growth.

  2. I’m ambivalent about this . . . the message itself could have been a little clearer, and I do not claim to know or can say what a black person might feel upon looking at that.

    I think saying “it was designed to provoke” is not a good-enough excuse. Where they trying to specifically provoke persons of color?

    Sure, they misread the message . . . right? . . . I mean, I read it, I am sympathetic to the intention, and I am not sure what the message was supposed to be. I had to go and read the articles, the motivation behind it, what it was trying to accomplish. The casual reader would not have invested that kind of effort on it.

    Right now, after all the hoopla, reading both sides, I remain unchanged in my opinion . . . they had the right to put up the billboard; it is a crime to deface it; they were stupid for choosing that particular message.

    In the end I am not particularly happy about this because I don’t believe the nuances of the message are going to be examined in detail, and mostly it will cast atheist in a bad light.

    And maybe that’s the other message to take away from this. Just like that particular billboard was not approved by all atheists, and certainly not all atheist agree with it having been put up, those other billboards do not represent a unified view held by all religious people.

    At best, in my opinion, both serve only one purpose. To readily identify the less-than-sharp tools among us. I will defend their right to voice their opinions, but consider the second part of that sentence (. . . no matter how stupid) very apropos.

    • I’m ambivalent about the ultimate success of this billboard, but I don’t regret it. Only time will tell. I think it’s pointless to dwell on it. We risk missing the forest for the trees if we do.

      To expect that atheists will get it right every time is to expect too much from the get-go. This is just one small incremental attempt to get the message out there. Some will work; some won’t. We learn from mistakes. But we never, ever should stop trying. Just keep plugging at it. If at first you don’t succeed…

      I tried in the OP to move beyond the success or failure of this one billboard, to see that no matter what the approach is of any one individual attempt, every approach, no matter how unsuccessful, is just as valid as the most successful ones.

      • Try rephrasing that.

        “To expect that white people will get racial issues right every time is to expect too much from the get-go.”

        Still endorse that kind of excuse-making? Yes, people make mistakes. But when they make mistakes on gravely important issues like this, it is necessary to criticize the mistake.

        AA had a chance to reach out respectfully to this black neighborhood. AA totally blew it. Don’t make excuses for them. Their screw-ups will reflect badly on all of us for years to come. Demand that they don’t do it again, because it’s all of us who are going to pay for their mistakes.

    • And sometimes people misread the use of the word niggardly. Should the message and the vocabulary be dumbed down? Sure it’s a complex message, but it’s a complex problem. Ultimately, I think atheists win whenever one of these billboards gets vandalized. If religious people can’t even stand the idea that atheists are here and will no longer hide in the metaphorical closet, we’ve already won. Frankly, the billboard was made better by the vandals, but I suspect the resulting message would go over many people’s heads.

  3. They basically bit off more than they could chew. Racism alone is already a dicey subject, throwing Atheism on top of it is too much. Very easy to get sidetracked from the true message.. especially while cruising at 50+ mph

  4. Jewish OT law says that taking others captive (such as those shown in the picture) is punishable by death. Paul writes (in Philemon) of freeing a slave, Onesimus, and making him a brother. If American Atheists want to spend thousands of dollars advertising out of context scripture, and demonstrating they don’t even know when the bronze age is, that’s their choice.

    • Jewish law may have frowned upon taking fellow Jews as slaves, but enslaving others was perfectly ok. In fact, you could keep a fellow Jew IF you had his wife and kids as slaves already and he agreed to be your slave. Then you drove a spike through his ear or something. (Exodus 21:2-6) Exodus goes on to give rules for selling your daughters into slavery, btw.

  5. I largely agree with your post, though I do think this billboard was a good idea that was really badly executed right from the design of the sign down to its placement.

    I watched on YouTube a news piece about this billboard and learnt that they’d placed it were they did, in a predominantly black neighbourhood, because that’s where they got the best price. This is not good marketing.

    It suggests that American Atheists don’t know how to tailor their message to suit the audience and it says they don’t really care about getting their message across in the most effective way possible. If they’re going to be effective they really need to be as good at this kind of thing as their opposition.

    Of course, even really innocuous atheist signs get trashed, I know :-/

  6. The billboard was awful in its design, not in it’s message. I agree with PZ, they need to invest in quality designers. They probably should hire an advertising firm and work out an entire marketing and branding strategy instead of these ad hoc ads.

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  8. If you don’t have a little line at the bottom of that billboard advertising who put the billboard up, you could easily assume that it was put up by the KKK or the White Aryan Nation. The message is only clear when you see who put it up, which alone to me suggests a major design flaw given the most conspicuous features of the billboard.. When you’re treading on race relations, let alone slavery, in the USA, you’re taking a BIG risk being that provocative. The racial overtones drown out everything else.

  9. Suppose that same image had been used on a Christian billboard promoting the payment of reparations to the descendants of the slaves. Would there have been any outcry???

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