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A poll on AA’s new billboards

The world is changing. For one thing, American Atheists are doing a better and better job of making billboards — less cluttered, cleaner, with a simpler message appropriate to a billboard, yet still wonderfully provocative (This is also, by the way, a great example of how pointed internal criticism can lead to improvements). These are also good examples of targeting the message, to the Jewish and Islamic communities.

Another way the world is changing is that more and more people are pointing these silly online polls out to me, and they’re already skewed in a favorable direction by the time I arrive. Really, it’s weird: 5 years ago, we’d find some mainstream poll and it would initially be insanely anti-atheist, and nowadays they’re usually more closely split. Like this one:

Do you think these billboards are appropriate?

Yes. American Atheists have every right to express their views and do outreach. 55%

No. It’s unnecessary provocation to put the billboards up in religious communities. 43%
Not sure. 2%

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it more insanely biased in favor of the reasonable answer, of course.

Comments

  1. Gregory says

    Why do I strongly suspect that the people voting that this is an “unnecessary provocation to put the billboards up in religious communities” would have no problem at all if almost identical signs were put up in the same neighborhoods that attempted to pull Muslims and Jews into a Christian church?

  2. says

    It’s unnecessary provocation to put the billboards up in religious communities.

    After 9/11/2001 there can’t be enough of this provocation.

  3. Dick the Damned says

    The trouble is, the faith-heads actually “know” that it ain’t a myth. Feckin’ eedjits.

  4. says

    Well… the demographic of NYC, who are probably the first readers of the NY Daily News, will vote a bit differently than, say, World Net News readers or Tallahassee Times readers (or whatever.) I agree that the atmosphere about atheism and atheists is changing but I am not sure how much and where.

    @Sailor: I just voted and it was 57 Yes, 41 No, and 2 Not Sure.

  5. Sour Tomato Sand says

    This is the NY Daily News. In other words, almost its entire readership is from NYC. This is why it’s already skewed towards the reasonable answer.

  6. Ogvorbis: Now With 98% Less Intellectual Curiousity! says

    I just tossed in my useless vote and the results showed as: 59/39/02

  7. mobius says

    I just voted. There is still a distressing large 38% that think religion deserves to NOT be criticized.

  8. says

    “Designer: You know it’s a myth, and you could have science (but your book sales and speakers’ fees would plummet).”

    I’m guessing they won’t bother sticking that sign up next to the DI any time soon.

    Glen Davidson

  9. davidct says

    Religion needs to be challenged repeatedly and openly. I do have a problem with the word “know” since it might be overly optimistic.

  10. Draken says

    From the article:

    Mohamed Elfilali, executive director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, was not particularly troubled by news of the billboards. “It is not the first and won’t be the last time people have said things about God or religion,” he told CNN. “I respect people’s opinion about God; obviously they are entitled to it. I don’t think God is a myth, but that doesn’t exclude people to have a different opinion.”

    ….what? You mean, they needn’t be removed because they’re offensive? No outraged muslims burning the atheist flag in front of AA headquarters? Not even a tiny little fatwa?

    I’m flabbergasted.

  11. McCthulhu, now with Techroline and Retsyn says

    It’s just bloody offensive. Not the billboards, they’re fine. I’m talking about the person in the comments section that doesn’t know the difference between lightning and lightening.

  12. kosman says

    Very nice, except that the Hebrew one at least has the sentences backwards. It reads “Also, you have a choice. You know it’s a myth.” which lacks some of the rhetorical force of the English original.

    Someone seems to have been unclear on the whole right-to-left thing. Wonder if the Arabic one has the same problem?

  13. dianne says

    I feel uncomfortable with these billboards for one reason and one reason only: There doesn’t seem to be a similar billboard targeting Christians. Christians should be targeted first, in the US, because they are the largest and strongest religion in the US. Why start with a couple of religions that are already getting crap? It feels too much like what PETA does by targeting research labs rather than the meat industry or women in fur coats rather than bikers in leather.

  14. kimzsendai says

    As an experiment… this great. Let’s see what the responses are from different communities if we use what is essentially the same stimuli. I’m going to be watching with interest to see if there are community responses.

    However, the tone of the billboards sounds a little… well it sounds like an evangelical Christian billboard. It’s a likely to get mentally lumped in with the silly ‘Jews for Jesus’ ones that have been around for a decade.

    Now that I’m thinking about it…I suspect that’s the point, actually. Because to some extent this is to say ‘See, we aren’t just targeting Christians’ so it has to have look and feel like something the Christian critics will recognize.

    Ah well, still an interesting trial.

  15. John Kruger says

    Hmm, I voted yes and the results came up as 100% no.

    Are we being out-hacked? Or perhaps Google Chrome is just having issues.

  16. says

    “You fear it’s a myth” might come closer to the mental state of most believers. I think most of even long-term believers probably have some, even if only a little, sense that maybe they really don’t have the certainty that they’d like to have.

    Most don’t “know” that it’s all a myth at all, and even many breaking away aren’t really quite so sure as they’d like to be at first.

    Glen Davidson

  17. Forbidden Snowflake says

    kosman:

    Very nice, except that the Hebrew one at least has the sentences backwards. It reads “Also, you have a choice. You know it’s a myth.” which lacks some of the rhetorical force of the English original.

    I agree with what you said about the order of sentences, but that’s not the only thing wrong with it.
    1. It also uses the wrong word for “choice”. ברירה would have been better than בחירה in this case.
    2. Yes, Hebrew is a very gendered language, with different words for “you” for when addressing men/women, but there are ways around this shit that are more inclusive than just lazily using the male pronoun, which is what they’re doing (one such way would be to use the plural male pronoun, which is also used to address a mixed audience). Unless they are also running a female version of the billboard, this is marginalizing and irritating.

  18. kosman says

    Good point, Snowflake. I did think the gendered stuff was dubious, but my Hebrew isn’t strong enough to be sure. And — not bothering to expand the image to fully readable size — I thought they had used “breirah.”

  19. Rich Woods says

    @kosman #15:

    Someone seems to have been unclear on the whole right-to-left thing. Wonder if the Arabic one has the same problem?

    It looks right to me (not that I can speak Arabic, but I can recognise the predominant style of the characters, and I certainly recognise ‘Allah’).

  20. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I suspect some of the Hasidim may have problems with the Hebrew sign. It has the name Yahweh displayed for all to see. It’s common among the Orthodox to write the name God, in English, as G-d, because even spelling out the euphemism is disrespectful.

  21. lilith says

    Yea, it’s kinda weird that they got all the letters and the words correctly in the Hebrew one but seems to flip the two parts of the sentence… I’m also not clear about why they used the word “also” (or, literally, “with that”), instead of the “and” in the English one.
    I don’t have much problem with the use of the male pronoun. It’s common to write like that when you address both man and women. Yes, you could write
    את/ה יודע/ת
    but that looks a bit silly.

    Another issue is the use of the word יהוה, which, unlike the English and Arabic names for God, actually should never be said or even written outside the bible. If anything can be considered offensive, this is it. And I’m not sure that was really necessary.

    Arabic is not my mother tongue, but I can read a bit – and the sentence is in the right order.

  22. lilith says

    For Tis himself –
    writing יהוה is not simply disrespectful. It’s considered outright blasphemy.
    It might have been smarter to avoid it.
    (and before everybody starts shouting: I’m not saying you don’t have the right to put this word or any other on a billboard. I’m just doubting the wisdom in doing so. By all means, antagonize people – but do it for the right reasons).

  23. lilith says

    BTW, interestingly, in the Arabic version they solved the gender problem by using the plural form of “you know”, which encompasses both man and women. They could have done the same for Hebrew. Overall, they seemed not to have a native Hebrew speaker on the team…

  24. Rieux says

    Draken @12: Yes, I was pleased by that quote. If only all religious leaders could be as mature about these matters as Elfilali is. Good for him.

  25. opisthokont says

    I’ve said it on the Richard Dawkins website and I’ll say it again here: I don’t like these billboards. They are condescending in exactly the same way that theists are when they tell us we have a god-shaped hole in our hearts. I’d like to think we’re better than that.

  26. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I’d like to think we’re better than that.

    Criticism is easy. How would you get the message that their deity is imaginary across to the public???

  27. Sastra says

    dianne #17 wrote:

    I feel uncomfortable with these billboards for one reason and one reason only: There doesn’t seem to be a similar billboard targeting Christians.

    As I recall, American Atheist did put out a similar billboard last year targeting Christianity — right around Christmas and on a major highway in a major city. Bill Donohue pitched a fit, so it got national publicity.

    opisthokont #31 wrote:

    I don’t like these billboards. They are condescending in exactly the same way that theists are when they tell us we have a god-shaped hole in our hearts. I’d like to think we’re better than that.

    But I think the point is to highlight the resemblance, as a direct attempt to both mock and counter one of the main tactics used against atheists. “Deep down, everyone knows there is a God.” That’s poison. Fling it back.

    For those who genuinely doubt, it’s a wake-up call. For those who sincerely believe, they finally get to see what it feels like to be on the other side. The hope in that case is not to bring them over; it’s to get them to stop using the tactic, now that they know we’re on to them.

  28. Owlmirror says

    @Glen Davidson:

    Most don’t “know” that it’s all a myth at all, and even many breaking away aren’t really quite so sure as they’d like to be at first.

    I think the sign is supposed to provoke exactly the sort of moment of realization in atheists in the respective communities that they do think it’s a myth.

    ======

    @lilith:

    writing יהוה is not simply disrespectful. It’s considered outright blasphemy.
    It might have been smarter to avoid it.

    Blasphemy is the ultimate victimless crime.

    Some people may well be outraged even if they don’t believe in what is being disrespected (or blasphemed), as some non-Catholics (or ex-Catholics) were during Crackergate. But perhaps they can be convinced that excessive respect for a taboo is unwarranted.

    ======

    @opisthokont:

    I don’t like these billboards. They are condescending in exactly the same way that theists are when they tell us we have a god-shaped hole in our hearts.

    Does thinking of them as being targeted at atheists within the community change how you perceive of the signs?

    ======

    @Jadehawk:

    sometime soon I’m going to start hating the word “opinion”.

    So it’s your opinion that the word “opinion” is hateful?

    (kidding! kidding! also, running away very fast!)

  29. kimzsendai says

    @ 34 Sastra

    For those who genuinely doubt, it’s a wake-up call. For those who sincerely believe, they finally get to see what it feels like to be on the other side. The hope in that case is not to bring them over; it’s to get them to stop using the tactic, now that they know we’re on to them.

    Except that, for the most part, Jewish communities don’t use that tactic, really rather the opposite. Using billboards to spread the ‘Good Word’ (as opposed to advertising services or events) is a thing some sects of Christianity do. So, by doing this, the AAs are lumping themselves in (by demeanor) with the crazy fundigelicals — not particularly conducive to enticing the Jewish Atheist out of their community. Especially since you can totally be Jewish and out as an Atheist at the same time.

  30. Sili says

    Billboards saying God is “a myth” to go up in Jewish and Muslim communities

    Have we stopped calling them “ghettos”?

  31. opisthokont says

    Criticism is easy. How would you get the message that their deity is imaginary across to the public???

    I’d prefer something that might actually invite thought, like “What if it’s a myth?” or “Why do you believe?” — I suspect that these billboards’ approach will bypass the brain and just get the bile going.

    But I think the point is to highlight the resemblance, as a direct attempt to both mock and counter one of the main tactics used against atheists. “Deep down, everyone knows there is a God.” That’s poison. Fling it back.

    I suspect that the point will be lost on many. Christianity benefits greatly from a huge double standard in the US; it is the default position for most of the population, and I don’t think that thinking about the issue from the other side is something that will come easily to them. Again, I think the reflexive response will kick in too quickly to allow for any reflection on the idea.

    I’ll readily admit that I’m generalising, and in fact many religious people might in fact realise what the above comments suggest. Still, there are better ways of demonstrating our distaste for this kind of tactic than to use it ourselves.

    Does thinking of them as being targeted at atheists within the community change how you perceive of the signs?

    No, it doesn’t. There have been other billboards that have done that without stooping to the same tactics (something along the lines of “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.”). And while the target audience might approve of the message, the majority of people reading them won’t, and will just find it pointlessly offensive.

    And before anyone starts accusing me of accommodationism, placating the religious or joining forces with them isn’t my goal at all. I do think religious beliefs should be confronted in the public square — just not at the cost of our own integrity. I don’t think there are many atheists who seriously believe that the average religious believer thinks their sacred stories are actually myths, and I’d rather not put on the front that we think otherwise.

  32. Owlmirror says

    Does thinking of them as being targeted at atheists within the community change how you perceive of the signs?

    No, it doesn’t. There have been other billboards that have done that without stooping to the same tactics (something along the lines of “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.”).

    So would you feel better about a re-word?

    “If you know it’s a myth… you have a choice.”

  33. says

    I always do the polls, religiously. And by the time I vote the numbers have always changed: 82-17-1 :-). I find that very heartening. I know some people complain Pharyngula readers are “skewing the vote”. What we are doing, is proving there are a lot of people out there who don’t share the pollers narrow-minded, bigoted views.
    Thanks for spreading the word, PZ.

  34. opisthokont says

    So would you feel better about a re-word?

    “If you know it’s a myth… you have a choice.”

    That would be better, yes. More thought-provoking, and (more importantly) less arrogant.

  35. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    just not at the cost of our own integrity. I don’t think there are many atheists who seriously believe that the average religious believer thinks their sacred stories are actually myths,

    They don’t believe they are myths, but they are myths. Integrity is telling the truth. Apparently you don’t like the concept of challenging people. Your “invitations” suggestions are to wishy-washy to challenge their beliefs, which is needed to get peoples attention.

    That would be better, yes. More thought-provoking, and (more importantly) less arrogant.

    What is arrogant about the truth?

  36. opisthokont says

    They don’t believe they are myths, but they are myths. Integrity is telling the truth.

    Agreed on all counts. And that’s precisely my point: the billboards say that the reader knows that it’s a myth, which isn’t the case for the majority of readers. That’s not true, we know it isn’t, and saying otherwise compromises our integrity.

    Your “invitations” suggestions are to wishy-washy to challenge their beliefs, which is needed to get peoples attention.

    Perhaps so. But then I am not in advertising. Perhaps something more like “Some people worship God. Other people prefer reality.” — or something similar. That’s similarly aggressive as the existing billboards without telling people things that aren’t true.

    Maybe the problem is just that I have a pet peeve for people who think they know what I’m thinking and getting it dead wrong. I think most people find that irritating, and I see it as a conversation-stopper, not a provocation to further thought. But mostly I don’t think we need to be as insultingly condescending as that.

  37. McCthulhu, now with Techroline and Retsyn says

    I do think religious beliefs should be confronted in the public square — just not at the cost of our own integrity.

    I actually appreciate this sentiment, but for the real world, it doesn’t have a chance of being practical. Sometimes these debates over issues caused by religious ignorance, sense of entitlement, misogyny, etc. aren’t going to be sufficiently debated (and the sense of real anger/disgust conveyed) unless someone is willing to wag a finger in a face and shout some obscenities. Is that approach sensible for a billboard campaign? Not necessarily, but it still needs to be tried in case it affects people that needed that earnest a jolt.

    Most of the time it should be sufficient to have a rational, calm debate or pleasant presentation of facts. Unfortunately, we aren’t all Christopher Hitchens. The entire atheist community can’t suddenly manifest itself in the English countryside and receive the kind of education and sense of dedication to researching facts and backing everything up with appropriate citation AND verbatim quotes from memory. It would be nice if we could all just close our eyes and think, ‘What would Hitchens do?’ for every moment a debate comes up or opportunity to represent the cause of enlightenment, and suddenly magic spews forth. However, everyone is different in style, manners, recollection of facts, wit and the appropriateness of how forcefully they want to convey that message. No one should be told ‘shut the fuck up’ because of variation in any of those factors. They can, however, be corrected when the facts need righting or the results end up in disappointing failure.

    Most of the billboards I have seen so far have been from different groups trying different approaches. As PZ’s previous post regarding signs indicated, even the most innocuous are considered offensive by way too many people. With this kind of atmosphere, it appears that the most noticeable communication isn’t going to be achieved with a preponderance of ‘nice.’ As we have seen, they’re not all going to be gems either. But the point remains, there is no magic formula for communicating an idea that has to combat a system that has had the entire history of human evolution to ingrain itself into the collective psyche. A myriad of approaches is going to be required to overcome that rooted mental space. It can be done with integrity, but sometimes to maintain integrity requires the subtlety of a verbal hammer to shake people from their delusion.

  38. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    That’s not true, we know it isn’t, and saying otherwise compromises our integrity.

    But it is true. They know it is a myth. But they can’t acknowledge it for typically social reasons. By being challenged, they can acknowledge what they know is the truth to themselves.

    Reading between your lines, I get the opinion you don’t want to be “disruptive”, which you consider “unnice”. But any social change requires those who do disrupt “normal” thinking like the signs do, and those who are quieter and nicer to convince the fence setters that change is not bad. You fall into the latter category, while PZ and myself favor the first approach.

    There is no one approach that works. Real change comes when all approaches are used.

  39. Owlmirror says

    That’s not true, we know it isn’t, and saying otherwise compromises our integrity.

    But it is true. They know it is a myth.

    No, Nerd. Saying that someone knows something that they don’t believe is a contradiction in terms.

    It’s worthwhile, and important, to get them to understand epistemology; how knowledge is actually acquired. Indeed, they might not know their own minds well enough to understand the difference between something they believe and something they know, and it’s important to get them to understand the difference.

    But we aren’t mind readers, and it’s wrong to pretend that we are. They often think that what we call a myth is a true story, and that they have reasons that they think are good for thinking that it’s true. Calling it a myth is rhetoric; it emphasizes that we don’t believe that it’s true. And they might realize, or suspect, that there are problems with what they believe, and we can work on that.

    But don’t accuse them, falsely, of not believing what they do believe. They might not know their own minds that well, but they know them well enough to know that our claims about their minds aren’t true, which I am pretty sure hurts our credibility when arguing with them.

  40. opisthokont says

    Reading between your lines, I get the opinion you don’t want to be “disruptive”, which you consider “unnice”.

    I meant no such thing. In fact:

    And before anyone starts accusing me of accommodationism, placating the religious or joining forces with them isn’t my goal at all. I do think religious beliefs should be confronted in the public square — just not at the cost of our own integrity. I don’t think there are many atheists who seriously believe that the average religious believer thinks their sacred stories are actually myths, and I’d rather not put on the front that we think otherwise.

    For the record, I think PZ’s approach to the communion cracker incident was spot-on. I have no problem with confronting religious beliefs; whatever tactic we try with the devout is incidental compared with the dominance they exert over our entire society.

    My issue is not with offending the easily offended: it is with offending them in this manner, by saying things that we know are not true (and thanks to Owlmirror for spelling my point out), and by doing so in an egregiously condescending manner. I have values (says the atheist!) that include (a) not lying if I can avoid it and (b) not being a sanctimonious jackass, and these billboards violate both of those values.

    And of course I abhor the tactic when the religious use it, and I see no reason why I should not be similarly disgusted that we use it. I will not succumb to the double standard that asserts otherwise.

  41. Owlmirror says

    I have values (says the atheist!) that include (a) not lying if I can avoid it and (b) not being a sanctimonious jackass, and these billboards violate both of those values.

    Well… I still think it could be argued that, positing that it is aimed at atheists, that it isn’t and doesn’t.

    But I agree that the text could be better worded so as to be clearer, and avoid the impression of being false and/or sanctimonious when read by those for whom the statement about the reader is not in fact true.

    Hm.

    This is a very meta-level discussion, now I think about it.

  42. michaelcrichton says

    Kosman: Someone seems to have been unclear on the whole right-to-left thing. Wonder if the Arabic one has the same problem?

    Nope, they got the word order correct. There is a minor quibble with the gender of the conjunction innaha, usually when there’s a conflict the masculine Allah would take precedence over the feminine khurafa>i> (myth). But I’ve seen it both ways, and they could have done it to be deliberately insulting.

  43. michaelcrichton says

    Diane: There doesn’t seem to be a similar billboard targeting Christians.

    They already did one of those last Christmas, and the wingnuts complained “You wouldn’t dare insult those Violent Muslims like this!” I wonder what they’ll say now?