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Mar 21 2012

Atheists’ Existence Is “Controversial,” “Sparks Public Debate”

You really can’t get any clearer than this.

A bus company in Pennsylvania has rejected an atheist ad. I know. You’ve heard this story before. Moderately newsworthy, but unfortunately not that unusual.

This one’s different, though.

The content of the ad?

The word “Atheists.”

Plus, in smaller type, the names and URLs of the sponsoring organizations.

Period.



The transit company says they have a policy of not accepting ads “which could be deemed controversial or otherwise spark public debate.” And apparently, this ad falls into that category.

The word “atheists.” Not, “You know it’s a myth.” Not even, “You can be good without God.” No criticism about religion being mistaken; no assertion about the nature of atheist morality. A simple statement that we exist. This is controversial. This could spark public debate.

You can’t get any clearer than this. The mere fact that we exist is controversial. The mere fact that there are people who do not believe in God — not people trying to persuade believers out of religion, not people trying to get religion out of government, just people existing in the world and thinking to themselves, “I don’t believe in God” — this is controversial. This is a matter for public debate.

To give you an idea of what they don’t consider controversial: This same transit company has been running a bus ad saying, “God bless America.” Not a paid ad, either — a public service ad, at taxpayer expense. (I know, right? It’s like they’re trying to get sued.)

So there’s two things I want to say about this.

First: If there’s any doubt in your mind at all that bigotry against atheists is real — erase it. This is as blunt as it can get. This is a flat statement, from a public, taxpayer-paid utility, that saying our name in public will spark public debate. This is a flat statement — not from some blowhard on Fox News, not from some extreme right-wing fundie picketing a funeral, not from some nimrod in their parents’ basement writing venomous comments on the USA Today website, but from a public, taxpayer-paid utility — that it is controversial for us to even fucking exist.

And second:

If you think there is any possible way for atheists to organize, to create visibility, to create community, to even just come out of the closet, without angering or upsetting or offending people?

Get it out of your head right now.

I do not want to hear another goddamn word about framing, about how all atheists should be nice and sweet and diplomatic so religious believers can hear our message, about how if we’re too blunt or mocking or confrontational people will be offended and won’t listen to us.

You know what atheists have to do to avoid offending people?

NOT EXIST.

102 comments

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  1. 1
    'Tis Himself

    it is controversial for us to even fucking exist.

    And people wonder why we’re angry.

  2. 2
    RW Ahrens

    Add another one to your 99, Greta! An even 100! (On top of all those other thousand or so that didn’t make the cut into the book…)

  3. 3
    salo

    This times 1000! As you yourself have said, people who claim we should “be nicer and more understanding” or whatever aren’t trying to help our movement achieve our goals…they’re just trying to shut us up! Since whatever we do will end up being deemed controversial or offensive, then there is no reason to pull our punches just to spare someone’s feelings.

  4. 4
    Alyson Miers

    I shall be wearing sequined red devil horns at the Rally. Because they think we’re the devil, so why not?

  5. 5
    NewEnglandBob

    You know what atheists have to do to avoid offending people?

    NOT EXIST.

    …or become the significant minority that we are by getting those 15-25% of the population to recognize who they are and to become vocal.

  6. 6
    uzza

    NOT EXIST.

    Must you not exist so stridently?

  7. 7
    Rod Chlebek

    Thankyouverymuch!

  8. 8
    usagi

    In fairness, that’s the same deal gays get…

  9. 9
    Meirai

    @3: That seems like a bit of a generalization to me. I certainly won’t deny that a more outspoken strategy has its benefits, but that doesn’t stop me from preferring a less provocative strategy or believing that such a strategy has its own benefits.

    More generally, the impression I get from this post is that there’s a disconnect between the arguments we use (specifically how blunt or confrontational they are) and the level of offense we provoke in our opponents, and that this disconnect makes it pointless for us to even try to minimize offense by moderating tone.

    I agree with the former (seems kind of obvious with the story about the ad), but I don’t agree with the latter. I think we can get more out of our arguments if it’s very clear that our opponent’s offense is ridiculously unjustified, and I think that a less confrontational argument makes problems of this sort more obvious. Basically, while reducing the level of offense taken by our opponents would be nice, it’s not the only benefit we can get from less confrontational arguments.

    Of course, that doesn’t really say anything about or to the fundamentalists that come up with this “offense” in the first place, only to the moderates who might be watching. And it’s definitely true that sometimes it is best to just hit someone head on. So I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a place for both styles.

  10. 10
    grahammartinroyle

    @Meirai: I’m sorry but just how do atheists come up with a less confrontational argument than this, all it is is the word “Atheists”. It doesn’t say anything about them, good or bad. It just says that they exist. I seriously cannot think of anything less confrontational.

    If I remember it correctly, the whole idea behind this ad was to be as un-confrontational as possible because so many people (on the atheist side) were saying that atheist ads were confrontational. If this is deemed to be too harsh then there is no point in trying to be nice.

  11. 11
    JohnW

    usagi, #8:

    In fairness, that’s the same deal gays get…

    We’re here. We’re atheists. Get used to it.

    Seriously, we need to use the same tactics. Out and proud. No, we won’t convince everyone, but there are a lot fewer young homophobes than old homophobes.

  12. 12
    otrame

    you think there is any possible way for atheists to organize, to create visibility, to create community, to even just come out of the closet, without angering or upsetting or offending people?

    Not only QFT, but Shouted for Truth. The fact that we exist and that we say so out loud freaks many of them the fuck out. And yes, as someone above said, it is similar in some ways to the way people freaked out when gays started coming out of the closet. Unfortunately, we don’t have a nice rhyme like “We’re queer and we’re here”. “We don’t believe in any gods and we’re here” just can’t compete.

  13. 13
    Randomfactor

    Wonder what the reaction would be to an ad saying “God.”

    Since it’s such a controversial subject sparking public debate, and all.

  14. 14
    NewEnglandBob

    @11:

    Although there are fewer young homophobes, those that are homophobic now keep their opinions to themselves because society is no longer with them.

  15. 15
    Greta Christina

    So I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a place for both styles.

    Meirai @ #9: You know what? I totally agree with you. And so does every confrontationalist atheist I know.

    Nowhere in this post did I say that atheists should never be nice and sweet and diplomatic in their messaging. What I said was that I’m sick of being told that I always have to be. And I’m sick of being told that if all atheists are nice and sweet and diplomatic, we’ll avoid offending anyone and will be thus more effective. That has never been true in any social change movement — social change movements consistently do better when both diplomats are firebrands are heard from — and there’s no reason to think it will be true for ours.

  16. 16
    Erülóra Maikalambe

    Wonder what the reaction would be to an ad saying “God.”

    Since it’s such a controversial subject sparking public debate, and all.

    Imagine one that said “Allah.” Talk about sparking debate. Fox would be all over that.

  17. 17
    left0ver1under

    The only thing the religious want to hear from atheists is silence.

    Religion doesn’t offer solutions. Religion offers final solutions.

  18. 18
    Nemo

    Remember this?

    “It’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!”

    http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2008/04/rep-monique-dav.html

    So yeah.

  19. 19
    samsalerno

    Someone suggested the billboard “Atheists Exist.” Now if that billboard got denied I would fall over in disbelief. Although the just “Atheist” sign being denied is quite hard to believe all by itself.

  20. 20
    James Croft

    Agree that this is a terrible (and ridiculous) piece of discrimination, and I’m glad you’re highlighting it. And I share your anger as such blatant prejudice.

    However, I think you are conflating two issues unnecessarily if you say that because of this piece of discrimination that you “do not want to hear another goddamn word about framing, about how all atheists should be nice and sweet and diplomatic so religious believers can hear our message, about how if we’re too blunt or mocking or confrontational people will be offended and won’t listen to us.”

    You may well argue that, in this case, no ad referencing atheism at all would be allowed to go up (although the data doesn’t necessitate that conclusion – they may well have found it harder to deny to run an ad with a positive message that also referenced atheism). It does not follow from that realization, though, that where such ads are going to be put up we shouldn’t always consider the effect of our message on our audience and rule out certain strategies on the grounds of effectiveness. It’s a non-sequitur to dismiss discussions of framing, for instance, because in this one instance no ad about atheism whatsoever would pass these prejudice self-appointed censors.

  21. 21
    Greta Christina

    James Croft @ #20: I would be fine with a conversation about framing, if 90% of the time it weren’t used as an excuse to tell confrontational atheists to shut up.

  22. 22
    James Croft

    Greta Christina @ #21: Honest question – What constitutes “telling confrontational atheists to shut up”? It’s a serious question because I think that accusation is sometimes made as a way to shut less confrontational atheists (or atheists who are confrontational in a different way) out of the dialogue.

    Would you consider the following to be an instance of “telling confrontational atheists to shut up”?:

    “Research shows that billboards of type X are likely to increase distrust of atheists, pushing potentially persuadable audiences away from the desired goal of accepting atheists as equal members of society, and therefore we should prefer billboards of type Y.”

    How about this:

    “Statements of type A play on unacceptable stereotypes and demean certain groups of people by furthering such stereotypes, and therefore should, on moral grounds, never be made.”

    Are those examples of what you object to?

  23. 23
    reasonbeing

    It is a really sad state of affairs when the religious nutjobs get to say things like ‘The war against religious freedom”. Yet, atheists do not get to even acknowledge our own existence. It is complete Bullshit.

    I go back and forth on my blog between offensive and “properly framed”. I think that there is a time and place for both. When I am offensive, I do not really expect anyone who disagrees with me to be “moved” in any positive way. I also do not care. There are times when I am trying to get a message across to theists and find that a proper framing at least stands (an often very small) chance.

  24. 24
    Desert Son, OM

    Thank you for this post. A thousand times: thank you.

    Still learning,

    Robert

  25. 25
    horsehairbraider

    Christ of the Andes. Walking away from money because they do not want to “spark public debate”? What is wrong with sparking public debate?

    I know, I know. It might make someone think.

    I’m trying to imagine more “positive” ads. (Yeah, I realize that one is in no way negative.) How about “Atheists Love Kittens. And if you don’t publish this ad, you will make a little baby kitten sad.” Photo of sad kitten. :D

  26. 26
    Greta Christina

    James Croft @ #22; I don’t have a problem with people arguing, “This particular billboard/ article/ action/ is too confrontational, or is confrontational in a bad way, and here are the specific reasons why.” I do have a problem with people arguing, “Confrontationalism is always harmful and/or less effective than diplomacy, and as a matter of general policy all of us should always strive to be more diplomatic in all forms of activism.”

    And arguments that seem on the surface to be the former often turn out to be the latter. “This particular billboard/ article/ action/ is bad, and the specific reasons are that it’s confrontational, and confrontational = bad.”

  27. 27
    James Croft

    Oh, then I don’t disagree with your position – I just don’t think I often see people move from the former claim to the latter. I suppose a lot of this depends on one’s definition of “confrontational”, too, which would be an interesting discussion to have sometimes. Thanks for clarifying for me!

  28. 28
    karmakin

    @James Here’s the problem that I personally have with that. Without a proper frame of reference, without the scale dialed in, without an accurate guide, how are we going to tell what is offensive and what is not offensive. What I mean by this, is that as someone who generally is for not offending people, we have to be very careful to recognize when something is truly offensive and when it’s a privileged group playing off of said privilege, which should be fought at every turn.

    Because fighting privilege is the only way to end privilege.

    The general rule that I use, is that if something is more offensive than the 1st Commandment in context “Thou shalt have no God before me or you’re a bad no-good person”, then maybe we should tone it down a notch. Fortunately, most atheists come nowhere close to that line.

  29. 29
    karmakin

    And also what Greta said. Saying “Gnus are being mean and confrontational” is bad. Saying “Billboard X or Blog post Y is too confrontational is another”. The next step is then a debate on offensiveness based on the scale I mentioned in my last post.

  30. 30
    stanpolson

    Did the transit company say the ad was too controversial, or did some guy at the transit company say that?

    Also, what a dumb ad. It got exactly the response that it was crafted to achieve. We atheists love our martyrdom. At least an openly confrontational ad would’ve been honest instead of this passive aggressive “You hillbillies are so stupid your minds are blown just by the word ‘Atheist.’” idiocy.

    The fact that we are an oppressed minority is obvious. Something like 80% of Americans believe that we are going to be lit on fire forever and that that’s a good thing. I don’t advocate shying away from controversy, but can we at least spark a controversy that’s worth standing up for?

    Part of being a free thinking person is not having to salute every dumbass flag that somebody wants to wave in your name.

  31. 31
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Did the transit company say the ad was too controversial, or did some guy at the transit company say that?

    This is an irrelevant distinction.

  32. 32
    Poconoperson

    I am from the area mentioned in Ms. Christina’s post (Lackawanna county PA). From experience I can confirm that this is a deeply religious area and atheist is generally considered a dirty word here (to mine and others chagrin). I would bet that if the ad was put on the buses, the county commissioners wouldn’t hear the end of protests from the populace. This is quite unfortunate, though the culture of northeast Pennsylvania has shown to be very hostile towards the concept of free thought and resulting philosophies (atheism, agnosticism, etc.) Local media is under the thumbs of church leaders and their followers, so this story did not surprise me too much.

    Hope this helps add some perspective.

  33. 33
    stanpolson

    Azkyroth: The distinction is between a guy who needs to be fired and a company that needs to be sued.

  34. 34
    Jasper of Maine

    It reminds me of those people who insist that we ought to abandon the label “atheist” and go with something else.

    Why? So the baggage can migrate from label to label?

    If that’s going to be the case, we’re better off to use “atheist” as a label and own it.

    If people get offended at it, that just means there’s more work to do.

  35. 35
    Buffy

    The mere fact that we exist is controversial.

    Indeed. But we keep hearing about Christians being persecuted and “silenced”.

  36. 36
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    There’s always James Croft to remind us we’re Not Really Oppressed Because He Doesn’t Often See People Make Broad Swipes Against Atheists (TM).

    Oh, wait, what is that? You want to qualify what you said because I’ve badly mischaracterized it? You want to add nuance? You didn’t mean that strawman caricature I attributed to you?

    Then fucking stop “just asking questions” every time someone points out how routinely shit on atheists in the US are.

    Just stop.

    Could you–just once, you know, for the sake of fairness–give *us* the benefit of the doubt? Could you just believe us when we tell you it’s really this bad? Can we count on you—again, just once, you don’t have to do it forever, I promise—to have our backs just one time?

  37. 37
    James Croft

    Wow, Josh. That was truly very unpleasant and hurtful to read. I will say this to you one time – you do not get to control the dialogue around these issues, like an imperious brute trying to silence other opinions through lies and misdirections. I will ask the questions that seem important to me, in the way that I think is best, regardless of your attempt to shut me out, because I believe this movement is important. You need to learn to read what people actually write instead of responding to fantasy versions of your own making.

    I don’t take well to thugs and bullies – too much personal experience with them.

    Back the fuck off.

  38. 38
    Greta Christina

    Reminder to everyone — and this includes both James and Josh — that I expect a basic level of civility in this blog. Please dial back on the harsh personal rhetoric. Thanks.

  39. 39
    James Croft

    I feel appropriately chastised – my apologies to you both. Josh hit a nerve tonight.

  40. 40
    Bruce Gorton

    James Croft

    Lets put it this way: Lets say I write about the negative influence of religion on freedom of speech.

    I point out examples such as the false DMCA culture of YouTube Christians and Muslims, the US film publication board’s rules (Which were heavily influenced by the Catholic Church), blasphemy laws in Islamic countries, a recent judgement by an Indian judge calling for Facebook to be censored, the violent threats leveled against Jessica Ahlquist, Rhys Morgan being threatened with expulsion by his school, the almost inevitable religious affiliations of those who want porn outright banned etc…

    What is the reaction we will get? “You’re painting with too broad a brush! You’re just as the fundementalists!”

    And normally the exact same bunch saying that – are the exact same bunch who should be painted with that brush. When the UCL ASH was being censored over that Mohammed and Mo cartoon – it wasn’t by Islamic extremists, it was by so-called moderates.

    It is so damn pervasive that you don’t even notice half of it. You don’t even notice the fact that the Reason Rally only got two politicians willing to say atheists have the right to express their views.

    Something that should have been pretty damn obvious.

    You don’t even notice figures like Major Johnathan Dowty – who makes an online career of abusing his rank as an officer to abuse his less religious subordinates with zero consequences.

    Or cases like that Des Moines math teacher who got fired for being an atheist.

    You don’t even notice the huge chunk of Creationists who are Creationists because they believe actually accepting the evidence for evolution leads to atheism.

    This isn’t unusual, this isn’t different – it is simply so pervasive that you don’t even see it anymore. Like you can’t see the single snow crystal in a snow ball.

    Instead you end up noticing the “moderates” who proclaim in the face of this sort of event “You’re painting with too broad a brush! You’re just as bad as the fundementalists!”

  41. 41
    Bruce Gorton

    Mohammed and Mo cartoon

    Should be

    Jesus and Mo cartoon

  42. 42
    XtinaS

    You know, I’ve never thoroughly read through the Derailing for Dummies site?  And yet I figured they’d have something for “you’re just as bad as they are!”.

    http://www.derailingfordummies.com/#asbad

    If we do not respond with perfect grace and logic, then we’re just as bad as those who are systematically oppressing us.  Ding!

  43. 43
    Timberwoof

    There are many parallels between what atheists are experiencing from religionists and what gays experienced from … religionists. Atheists aren’t as big a threat on the Christian radar yet, so the rhetoric hasn’t been well-tuned … yet. Be prepared for the current religious fervor to increase and express itself in specifically anti-atheist legislation. Not just legislation to allow prayer in schools and require Goddist signs on public buildings, but legislation aimed squarely in our faces, like Colorado’s infamous Amendment 2 of 1992, which legalized discrimination against gay people. Recent court victories will not convince the Goddists to stop; they will just increase their intensity of belief. As written elsewhere, these attempts will make lawyers rich. They will also dial up the emotion with which the fervent Goddists react to atheists and try to make our lives hell.

    I’m of two minds on the tone thing. Tone matters: stridency shuts down some brains but it opens others. One winter Act-Up Colorado visited the home of Governor Roy Romer and sang some really nasty Christmas carols. He asked his campaign manager what that was all about; why are those people so angry? She said, “Roy, we’ve got to talk.” (According to Roy Romer, addressing members of the Denver gay community the weekend after Amemdment 2 was passed by voters.) As a result of that discussion he changed Colorado’s AIDS policy to one that worked and eventually supported gay people’s position against Amendment 2. (His name is on Romer v. Evans because he was Governor. He did not personally support the defense of the law; the Republican Attorney General did.) I think the combination of getting people’s attention with civil disobedience and holding it with reasonable discussion was more effective than either would have been alone.

    So when Goddidsts say stupid shit, call them on it. Explain rationally why it’s stupid. Ignore those who say that is inherently rude and go on speaking the truth.

    Hang on tight; it’s going to be a rough ride. But it gets better.

  44. 44
    sometimeszero

    I’m also from Notheast Pennsylvania and I echo that this area is bigoted and unforgiving when it comes to religious dissent of any kind. Walk down some streets in Wilkes-barre and you’ll see two churches on one block that were historically for two different immigrant groups. The people in this area are plagued with deeply ingrained stereotypes, sub-par schools, and low socioeconomic status—a good combination for creating prejudice and discrimination.

    As far as being confrontational goes, I think it’s a tactic that’s useful in some situations and harmful in others. The question isn’t about whether one should always be confrontational or not, but when we should be. The “Atheist.” billboard may be as confrontational as the residents of NEPA can handle, but in another area, the billboard may not do a damn thing.

    @22 I’m glad you asked this question, but I was satisfied with Greta’s response. Overall, I’m not sure how much the whole confrontationalist/nonconfrontationalist debate is even worth having anymore—and that seems to be the force of Greta’s original article. Take another example from this area: Justin Vacula got the ACLU involved in a case involving an unconstitutional holiday courthouse display. He seemed to genuinely enjoy provoking people and swam blithely in the death threats he received. Got it? Now consider Jessica Ahlquist, who did everything in a nonconfrontational, and even overly respectful, manner. She took the proverbial “high road,” and then horrifyingly, the “evil little thing” received more backlash and threats than Justin.

    The most important lesson to be learned from the “Atheist.” ad and from my two examples? Despite your level of confrontation with believers, there’s a good chance they will ALWAYS be offended. If offending them respectfully is the better way to make your case, then do it. If offending them confrontationally is the better way to make your case, then do it. But they’ll be pissed either way.

  45. 45
    eric

    stanpolson @30:

    Also, what a dumb ad. It got exactly the response that it was crafted to achieve.

    Here is the inspiration for the ad. No, they were not trying to be passive aggressive, and they did not craft it to achieve rejection. They were really trying to put together an inoffensive ad. Run a control group, if you will.

  46. 46
    jamessweet

    @stanpolson: Regarding the “distinction”, the group trying to run the ad appealed to the company, and they came back with the same answer. So yes, it’s the company saying it.

    As far as “we love our martyrdom” and that whole line of thinking… look, people argued that it was the content and tone of atheist billboards that made them controversial, not the fact that they were about atheism. Yes, this was a transparent attempt to demonstrate that those people were wrong. Exactly. What’s the fucking problem?! You may have realized that already, but many people didn’t, or wouldn’t admit it. Now there is proof.

    It’s kind of like if Greta said that “quibaberky” was a word, and I said no it isn’t, and she said yes it is, and so I looked it up in an online dictionary and posted the (empty) link — and then you come along and say, “Why did you post such a pointless link, everybody knows ‘quibaberky’ is not a word!”

  47. 47
    James Croft

    @Bruce Gorton: Not sure why your comment is directed at me – I wasn’t making any broad-brush comments, and I find them as annoying (when they are unwarranted) as you seem to. What I was seeking to question was how, in Greta’s view, can we have disagreements over communication strategy without falling into the trap of mischaracterizing each others’ arguments and not hearing each other. I think Greta’s reply is pretty much spot-on.

  48. 48
    iknklast

    I always thought the idea behind a non-confrontational billboard was good; it would help people to see what those of us in the Bible Belt have seen our whole lives.

    Example:
    Christian Friend: What denomination are you?
    Me: None.
    Christian Friend: So, what sort of god do you believe in?
    Me: I don’t believe in god.
    Christian Friend: Why are you bashing me?

    Many of us have been aware for a long time that our mere existence is too much for most. This conversation has happened repeatedly, and at one time, I thought, wow, my friends are pretty strange. Then I was visiting American Atheists website one day, and saw a nearly identical conversation in the comments. A week later, I was accused of bashing Christians online by simply existing as an atheist.

    This conversation above was frequently followed by “I’m so sorry you don’t have any joy in your life.”

    Who’s confrontational? I didn’t insist on knowing what someone else believed, and then reduce their life to a joyless existence simply on the basis of their answer (against all the evidence, too. None of my friends ever thought my life was joyless until they found out I didn’t believe in their god – or anyone elses).

  49. 49
    echidna

    Timberwoof:

    Atheists aren’t as big a threat [as gays] on the Christian radar yet,

    No, no, no, you have it backward. Secularism was such a threat to the church that heresy was punishable by death. That started the inquisition, which then devolved into witch-hunts. It has only been in relatively recent history that people in our society have dared admit that they are atheist. The lingering effect of the various inquisitions on Christians is that the very concept is unthinkable, and dangerous.

    In the US, even as recently as the McCarthy trials, godlessness was dangerous to admit to, and as Greta points out, atheism counts against you in child-custody disputes.

    Meanwhile, religion is considered a public benefit, and is therefore granted taxation relief. Secularism remains a threat to the religious institutions, as it has been for centuries, and no group of people are more secular than atheists.

  50. 50
    timberwoof

    Echidna, I get what you’re saying. However, I think that Christians perceive gays and “Darwinism” as bigger threats than atheists … and that this is about to change.

  51. 51
    Bruce Gorton

    James Croft

    Consider this:

    http://www.timeslive.co.za/scitech/2012/03/01/super-human-brain-technology-sparks-ethics-debate

    Scientists are debating whether we should make super-human brains, the religious are arguing whether gay people should be allowed to get married, or whether not having a cock is a serious empediment to women being able to preach.

    And the religious people are the ones getting listened to on ethical issues – because they aren’t spending more time worrying about offending the moderates than they are actually stating their views.

    That isn’t to say “Don’t be diplomatic” or “being nice is doing it wrong” – but rather there is no doing it right so we may as well do it as best we can. The constant navel gazing involved in the framing debate simply wastes time.

    There is no level at which the moderates will accept saying anything as anything other than strident and bullying and nasty.

    It will always be “You’re just as bad as the fundementalists” or “You’re being strident.”

    No matter what the issue, no matter how reasonable the complaint the moderates will always sneer about those “angry atheists”.

    In every civil rights movement in history it has always been thus – because people are lazy when the problem isn’t their own. Changing things is hard, so privilege remains until maintaining the status quo is harder.

    Personally I think making the moderates uncomfortable isn’t such a bad thing.

  52. 52
    Tonya

    People who think they can be without God are mistaken. We all need Jesus to have a fulfilling live. Read the Book “Heaven is for real” and your eyes shall be opened.

  53. 53
    Aliasalpha

    Tonya:
    Read the Book “Heaven is for real” and your eyes shall be opened.

    Okay lets have a squiz at the amazon description:

    A young boy emerges from life-saving surgery with remarkable stories of his visit to heaven.

    Heaven Is for Real is the true story of the four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor who during emergency surgery slips from consciousness and enters heaven. He survives and begins talking about being able to look down and see the doctor operating and his dad praying in the waiting room. The family didn’t know what to believe but soon the evidence was clear.

    Colton said he met his miscarried sister, whom no one had told him about, and his great grandfather who died 30 years before Colton was born, then shared impossible-to-know details about each. He describes the horse that only Jesus could ride, about how “reaaally big” God and his chair are, and how the Holy Spirit “shoots down power” from heaven to help us.

    Told by the father, but often in Colton’s own words, the disarmingly simple message is heaven is a real place, Jesus really loves children, and be ready, there is a coming last battle.

    Hmm, sounds like a stirring tale of confirmation bias riddled delusions by someone too young to reliably process their sensory inputs and who is easily led by thier parents, written by someone else with a vested interest in the version of the story he’s telling which is almost inevitably tweaked to make the story more exciting or more consistent (though why consistency would worry a theist I can’t imagine) and then sold.

    And thats assuming its not all a lie by someone trying to emotionally manipulate the audience with the story of a cute little boy prominently featured (in a really bad photo) on the cover who heroically nearly died but then didn’t and who remarkably articulated things that conveniently supported the pastor/writer’s combined worldview & business model.

    I take it from the ‘horse that only jesus could ride’ part that jesus himself was confused about that 1 donkey 2 donkey business and thought to himself “fuck it, I’m getting a horse!”

    Tell you what, buy me a copy and I’ll give it a read, I’ll even take notes & write a review.

  54. 54
    LadyBlack

    You know Tonya, the sentence “We all need Jesus to have a fulfilling life” makes not-so-confrontational atheists really, really confrontational.

  55. 55
    James Croft

    @Bruce Gorton: I understand the point you are making. I’m just not sure why you think I would disagree with it. Again, you haven’t addressed what I said in my post. My question was (and Greta has answered it very well) regarding the terms of criticism we ourselves should/can use regarding other atheists’ statements, not about how we should talk about religion. I agree that there can be many effective styles of communication (and I have written at great length about that myself).

    However, I do disagree (I think) when you say “there is no doing it right so we may as well do it as best we can.” I’m not precisely sure what you mean by this, but if there is a “best” way to reach out and change people’s minds, then there is such a thing as “doing it right” (there may be many such ways of “doing it right” and many of “doing it wrong”, but some approaches are still going to be better than others).

    My position is, and always has been, that we should use the vast resources we have at our disposal regarding effective communication to craft the most powerful message possible. There are literally scores of studies which we, as a movement, could read and harness for ourselves, and make a bigger difference. It’s the point-blank refusal of some to listen to (or even engage in discussion about) the evidence which frustrates me. But I’m not sure whether you disagree or not, because I find it hard to connect what you’ve written to what I said originally.

  56. 56
    Ophelia Benson

    James –

    I think your problem here is that you’re always turning up to try to manage atheism, and most people don’t really see why you’re the manager of atheism.

    It’s also the problem Chris Mooney kept having, which was that he dispensed sage advice on how to manage atheism better by communicating better, while in the very act of annoying a huge segment of his own readers.

    If you’re so good at managing and communication and framing, why do you so regularly irritate the people you’re trying to manage? Why do you so often find yourself puzzled that others are irritated with you? Doesn’t all this confusion and puzzlement and “I’m just not sure why you think I would disagree with it” indicate that you’re not all that good at communication yourself?

  57. 57
    Jasper of Maine

    @Tonya #52

    If I become Christian again, will I have telepathic powers like yours too?

  58. 58
    James Croft

    Ophelia – I often wonder if you’re right! Yes, I clearly need to do a better job communicating with certain parts of the atheist community. So, I take the rebuke, and I think a lot about how I post here to try to avoid the problem you mention. That’s why I was crystal clear in my posts here that I agree with the substantive point, and put that up-front in my responses.

    However, I do feel that some of the responses are so removed from the reality of what I’ve written that they represent more the prejudices of the respondent than deficiencies in my writing. Often it seems like people take perverse pleasure in misreading my writing (and this is something which has been noted by others as well).

    Also, I do think there is a very strange double-sandard in the community, which is evident here. Why is it when I contribute to he discussion of messaging I get accused of attempting to “manage atheism”, but when you or PZ criticize Stedman or I for what we write it isn’t the same? Aren’t you trying to “manage atheism” when you call us out for our writing? What’s the difference? For that matter, why is it so praiseworthy when Sikivu Hutchinson calls out AA for their slave ad, but not praiseworthy when we do the same sorts of things?

    I think the answer is this (and I could be wrong) – you don’t trust our sincerity so, from the outset, you imagine that we MUST be saying something objectionable. We therefore come to the table with something to prove, and every statement is interpreted in a broadly negative light. To some degree you don’t see us as being on the same side, and therefore we have a hurdle to jump before we are given a fair hearing – a hurdle other figures don’t have to jump.

    Now, perhaps we’ve put ourselves in that position somehow. But I’m not sure that we have demonstrated such egregious crimes that we should forever be held to a differeent standard to other atheist activists. And I begin to get tired of the feeling that I have something to prove to others in order to be viewed as a good-faith (hah) actor in this movement – and this frustration grows the more of my time – my life – I give to promoting atheist causes. Jumping unnecessary hurdles is exhausting. I sometimes wonder if there is anything we could possibly do to convince sme readers that we’re really on the same side.

    It is extremely aggravating to have to carefully consider every single word of what you write because readers in your own community will parse it in bizarrely negative ways in order to score a point, while at the same time all the positive work that we are doing to further the cause goes completely overlooked. And it is very hurtful to be attacked in extremely personal ways for having a different opinion. I don’t appreciate when terms are used for me and my colleagues which are aggressive, personal, extreme and derogatory – and this is very common. I don’t appreciate people trying to shame me out of the disucssion by misrepresenting my views. And I don’t appreciate being treated like an enemy by people who I spend a lot of my time fighting for.

    So, sure, I need to look again at how I communicate to people on sites like this. And they need to look again at the organization I work for and try to get a clearer, more accurate, fairer picture. We all have some work to do here.

  59. 59
    Ophelia Benson

    James –

    Well, one, I never said it is so praiseworthy when Sikivu Hutchinson calls out AA for their slave ad, and I’m not a bit sure I think it is.

    But more substantively, two – no, I don’t think it is the same, really. When I (for instance) retort to one of Stedman’s hit pieces, I’m not trying to manage atheism; I’m retorting to the backlash against atheism. I don’t think of his hit pieces as part of atheism. I’m not giving him advice – I’m replying to a provocation. There’s a difference. (And you’re right that I don’t see him as being on the same side – no, I certainly don’t.)

    I don’t know what to tell you – I don’t know how to explain what I mean if you can’t see it for yourself. Your comment @ 20 just looks like unsolicited managerial advice to me, and it makes me itch. I’m not trying to be mean, I’m trying to answer your questions. I don’t try to give advice to The Movement as a whole, and you do. (I think Greta was gently hinting at that @ 26.) People don’t like being managed. I think that’s your problem: you’re always volunteering to manage people who never asked to be managed.

    That will sound mean; I’m sorry; but that’s what it is. Nobody hired you as a consultant (well, apart from your boss, of course), so you shouldn’t be all that surprised when people don’t welcome your advice.

    Or to put it another way – why don’t you just drop the advice/management/framing thing and talk about substance instead, see if that works better for you. If it does, maybe you’ll agree that the management is the problem.

  60. 60
    James Croft

    Ophelia -

    It doesn’t sound mean at all – just honest, which I appreciate. In any case, I am really quite robust ;). It does, however, confuse me, because I honestly don’t see the force in the distinction you seek to draw.

    When someone like PZ or JT (they come to mind because I’ve had recent disagreements with both) responds to something I or Greg or Chris have posted or said, I consider that a legitimate part of the internal debate within our movement. I frequently disagree strongly with their conclusions, and wish they had taken more time to consider our view, but I would not dream of trying to make them not air that view. On the contrary – we have repeatedly invited critics to air their view because we recognize that criticism is an essential part of any freethinking movement.

    What I’ve done in this post seems no different to me – I have given my thoughts in response to this post, said where I agree and where I do not agree. I think it is perfectly justified to do that. I offer no advice of any kind in #20 – I just explore what I think is an area of weakness in the post, which results in (for me) a valuable back-and-forth with Greta which left me with a better understanding of her view. People do that on here all the time. So I don’t see what distinction you are making – the only difference I see is that you don’t agree with me, which makes it seem, from my perspective, like what you really want to do is not allow certain views to be aired.

    This is particularly strange in the light of the fact we are always being told (as Greta reminds us in #15) that multiple styles and voices are to be celebrated and are welcomed by “Gnus”. But that’s not what I see in practice. What I see instead are people like Josh, above, who try ruthlessly to police atheist discourse so that the only allowable view is their view, and anyone who airs a different opinion is, quite literally, a traitor, an appeaser, and a turncoat (all language which has in fact been used). And I object strongly to this on the grounds that it does not create an environment in which skepticism and self-criticism is possible.

    And I object to the fact that this sort of othering and shaming is rarely called-out by the big voices, who could do an awful lot to improve the quality of our internal discourse. I was extremely grateful, for instance, that Greta stepped in above and moderated my exchange with Josh, because I think it helped get the discussion back on track and gave me space to apologize and discharge some of the anger I felt. I think that’s a great thing, and I wish I saw more of that, because I think that would enable us to deal with each other more kindly and address the issues more clearly. Using the language of the race-traitor and of the appeaser is extraordinarily unpleasant, in my view, and does nothing to add to the discussion around these issues – and yet that is the language people seem to reach for instinctively.

    The idea that opinions only may be given if they are solicited – a sort of “who asked you anyway” response – seems to me a criterion you would never accept in your own writing. One of the things I appreciate about your blog is that you have a view on almost everything, and are happy to express it. I think I am allowed to express my view too, including views which include some normative element (this is hardly uncommon on the other side of the debate, after all – pretty much every post about Chris, for instance, boils down to “he shouldn’t do what he’s been doing and here’s why”).

    So, if anything, I think the shoe is on the other foot – here you are trying to tell me not to talk about certain things because you feel “managed” by my airing a different opinion. Well, I don’t want people to feel “managed”. And I accept I have a way of coming across kind of imperious in my writing (and in my speaking – my mum will tell you it’s been a constant struggle for me throughout my life ;)). That’s something I’m trying to work on. But the issue of how we communicate our message to the public is, I think, very important. It’s worthy of scrutiny and deep consideration, and I think I have something to contribute to that discussion.

    Perhaps, though, what this discussion is telling me is that I should make my contribution to that discussion elsewhere.

  61. 61
    Ophelia Benson

    I’m not telling you not to talk about certain things, I’m saying that if you do it in a managerial way it comes across as managerial!

    Opinions are different from advice. Unsolicited opinions, good; unsolicited advice, usually not so much. That’s why it’s a phrase – “unsolicited advice.”

    Here it is again – “the issue of how we communicate our message to the public is, I think, very important.”

    So you want to manage it. But lots of us don’t want to be managed! Lots of us just want to do it however we do it and not be corrected all the time.

    We don’t want to be herded into some “we” that “communicates our message to the public” in some pre-determined way.

    We don’t want filters. We don’t want rules, especially not rules imposed by, say, you, or you and your colleagues. We don’t want frames we have to fit into.

    There is no “we” in that sense. There is no unified body that all “communicates to the public” in one market-tested way. Thank god for that!

    Doesn’t the very idea of it make you twist about with boredom? It does me.

  62. 62
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    What I see instead are people like Josh, above, who try ruthlessly to police atheist discourse

    This is beyond bizarre.

  63. 63
    'Tis Himself

    James Croft #60

    This is particularly strange in the light of the fact we are always being told (as Greta reminds us in #15) that multiple styles and voices are to be celebrated and are welcomed by “Gnus”. But that’s not what I see in practice. What I see instead are people like Josh, above, who try ruthlessly to police atheist discourse so that the only allowable view is their view, and anyone who airs a different opinion is, quite literally, a traitor, an appeaser, and a turncoat (all language which has in fact been used). And I object strongly to this on the grounds that it does not create an environment in which skepticism and self-criticism is possible.

    If you just offered an opinion then it would be considered and debated. Instead, you and your buds at the HHC, particularly your boss Greg Epstein, appear to want to tell every other atheist that you have the True Way™ and the rest of us r doin it rong. Perhaps, as Ophelia suggests, it’s just poor communication on your part. But you guys come across as very arrogant and pushy. That’s is not the way to convince anyone to pay attention to what you say.

    If your hero Epstein (I know you’ll stop reading at this point because you don’t want to see any criticism of him) hadn’t lied about PZ Myers in particular and gnu atheists in general, then your bunch might have a better reputation among the gnus. But until HHC cleans up its act (Epstein retracting his lies and apologizing for them might be a good start), then you’ll get a whole load of crap coming your way.

    Evidence for Epstein’s lies is provided here.

  64. 64
    James Croft

    Ophelia -

    Here it is again – “the issue of how we communicate our message to the public is, I think, very important.”

    So you want to manage it.

    No – I want to discuss it. I want to be able to raise questions about it. I want to be skeptical about it and seek out the truth about what is effective. That’s why, in this thread, I raised questions to try to ascertain what Greta’s position is.

    We don’t want filters. We don’t want rules, especially not rules imposed by, say, you, or you and your colleagues. We don’t want frames we have to fit into.

    Sure! But no one is trying to “impose rules”. What I’m trying to do is have a discussion informed by evidence to determine what works. If, then, having determined what’s likely to be effective, people still wish to do other things, then fine – who am I to stop them? But to forestall the discussion before it has begun is not what I think we should be about.

    ‘Tis Himself, OM -

    If you just offered an opinion then it would be considered and debated. Instead, you and your buds at the HHC, particularly your boss Greg Epstein, appear to want to tell every other atheist that you have the True Way™ and the rest of us r doin it rong.

    Entertain a hypothetical for me: let’s say we could give you very strong evidence that you are, in fact, “doin it rong” by showing that, on the basis of evidence derived from experimental studies, the strategies you seek to employ will likely not achieve your stated goals. What then? Are you saying you would ignore such evidence? Or that the truth of the matter is uninteresting to you? Or that your commitment to your chosen way of doing things is so strong that the evidence is irrelevant? None of these positions seem to me to be worthy of a skeptic, but they seem to be the only options available to you. What am I missing?

    As for criticism of Greg, criticize away. But it sounds very foolish when all you can provide as evidence is a highly partial and ridiculous account a a debate by PZ which, over at our site, we have demonstrated to be complete nonsense. Not everything PZ says is the gospel truth, you know, and it’s fantastical to see self-proclaimed freethinkers trot out his posts like magical mantras. And even if his account of the debate were accurate, you go by a rule of “guilt bu association”, do you, such that I am responsible for what Greg Epstein says?

  65. 65
    'Tis Himself

    I think Epstein, Figdor, Croft, et al have nothing but good intentions. They considered various situations and problems and came up with responses and answers that looked good to them. One problem is they concerned themselves with humanism with atheism and skepticism as “oh by the way” afterthoughts. Another problem is they only talked to each other, reinforcing their high opinions of themselves. Then atheists and skeptics looked at what the HHC was trying to sell and said, “No thanks, that doesn’t appeal to me and please don’t tell me how to think.”

    Then HHC got upset. Here they were offering the products of their combined thinking and people weren’t being grateful. They were rejecting the products of Harvard, for FSM’s sake. Didn’t the peasants read the Harvard Humanist mission statement?

    Imagine an American Humanism known for overflowing Humanist community centers: each one filled with people of every background, bound together by a common set of Humanistic values, inspired by art, music and nature, performing acts of social service, raising Humanist families, and thinking locally and globally about how to build a more reasonable and compassionate world. Imagine them led by gifted individuals who have been trained as experts in Humanist thought and best practices, using collaboratively developed how-to road maps for developing such centers. [emphasis added]

    I read the above and was quite struck by the condescension. What about the gifted in the groups being lead? Don’t they get to speak up? There seems to be a lot of presuming going on. It suggests to me that there would be a community in the nice big buildings with the gifted leaders sorting out our problems for us with best practices. And it sounds like they expect followers.

  66. 66
    'Tis Himself

    But it sounds very foolish when all you can provide as evidence is a highly partial and ridiculous account a a debate by PZ which, over at our site, we have demonstrated to be complete nonsense.

    I read your “demonstration.” I was underwhelmed. But I’m not going to try to penetrate your invincible opinions of yourselves and your arrogance towards the ungrateful peasantry.

  67. 67
    James Croft

    I love the fairy-tale way in which you tell the story, and I appreciate your view that we have good intentions – that’s a step, at least! =D

    There’s a lot wrong with your account, though, like the idea that “hey concerned themselves with humanism with atheism and skepticism as “oh by the way” afterthoughts.” We’ve been a Humanist organization for decades, and it’s not only not an “afterthought”, but central to our mission. We are Humanists, atheists and skeptics through-and-through, and proud of it.

    The question of leadership came up before in that long thread sparked by Crommunist’s post, and I think I responded to it adequately there. No one, in the end, was able to give me cogent reasons why Humanist communities shouldn’t seek leadership if they want it. I’m happy to engage in that discussion again, but you’d have to present new arguments.

    But uncharacteristically, for you, ‘Tis Himself, OM, you completely avoided my question. I’d be interested in an answer, because I think it’s an important one.

  68. 68
    Ophelia Benson

    “But no one is trying to “impose rules”. What I’m trying to do is have a discussion informed by evidence to determine what works.”

    But I don’t think “works” is even a meaningful word here! I’ve learned to hate it, because of the way it gets deployed in claims precisely like that one. I don’t care what “works.” I certainly don’t care what the combined wisdom of the Harvard Humanists tells me “works.”

    I could see it for one narrow subject like a billboard, say, or an ad like the one FFRF ran. Then it does matter what “works.” But for larger more amorphous activities like blogging? No.

    And I think you are trying to impose rules (you plural, not you James). I think that’s the whole point of all this research into what “works.”

  69. 69
    Ophelia Benson

    And the trained gifted experts thing makes me want to projectile vomit.

    It also explains a lot.

    James, seriously, you aren’t the Leader of us. It’s not going to happen.

  70. 70
    James Croft

    the trained gifted experts thing makes me want to projectile vomit.

    Seriously, Ophelia, what sort of argument is that? The Argument from Nausea? If you have an objection to that idea explain your objection, but don’t expect us to guess what it is you, PZ and others mean when you say our ideas make you sick. We’ve put a lot of considered thought into our project, have carefully articulated our aims and the evidence which supports them, and have offered it up for debate in forums like this. And when people dismiss it so cavalierly, so rarely giving cogent reasons, well. What am I supposed to think?

    I want to engage in a discussion about these ideas – we’d love an informed, level-headed debate about the value and dangers of the Project, for example – but this isn’t it! What do you expect me to get from your expression of disgust, other than the fact that you disapprove? How does it help us improve what we’re doing? How does it help me understand what we’re doing wrong?

    I can’t work to change the things you think are wrong about what we’re doing if I don’t understand your objection.

  71. 71
    Ophelia Benson

    It wasn’t intended to be an argument.

    You should be able to tell what’s sick-making about the claim. You seem to have a tin ear.

    I’m not saying that because I can’t explain, but because it’s so absurd that you can’t figure it out.

    Ok I’ll explain: it’s con-de-scen-ding.

    99% of the time when people rant about elitism it’s bullshit, but this item is genyoowine elitism. “We’re from Harvard and we’re here to Lead you.”

  72. 72
    James Croft

    We should take that as our slogan, actually – it has a nice ring to it…

  73. 73
    'Tis Himself

    But uncharacteristically, for you, ‘Tis Himself, OM, you completely avoided my question. I’d be interested in an answer, because I think it’s an important one.

    I wrote my post #65 while you were writing #64. I didn’t avoid your question, I didn’t see it. I glanced at #64 and saw the sneer at PZ so I responded to that.

    I’m assuming your question is:

    Entertain a hypothetical for me: let’s say we could give you very strong evidence that you are, in fact, “doin it rong” by showing that, on the basis of evidence derived from experimental studies, the strategies you seek to employ will likely not achieve your stated goals. What then? Are you saying you would ignore such evidence? Or that the truth of the matter is uninteresting to you? Or that your commitment to your chosen way of doing things is so strong that the evidence is irrelevant? None of these positions seem to me to be worthy of a skeptic, but they seem to be the only options available to you. What am I missing?

    First of all, we have to agree as to what we’re doing before we can determine who, if anyone, was doing it wrong. Your goals appear to be to establish Humanist Chapels run by Humanist Chaplains (why atheists need chaplains is an question only you and Alain de Botton can answer). I could care less. If I wanted a godless religion, the Unitarians and Ethical Humanists already fill that niche. Perhaps you should be talking to them instead of us.

    My goals are: (1) to get atheism recognized as a respectable alternative to theism; (b) to have the more obtrusive parts of theism reined in; and (iii) to have complete separation of church and state. Notice there’s nothing there about godless funerals or baby christenings. Those appear to be your goals. To quote Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

    So I don’t care to join your Humanist agenda. There’s nothing there that interests me in the least. But you and your ilk keep intruding into my perception. You claim to be allies, fellow atheists and skeptics, but you’re promoting a vision of atheism I don’t share. What’s more, I see HHC as demanding we all acknowledge not only your vision but your leadership in that vision.

    You may be doing your vision right. After all, you’ve got all those decades of Humanist experience behind you. But you’re not selling the vision well to other atheists. I’m not the only one who sees you as arrogant and condescending. I’m also getting a strong whiff of accommodationism from you. I’m prejudiced against accommodationists because most of them seem to fit in the de Botton/Chris Mooney/Massimo Pigliucci line of telling gnu atheists that “you’re doing it wrong.”

  74. 74
    name

    It’s thought there may be a genetic link to belief and disbelief. Have you considered harvesting and donating your eggs?

  75. 75
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Seriously, Ophelia, what sort of argument is that? The Argument from Nausea?

    Yes. And it would make you sick too if you had any sense or could see outside your own fawning circle.

    I want to engage in a discussion about these ideas – we’d love an informed, level-headed debate about the value and dangers of the Project, for example – but this isn’t it

    Oh stuff it. And can the royal “we” while you’re at it. You don’t want to engage in a discussion that’s “level-headed,” you want people to agree with you. You’re willing to characterize those who don’t as irrational, non-specific, and overly emotional. It’s a classic upper class move. It’s also disgusting.

    I can’t work to change the things you think are wrong about what we’re doing if I don’t understand your objection.

    You don’t understand it because you cannot see outside your privileged academic, Harvard, etiquette-and-approved-mode-of-discourse blinkers. It’s not that you’re unintelligent, obviously. You are so deeply soaked in ivory tower privilege that you literally cannot understand or take on board any ideas from people who challenge you in coarse or frank language. You are a walking definition of class privilege, James.

    Realizing this is an exercise in applied irony, I’ll be frank (read: incomprehensible to you):

    1. You’re imperious and stuffy.

    2. You’re bossy as all hell and you don’t even know you’re doing it.

    3. You’re obsessively prissy and you have a hair-trigger reaction to “tone”, a classic tell that someone is eager to preserve class/status delineations.

    4. You give the appearance of caring much less about the actual balance of justice and injustice in a situation and much more about whether commentators follow the arbitrary rules of decorum in describing it.

    5. You’re so insulated from the applied reality of any of this that you literally don’t understand the pressing urgency of the issues at stake. No one who actually understood them could blithely write, after the opening post demonstrating unequivocally that it is our very existence that mainstream America finds provocative, “However, I think you are conflating two issues unnecessarily if you say that because of this piece of discrimination that you “do not want to hear another goddamn word about framing, about how all atheists should be nice and sweet and diplomatic so religious believers can hear our message, about how if we’re too blunt or mocking or confrontational people will be offended and won’t listen to us.”

    Your priorities are fucked up six ways from Sunday. And so are Stedman’s and Epstein’s. You’re not on the same side as people like me; you’re active impediments. I don’t care if that makes you angry. It should. You ought to be squirmingly uncomfortable and re-examine your motives.

    And if this is crossing the line in terms of Greta’s comment policy I don’t care either. Someone needs to point out the enabling bullshit people like you pull. And if that’s just too much “personally harsh rhetoric” then I have to ask what the fuck we’re all doing here discussing this shit. Because it has real, serious, social-justice implications.

    If you don’t mean to do it James, then for goodness’ sake stop it.

  76. 76
    James Croft

    ‘Tis Himself, OM -

    I appreciate your comment, because it does point to something we could make more clear. You say:

    My goals are: (1) to get atheism recognized as a respectable alternative to theism; (b) to have the more obtrusive parts of theism reined in; and (iii) to have complete separation of church and state.

    I share those goals, and they are explicitly part of the HCH’s agenda, but if we aren’t communicating that clearly we have to look at how we might better demonstrate that these are goals we share. I think part of the problem here (and it’s a problem with internet discourse as a whole, really) is that when HCH staff and community members write about the issues you mention here, it doesn’t get onto the radar of most people whose primary source for news about the movement is this site. Since we’re not doing anything particularly controversial when we write about the importance of secularism and reigning in damaging and dangerous religious beliefs it doesn’t become a blip on the FTB radar, and so people get the perception that all we do is write about tone and messaging etc. That’s something for us to work on – you make a good and useful point here, for which I thank you.

    Josh, Official SpokesGay -

    Oh stuff it. And can the royal “we” while you’re at it. You don’t want to engage in a discussion that’s “level-headed,” you want people to agree with you. You’re willing to characterize those who don’t as irrational, non-specific, and overly emotional. It’s a classic upper class move. It’s also disgusting.

    This is flatly false. I am truly interested in engage in in discussion here and am willing to change my mind if people present good arguments. I have done so a number of times and, what’s more, I make a point to say when I’ve learnt something, been given food for thought, or changed my mind on an issue. I have done so twice in this very thread, so I don’t think your criticism particularly accurate.

    As for the question of characterizing other posters as irrational etc., it takes a lot for me to write someone off as not worth discussing with – witness the fact that I do keep coming back to try to engage in discussion even after having a lot of very unpleasant exchanges. I think that should tell you something about my willingness to honestly engage these issues. But I do, in the course of particular discussions, sometimes say “it’s not worth me responding to you” if I honestly think the other person is being unreasonable, or is so personal and unpleasant that I would rather not spend my time discussing the issue with them. That’s the problem I have discussing these issues with you – I cannot recall a single occasion in which you have entered the discussion with anything other than what seems like an intense personal animus. And I feel myself under no obligation to discuss matters that I care deeply about with people who cannot be civil. That is a personal boundary I draw, which you may not share or agree with, but since it is a boundary that is set to dictate my own expenditure of time you, frankly, have no say in the matter.

    You are so deeply soaked in ivory tower privilege that you literally cannot understand or take on board any ideas from people who challenge you in coarse or frank language.

    Again, this is nonsense. I spend an awful lot of time trying to extract valuable points even from extremely coarse responses, and frankness doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But at the same time I am happy, while trying to get at the point beneath someone’s bile, to point out that their bile is unpleasant and unnecessary. It is possible to criticize tone while still recognizing the underlying points, and that’s what I seek to do.

    As for your five points, I’m willing to grant you 1-3 (although I’d argue with you about the second half of 3). I can certainly be imperious, bossy and prissy, without doubt. But 4 and 5 are flatly wrong. And I think your misperception here is due to the fact that pretty much the only engagement you have with me is in comment threads on these forums. I seek not to judge you as a person simply by the comments you post here. I presume you have an active life of some sort that I’m not aware of outside FTB. And I’d appreciate if you showed me the same courtesy.

    I don’t expect us to agree on these issues – I don’t really mind if we never come to agreement on them. But I think we should be able to discuss them in a frank, honest way without distorting each others’ positions.

  77. 77
    Bruce Gorton

    “But no one is trying to “impose rules”. What I’m trying to do is have a discussion informed by evidence to determine what works.”

    That is exactly what I am going on about – there is simply too much focussing on “what works” – which simply stops action as it begins working.

    The atheist problem isn’t one of people disliking atheists – it is one of people distrusting atheism. That is not helped by every time somebody says something us descending into a debate on whether it is going to alienate people.

    That just makes it look like marketing is our central focus – instead of basic honesty.

    We do as best we can – in that we communicate in our own voices and do so as honestly as we can. Our criticism of each other should be primarily over whether our claims are honest ones, not on what we imagine the neighbours might say.

  78. 78
    James Croft

    I find that criticism very unconvincing, Bruce. It seems to me wise to consider, if we hope to achieve a certain goal (stop people distrusting atheism, for example), which methods we might use, and see if there is any evidence which bears on the question of which methods might be best. We can do this parallel to developing campaigns, putting up billboards, etc. – we need not stop everything before we have a cohesive plan. But we should, I think, certainly not rule any discussion of method out of court.

  79. 79
    Greta Christina

    Dial back on the nasty tone, EVERYBODY. This means you. I do not have time to moderate the blog closely in the next couple/few days, and if y’all can’t disagree without sniping at each other, I’m going to either temporarily block all of you, or temporarily cut off comments in this thread. Thank you.

  80. 80
    echidna

    James,
    you said:

    Not everything PZ says is the gospel truth, you know,

    PZ is, like most scientists, is absolutely rigorous and precise with his language and facts. Of course, he may not see the world as you do, but unless you can give an example where he has said something untrue, I reckon you’re talking out of your arse, to put it bluntly.

    This is my major problem with your style. You seem to think that any thought that you have should automatically be accepted as received wisdom, without any requirement on your part to substantiate your claims.

  81. 81
    julian

    @echnida

    Prof Myers has, more than once, cited a poorly researched article or blogpost that contained misleading and sometimes outright wrong information. Generally it’s corrected in the comments section before to long.

    That just makes it look like marketing is our central focus – instead of basic honesty. -Bruce Gorton

    For the most part I find the idea of conversion by marketing repellent. It’s insulting to be treated as a test monkey waiting to click the green button. But considering how themes, messages and information is presented, what I interpret James Croft as saying, is important.

    Many of the people I take it ‘we’ are trying to reach don’t necessarily have the advantage of understanding fallacious thinking (not claiming that I do) or what a good argument looks like. Most people have been taught rhetorical tricks, confusing the person you are engaging with and drowning out the opposition make you the winner.

    It doesn’t do anyone any good to approach this as if we were all working from the same start point. ‘What works’ should be about finding out the best methods of relating meaning to others and trying to persuade them of the validity of sound reasoning.

  82. 82
    James Croft

    This is my major problem with your style. You seem to think that any thought that you have should automatically be accepted as received wisdom, without any requirement on your part to substantiate your claims.

    Surely you kid, echidna? I’m legendary round these parts for my exceptionally long, extremely detailed and scrupulously supported posts. Just read any of the stuff I’ve written on persuasion, or on the 9/11 cross, or on interfaith work, or in response to criticism of the HCP itself, and I think you’ll find there are few people who are as willing to go into as obsessive a level of detail, with such a comprehensive range of sources, as I am while sticking to the blog format:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/tag/the-freethinkers-political-textbook/

    http://www.templeofthefuture.net/tag/911-cross

    http://www.templeofthefuture.net/activism/inside-interfaith-principled-engagement-is-the-key

    http://www.templeofthefuture.net/new-ideas/the-humanist-community-project-launches-why-it-matters

    http://www.templeofthefuture.net/humanist-community-project/reason-compassion-and-hope-in-community-a-response-to-some-constructive-criticism-for-the-humanist-chaplaincy-at-harvard

    There are many weaknesses I am willing to admit to, but being lax in the substantiation-of-claims department is not one of them.

    As for PZ, as I say every time I discuss his work, I am frequently in agreement with him. His bizarre take on his debate with Greg Epstein was one example of a time when I disagree with his interpretation of events, and you are well aware of how I support my interpretation because you participated in a long exchange on the matter over at our place (I assume you are the same person as the “echidna” who posted there):

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/03/01/greg-epstein-vs-pz-myers-debate/

    I think in that exchange I made my position crystal clear with numerous references to various posts. No one there was able, in my view, to provide any evidence to make me rethink my position.

    Anyway, I’m about to go stand in the rain at Reason Rally! If anyone on this thread is there look out for the Harvard Humanist contingent and we can say “hi” and debate this in person! And best of luck to you, Greta, with your talk! Looking forward to it. :)

  83. 83
    kagerato

    I want to engage in a discussion about these ideas – we’d love an informed, level-headed debate about the value and dangers of the Project, for example – but this isn’t it!

    It’s a little ironic for someone who’s purportedly very interested in messaging and tone to be throwing around declarations with exclamation points, isn’t it? Maybe what gives people the sense of your “managerial” attitude is that you declare the conclusions first before ever presenting the evidence that you claim by implication you have?

    The core flaw behind your Project is that it appears to replicate the same authoritarian structure that is despised in the Church and other organizations. It’s not that you can’t have leaders, but the process by which leadership is formed often defines the nature of the group. Hierarchies, titles, appointments, and fundraising for goals declared by a small set of elders is exactly what many atheists escaped from. That’s why you get such a reflexive response of disgust.

    If you really think you can build an expansive and influential organization without any of those elements, go ahead and try. Prove it by your actions. Spending all this time playing messaging games of semantics and tone with people honestly accomplishes next to nothing. You won’t convince your key critics to support you with that, so just don’t bother.

  84. 84
    Echidna

    Julian,
    Sure, PZ is not infallible. But if an argument based on citation of PZ is to be dismissed on the basis of PZ’s unreliability, the details really need to be explained.

  85. 85
    NathanDST

    This:

    We do as best we can – in that we communicate in our own voices and do so as honestly as we can. Our criticism of each other should be primarily over whether our claims are honest ones, not on what we imagine the neighbours might say.

    James, didn’t you recently tell me that in the study of persuasion there’s a sort-of meta-principal of Authenticity? Basically, being true to yourself when you seek to persuade? If we are trying to persuade people of some position (and I don’t think that’s always the case in blogging: sometimes, we’re just giving opinions), then shouldn’t our first concern be honesty? Not just not lying, not just proper citation, but honesty of emotion as well? Letting the emotion we feel, be the emotion we show? It seems to me if we’re overly concerned about our marketing (and much of what you advocate does sound like marketing), then that gets in the way of that honesty.

  86. 86
    James Croft

    Yup, authenticity wins. That’s a key component of any serious persuasion attempt. But the point here is not to prevent anyone from being authentic, but to offer people ways of being both authentic and optimally effective.

  87. 87
    David

    “Unfortunately, we don’t have a nice rhyme like “We’re queer and we’re here”. “We don’t believe in any gods and we’re here” just can’t compete.”

    We’re ordinary folks / we just think God’s a hoax

    ?

    I’m sure Cuttlefish could do better.

  88. 88
    kagerato

    I’m legendary round these parts for my exceptionally long, extremely detailed and scrupulously supported posts. Just read any of the stuff I’ve written on persuasion, or on the 9/11 cross, or on interfaith work, or in response to criticism of the HCP itself, and I think you’ll find there are few people who are as willing to go into as obsessive a level of detail, with such a comprehensive range of sources, as I am while sticking to the blog format:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/tag/the-freethinkers-political-textbook/

    James, I read most of your first link. Where is it that you think you presented evidence for the effectiveness of your point of view here? You do understand the difference between examples and evidence, right? Telling stories — anecdotes — about particular cases and how you feel they affect the audience is not evidence of anything. It’s argument by selection and assertion.

    An “obsessive level of detail” does not constitute evidence. Evidence is based on statistically representative data. It is concerned with the broad view, not individual details. Anyone anywhere can cherry-pick examples that appear to support their case, and indeed most people do this kind of logically invalid behavior most of the time.

    I’d also like to note that dumping a bunch of links on your audience looks like terrible communication. If your view point is as obvious as your tone makes it sound, it shouldn’t require more than a few paragraphs to go over the key details. Only people who are inclined to agree with you are going to actually read 10,000+ words of rambling that discuss neither specific goals nor scientifically valid studies.

    Do you think that atheists are inclined to hear (or read) the personal revelations of Christians as to how they came to their faith and why? Are you? Outlining examples that influence your view is no more convincing than their stories are.

  89. 89
    James Croft

    The links are fully referenced with links to studies and books which support the principles which underpin the critiques (except the first in the series, which introduces the idea and sets up the context). I’m not sure what you were reading., but you’ve missed something…

  90. 90
    kagerato

    Citations to other people’s books do not count as part of your own argument, James. Try again.

    It’s especially troubling that you think other people should have to buy books in order to demonstrate your point of view! Just how much are you going to ask, here?

    What do you figure the total length of your references is on just that one article? 50,000 words? 100,000? 200,000?

    A halfway decent summary of the evidence, since surely you have already read all of these books and know their content, would be a good start. Preferably with direct links to the studies themselves, and/or links to their data tables and results.

    Your second, third, fourth, and fifth links have no citations or references of any kind at the end. As far as I can tell, the inline links go mostly (entirely?) to various internet discussions, not empirical studies or statistically valid data.

    What is it that you are reading?

  91. 91
    ewanmacdonald

    I haven’t seen communication this bad since Chris Mooney tried to order a pizza through the medium of dance.

  92. 92
    James Croft

    kagerato – it is common in non-fiction writing for a popular audience (as opposed to articles for peer-reviewed publications) for authors to quote from and refer to books instead of individual studies. The benefits of that (beyond readability) are that it provides a weight of evidence in one citation that would be hard to replicate simply by linking to the studies. So, for example, in the section on “velvet” in the “Steel and Velvet” piece I would have to link to perhaps 20 individual studies, referenced and analyzed by Cialdini, to get the same effect as pointing you to the relevant part in an easily available book. Furthermore, linking to articles would require anyone not affiliated with a university (and even many people affiliated with universities) to purchase journals or journal memberships, which would almost certainly be more expensive than books.

    I could provide (and may in the future) a summary of the main studies relevant to each point. However at the moment the purpose of the site is to provide practical advice to those who wish to use it right now, not really to contribute to the literature on the topic of persuasion. Furthermore, the findings I describe are absolutely non-controversial in the field, and most are even common-sense – it seems to me, for instance, that those who wish to argue that you shouldn’t tailor a persuasive effort to be salient to a particular audience carry the burden of proof, not those who, like me, suggest that you should do so. Therefore I have decided to take the route of offering the advice right now so people can try it out, rather than spending countless hours of my free time summarizing studies which people can, of they are interested, find through the citations I do provide.

    In any case, the best way to convince yourself that these techniques do work is by trying them yourself as an individual or with your institution. Freethought organizations are already doing so, and are already having success. Further, you cannot reject the accuracy of my analysis by declaring yourself unwilling to do the work necessary to confirm it. An individual committed to discovering the truth of the matter would visit a library.

  93. 93
    Raging Bee

    On the one hand, I totally agree that people should, in general, be tactful and take reasonable measures to avoid causing needless offense. On the other hand, the more we argue about matters of “tone,” the more we let the entire debate be controlled by the people who are most easily offended — and by liars and con-artists who use “those other people are so MEAN to us!!” as yet another excuse to misdirect, change the subject, dodge the truth, and avoid responsibility for their own words and actions. Salvador “Wormtongue” Cordova is only the most obvious of a huge number of people whose entire schtick consists of nothing but such misdirection, manipulation, and manufactroversy over how “ordinary folks” will never forget how mean and nasty us “liberal elitists” are every time we question their conforting myths/lies.

    IMHO, the best policy is to concentrate on substance and credibility, and speak our minds in whatever style works best for us, using our best judgment of what this or that audience may be up for. We should also note that a harsh argument may not win any converts right away, but could very likely get people thinking — and changing their minds — over a longer term.

    It’s also useful to note that for many people, the mere fact that we’re speaking up at all, and not letting ourselves be silenced, will command a significant measure of respect. A lot of the god-botherers and evangelical “foot-soldiers” simply aren’t geared to deal with someone who has both clear beliefs and a spine; and when the “uncommitted” see atheists speaking clearly and not letting themselves be manipulated, they’ll be a lot more likely to come around.

  94. 94
    kagerato

    it is common in non-fiction writing for a popular audience (as opposed to articles for peer-reviewed publications) for authors to quote from and refer to books instead of individual studies. The benefits of that (beyond readability) are that it provides a weight of evidence in one citation that would be hard to replicate simply by linking to the studies. So, for example, in the section on “velvet” in the “Steel and Velvet” piece I would have to link to perhaps 20 individual studies, referenced and analyzed by Cialdini, to get the same effect as pointing you to the relevant part in an easily available book. Furthermore, linking to articles would require anyone not affiliated with a university (and even many people affiliated with universities) to purchase journals or journal memberships, which would almost certainly be more expensive than books.

    “It’s common to do what I do, therefore I will dodge the request entirely. Even though it’s my job to convince you.”

    “There’s too many studies, I just can’t link to them all. Even though I wasn’t asked that.”

    “The articles are all behind paywalls! All of them! There is no freely published scientific research of any kind that proves my point.”

    I could provide (and may in the future) a summary of the main studies relevant to each point. However at the moment the purpose of the site is to provide practical advice to those who wish to use it right now, not really to contribute to the literature on the topic of persuasion. Furthermore, the findings I describe are absolutely non-controversial in the field, and most are even common-sense – it seems to me, for instance, that those who wish to argue that you shouldn’t tailor a persuasive effort to be salient to a particular audience carry the burden of proof, not those who, like me, suggest that you should do so. Therefore I have decided to take the route of offering the advice right now so people can try it out, rather than spending countless hours of my free time summarizing studies which people can, of they are interested, find through the citations I do provide.

    “I could do it, but I won’t, because that’s not my job. Even though that’s exactly my job. Even though it’s the only possible thing that would convince my audience, instead of droning on all day about irrelevant matters.”

    “I’m being asked to contribute to the literature! Oh wait, no I’m not.”

    “All of my statements are totally proven! Even though I can’t cite even one small piece of evidence at all off hand, I totally know it!”

    “It’s just common sense, you see, that I am right and you are wrong.”

    “It’s your job to prove the point that I am trying to make to you. You do all the research, you do all the work. Even though I am purportedly supposed to be doing something other than propagandize my viewpoint, I will do nothing else.”

    “The work’s totally done. You just don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours seeing it. Why don’t you spend hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours proving my point for me?”

    In any case, the best way to convince yourself that these techniques do work is by trying them yourself as an individual or with your institution. Freethought organizations are already doing so, and are already having success. Further, you cannot reject the accuracy of my analysis by declaring yourself unwilling to do the work necessary to confirm it. An individual committed to discovering the truth of the matter would visit a library.

    “Take my personal experience as evidence for my righteousness.”

    “It totally works! I just tried it. Here, try these magic crystals too.”

    “Your experience is invalid by implication, since I just tested it and it worked great for me. Tee hee hee.”

    “Do all the work yourself. It’s your job to convince yourself.”

    “Even though my sources are numerous books, appear to barely related to the topic at hand, are not freely available, you should hunt each and every one of them down at a library, spend countless hours reading them all, and then you will finally prove my point for me.”

    “You’re uncommitted to the truth because 200,000 words is totally not to much to ask to read. I mean, that’s like not even a day’s reading for a great guy like me. Though I didn’t bother to count the words. Probably more like 500,000. Better get started.”

    Do you understand yet why you are managerial? Do you understand that you are arguing by authority? Do you understand you are asking other people to do your work for you? Do you understand that your tone comes off at least as condescending and ridiculous as the people you are criticizing, and far less honest?

  95. 95
    ben

    Evidently we’ve been promoted to either Voldemort-level or JHWH-level. Perhaps both.

    I think that means we’re winning :)

  96. 96
    James Croft

    I think your criticism would be totally valid if this were a single, simple “point” that I am trying to prove to you in this instance. It’s not – I’m not really trying to “prove” anything with the posts. The question posed by echidna, to which I was responding, was whether the claims I am making have been “substantiated”. Now, perhaps we have a difference of opinion as to what counts as “substantiated”, but I think, in a blog post attempting to provide practical advice in a readable format(not, again, a journal article attempting to present or defend any new knowledge), pointing people to a number of books which contain lucid discussions of the specific questions raised in that post is sufficient substantiation.

    Could I provide a lot more? Certainly I could, and as I said above, I may well do so when I have the time in the future. But are the arguments I present sufficient to give an interested reader reasonable grounds for trying out the techniques I write about? I think so.

    If you think not, then give me an example of a specific claim you object to and I would be happy to provide further evidence.

  97. 97
    echidna

    Surely you kid, echidna? I’m legendary round these parts for my exceptionally long, extremely detailed and scrupulously supported posts.

    Ah, you are a legend in your own lunchtime. Quite seriously, kagerato is quite right. You seem to expect the other person to be sufficiently motivated to research your comments, so that they can be convinced of your argument. That’s expecting far too much. It would be much more effective if your comments were more complete in themselves.

    For example, you tossed out that comment about PZ not always being correct, and expected readers to make the connection between that comment and whatever it was you had in mind. We are not mind readers. As far as I could tell, that comment was out there in isolation. As far as you were concerned, an entire history lay behind it. The problem was that the connections that existed in your mind were not explicit in your comments.

    If you really want to be persuasive, IMNSHO, you need to state your case (which you do), explain your reasoning ( which you don’t) and provide supporting links (which you do).

  98. 98
    David

    Not sure if this helps, but you’ve got one Christian here who supports your right to run this ad. I’m appalled at the bus company’s refusal to put this up, especially since they’ve given “God” ad space. Sorry that my people can sometimes be d**ks.

  99. 99
    greg1466

    Of course our mere existence is confrontational. The last thing a person who believes the moon is made of cheese wants is for someone to plop a lunar rock down in front of them.

  100. 100
    greenhome

    Hell, they would probably ban an ad that only contained the word “freethought” or “free thinking”. Isn’t that what the religious are really afraid of?

  101. 101
    Christina

    There’s something similar going on in Toronto. Two religious ads originally pulled from public transit are going back. Why? “You don’t have to agree with the message, you don’t have to like the message of the advertiser,” commented TTC spokesperson Brad Ross. No, you don’t have to like or agree with the message, but when the message being sent is something as skewed, dangerous, and influential as religion, it’s gotta go.

    http://www.thestar.com/news/transportation/article/1156490–ttc-won-t-remove-controversial-ads

  102. 102
    Meee

    I understand the feelings of being a group targetted for discrimination and prejudice, but frankly I think this article is ridiculous. To me, when I read this, all I could see was “LOOK AT US WE’RE SO DISCRIMINATED AGAINST BECAUSE A BUS WOULDN’T RUN AN AD ABOUT US”.

    You know what’s discrimination? Not being able to sit where you want on a bus because of your skin color.

    Ok, ok, I get that that was like 50 some years ago and it’s 2012 now, but there’s still religious, racial, gener, and sexual orientational groups that experience plenty more bigotry than being denied ad space. I think the issue portrayed in this article is an interesting one and one worth thinking a bit about, but is it worth all of the cussing and anger? Nope.

  1. 103
    Working Works Ltd | Butterflies and Wheels

    [...] I briefly joined in yet another argument with James Croft about his (as far as I can tell) favorite subject: whether or not “the atheist movement” is “working” and how he and his colleagues can make it “work” better by managing the way atheists communicate. After awhile I gave it up, because my joining in made no difference – James just kept on managing. But in the process I wondered, not for the first time, what James thinks he means by “working,” when it’s not as if “the atheist movement” is trying to do anything as simple as cutting grass or grilling bread. [...]

  2. 104
  3. 105
    How Can Atheists Have Morals? (part 1) | godless in dixie

    […] refer you to the outrage expressed over a billboard in Texas which asserts little more than that atheists exist.  Calls and letters pour in over even non-confrontational advertisements like these, often getting […]

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