Should Religious and Atheist Hardliners Try Harder To Break Out of Their Co-Dependent Cycle of Indignation?

Fellow Patheos blogger Ben Corey heaves a deep sigh over the American Atheists digital billboard that will be on display outside Metlife stadium during the 2014 Super Bowl.

Corey considers the billboard a bit of a dick move. He doesn’t like it when people of faith are mocked, and he’s tired of all Christians getting tarred with American Atheists’ broad brush.

Cards on the table: I unreservedly mock religion at least a few times a week (usually while dining on a Christian baby) and would consider the world a darker place without the wit of Monty Python, Bill Maher, and George Carlin.

Now let’s look at what Corey is saying, and think about his advice from a media strategy point of view.

Instead of sending the message of “We’re here, we hold a valid worldview, and we want to be good neighbors” the billboards send the message of “We’re here, we’re right, and the rest of you are idiots”.

The cycle goes something like this:

Our fundamentalist put out an obnoxious billboard meant to antagonize people of no faith or a different faith. When they freak out, we say: “see how unreasonable and nasty those atheists can be? They really need Jesus“.

And so, they respond in-kind (keeping the whole cycle going) by putting up billboards designed to antagonize us right back, and when we freak out they say: “see how unreasonable and nasty those Christians can be? Their faith system is toxic.” …

I’m tired of it. I’m tired of my Kirk Camerons and I’m tired of theirs.

He proposes to end the whole thing “by opting out of this tit-for-tat system.”

Easier said than done. The theist-atheist Kulturkampf is as enticing as juicy burgers and ice cream sundaes; most of us want to partake now and again. Whether it aids our wellbeing is questionable, but the short-term gratification can be pretty sweet.

And of course, the co-dependency of this back-and-forth schtick is a boon to those who profit from it. When Bill O’Reilly or other Fox News talking heads invite David Silverman or Dave Muscato on their shows, fireworks ensue. Sales of home-made popcorn spike (I just made that up). The benefit is mutual and swift: Both sides more or less get their message out, and advertising dollars flow into Fox’s coffers — just as donations flow into American Atheists’. (Disclosure: Patheos compensates its bloggers — atheists and believers — based on pageviews, so we are hardly exempt from this dynamic.)

I don’t mind the Super Bowl billboard. For me, the jolly picture makes it more approachable than most of AA’s attempts, taking the sting out of the message. But I’ve seen other AA ads that rubbed me the wrong way for reasons similar to Corey’s.

Surely, in general, it’s better to build bridges than to burn them.

Still, it’s tempting to quibble with Corey (he and I are master quibblers). For one thing, agnostics and atheists, being vastly outnumbered by believers, may have a greater, more urgent need for eye poking. It acts as a pressure valve that helps us cope with the religious irrationality that permeates the world.

Our adversarial messages are, I think, also markers of non-closetedness, if that’s a word. The analogy isn’t perfect, but groups like the Black Panthers and ACT UP were likewise slightly over the top when the civil-rights and gay-rights movements began to reach critical mass. Before the conciliation can begin in earnest, some aggressive vocalizing is to be expected; perhaps this is even healthy. I can’t fault American Atheists for that.

Judging by the comments here and here, this blog’s readers seem evenly split on the provoke-or-reach-out question. For his part, Corey has made up his mind:

I’m telling my Kirk Camerons to stop, and I hope [atheists] will send the same message to theirs.

Done. Now go tear him a new one.1

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1 Please don’t.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.


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