This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
“Are you good without God? Millions are.”
“Imagine no religion.”
“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
And whenever they do, they are almost guaranteed to garner resistance. Conservative religionists often object vehemently to the very concept of atheist advertising: in many cases trying to get the ad campaigns stopped altogether, and frequently even vandalizing the billboards. (In what has to be the irony of the year, some bus companies have stopped accepting all religious-themed ads, simply so they don’t have to accept ads from atheists.) And while moderate and progressive believers have never (to my knowledge) tried to stop these atheist ad campaigns from moving forward, many are still baffled and even offended by the ads. They see them as proselytizing, evangelical… and they don’t understand why people who are opposed to religion would be proselytizing and evangelical.
So why do atheists do this?
Why do atheists spend substantial amounts of money and resources to let the world know we exist, and to get our ideas across?
The first thing you have to remember is this: Not all atheist ads campaigns are created equal. Different atheist organizations create different ad campaigns, with different goals, and different strategies for achieving those goals. So when you ask, “Why do atheists have to advertise?”, the first question you have to answer is, “Which atheists?”
Of course, while these ad campaigns do have different goals, many of those goals dovetail and overlap. The “atheist visibility” folks may not be deliberately trying to persuade people out of religion, for instance… but since religion relies on social agreement to perpetuate itself, the mere act of saying “Atheists exist, not everyone believes in God” lays a small but powerful piece of dynamite under its foundations. The “deconversion” folks may be trying to get people to question their faith… but they’re also getting atheism on a lot more people’s radar. And while the “countering misinformation” campaigns aren’t necessarily designed to increase group membership, that’s often the effect.
And I would argue that every single one of these goals is valid.
After all — they’re valid for every other human endeavor.
When it comes to every other human idea/ affiliation/ activity/ organization, we think it’s perfectly reasonable for people to make themselves visible. To make information available. To let others who might be interested know that a group exists. To persuade others who don’t agree to change their minds. When it comes to politics, science, art, medicine, hobbies, philosophy, food, etc., we consider it not only acceptable, but positive and worthwhile, to share our ideas, and to get our points of view into the world, and to make our case when we really think we’re right.
Why should atheism be the exception?
Why should religion, alone among all other ideas, be entitled to a free ride… free from criticism and questioning and the uncomfortable reminder that not everyone in the world agrees with it?
Of course atheists need visibility — lots of people are bigoted about us. Of course we need to spread information about who we are — lots of people are ignorant about us. Of course we need to let other atheists know that support networks are available — lots of people are hateful about us. Of course we need to advocate for separation of church and state — lots of people want to make it actually illegal for us to advertise. The very hostility that the atheist ad campaigns generate proves why we need them so badly.
Sauce for the Goose?
Now, some people may think I’m being a hypocrite here. Some people think that religious evangelism sucks, whether it’s atheists or believers doing the “evangelizing” — and they think it’s hypocritical for atheists to cut slack for the atheist ad campaigns. “Sure, she doesn’t like religious proselytizing,” these folks are probably saying, “but she thinks it’s totally okay for atheists to try to swell their ranks and change people’s minds! How is that fair?”
But these people would be mistaken.
Because I don’t, in fact, have any objection to religious evangelists trying to change people’s minds.
But I do not have any objection whatsoever to the basic idea of religious believers trying to persuade people that they’re right. None. If they think they’re right, then that’s exactly what they ought to do. That’s how the marketplace of ideas works: people share their ideas, they make the case for their ideas, and (in theory, anyway) in the long run the best idea wins. In fact, if these believers were right, and our eternal afterlives in bliss or torment really were contingent on believing the right religion? Then not trying to persuade others to share the faith would be objectionable. Immoral, even. Callous to the point of being monstrous. I disagree passionately with their case, I disagree with how they typically make that case… but I have not even the slightest objection to the idea of them making it.
And the fact that so many believers are afraid of atheists making our case?
That just makes my point for me.
Atheists aren’t the ones trying to shut up religious believers. When religious ads go up on buses and billboards and TV, we roll our eyes and go about our business. We don’t agree with the advertisers… but we don’t try to stop them from advertising. Sure, we’re trying to get religious messages out of government — no Ten Commandments in City Halls, no creationism in public schools, no prayers to start city council meetings, etc. — but that’s a separation of church and state issue. (One that works for religious believers just as much as it does for atheists, I might point out.) When it comes to religious groups hawking their message on their own private property — or on other people’s private property they’ve rented with their own money — we may think it’s obnoxious or silly, but we totally respect their right to do it.
And the fact that so many believers don’t respect atheists’ right to hawk our message? It just shows how weak their message is — and how afraid they are of having it contradicted. As my wife Ingrid points out, “If you’re got God on your side, why are you so afraid of a billboard?”
If religionists thought their case for God was strong, they wouldn’t be trying to silence atheists.
And the fact that they are trying to silence atheists, all by itself, is Exhibit A for exactly why we need to keep advertising.