Those American Atheists Billboards

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.”

Mormonism: God is a space alien; baptizes dead people; big money, big bigotry. Atheism: Simply reasonable.

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.

Christianity: sadistic god; useless savior; 30,000+ versions of "truth"; promotes hate, calls it love. Atheism: simply reasonable.

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.

Those American Atheists Billboards
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17 thoughts on “Those American Atheists Billboards

  1. 1

    My objection to the billboards isn’t that they’re strident or in your face or any of that stuff. My problem with them is they’re:

    1. Ugly.

    b. Cluttered.

    iii. Unreadable for someone driving past at 60 or even 25 miles an hour. “What did that billboard say?” “Something about the Mormons.” “Damn, you’d think the LDS church would have enough money to hire a competent graphic designer.”

    I realize Silverman thinks he’s being ever so edgy and militant, but what he’s telling me is he doesn’t have a clue about how a billboard should be laid out. So why should I join an organization whose advertising is quite obviously incompetent? AA is likely to be incompetent in other ways as well.

  2. 3

    Surely it does not matter what is said or how bad the graphic design is? Given what I read about the ‘gasps’ from audiences in red states in the US when watching ParaNormans ‘gay scene’ I would think just inducing cognitive dissonance is enough. There is something to be said for just showing that atheists are not in hiding.

  3. 4

    I agree the billboards help “normalize” your average atheist ( sorry gang, quotation marks intended there, but annoying to use on an iPad). As a Christian, I don’t see them any more offensive than the “this is God..” billboards. Both are meant to be amusing. Sad that there was enough pushback the atheist ones came down – freedom of speech is not something to be handled lightly. Much worse is the death threats issue, of course. That is sickening and inexcusable, and I do hope those who made the threats are found and punished. That isn’t the kind of freedom of speech that deserves any protection.

    As usual, great post – hope you’ve been having a great time!

  4. 6

    I do wish there was a better option in the face of the threats other than simply taking down the billboards, but I’m not sure what it is. If it were up to me, (which it is certainly not) I’d go with something along the lines of replacing the billboard with “Because we got death threats from Christians over our last billboard. You can read some at” and publish some of them the same way PZ did after the cracker thing.

    Given that the bus adds with “Atheism” and a couple group websites was “too controversial” is there anything we can put up in public that won’t get taken down shortly because of wannabe murderers for jeebus?

  5. 7

    I find it amusing that the people that put up in-your-face Where Are you Going to Spend Eternity – Heaven or HELL? billboards would find these confrontational. I guess telling someone you’re not alone is more confrontational than telling someone if you don’t think like me, you’re going to burn forever.

    I think, by the way, that many believers billboards are not about saying “you’re not alone”. They are, in fact, about conversion. The messages are often threatening, frequently cajoling, and clearly directed at people who aren’t members of the denomination of choice. I also think that’s why believers often assume our billboards are meant to convert – because theirs are.

    As for being confrontational, it seems the real problem is the word “atheists”, not the words “you know it’s a myth”. There was one that was targeted for removal in Texas that just said that people can be good without god. That’s not truly confrontational, it’s just saying, hey, we’re hear and we’re not going to kill you just because we don’t believe in some sky friend. So confrontational is a red herring.

    I think we should make a deal with them. They don’t litter the highway with giant billboard pictures of Jesus and/or dead fetuses, and we won’t put up pictures of Jesus on toast or blue skies with clouds.

  6. 8

    An “in your face” ad gets press and that multiplies its value. They also seem to be putting them where people will see them day after day going to or from work so if they are interested, people can slow down and read the entirety.

  7. 9

    @iknclast: Don’t you understand that the people who put up the “Heaven or Hell” billboards have your best interests at heart? They only want to save you from eternal perdition. The atheists, on the other hand, are controlled (or at least inspired) by Satan to put up their billboards in order to attack the poor persecuted faithful Christians and supply souls to fuel the fires of Hell.

    Seriously though, it’s not so much committed Christians that are the problem – they’ll just pat themselves on the back for being “persecuted”. It’s the people who are not particularly religious themselves (may even be atheists) but nonetheless still think that religion is an important force for good in society.

  8. 10

    Of course, the fact that they are so confrontational makes it even more problematic that they are (as so many have pointed out) questionably designed. A confrontational message delivered awkwardly really tends to go CLUNK.

    In any case, though, Stephanie’s major point remains: These billboards serve a purpose, a purpose that would not be as well-served if they were less confrontational. The mix of confrontationalism and poor design/planning probably weakens their effectiveness, but it doesn’t turn them from a positive into a negative or anything.

    Some of the AA billboards are so strident I’m not even sure I completely agree with the literal message, never mind whether I think the presentation is maximally effective. And so? It’s good somebody is out there saying this stuff, making sure that it is okay to say this stuff. Even when they go farther than I would, good on them!

  9. rcs

    I agree that the billboards are a way to bring attention to the organization, that they are ugly and cluttered, and that eventually they will help to normalize atheism.

    That being said, I detest all billboards and I wish every single one everywhere would disappear forever.

  10. 14

    @grumpy rcs:

    I think that I shall never see
    A billboard lovely as a tree.
    Indeed, unless the billboards fall
    I’ll never see a tree at all.

    –Ogden Nash

    As for the billboards, I agree that they are not very well designed, but I don’t think that that significantly diminishes the message for either side.

  11. 15

    These billbords should be placed where rush-hour traffic grinds to a halt and slowly creeps forward. Give the crazed(Emotionally and intellectually challenged) christian time to really boil over and start bumper-cars. Those mindless trolls are out there and need to be virtually stuck with a hat pin and made crazy.

  12. 16

    Meh. I’m a little skeptical about Dave’s claims regarding what the billboards are or are not trying to achieve. He seems to shift his justifications for putting them up whenever he receives any pushback. He was quite clear, for instance, that the “Scam” billboards you mention we’re intended to reach religious people. Even if we accept that these are targeted at atheists, we can legitimately ask “is this the best way to do it?” I think these are quite a lot better than the scam new in that regard. But boy are they ugly.

  13. 17

    I want to echo some of the design concerns, although, they are better than AA’s last offerings. Looking at these, I couldn’t quite figure out what was bugging me about them, beyond design. I think it is the way they fail to say what they do stand for, which gave me ideas for A+ billboards. They aren’t all good ideas, but maybe someone here can come up with something better.

    – two clasped male hands with wedding bands: “Hellfire? Nope. – Atheism+”

    – in Australian, with a bride: “Promise to submit? No way. – Atheism+”

    – in U.S., a hand holding a driver’s license: “Voter restrictions? Completely inappropriate. – Atheism+”

    – just for Jen, a female torso in a tank top “Responsible for earthquakes? Absurd. – Atheism+”

    got to get back to work for a bit…

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