Massimo Pigliucci has a post about the American Atheists billboard campaign and the utility of what Dave Silverman calls the “firebrand” approach to fighting religion.
In this essay I will first explain why I object to “firebrand” atheism and on what principled (i.e., before evidence) grounds. I will then look at David’s data and argue that it doesn’t show what he thinks it does, and why even if it did this would still not settle the matter. I will then end with some constructive suggestions for atheist activism more generally.
Why firebrand atheism is a bad idea
American Atheists’ billboards have carried messages the likes of “You know it’s a myth… and you have a choice,” “What myths do you see?,” “Christianity? Sadistic God; useless Savior; 30,000+ versions of ‘truth’; promotes hate, calls it ‘love’” (I know, this is a mouthful…); “You know they are all scams”; “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody”; and this year’s entry, featuring a cute kid and the words “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I’m too old for fairy tales.”
I have one thought here before even reading most of Massimo’s post. That thought is that billboards are like tweets, and that deliberately “provocative” (or firebrand) tweets can backfire in ways that we have seen many many many times over the past few years as Twitter’s ubiquity has become ever more so. In short, I have learned to loathe “provocative” tweets, and to think that they just don’t work. Maybe that’s actually an overgeneralization, and they can work, but it takes a lot of skill. Billboards are even more so than tweets, because there is no Reply button on a billboard. The AA billboards have always made me feel a bit twitchy, because they oversimplify, and oversimplification doesn’t seem all that useful. (T shirts come to mind here, too.)
The reason I find this approach objectionable is precisely the reason David pushes it: it is in-your-face, belittling religious believers by telling them in huge font that they built their lives around myths and lies, and that they worship morally reprehensible charismatic figures. The ads paint religion with one broad brush, implying, or outright stating, that it is fundamentally stupid and evil.
Well, I think it’s all right to argue that, and that it is at least a big part of the truth, but I don’t think it’s a great idea to say it in ten or twenty words on a billboard. I think you need many more words, and a less take-it-or-leave-it medium.
The first problem with all this is that the older I get the less I think that being offensive on purpose gets you anywhere.
Now that I agree with.
I think being provocative can get you somewhere, if you’re a skilled provocateur (which few people are). But offensive on purpose? Not really…although I suppose I can think of some pieties that do need puncturing, for the public good, and the pious believers will inevitably see the puncturing as offensive even if we consider it merely provocative. Irregular verbs or adjectival phrases again: I’m provocative, they’re offensive.
Now I’ll read the rest of Massimo’s post.