Confession: I never really liked that FFRF sign

Libby Anne has a post up called “The Problem with Confrontational Atheist Tactics,” which takes as its jumping off point an infamous sign that the Freedom From Religion Foundation puts in the Wisconsin Capitol Building every year: (The text on the sign reads: At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. there are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.)

I’ve actually never liked this sign. In fact, I even wrote a post saying so way back when, when I had been blogging for maybe six months. But I find Libby Anne’s reasons for rejecting it completely wrong. After all, she doesn’t just have a problem with this sign, the title of her post is about “confrontational atheist tactics” in general:

Finally, some might say that the negative perception of atheism is not our fault, and that it’s therefore not our job to fix it. Some may argue that atheists are already living full lives as nice people, and that Christians if Christians don’t know that it’s not atheists’ fault. I see the point, but I have to take issue with it. You know why? Because the confrontational tactics some atheists use are complicit in the negative image many Christians have of atheists. In other words, I think that some of the tactics of the organized atheist community have actually served to further the public’s negative perception of atheism.


Now obviously, I speak only from my own experiences, and everyone’s experiences are different. I’m happy to listen to points of disagreement or give a hearing to counterarguments. But I am serious when I say that I think the confrontational tactics used by many in the atheist movement do more harm than good regardless of the goals of the atheists behind them.

I have a huge problem with this, namely that it ignores the question of whether religious folks’ notions about how we ought to behave are reasonable. Reinforcing negative perceptions of your group is, all else being equal, a bad thing, but very often all else isn’t equal. Frequently, you’re dealing with completely unreasonable notions about how your group ought to behave, notions that need to be challenged rather than acquiesced to.

I mean, we live in a world where some people believe genocide is totally cool if God commands it, and in fact He did command it in the incapable-of-error holy book He inspired; where other people recognize said holy book is flawed but insist on believing that in spite of the overwhelming amount of awful stuff in it, they know the true message of the book and the true message is supportive of gay marriage; and where other people think both of the previous groups are nuts. And on top of all that, many people in the first two groups think it’s just horrible to point out such embarrassing facts about this holy book.

If you’re going to ignore those issues, if you’re going to ignore the issue of whether people’s reactions to certain behavior are reasonable, then you may as well start telling women they need to dress modestly at all times for the sake of fighting misogyny.

Now again, I don’t much care for the particular sign put up by the FFRF… but I’m not even sure my reasons are good ones. What I want to say is that while there are many things worth being a dick over, Christmas has become so secularized that a Christmas tree in the Capitol building is not one of them. But I’m given pause by some comments Heina D. made about the “atheists & secularization of Christmas” issue on Twitter:

So maybe we should be dicks about the Capitol having a Christmas tree (which is, honestly, a Christmas-specific thing, in spite of its unclear connection to Christian theology). Not entirely sure on this one.

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  • Rain

    “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world.”

    I find it difficult to believe that whoever wrote that didn’t know that they can’t possibly know that for sure. It’s one thing to say there are absolutely definitely positively no unicorns. It only insults the intelligence of a couple of people that might believe in unicorns. But we’re talkin 4/5 billion people here. Lighten up on the hubris a little, folks.

    • Nolan

      I don’t think that stating there are no gods etc. includes a claim that this is absolute knowledge, only that it is likely enough that we can avoid qualifiers that weaken the statement. I mean I tell people my birthday is September 5th all the time. I don’t know that for sure (it’s all secondary info), and still I don’t have to say I was “probably” born then.

      More importantly though, religious people speak all the time with the same amount of certainty, and often explicitly more. Members of congress pray to their “Lord” and “Creator of all” and signs are put up all the time making bold proclamations about the existence of God and heaven and hell. And yet this criticism of hubris only gets leveled against atheists.

      I think that is because religious people, as Chris has said, have created an unreasonable rule of discourse that we tend to implicitly accept, that they can make whatever claims they want and still be nice and humble, but atheists become arrogant and hubristic once they make parallel claims.

      • Rain

        “I think that is because religious people, as Chris has said, have created an unreasonable rule of discourse that we tend to implicitly accept, that they can make whatever claims they want and still be nice and humble, but atheists become arrogant and hubristic once they make parallel claims.”

        That would make a pretty good sign right there. Yeah their fallacies stick out like a sore thumb, but so do ours. If I were religious I would be wondering how the heck they can be so sure of things they can’t possibly be certain about. If asked, then they would say, why of course we can’t be 100% certain. That’s what I see all the time. Religious person says how can you be so sure, and then atheist person says, well, of course it would be ridiculous to be 100% sure. Then atheist says 100% sure thing. Then religious person says hey, wtf, *headdesk*. Round and round it goes.

        • Nolan

          I think plenty of honest believers readily admit that they are not 100% sure, but it is actually very common for many of them, even respected thinkers, to assert total confidence. William Lane Craig for example asserts that he could never change his mind about the resurrection, even if he were able to go back in time and see that the resurrection didn’t occur. He has the infallible Holy Spirit that informs him (I can find the source if needed). This has been my experience with a troubling number of religious people, including Muslims, and it has never been my experience with atheists (although I suspect a very few will assert 100% certainty). Even the ever confident arch-atheist Richard Dawkins claims less than 100% certainty regarding God’s non-existence.

          So sure, 100% confidence is problematic from atheists and from theists, but it is much more commonly asserted by theists, and ironically, it is atheists who are more likely to be characterized as arrogant. This is backwards.

          • Rain

            “William Lane Craig for example asserts that he could never change his mind about the resurrection, even if he were able to go back in time and see that the resurrection didn’t occur. He has the infallible Holy Spirit that informs him (I can find the source if needed).”

            I’ll take your word for it. I don’t know if I believe him though. I get the impression he would do anything to “win” a debate. I think that in every debate I’ve seen with William Lane Craig, his opponents always agree with him. You know the drill. “My opponent XYZ actually agrees with me about ABC, blah blah.” Not to mention the experts too. All the experts, amazingly, agree with William Lane Craig about things. In reality probably about exactly zero percent of them agree with him.

        • eric

          Religious person says how can you be so sure, and then atheist person says, well, of course it would be ridiculous to be 100% sure. Then atheist says 100% sure thing.

          I think you are mistaking a lack of verbal qualifiers for a claim of absolute, philosophical certainty. As Nolan says, we make bold knowledge statements all the time and nobody ever assumes the speaker is claiming 100% absolute philosophical certainty. Why should statements about God be treated any differenty than a statement about birthdays or anything else? Why should we have to include qualifiers on that subject when nobody insists on them at any other time?
          I am sure that tomorrow I won’t be able to flap my arms around the room and fly. I am sure God does not exist. To paraphrase Robert Stephens: when you understand why you accept the former statement without needing verbal caveats, you will understand why I accept the latter without needing verbal caveats.

    • ADL

      Atheism is Hubris.

    • Mr. Question

      Sad part is you’re unwilling to see what is so clear, choosing to hold on steadfast to beliefs that can’t bear any proof, devoid of logic and containing the same aspects of mythology you shun from other cultures. Yet retort by calling us filled with hubris, it’s hilarious, can you smell the irony? Ask yourself if chance had borne you in a Muslim country, how would you have logically become a Christian? If your theory involves supernatural intervention then your problem is ego. If your god is unwilling to save the lives of innocent children, chances are you’re not getting help either. All other religions have member who “Feel” the same connection with their deity of choice. Christianity gained its foothold on humanity at the cusp of civilization. Religion has since done all it could to stymie the growth of science & critical thinking (Remember Galileo? Of course you don’t, you only know what you’re told). There maybe a large number of Christians who have been indoctrinated in childhood or at their weakest points in life. But there being a large number in agreement, does not nor has it ever been proof of being right. Both recorded history and science find religion lacking. Science, that which with its principles brought us the microwave and space flight. The testing and retesting of ideas, the discardation of the failed ones, and the promotion of the successful one’s (Nature? Evolution?). To which your best solution would be to say ” God inspired it”, so quaint, so sad that you’d disregard the failed tries and persistence that brought all this to light. I will not live in ignorant bliss, to be herded by those who know the truth and lull the ignorant masses into subservient slavery. In the end, I hope Christians to be free of the downplay of their one true real life for the promise of judeo-christian Valhalla. There is no cake at the end. The cake is a lie…

  • Jim Royal

    Let’s postulate that you’re right, and that the dislike that many people in the US feel for atheists is unreasonable, and it is unreasonable in all cases. Now what?

    You compared that dislike to a pair of religiously-driven evils: forced modesty and deity-ordered genocide. Aside from the hyperbole involved in those comparisons, they are in fact, entirely different things. The latter are examples of treating people badly, while the former is merely an opinion. The fact that many people in the US dislike atheists is regrettable, but it’s not something that you can arbitrate on the basis of reasonableness.

    This is not an issue of how atheists are treated, which can be addressed through the courts. It is about the opinions people hold in their minds about atheists.

    So how does that billboard — that obnoxious billboard, to use your own words — fit into this situation? I think it provides people who are prejudiced against atheists with evidence to support that prejudice. I think it makes the prejudice reasonable.

    So how do we want atheists in the US to be seen? I think they should be seen as champions of rights. But that will take some effort, and a change of focus.

    I’ve seen reports that there’s been a significant uptick recently in the number of young people who have no religion. I bet that a key element of this shift is the issue of gay marriage. Young people have inherited less of their parent’s intolerance toward gays, and as a result, they’re leaving their churches.

    Atheists in the US should be all over this issue. Get behind every social justice issue that also happen to drive wedges between people and their churches, and be noisy and righteous about it. Whenever religions are hurting people, atheist groups should be at the forefront calling for it to end.

    That will improve people’s opinions of atheists.

  • MNb

    “there are many things worth being a dick over”
    Yeah. I can fully understand that atheists in the USA get upset by a director of school leading a prayer. In Suriname and The Netherlands nobody gives a damn, including atheists.

    “how atheists are treated, which can be addressed through the courts”
    Quite naive. An open atheist in a religious town like Dutch Staphorst is going to have a rough time and will not get treated any better if he/she sues his/her neighbours every time they refuse to greet him/her, even if it’s technically discrimination. The difference between the USA and The Netherlands is that the inhabitants of Staphorst hardly have political power outside of their town.

    ” it provides people who are prejudiced”
    Naive as well. Prejudiced people tend to suffer from confirmation bias. Trying not to provide them with “evidence” – whatever that means in this context – is not going to change their prejudices.

    “Get behind every social justice”
    Good luck. Several atheists in The Netherlands are to my standards an obstacle to lots of social justice issues. It’s very possible to be an atheist conservative.
    Now I personally like getting behind many social justice issues. I just think doing it to promote atheism sucks. Social justice is a goal in itself.
    I just want to enjoy every right to live according to my convictions like any single believer. Fortunately I’m born in (The Nls) and live in a country (Suriname) where that’s the case. Guess what? If somebody in The Netherlands would put up a sign like that it hardly would be a fuzz, like Floris van den Berg experienced a few years ago.

    “There probably is no god. Have the courage to think for yourself and enjoy life.”

  • MNb

    Reading tip for 2013:

    especially in the light of your project, CH. One comfort for you: Philipse focuses on Swinburne rather than on Craig. I just finished chapter 1 and do I enjoy Philipse’s crystal clear style.

  • Gabby Weiss

    As you can imagine, the days following the massacre in Newtown, CT brought every god fearing human down on the side of prayer. This atheist had had enough it. So I answered a friend’s status update on Facebook with my opinion and was excoriated for it. That won’t stop me. Confront and challenge, that’s my plan.

  • Beth Presswood

    The fact that kids are mean to kids who don’t celebrate the dominant cultural holiday does not mean it’s not secularized. There is nothing stopping Jews and Muslims from participating in secular xmas and some of them do.

  • Stan bradley

    I don’t find anything confrontational at all with FFRF’s sign they put up in the capitol building in Madison Wisconsin. It ‘s interesting that people who think they are liberal and freethinking always seem to point their finger at atheists who stand up for their rights, the atheists are usually told that they are confrontational and intolerant. Gee, I guess people are confrontational and intolerant when they call on people to do the right thing, how dare they?

    • Beth

      Yes, people are people are confrontational and intolerant when they call on people to do the right thing. Whenever you are asking someone else to change their behavior, you are being confrontational and intolerant. It doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do at times.

  • hf

    See, I thought you disliked the sign because the last paragraph (well, the last clause) seems false. We’d expect even the Bible to have good effects on someone purely by chance. Your given objection seems transparently wrong:

    1 I can hardly go for a walk in a ‘blue state’ without seeing a sign exhorting me to “keep Christ in Christmas”.

    2 What secularization does exist, came about through people’s actions. In particular, it happened because people celebrated Christmas/Xmas/Santa Day in ways that mostly seem more pro-religious than the sign (at least in retrospect) but that nevertheless offended vocal Christians.

  • Custador

    If this were a discussion on race and Libby were black, the name Uncle Tom would be at the forefront of my mind. You know what I hear when people (usually Christian) call me a confrontational or militant atheist? I hear some Alabama cop from the 1950s talking about “uppity n*ggers”. So were challenging their privilege. Good. I’m surprised at Libby on this one, and not a little disapointed.

  • kennypo65

    I’m an outspoken atheist who’s best friend since high school is a Presbyterian minister. Whenever we discuss spiritual matters, I tend to tone down my rhetoric a bit. Not because I have any respect for religious belief, but because I have respect for him.

    • John Moriarty

      Same situation and interaction here. Its a lot different going face to face with someone compared to going ìnto polemic mode online. I think most others would feel the same?