New Atheist Ad Design is NOT Anti-Christmas. Really.

by Jesse Galef

Our atheist billboards and bus ads have appeared all over the place, but there’s a certain repetition to the designs.  In case you wanted something new, your non-prayers have been answered: the American Humanist Association is sponsoring a new nation-wide campaign with the words “No God? …No problem! Be good for goodness’ sake.”

I absolutely love the line “be good for goodness’ sake” and I’m glad they kept it from last year. The only downside is that the apostrophe is easy to miss, and when I worked for the AHA last year I had to constantly point it out to people. Brilliant line in a book or as a spoken slogan, but perhaps not practical on fast-moving busses and in trains, where people won’t always pay enough attention to the nuance.

The other faux controversy last year’s ads stirred up was that we used Christmas themes. One news anchor accused us of using a “fake Santa” (well, the REAL Santa was busy at that time of year!). Bill Donohue took it as a direct attack on Christianity and told me that if we had any guts, we would go after Islam. The new ads keep the Santa hats and use red and green, so we’re sure to see the same accusations and comparisons to grinches.

AHA board member Herb Silverman (also president of the Secular Coalition for America) preempted those responses in his On Faith piece:

There undoubtedly will be some Christians who perceive this humanist holiday celebration as part of the “war on Christmas,” perhaps even more sacrilegious than wishing someone “Happy Holidays.” Paranoids will be paranoids. Should we desist from promoting our viewpoint to spare their feelings? Of course not. They’ll likely hate us and our philosophy no matter what we do, so we should just be ourselves.

Very few of our ads have been offensive or edgy, and yet there’s been a backlash against every single one. It doesn’t matter what we say, people will take offense.

Given the fact that people will take umbrage at things I consider harmless, should we bother to be polite? I think so. People are getting offended at the content of our message – there’s no getting around that. But if we can avoid offending people with our style as well, let’s do what we can. Spreading our message does real good in communities and in the national dialogue about religion in America.

I think we should be as nice as we can without compromising our message. Do you agree?
(Image from the AHA’s Flickr site)

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • http://alessamendes.blogspot.com Alessa Mendes

    AGREE. People are offended by the word “Atheist”. Reminds me of a previous post.

    As long as we’re trying to convey Atheists in a positive way, I say go for it.

  • http://garics.blogspot.com Garic

    I don’t know that the apostrophe’s a crucial thing. I’d write “for goodness’ sake” even if I wasn’t making a point about interpreting it literally, as in “What are you wearing, for goodness’ sake?!”

    That said, I suppose it is very common to spell it without an apostrophe, so including one may draw attention to the literalness of the meaning.

    The phrase is, of course, a euphemistic replacement for “for God’s sake”, which I don’t think many educated writers would spell without an apostrophe. I can think of at least two good reasons why “goodness” might treated differently from “God” in this construction, however.

  • http://thinkingforfree.blogspot.com Eamon Knight

    Depends on context. In ads, I think being polite and positive is good. People who get all offended at ads like this (or the “You’re not alone”, or TPNG ads) publicly show themselves to be thin-skinned bigots. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of cops beating up on non-violent protesters — guess who winds up looking bad?

    That being said, there’s also room for the Dawkins/Myers/etc attack-dog approach, too, in books and blogs where people have more choice whether to look or not (it’s kind of hard to avoid a big ad on the bus).

  • keddaw

    Friendly, well-meaning, non-threatening, non-anti-God adverts are not doing anything to avoid teh ire of the religious so how about starting up a new ant-religious campaign:

    A poster of a crying altar boy with the caption “Confession doesn’t forgive every sin.”

    A poster of a crowded bus with the slogan “How explosive is YOUR faith?” (even better when placed on a bus!)

    A poster of a woman being stoned to death with the caption “Literal Word of God?”

    etc. etc.

  • atalanta_lite

    I don’t know that it’s any harder to avoid looking at then the “Bring Christ back into Xmas” posters in buses and bus shelters.
    Or the ones that horribly offend me: the “Pregnant? Alone? Scared?” adoption posters for groups that seek out white babies for adoption and totally abandon’s the woman after ahe’s delivered “their” goods. All based on the religious fervor for reproducing like a cancer cell.

  • http://wongoworld.blogspot.com/ WongoWoman

    I agree with Alessa. Positive is the way to go. One of the things I hear more often than I care to from people when they learn I’m an Atheist is, “but you’re so nice!”. As if “kindness” was the basis of religion. It’s quite the opposite, but most people don’t bother to read their instruction manuals, they just repeat what they’re told. I make it a point to be as non offensive as possible without compromising my principles. If only it was that way the other way around.

  • Luther

    I saw a billboard yesterday that said “In the beginning God created – Genesis”

    I admit it bothered me, but what could have offended me was an attack on evolution showing a circle with a red slash over the picture of monkey, gorilla, man.

    This add says nothing about others’ beliefs. It does not attack commonly accepted science.

    Free speech is free speech. Support it or don’t claim you agree with the Constitution.

  • http://theobligatescientist.blogspot.com ObSciGuy

    I think we should be as nice as we can without compromising our message.

    Absolutely. Consider a third party that is supportive of both Christians and non-Christians. What message should they take away from all this fuss?
    The ads should be kept “nice” not just to be civil (which itself should be enough reason), but also to make it plain as day that the only thing “offensive” in these ads is that they aren’t promoting Christianity (or whatever religion the offended belong to). It makes the intolerance obvious. That fact gets lost when an ad pokes fun at religion, as any offended believers then have a reason to label atheists offensive. Their intolerance, then, goes unnoticed.

  • http://bjornisageek.blogspot.com Bjorn Watland

    It’s important to keep in mind that the offensiveness of the ad is an important consideration of whether a company will allow the ads to be placed. Good luck getting an ad suggesting that the religious are inherently violent by showing a picture of a suicide bomber or that Biblical literalism leads to stoning adulterers by showing a stoning victim.

    It is important to have a clear goal of what the intention of the ad is. Is it to shame and ridicule the religious from their practice? (Does that even work? Can you imagine yourself being convinced by ridicule from the religious?) Or, is consciousness raising more important. To simply stop hiding and working on expressing what atheists do value to break down the stereotype that atheists are nihilists and make people aware that their family and friends might be atheists.

  • Elizabeth McFadden

    Agreed. Being polite works in two ways: it forces people to react to the content, instead of feeling mocked or belittled, and it further shows atheists as able to be, as a prior comment noted, “nice.” It’s harder for the religious community to see us as threatening if we’re polite and friendly — and that’s good.

  • David D.G.

    People are getting offended at the content of our message – there’s no getting around that.

    Actually, based on what I’ve heard in the way of complaints about the billboards, it is not the content of the message that offends them, since the complainers invariably misread or misinterpret it; what offends them is the very existence of the message (and of atheists).

    That said, however, I agree that going for a positive and cheerful style (pro-atheism, rather than anti-religion) is absolutely the right way to go. Religious fanatics won’t be mollified no matter what we do, but more reasonable people will recognize and appreciate our non-negative style. We should not want to be associated with mudslinging.

    ~David D.G.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    The nicer we are, the more apparent it becomes that the offended crowd have no excuse to take offense.

    Since I’ve been reading Vonnegut, I have a relevant quote:

    Profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.
    -Eugene Debs Hartke (from Hocus Pocus)

  • Amanda

    Please. In Seattle, we used *quotes* by Carl Sagan and two founding fathers. Nothing else. They were still viewed like this:

    1) We were calling the founding fathers atheists.

    2) We were attacking Christianity

    3) We were indoctrinating children

    4) We’re grossly misrepresenting the quote and using out of context.

    All ridiculously false. The whole point was to promote critical thinking and empower freethinkers.

    I agree that paranoids will be paranoids. People will hate it just because it has a *link* to a freethought organization.

  • Simon Gardner

    Where I come from, the Christmas festival is pre-christian and they just took it over.

    Christian – my arse.

  • Alexis

    I had to laugh. I read a news article about this ad that quoted an offended woman. She took issue with atheists using a quote from a christian song. Did she believe that the magi and shepherds all gathered around the manger and sang a chorus of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”?

  • Karen

    Anytime we are polite, civil and friendly, we up-end the stereotypes about atheists that are constantly spouted by preachers and religious pundits.

    When someone is constantly told that atheists are angry, evil people it really shocks them to find out that maybe we aren’t such monsters, after all. And that makes them potentially reconsider some of the other things they’ve been indoctrinated with.

    My husband has recently started going to a new church and the pastor and his wife have become friends. I figure every time I see them and am gracious, friendly and fun to be with, I’m changing their ingrained attitudes about non-believers.

  • Trace

    The models seem happy so they must be theists. Have to love that logic.

  • Pingback: In the Name of Good « Atheist Climber

  • http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com Mariano

    This is mere propaganda that answers to an argument that no one has made. The claim is not that atheistic lack of morals but a lack of moral premise, lack of ethos.

    It is also a reprinting of their ads from last year: http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2008/11/another-atheist-charity-huge-success.html

    Yet again, during a time of the year when people are generally more inclined towards charity—peace on earth and good will towards non-gender specific personages—atheists are busily collecting hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars during a time of recession not in order to help anyone in real material need but in order to purchase bill boards and bus ads whereby they seek to demonstrate, to themselves, just how clever they are.

  • Calladus

    atheists are busily collecting hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars during a time of recession not in order to help anyone in real material need but in order to purchase bill boards and bus ads whereby they seek to demonstrate, to themselves, just how clever they are.

    Collecting money? So it’s kinda like the Vatican huh?

  • http://atheistclimber.wordpress.com martinpribble

    I just published a piece over at Atheist Climber that talks about whether it’s more noble to do good for the sake of “God”, or for the sake of “good”. Hemant’s post really resonated with what I was saying over there.

    Just be good, for the sake of goodness.

    In The Name Of Good

  • http://claire-chan.livejournal.com Claire

    I so entirely agree with this post!
    We’re coming up on the third Xmas as a definite Atheist, the second as a loud declared one. Really, I have found little-to-no resistance, and the only tears so far from the mother to me [I ♥ the Russians], whom is otherwise an excellent lady.

  • Richard Wade

    Given the fact that people will take umbrage at things I consider harmless, should we bother to be polite? I think so.

    Yes, we should simply do exactly what the slogan in the ad says. Be good for goodness’ sake. Not to please or placate, not to avoid or mitigate some bigot’s contrived “offence,” but just simply to follow our own humanist principles of behaving ethically, and showing kindness wherever we can.

    We should keep expressing our philosophy publicly because there are so many pious liars out there telling folks how evil we are. Let them bluster and bellow against relentless good manners, and their pretentious “outrage” will become yesterday’s news. Three more Christmas seasons of this, and nobody will be interviewed on TV whining about how their widdoo feewings were hurt.

  • AxeGrrl

    ObSciGuy wrote:

    Consider a third party that is supportive of both Christians and non-Christians. What message should they take away from all this fuss?
    The ads should be kept “nice” not just to be civil (which itself should be enough reason), but also to make it plain as day that the only thing “offensive” in these ads is that they aren’t promoting Christianity (or whatever religion the offended belong to). It makes the intolerance obvious. That fact gets lost when an ad pokes fun at religion, as any offended believers then have a reason to label atheists offensive. Their intolerance, then, goes unnoticed.

    I think you’ve nailed it right there :)

  • John

    … busses …?

  • Richard Wade

    Proposed ad slogan for next year:

    It’s cold. Find warmth in your heart for everyone.
    -American Humanist Association

  • muggle

    Richard, that gets my vote for next year. Very nice and all-inclusive. Except for maybe people in CA and FL. :D

    I love it! And, yes, exactly. Be good for it’s own sake. It’s what I always taught my daughter and strive to teach my grandson also.

    It’s not too hard to figure out what makes life better and this world a more pleasant place to be in. After all we only go around once when all is said and done.

    And if it makes some notice that hey the Atheists aren’t so bad as we thought, maybe my grandson (and his offspring, if any) won’t have it as bad as they go around and I’d love that for them!

  • Ben

    This is mere propaganda that answers to an argument that no one has made. The claim is not that atheistic lack of morals but a lack of moral premise, lack of ethos.

    I’ve heard the argument many times, usually along the lines of “if you don’t get your morals from the bible, where do you think you get them from?” Or, “if you’re not good, you’re going to hell. Do you want to go to hell?”

    Don’t fool yourself that the question hasn’t been asked. It’s often the last refuge of the devout.

  • Jeniffer

    Why try to ruin Christmas for so many? American is a Christian country and freedom of speech or not – it’s an outrage to blatantly try to ruin the holiday spirit for millions of people. These terrible people are proselytizing – isn’t that what they’re against? Look at this! Tictacdo – step by step instructions on how to reject Jesus. What a crying shame… targeting our youth directly.

    • Kukaikid

      why try to ruin it?…perhaps it is worth ruining.  You are quite a hypocrite…is not the church the greatest proselytizer ever created, that further targets the youth into the proposition that goodness, morals, truth are all born of religous facts and certainty?  Shall we rape truth of the fundamental question and search?  We need not have steps for rejecting jesus as a god, it is common sense.  Your crying is shameful…christianity, islam, and judaism are religions of revenge, homophobia, sexism, and racism.  why?…study some history and philosophy and find out for yourself. perhaps you prefer to hide behind your false contentment, false compassion, false pity, and false beliefs.  They are easy to falsify, there is the shakiest ground for their their belief.  For myself I’ll take the challenge of knowledge that continually searches for evidence, theory, and refinement. 

    • brent

      Nobody is trying to ruin Christmas.  We are saying let’s celebrate life, family and caring for one another.  Be good because it is the right thing to do, not because you are trying to keep your god from getting mad at you.  Being good doesn’t required God and most likely reason you think it does is you were targeted by your family while growing up with religious indoctrination.  If you had been born in say Pakistan you likely would be muslim simply because your parents and community around you was muslim.

  • Rosebud

    I love the “be good for goodness sake” campaign. It’s a premises I’ve always used when any asks me what do I believe in if I’m not religious. I tell them I try to be religiously good and I depend on that same goodness that we all as a society agree to abide. It’s a implied contract that we all ask and expect of each other every day.

    The objection that seems to be coming up in all these comments is
    How do we know what is good or bad without a frame of an organized belief or religion.

    We obviously know because in every society we punish people everyday when we believe they’ve crossed the line of good and bad

    Sadly in most cases where there is no separation of church and state governments will deny human rights over unreasonable religious dogma

    As Acura says in their slogan make this the “season of reason”

  • Papaw2bkm

    God is Love, God is Light, untill you understand this you will continue to be just a poor lost soul, with only one destination.


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