A Response

I wrote a response to this comment on my last post, but it got so long, I thought it would make better sense to make a separate post out of it.  SG suggested I read the comments on this post at Pharyngula, so I did.


I had gone over there after I posted this just to see what  PZ might be saying, and I also clicked over to Kylie’s post. I fully understand the different and varied critiques… at least I think I do (that’s obviously a subjective statement). They seem to boil down to a few points.

  1. The idea behind the billboard was good, but it was not very professional and/or it was poorly executed.
  2. The billboard failed to anticipate the reactions of its target audience, presumably African Americans because of where it was placed, and the reactions that came from the African American community.
  3. This reflects badly on atheists because we now look like unprofessional assholes and racists.

Here’s my thoughts on those points, which I would have left over at PZ’s, except given the level of discussion going on now, I’d just be attacked as a tone troll (the definition of which I had to look up. It seems to me that lobbing the accusation “tone troll” is simply an excuse to forgo politeness while demolishing one’s argument. YMMV). I notice that happens over there a lot, particularly on the latter half of the longer threads. Most of the good points were effectively and somewhat conclusively made in the beginning. Anyway…

1. I don’t think any atheist disagrees that the ideas and motivations behind the billboard were positive. So that leaves the execution. Frankly, I got it, and I thought it made a lot of sense. But my perception is subjective, and I’m not a graphic designer or in advertising, so I don’t think I’m qualified to say whether it’s objectively done well. I’ll defer to Philly on that (that’s his profession – he did my L’il Inquisitors graphic). One of the main objections is the graphic of a black man in some sort of slave contraption. It’s an old woodcut from the 1800s, so I understand it’s authentic. Many thought it wasn’t a smart move. Not sure why, (unless for blacks, any picture of a slave smacks of racism, which isn’t logical) because for most people, when they hear “slavery” they think “black slaves”. If you want to get someone’s attention quickly, (what most seem to argue is the point of a billboard, as opposed to say a 5 minute film,) you make the point that the Bible condones slavery using references people understand. Nothing says slavery to Americans like a black man in shackles.

Does that mean the billboard is pro slavery? Only an idiot would come to that conclusion, and I don’t think the billboard is targeting idiots. Could it have been done better? Sure. Does that make it completely invalid? Hell, no. We all learn from mistakes, and if any were made here, then hopefully much was learned. We’ll probably know better when we see the next billboard.

2. As for the actual target audience, I can tell you because I know the people behind this that the target audience was not the African-American population of Harrisburg – it was the legislators at the Capital who unanimously passed the resolution declaring the Year of the Bible. At a meeting with the lead Representative, he was given a copy of the proposed billboard ahead of time. It was put in that location, not because it was near the “hood” but because it was along a major artery into town, one passed by thousands on the way into the downtown business area and state offices (and hopefully many legislators) and (last but certainly not least) it was one of the cheapest locations to rent. Local atheist organizations are not funded by the Koch Brothers. If blacks see only an example of racism, because they completely miss the message, is that the fault of the message or the one that misunderstands it? Maybe both. But if the message is valid, and most of the critics seem to concede that, then it seems to me that those that miss the message should re-think their reaction, because it’s not a racist billboard. If anything, it makes the point that the Bible condones slavery, not racism. It’s about morality and the Bible, not race and the Bible.

Over at PZ’s they are arguing as if the message is racist on its face, an assumption at best, when it’s not, and that is one of the primary problems I have with all the criticism. The black spokesmen and women who came out against this did so claiming that it was racist, but if you listen to them closely, you notice that they do so because they are Christians, steeped in a religion they find very life affirming, and they take serious umbrage of any criticism of their holy book. So while they couch their criticism in terms of race, they really oppose the attack on their religion.  And that is the purpose of the billboard, which to me says it was a resounding success.The racism claim, is, in my opinion, a knee jerk reaction, a smokescreen, or both.

3. If it reflects badly on atheists, I can’t imagine it will hurt us too much, as we are already, in the minds of Christians, lower than pond scum. Frankly, we can do anything, including posting pictures of kittens under the title “Atheists love kittens” and we’ll be accused of loving them in a pot with a side dish of baby entrails. I think our reputation among theists is the least of our problems.

Someone in PZ’s comments mentioned that the main advantage of a confrontational attack is that it strips religion from the protection of privilege, so that it can be properly criticized with less confrontational arguments. Right now religion sets itself on a pedestal and claims it’s not even subject to criticism, because it’s a belief, and people are entitled to have any belief they want. That needs to be knocked back onto the playing field of competing beliefs and ideas first. The confrontational approach starts that process.
My post was not meant to be a discussion of the pros or cons of this billboard, but about the accommodationist vs. confrontationalist divide that seems to take up a lot of our time and energy. I used the billboard as an example, a jumping off point, because it was recent and personal. But I don’t really care if it was a success. That whole thread over at PZ’s seems to divide people exactly along that same divide I ranted about. My whole point was that there is room in the battle for both camps, they both have roles to fulfill, and we should stop bickering about the best way to do things and get on with doing them. Some will work, some won’t, but we can’t stop, because all approaches will work with, at least, some people.

5 thoughts on “A Response

  1. Black Christian opposition to the billboard sounds like playing the race card. It’s effectively a straw man argument to counter the actual, and uncomfortable truth for Christians, that slavery is condoned in their bible. I’m sure even those same whiteys who wore the Curious George Obama shirts and so forth are feigning shock and horror at the billboard because it’s an easy way to attack those damn atheists (enemy of my enemy, etc).

    Anyway yeah, I’m no accommodationist and no, I don’t see how anything we say or do could make believers change their opinions of us so no big loss. Even when we’re the victims of a Muslim attack and a judge putting sharia law above the constitution we garner no sympathy or positive reaction so accommodationists are as delusional as believers.

  2. There are a lot of better ways they could’ve made the point that the Bible is a lousy source of morality, both in terms of subject matter and graphic design. Christians tend to object to conflating the type of slavery in the Bible with what happened in the Americas. On the one hand I don’t see any coherent argument for it being morally acceptable to *own a human being*, but on the other hand it is true that the slavery of the Hebrews was substantially more humane than the treatment of African slaves in the Americas. Even so, that’s just one example of how I feel confident that we’re now morally superior to the ancient Hebrews who were running around the desert some 3,000 years ago, especially when it comes to having morals appropriate to functioning in a post-industrial democracy.

    On the other hand, if every news story I’ve ever read about atheists advertising is any indication, in terms of the public reaction from Christians, atheists seemingly have no incentive to be polite in their message. No matter how polite and meek an atheist’s message (“Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” or even just “Atheists.”), some Christians will still lose it over the idea of atheists even existing.

    • Some times you need to know when to shut the fuck up, and when you find yourself arguing one’s version of slavery was “more humane” than another’s than that’s probably a good time, FYI.

  3. Considering that there are a goodly number of Christians who would gladly kill an atheist if they had the chance, and any number of other Christians who would easily be convinced that the killers were committing a moral act, I favor any approach which has at least as much fervor as that of the Christians. They don’t much like it when their inferiors fight back with brutal vigor.

    And again, let me add, I regret that the Romans apparently ran out of lions and tigers and bears.

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