When the most recent set of American Atheists billboards came down under threat* from (presumably) believers, it restarted the complaints. “Too strident”, some say, including many atheists. “Those are never going to change anyone’s mind.”
At the American Atheists convention in Saint Paul a couple of weeks ago, Dave Silverman let us all in on a little secret. Those billboards aren’t there to change anyone’s mind. For that matter, that information has never been a secret.
No one at American Atheists has ever expected that a believer would look at a sign saying, “You know it’s a myth”, and say, “Oh. Huh. I guess I do. I guess that makes me an atheist.” It’s not going to happen. In fact, I feel pretty comfortable asserting that the kind of message that can fit on a billboard is never going to be a conversion moment for someone who is religious. That isn’t what billboard slogans can do.
So what’s the point of American Atheists billboards? They do the same thing plenty of other atheist media does. They tell nonbelievers that they are not alone. They tell nonbelievers that there is a group of people who think the same things the nonbelievers do, who really do already know religion is a myth, who really do feel the whole thing is a bit silly.
But why are they as obnoxious as some of them are? Well, part of that is just representing American Atheists honestly. This isn’t a quiet, get-along-with-all organization. If you find that those ads appeal to you, there’s a good chance American Atheists will as well.
I asked Teresa MacBain how well the billboards do at this as I was preparing this post. She doesn’t have numbers comparing new memberships signed up for during a billboard campaign to other times or comparing regions where billboards are versus where they aren’t during a campaign, although for reasons I’ll go into shortly, I’m not sure such comparisons will be helpful.
What she does have, however, even during her short tenure with American Atheists, are a number of people who have said they joined American Atheists after finding out about the organization through the billboards. Those are converts, though not in the classical sense. They are atheists converted to movement atheists, which, if you’ve heard Dave Silverman talk, you will know is one of his major goals. He wants us active and politically willing. The billboards are accomplishing that.
In addition to sorting out American Atheists’ target market, the stridency of the billboards provides an amplification factor. Confrontational atheists are still news, which means that simply by being true to themselves, American Atheists can spread their message well beyond the geographic ranges and the time periods they can afford to pay for.
Finally, there’s the fact that they’re not objectively all that obnoxious. What they are instead are messages that do not reflect or cater to the majority viewpoint of our culture.
We almost never see that kind of message. The reason we rarely see it is that it is punished. That’s just how the majority maintains its own.
In this case, the message is labeled as antisocial, as conflict-inducing, as mean. That makes the people who created the message fair game for punishment, despite the fact that they are doing something that is widely lauded when the religious do it. What are the American Atheists doing with these billboards but saying that their viewpoint is right? What are they doing but sending a public message to those who agree?
Oh, yes, they are saying that other people are wrong. In fact, they’re saying that a large number of people are wrong. But religious people do exactly the same thing, just as publicly, every day. The only difference is that they’re doing it from the minority.
Well, there is one other difference. When religious people stand up and declare that they’re right, other religious people–at least the other religious people who agree that they’re right–don’t complain that what they’re doing is a bad way to persuade others.
Believers don’t do to each other what we do. They don’t assume that believers are talking to us when they’re not. They don’t mistake messages of group cohesion for proseltyzation. We, on the other hand, have internalized the majority perspective and insist that it always be present, even if we have to inject it ourselves.
That’s something atheists should strongly consider before doing. Majority viewpoints and messages, by definition, have plenty of people to amplify them. We don’t. If we represent others’ perspectives, who will represent ours?
So, the next time you see one of those confrontational billboards, from American Atheists or anyone else, realize that it isn’t speaking to the majority. It’s speaking to you and to others who believe what you do. Don’t be so quick to look around for others who might be listening. They can take care of each other.
Stop to think about whether you agree instead. You might just discover that you do.
*A note about the threats: I have heard that some people are saying (though no one has done it to my face) that American Atheists should have gone ahead despite death threats. Don’t. do. that. If you, personally, want to live with the threat, put some damned billboards up yourself.
You don’t get to make that decision for any other sane, adult human being (which is why the billboards came down). You don’t get to tell them they should maybe die for your cause. You don’t even get to tell them they should live with an unlikely threat hanging over them. That is only ever a volunteer position, and if you’re not the one volunteering, shut up about it.