Constructive Criticism for American Atheists

The Center for Inquiry’s Ron Lindsay offers some constructive criticism for American Atheists and their latest billboards:

One problem I have with the wording on the billboards is that it doesn’t match up with what AA says they’re doing with the billboards. The stated purpose of the billboards is to show “the foolishness of mixing religion with politics.” However, the billboards don’t highlight any remark by a politician in which s/he tries to base public policy on a religious belief. The billboards do show a Mormon wearing sacred underwear and do reference the (minority) Mormon practice of baptizing the dead. But no Mormon politician says all Americans must wear sacred underwear or baptize the dead. The billboards also state that Christians promote hate and call it love. But no Christian politician says all Americans must promote hate and call it love. So where’s the mixing of religion with politics? One might be forgiven for thinking that it’s American Atheists who are, in this, instance mixing religion with politics.

The billboard message is essentially an attack on the absurdities and contradictions of Mormonism and Christianity. Fine. I don’t have a problem with that in principle, although I’d probably take a different approach, but why is this attack on religious beliefs being coupled with references to American politics and being placed on billboards in the city hosting the Democratic Convention? One could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that AA is suggesting that religious individuals shouldn’t hold public office because their beliefs are not only unjustifiable but absurd.

You can read his full piece here.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    I have to agree here. None of these are things either of the candidates are mixing into their political intentions (The big money, big bigotry part is not specific to Mormonism). As I said in the previous article, these people aren’t supposed to be infallible. All we should ask of them is that they keep their illogical religious beliefs out of their political platform, which Obama has mostly been doing, but Romney hasn’t (although you might be forgiven for thinking he’s just caving to pressure from the Conservative base rather than standing strong on principals.)

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/A37GL7VKR3W6ACSIZPH7EID3LI rlrose63

      I agree… the wording bothered me the second I read it but I didn’t understand why until now.  It is unnecessarily inflammatory and doesn’t serve the stated purpose.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

    If the target is truly closeted Atheists and not media they might try it differently. My blog: The Closeted Atheist & The Billboard 
    http://emilyhasbooks.com/the-closeted-atheist-the-billboard/

  • http://www.facebook.com/rogi.riverstone Rogi Riverstone

    these are a fail. they ridicule. they offer no alternative. they make people defensive, resentful and angry. they fuel the false persecution complexes promoted by religious leaders. WHAT WE NEED are POSITIVE images, role models, examples, inspirations, joyfulness, curiosity, a sense of liberation. Besides, both these billboards are poop brown and ugly.

    • Agnostic

      I totally agree. To be worthy of being called friendly, the messages should be positive and constructive. A person festering in his own anger soon burns up. A person encouraging the anger helps fan the fire of his destruction. Friendly atheism should also be responsible atheism. It should help to end divide in society not further agitate the structure which is already so fragile.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        But, American Atheists isn’t claiming to be ‘friendly’.

        The other issue is that people often confuse confronting privilege with being unfriendly.

        Like when the drunk guy tries to buy the lady in the bar a drink, and she says “no thank you”, and he gets offended and says “why so unfriendly?”

        • Pseudonym

          There’s actually nothing wrong with privilege as long as it’s checked. Privilege is just something you have, not something you take by force.

          But you’re right that people often confuse confronting privilege with incivility. The trouble is that the confusion happens in both directions. AA’s “Exit En Mass” campaign was confronting privilege that some mistook for incivility. These billboards are incivility that some mistake for confronting privilege.

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            When I say ‘privilege’ in this context, I don’t really mean rights or powers explicitly.  It’s more the lack of consciousness of your rights/powers.

            I’ve clearly seen cases where I get a lot more attention from sales people than my wife.  She’s the one who wants to buy the gravel and has the questions, but I’m the one they talk to.

            The problem with privilege isn’t so much that they assume I’m the boss, it’s all the times I don’t realize people are ignoring my wife, and all the times they don’t realize they’re ignoring my wife and all the times she’s so used to being ignored that she doesn’t even notice it.

            So yeah, I think privilege (not being aware when special rights are assumed) is a problem.

        • Agnostic

          You should stop using the word friendly on your website then. Perhaps it should be changed to antagonistic atheists?

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            It’s not my website.  You’ll notice the smiling brown guy in the banner?  It’s his blog.  From all accounts, he’s a very friendly guy.  That fact that his blog posts piss you off doesn’t change that.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I realize presidential candidates are a lot more interesting, I’m more struck by things like Inhofe saying AGW is a hoax because God promised he’d never flood us again.

    Or any of them using the bible to back anti-SSM policy.

    There would have been a lot more fodder (and thankfully there isn’t) if Santorum had won the GOP bid.

  • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

    I work in marketing and communications, and I find Ron Lindsay’s criticisms to be dead-on. If an organization claims “Our message is X” and your messages are not, in fact, “X”, your message is lost, you look scattered and unprofessional, and your competitors point at you and laugh.

  • Oldaughd

    As I posted in the last thread on these billboards, they sound childish. I agree with the critic.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Ron Lindsay makes very good points. But a Billboard is a Billboard. You can only get so much info. onto a billboard. Shortcuts are inherent in the medium. 

    Do those who criticize these billboards plan to donate money to do an alternative billboard campaign (so that it will be blasted by the rest of us couch potatoes who will dislike your color scheme, tone, style, flavor, etc.)??

    I tip my hat to American Atheists for being on the front line, breaking the taboo against publicly criticizing religion. Breaking the taboo leads to breaking the spell that religion has over so many of our families, friends, politicians, etc. 

    • Baby_Raptor

      I’m with this guy. Are the billboards perfect? No. But at least they’re trying.

      It won’t be long before some Christian starts crying about their offended privilege and the things get taken down anyway. Almost always happens.

      • Pseudonym

        The trouble is that they are not trying. There isn’t even a hint anywhere on the billboards that their intent is to critique or attack the invocation of religion in political debate.

        In five seconds, I thought of at least five ways of saying what AA wanted to say, without pulling punches, and would easily fit on a billboard. How about a damning quote from a candidate, with the words “get religion out of politics” underneath? Simple and to the point.

        I could buy the “at least they’re trying” argument with the slavery billboards. They were hamfisted and stupid and AA should have known better, but to their credit, the billboards actually did say what AA was trying to say.

    • Simon

      As it happens the organization that Ron heads -CFI- has done two billboard campaigns in the last year. One of them was even part of a larger campaign that won Best Atheist Ad at the About.com Reader’s Choice Awards for 2011: 
      http://atheism.about.com/od/ReadersChoiceAwards/ss/Readers-Choice-Awards-2012_9.htm

      • Pseudonym

        Exactly. Again, we can always quibble about the graphic design, but those ads had a point to make and made them clearly. Even a moron in a hurry can understand the message of those ads at a glance.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/A37GL7VKR3W6ACSIZPH7EID3LI rlrose63

      I’m really tired of seeing the “don’t complain unless you’re willing to put up your own billboards.”  I see nothing wrong with giving an opinion about a billboard that could possibly represent my point of view as an atheist.  I appreciate that billboards are being put up by the groups that do so.  Were I wealthy, I’d do the same, but I’m not. 

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    I have to disagree — the billboards speak truth.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/A37GL7VKR3W6ACSIZPH7EID3LI rlrose63

      They do but not for the purpose stated.  And being openly mean doesn’t help anyone.

    • Agnostic

      Your truth.Whoever undertakes to set himself up as the judge of the truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods,so said Einstein.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        But is stating ‘X’ is true judging truth and knowledge?  I will assert that 1+1 = 2, but I won’t assert to be the judge of all truth and knowledge.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    “no Christian politician says all Americans must promote hate and call it love”

    Way to miss the point there. What christian politicians do say is that the results of their hatred should be encoded in discriminatory laws that all Americans must live with.

    • Pseudonym

      Like Obama, you mean?

      Oh, wait, I forgot. He’s secretly a Muslim.

      • Agnostic

        You mean the guy who is half white, half black but looks like an Indonesian?

  • Daphnakalo

    I just want to point out that the practice of baptizing the dead in Mormonism is not a minority practice as suggested above. It is a central part if the use of temples. Mormons have to get an interview with their local bishop to get permission – which is based on good behavior, testimony and active tithing – to go to the temple, and aside from getting married, there is little else to do but baptise the dead. It is a very important rite practiced by anyone who wants to show their devotion to the church.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1351473675 Matthew Baker

    Those billboards are way too wordy which seems to be a common problem with atheist related billboards. We do have a lot to say but you have to do it in about 5 to 7 words if you want people to able to read it while driving by. Less is more when it comes to billboards.  

  • Bob Becker

    Don’t like ‘em.   Poor design, much too wordy, not connected with ostensible message, etc.  Not likely to be effective with whatever population they think they’re targeting.  Really bad idea, this time.

    More effective in a convention city would have been a bill board showing Romney, and a quote from one of the LDS Prophets describing the  Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon, and then, under Romney’s pic, the line from Romney’s religion commercial:  “Do you think his values are your values?”   

    At least it might have given Catholic GOP delegates something to think about. 

    • Sharon Hypatia

       I agree.  There are REAL differences between the religious sects, but these days it is papered over with ecumenicalism.  Mainstream moderates may agree to live and let live, but the fundies, who are driving the current political religiousity, don’t.  In public it’s “We ALL believe in God”. Behind closed doors, they don’t believe anyone else is a real xtian. After they climb to power on the backs of the moderates, the non-fundies will be thrown under the bus.
      I’d like to see  ads that highlight what is being said behind the closed doors – like Pat Robertson saying that Methodists and Presbyterians aren’t “true xtians”.
      It might make the moderate xtians think a little harder about who they vote for and who they should support financially.

  • MegaZeusThor

    I think that the short speech that David Silverman was good. Perhaps the billboards could better match that content? (Really though, a billboard can only say so much as people whip past them in their cars.)

    David has said in the past that their billboards provoke and get more than their money’s worth. He’s willing to look like the “bad guy” and let other major atheist groups look like the good reasonable ones in comparison. I’m not sure it a complete argument, but maybe movements require firebrands and moderates (?).

    • Patterrssonn

      Exactly, what we really need is a Stonewall moment, can’t for the life of me imagine what an atheist Stonewall moment would look like though.

    • Pseudonym

      Movements do need firebrands and moderates, but they don’t need arseholes.

      David Silverman isn’t an arsehole, of course. He just plays one on billboards.

  • Alan Christensen

    As an ex-Mormon, atheist and advertising guy, I think the billboards are badly written and designed and totally misdirected, which means they’re a waste of money. As a resident of Charlotte, knowing where billboards are available in this area and who is likely to see them, it’s a double waste of money.

  • Patterrssonn

    Personally I think this is all a bit of a tempest in a teapot. If you look at any movement there’s always radicals and moderates and appeasers. Success at making progressive change depends on different tactics. Many people might find these billboards harsh and inflammatory but they will also speak to and encourage some people to consider atheism and maybe question the role of religion in politics.

    They could also make people see the more moderate stances as a more acceptable compromise. Ward Churchill talks about this in “the Pathology of Pacifism”. How Malcom X’s radicalism made Martin Luther King seem a much more appealing figure to the American government, the media and to white America.

  • TGAP Dad

    (Note: comment was also posted at JT Eberhard’s place, on his same-topic post)

    I see that American Atheists have STILL not hired a graphic designer. These designs are awful.
    If anyone from AA is lurking here, take heed:
    * Keep the design simple
    * Keep the message simple. To wit: which of these is your message: 1) Mormonism/Christianity is wrong or stupid, 2) atheism, simply out is reasonable, or 3) please join American Atheists (especially if you’re a graphic designer)?
    My dream design would be a take-off of the ubiquitous white text on black background signed by god, but with actual atheist quotes attributed to actual people. How awesome would it be to see this on your morning commute, rendered in bold white text on a black background:

    The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than a drunken man is happier than a sober one.
    - George Bernard Shaw

    THAT should ruffle a few feathers!

    • allein

      I would love to see something like that!

      Not that I pay that much attention to billboards in general, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen an atheist billboard in my area. On the other hand, I don’t see too many religious ones (several church signs, but no actual billboards that I can think of off the top of my head).

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/47IDX2QAR6VU6ZAILFU6I23ACQ Joseph

      I agree… this is a great idea, TGAP Dad! There are so many great, concise quotes by famous (and generally well-respected) skeptics that would be very effective in advocating for our cause in a positive way. Here are a few others that come to mind:

      “Lighthouses are more helpful then churches.” — Benjamin Franklin

      “Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” —Thomas Jefferson

      “A man is accepted into a church for what he believes and he is turned out for what he knows.” —Mark Twain

      “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.” —Albert Einstein

      “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.” —Ralph
      Waldo Emerson

      I hope one of these atheist organizations considers a billboard campaign like this!

      I agree… this is a great idea, TGAP
      Dad!  There are so many great, concise quotes by famous (and generally
      well-respected) skeptics that would be very effective in advocating for our
      cause in a positive way.  Here are a few others that come to mind:
      “Lighthouses are more helpful then churches.” — Benjamin Franklin
      “Question with boldness even the existence of a God,
      because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than
      that of blindfolded fear.” —Thomas Jefferson
      “A man is accepted into a church for what he
      believes and he is turned out for what he knows.”  —Mark Twain
      “A man’s ethical behavior should be based
      effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious
      basis is necessary.” —Albert Einstein

      “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.” —Ralph
      Waldo Emerson

      I hope one of these atheist
      organizations considers a billboard campaign like this!

      • allein

        The name alone would probably rile up a lot of people, but I’d love to see:

        “Don’t swallow your moral code in tablet form. – Christopher Hitchens

  • TheKevinBates

    So we’re just skipping the part where Mitt Romney got his dead atheist father in law baptized?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mflaminivt Matt Flamini

    Why can’t we have pictures of einstein, neil tyson, and other atheists who people are familiar with and admirable. say, “welcome to the club” or something like that. Let them know they are not alone and that its a group of people to be a proud part of. this crap undoes all that I do.


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