Why Do Atheists Have to Advertise?

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.”

Atheist ad campaigns are everywhere. Around the U.S. and around the world, atheist organizations have been buying space on billboards, buses, TV and more, with messages ranging from the mild-mannered “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” to the in-your-face “You know it’s a myth.” The current “Living Without Religion” campaign from the Center for Inquiry, letting the world know that “You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live” — is only the latest in a series of advertising blitzes: from American Atheists, the Coalition of Reason, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and many other organizations. Even local student atheist groups have been getting into the act, using buses in their college towns to spread the good news about atheism.

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?

Which Atheists?

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?”

Some atheist ad campaigns, for instance, are purely about visibility. The sole message behind them: “Atheists exist.” The folks behind these campaigns know that visibility is key to acceptance of atheists — just like it’s key to acceptance of LGBT people. Simply getting people familiar with atheists, and getting them comfortable with the concept of atheism, goes a long way to countering anti-atheist prejudice and hostility. What’s more, the folks behind these campaigns know that plenty of non-believers feel isolated — cut off from family and friends if they’re open about their atheism, hiding in secrecy and silence if they’re not — and they want these people know that they aren’t alone. It’s like the annual Coming Out Day campaign for LGBT people.

Good without god
Other of these ad campaigns are about information. They’re there to counter myths about atheists. They’re not just telling you, “Atheists exist” — they’re telling you, “Atheists exist, and are good, happy people.” Misinformation and bigotry against atheists abound, and many atheist ad campaigns — including the current “Living Without Religion” one from the Center for Inquiry — are aimed at countering this misinformation. They’re aimed at letting the world know that, contrary to popular opinion, atheists have morality, meaning, joy, and hope in our lives… just as much as religious believers. It’s like a public service information campaign, letting you know that, contrary to popular opinion, HIV is a treatable illness/ Arab Americans are your peaceful hard-working neighbors/ the library is open late on Thursdays.

Join the club
Still other campaigns are trying to gain new members for their atheist groups. They aren’t necessarily trying to persuade anyone out of religion… but they know that there are non-believers in their communities, people who feel isolated, people who may even think they’re the only ones who think they way they do. And they want those folks to know that atheist organizations are available: to provide community, to provide support, to provide education and entertainment, to simply provide reinforcement for the idea that they aren’t crazy or immoral for thinking the way they do. Like a softball team flyering for new players… or the AARP advertising for new members, and letting you know about the wonderful programs they have available for people over 50.

Theres probably no god
And still others are, in fact, actively trying to change people’s minds about religion. They’re trying to persuade people that atheism is, you know, correct: that there is no God, and people should stop believing… or, at the very least, consider the possibility that their beliefs might be mistaken. Or they’re trying to persuade people to respect the separation of church and state, even if they believe in God. Like Pepsi trying to persuade you to buy their products instead of Coke’s… or Marriage Equality trying to get you to vote against Prop 8.

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?

Probably no cod
If it’s okay for Democrats to run ads saying, “Vote Democratic”? If it’s okay for the Boston Red Sox to run ads saying, “Go Sox”? If it’s okay for the Red Hot Organization to run ads saying, “Safe sex is hot sex”? If it’s okay for Greenpeace to run ads saying (seriously) “There’s probably no cod, now let’s stop overfishing & think of the future”? Then why on Earth is it not okay for the Center for Inquiry to run ads saying, “You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live”? Or even for American Atheists to run ads saying, “You know it’s a myth”?

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?

And in fact, when you look at the ugly responses that atheist ad campaigns typically get, the need for them becomes even more obvious. Religious believers have called the ad campaigns “aggressive,” “hateful,” “offensive,” “a disgrace,” “political correctness gone amok,” “terrible,” “disturbing,” and “dangerous.” They’ve said that they “have had their sensibilities assaulted” by the ads, that their beliefs were being “attacked” and “vandalized” by them. They’ve suggested that someone “accidentally burn” the billboards. They’ve equated atheist advertisers with Fred Phelps. And these responses are hardly isolated: they’re very much in line with general American sentiments about atheists, which view us as the most disliked and distrusted minority in America.

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.

Don’t get me wrong. I have serious objections to many of the religious evangelists’ methods. I object to their use of fear-mongering as a form of persuasion; to their offering of false hope; to the way they present unsubstantiated opinion as authoritative fact. I object to their arrogant use of personal experience as the keystone of their case, with little or no understanding of the fallibility of the human mind. I object to their dismissal and even contempt of the most fundamental notions of evidence and reason. I object to their use of social pressure and even shunning to enforce complicity and silence dissent within their ranks. I object to their knocking on people’s doors at eight in the morning on a Saturday.

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.

No religion
And I’m not afraid of them. I think the case for atheism is better than the case for religion… by several orders of magnitude. I think that, when stripped of the fear-mongering and social pressure and unsubstantiated opinion and so on, religion falls apart almost laughably fast. I think that religion is a house of cards built inside a fortress, and when the fortress of excuses and diversions and non-arguments gets breached, the actual case for religion is so flimsy it’s almost pathetic. I think atheism is correct; I think the case for atheism is winning, and will continue to win… and I’m not afraid of religious believers making their case.

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.

Why Do Atheists Have to Advertise?

13 thoughts on “Why Do Atheists Have to Advertise?

  1. Jen

    I was directed to your blog some months ago and have found much comfort, education and support in your outspoken writings, thank you very much!
    I found myself in the middle of an online discussion about religion and atheists. When I asked the woman why she was so angry towards me and why she seemed so afraid of my non belief in her god, her response was because atheists were responsible for all the evil in the world. I replied that that was false, and since her god is on her side, she shouldn’t be afraid of anyone, that she had no reason to be angry or feel threatened, that we’re not trying to take away her belief. Her response was “I’ll pray for you and I feel sorry for you”.
    I come from a Christian background & recently ‘came out’ as an atheist after years of debriefing myself hiding my belief. The backlash from many has been very hostile, hurtful even. I found out who my true friends and it turned out, I had quite a few who supported me, believers and non believers.

  2. 2

    Nice article.
    As a non-Christian religious person I was among those who didn’t get why atheists felt they needed to advertise. Now I feel I have a better understanding over where it’s coming form.

  3. 3

    Personally I am christian (lets get that out the way), but otherwise I completely agree with you (except for the whole atheism thing obviously). I think it shows a deep level of insecurity to resort to bullying tactics or a win by default by eliminating your competition to get your view across. If I think what I believe is correct then I should allow it to stand trial and be man enough to accept the outcome. However, I do disagree with the way you portray atheists, there is bullying on both sides, faults that run in both camps. You can’t deny this.

  4. 4

    “Imagine no religion.”
    When I imagine no religion… I imagine a world that is a much better place with no war and everyone gets along as religion is the key component to creating all wars on our planet between human beings! Animals do not have war, they have no religion!

  5. 5

    I love the atheist advertisements. I doubt many people have actually been converted by a billboard (and if they were, how weak was their conviction anyhow?) but I love the idea of reaching out and saying “You are not alone” to those of us who doubt.
    Toward the end of high school I felt like I was the only person on earth that didn’t believe in god. Thanks to wonderful blogs like Greta’s, the FriendlyAtheist, UnreasonableFaith, and Pharyngula I have learned that there are like minded people in the world and this brings me comfort.
    Many atheists, myself included, find comfort in the fact that we have but 1 life to live so we better make it count. That being said, every living creature on this earth dies alone, and it is nice that we don’t have to live alone.

  6. 6

    Thanks again for an enlightening, in the educational sense, article, and for defending as always the right of non-believers of all ilks to freedom of speech and assembly. I include assembly because for any group to assemble its constituent members must know that there is a group and then must know how to contact that group.
    I recently attended a membership meeting of Seattle Atheists and there were some members who still adhered to the idea that we needed to work quietly in the background and not rock the boat by continuing to sponsor an add campaign. But the moderator pointed out that previous word of mouth or lecture series events aimed at increasing both membership and awareness garnered sparse results, whereas membership almost doubled after the adds began to appear.
    I believe that religion is dangerous, evinced by suicide bombers, anti-abortion murderers, and groups pushing to have their favorite mythologies made into the law of the land. We need to vocally defend our freedoms and in many cases our lives from these dangerous groups.
    I also realize that not all, or even most religious, fall into those fanatical categories, and I would never advocate restricting the freedom of any individual from believing and participating in whatever form of religion, or lack thereof, that they choose. I only want to ensure that everyone has that same right.

  7. 7

    Another triumph for Greta. But on a topic that’s slightly less old-news, I think that Greenpeace billboard is hilarious. It’s also an indication that, in that community at least, the “There’s Probably No God” ad campaign appears to have been a big success. The public-visibility motive that Greta describes is a big reason that that one exists, and the fact that Greenpeace considered “There’s Probably No [ ]od,” along with its visual style, as something worth parodying indicates that they think it connected with the public.
    All that would be true even if the Greenpeace billboard were intended to mock the humanist one. But I don’t even see that; it looks like a sympathetic parody. Big win for the humanists.

  8. 8

    The thing about the idea of Hell is that there is nothing like it when it comes to fearmongering; there can’t possibly be. We don’t have a parallel where “Christians aaaand atheists” threaten people equally, at least not when it comes to metaphysical intimidation. Almost by definition, Hell is the worst threat one can make.
    I think I know why Hell isn’t thought of as a threat: Because (almost) every Christian who believes in Hell thinks that it is either obviously just, or that its terribleness is deeply exaggerated.

  9. 9

    there is bullying on both sides, faults that run in both camps. You can’t deny this
    Christians routinely threaten young children with eternal torture if they ever even consider opposing viewpoints.
    Sure, not all christians do this, but it’s common enough to be uncontroversial.
    Religions deliberately cripple the mental faculties of impressionable children, resulting in emotionally and intellectually stunted adults who won’t question the authorities.
    This happens even by such measures (normally considered harmless) as instilling a respect for the priesthood or for “faith”; the dumbest idea anyone ever invented and, incidentally, the foundation of all religion.
    There may indeed be some individual atheists who are bullies, but to pretend that this could even remotely be considered in the same league as the institutionalized, premeditated emotional abuse of children that organized religion stands for is outright dishonest.
    Mote vs. plank, dude.

  10. 10

    Not all religions are Christian. And not all Christians emphasize sin and damnation, as Lyke X pointed out.
    The institutional abuses do happen, and I wish they didn’t. My religious tradition generally has a pretty good reputation, but we’ve had insitutional abuses as well. I don’t know of any children being involved because as far as i know, you have to commit to my faith as an adult, but just because I don’t know about it doesn’t mean it’s never happened.
    I hate to sound like Concern Troll, but this attitude sets off warning bells for me:
    “There may indeed be some individual atheists who are bullies, but to pretend that this could even remotely be considered in the same league as the institutionalized, premeditated emotional abuse of children that organized religion stands for is outright dishonest.”
    It’s very easy to use “well, we aren’t as bad as group x” to avoid looking at our own problems. Just because something ‘isn’t in the same league’ doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful.
    If anything, the best time to tackle these problems is when they are small, sort of nip them in the bud. By doing that, the atheist community has a real opportunity to head off at the pass problems that have dogged us in religious groups for a long time.
    The danger of institutional abuses that I’ve seen is they start off small and creep up on you. Instead of the movement being around to serve people, it slowly turns into people serving the movement. Nobody is necessarily setting out to do bad things, but slowly you lose your perspective or decide that the mission is important enough that the ends justify the means, and suddenly you find yourself looking back and asking yourself ‘how did we let things get so far off course?’

  11. 11

    Excellent! I recently went through something similar when a few friends chastised me for “proselytizing” atheism (by linking to a video of humanistic quotes). When I queried, I was told we are the mirror image of fanatical theists, running around shoving our point of view down everyone’s throats. And I was being told this by other atheists! Thank you, Greta.

  12. 12

    It’s very easy to use “well, we aren’t as bad as group x” to avoid looking at our own problems.
    Indeed, which is exactly why I objected to Couch’s focus on atheist bullying, given how big a problem it is with christian traditions.
    I’ll also point out that atheism has a built-in protection against such problem in that we do not have revered authorities, unquestionable dogmas, nor divinely inspired institutions.
    If an atheist fucks up, I have every confidence that other atheists will step in and cry foul. I know I will.

  13. 13

    Just because something ‘isn’t in the same league’ doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful.

    I think a similar comparison to “Well, atheists have bullies, too!” might be when an American white person complains about individuals who are racial minorities who choose to make disparaging generalizations about white people. Sure, it’s probably uncomfortable for the white person to listen to, but feeling uncomfortable during an isolated moment is usually the worst that person has to deal with, whereas the minority individuals in question probably deal with institutionalized racism at the hands of white people on a regular basis (even though it may be that not all white people are racist, the majority of racial prejudice is from white people and it’s white people who are currently a “powerful” majority). So when a white person complains about the “racism” they experience from racial minorities — especially when it’s as a defensive response to comments about white racism — it kind of comes off as complaints from white privilege, rather than from a sense of justice.
    Much like white people, who are a powerful majority, don’t have their lives drastically affected by the “racism” from racial minorities, religious people don’t have much to worry about from “bullying” by atheists, and for the same reason — especially since the “bullying” is usually little more than protecting the rights of others, or daring to question and/or disagree with a person’s beliefs.
    The isolated moments where atheists act to pester religious people absolutely pale in comparison to the oppression and harm at the hands of religious people (often toward other religious people, even). In this case, “We aren’t as bad as Group X” really is an appropriate response.
    Of course, this is ignoring that “atheist bullies” is just as meaningless a notion as “bullies who disbelieve in Santa”, since there are no tenets or dogmas in atheism that encourage people to bully others, much like disbelieving in Santa has no ability to tell people what to do, either. Though there are plenty of religious tenets that actively encourage people to commit harm, and many people can honestly claim their religious beliefs as justification for them. Nowadays, the easiest and surest way to get away with something reprehensible is to claim that it’s your religious belief, and to cry discrimination if it’s questioned.

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