Atheist fundamentalists fighting fire with fire

Above is the billboard the American Atheists have “launched” near the Metlife Stadium. It’ll be up through Super Bowl Sunday.

Though a Christian myself, I am not inclined to dislike atheists. I think very much, for instance, of Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist. I have respect for Sam Harris. One of my all-time heroes is the late Christopher Hitchens, a genius if ever one was born. I wouldn’t be all that shocked if it turns out Ricky Gervais is God.

These are people who insist that the least we should ask of any faith system is that it be rational, reasonable, not … you know, manifestly morally offensive. Works for me. Works for anyone who’s sane.

If I were an atheist, though, the American Atheists would make me cringe. They’re so relentlessly obnoxious. The clear purpose of their dependably crass sensationalism is to above all offend. That’s cheap, easy, and childish. It does nothing to serve any cause at all beyond that which they seem to care most about, which is keeping the $potlight $hined upon themselves. The American Atheists are the pretentiously smug Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck of atheism, the arrogantly braying Tony Perkins and Brian Brown of Christianity.

They are—or certainly seem to be, anyway—the fundamentalists of atheism. They fight fire with fire. And that’s just a way for everyone to get burned.

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

    Yeah, it is saying that a Hail Mary only works in football, and millions of Catholics will instantly recognize it as a prayer. The Protestants and other non-Catholics will more likely recognize it as a football play with a similar name to that Catholic themed prayer. Most people just won’t give a crap about that stupid billboard and will be spending Monday morning discussing which was the funnier, the Allstate or the Budweiser commercial.

    But I agree, its a stupid billboard of the one-upmanship/neener neener type It needs to have the flag thrown at it for unsportsmanlike conduct and a fifteen yard penalty enacted.

  • BarbaraR

    *Sigh*
    This kind of thing is only… preaching to the choir, so to speak. I can’t see how it would suddenly convert anyone to atheism… it seems designed to just fan the flames.
    I understand the anger of atheists against organized religion, certainly. I understand atheists wanting to get together in an organized fashion to talk about their positions and how they got there, all the kinds of things people with a common interest do.
    But other than pissing some people off, what’s the point? For some people, it will confirm what they already believe about atheists (not in a good way). It’s as annoying as the self-righteous sign I saw recently on a church marquee: “Message to atheists: Thank God you’re wrong.” Stupid and self-serving. It adds fuel to an already destructive fire.
    What did that billboard cost? If you really want to piss off people – wouldn’t it have been better to take that money and, oh, let’s see, donate to a food pantry – then let the religious community know you did this?
    Is it really that important to be obnoxious about your beliefs? (Anyone who says, “We’re just giving Christians a taste of their own medicine,” loses the argument immediately. That’s juvenile.)

  • Keith Witty

    Stupid billboard, but no worse than any other fundie billboard situated all over America.

  • Caroline Miller

    This is actually a lot less inflammatory than some of their other offerings. But yeah, I’ve long thought that American Atheists is to atheists what PETA is to animal rights activists.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

    I don’t find this obnoxious at all. It’ll rub some religious people the wrong way, but they’re not the core audience and they’d likely get upset with atheists simply putting up a billboard saying, “We exist.” This is directed to those closeted atheists who don’t believe in God but don’t want to say so. A lot of football fans, I suspect, would fall into that category. AA goes aggressive and playful with their billboards — I don’t mind that. They get publicity and donors from their ads, and they’re not shy about admitting that’s part of the goal here, but I know they’ve also gotten a lot of messages from people who didn’t know there were other atheists out there until they saw one of the billboards or the groups president on TV. More power to them.

    I think you may have a valid point saying the wording of the billboard lends itself to the interpretation that prayer works, but only if you want to take it that way.

    • Matt

      I wouldn’t get offended by an atheist group putting up a billboard saying “We exist.” That’s a fact. I’d say more power to them. It might start some worthwhile conversation, and give a clearer message to those closeted atheists you speak of.

      This billboard, however, is offensive to me. I’d call it purposely antagonistic. Sure, it gives AA that cheap rush of getting one over on another group. But not a great way of promoting an image of atheists as good, kind, fair people when so many of them are.

      • Andy

        There’s a billboard just outside my city for a local chapter of non-believers, which I imagine is welcome for them given how conservative and God-fearing (a term many of them would use) most of this community is. It says, “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” I’m not the target audience, but I wasn’t put off by it like I was by this one. This is the billboard you’re talking about.

        The entirety of my exposure to this group has been a few isolated incidents in which they have made such statements that seem intended to offend those that disagree with it. Maybe they find it amusing to tease those they consider intellectually inferior, I dunno. I don’t think it will win them any converts, and it will probably piss some theists off. I would hardly consider that a good thing.

        Almost all of the atheists I know in real life are great people. They rarely or never come off like they feel intellectually superior, they usually just leave theists to themselves, like atheists so often ask them to do in return. I know a lot of Christians I can’t say that about.

        But I don’t dig these guys. I won’t allow myself to be offended by this obvious troll, but I don’t approve.

  • Mike

    The joke here is that a “Hail Mary” is not a prayer in Football terminology, it’s a desperate pass play deep down the field into a crowd of players hoping one of your guys can catch it. It’s used only in the last few second of a game where all hope of winning is otherwise lost. There’s no actual prayer involved and all of the religious football fans understand the distinction between the play and the prayer.

    • Andy

      At the risk of maybe trying too hard to add levity, I would venture to say there’s a lot of praying going on. Mostly by fans of the team making the Hail Mary.

      • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

        And no one has thought to do a Bud Light commercial in relation to this topic.
        (notices how bronchitis, plus six hours of sleep in 42 thanks to working for state highway department in the deep south during a snow/ice storm, turns my brain into this strange mass of odd thinking goo)

        • anakinmcfly

          I would watch a movie about odd thinking goo.

          • Shadsie

            I wonder if Mystery Science Theater 3000 has a movie in their riff-library titled “The Odd Thinking Goo.” Hey, I watched “The Crawling Eye” courtesy of them.

  • tanyam

    Uh, isn’t a “Hail Mary” the term for a reckless pass thrown in desperation? I think the billboard’s point is that a goofy pass might work in a game, but the “other kind” of Hail Mary is useless. This is not about praying and that working or not working in a game.

    And by the way, I don’t happen to be an atheist, but I don’t think the AA is simply trying to be obnoxious. A generous interpretation, perhaps, is that they want the lack of religious belief to be viewed as an option in this culture, the same as religious belief.. When you drive down the road your kids see any manner of billboards and church signs advocating belief in God. This is another option. Your 12 year old isn’t going to absorb a paragraph of Bertrand Russell whizzing by on the freeway, but this he’ll see and likely understand. Or. . . ask a parent to explain. And that reinforces the point that while many of the adults in this kids’ life are trying to convince him that God exists, apparently there are other opinions.

    • Alliecat04

      I’m so glad someone else pointed that out! A Hail Mary pass is a pass so pointlessly distant or wild that it’s about as likely to work as praying for a miracle. It’s not a prayer.

      Btw, Hail Marys do sometimes work – at my high school a kid threw a blind three point shot over his shoulder the length of the court at the last second and hit it, during a basketball game, winning the game. That’s what a Hail Mary is.

      • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

        I’m amazed anyone would think I don’t know what a Hail Mary is. But it’s essence–its origin, its root, its purpose, its genesis–is prayer. The moment a quarterback lets loose a Hail Mary pass he is doing so hoping/praying to god that his pass is complete.

        Still, I knew I’d get banged by people who’d make the point you and some others have made: that I’ve failed to … know what a Hail Mary pass is. I actually thought of just deleting that whole part. Maybe I’ll go modify it a bit to let people know that … I was raised in America, so know what a Hail Mary pass is.

        I changed the ending. It’s better now. Cool.

        • Alliecat04

          Well.. That may be the origin of the idiom, but I don’t agree with your definition, and apparently neither do 12 people who upvoted the comment pointing that out. I do apologize for thinking you didn’t know better, but honestly, you don’t seem like much of a jock to me!

          • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

            I’ve always been an athlete. More so–team-wise and all that–when I was younger. Now I mostly do weights, machine aerobics, and yoga. And racquetball, which I love.

            Anyway, I’ve changed the post. (This has been fun for me. I asked my wife to read the original post. She loved it. I said, “People will bitch at me for apparently failing to grasp what a Hail Mary pass is.” She guessed no one would. I said, “Bet?” And I won!)

          • tanyam

            Not to be rude, and boy, in the scale of real problems, I feel sheepish about even saying this. But is the fault ours for being so stupid, so interested in pouncing that we totally fell into a trap of not appreciating that you knew what a Hail Mary is,,– or is the problem that the writing wasn’t clear?

          • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

            Both. I think the idea that people who think, or are artists, can’t also be athletes is just … common stereotyping. And what I wrote the first time didn’t work because you can’t put the weight I did on what really only amounts to a turn of phrase.

          • Jill

            An artist, an athlete, a pauper, a poet.

          • Jill

            (will anyone under 30 get this joke? anyone over 30?)

    • anakinmcfly

      But there are so many non-douchey ways to express one’s own disbelief or non-belief without making fun of people who do believe.

  • http://faithlikeaman.blogspot.com/ Ryan Blanchard

    When I had just realized I was an atheist many years ago, it wasn’t hard to find an atheist community online. It’s hard for me to imagine it being difficult for others, but even for them, a simple “we’re here if you need us” message would get the point across. Stooping to a message of essentially “we disbelieve, and fuck the rest of you” not only makes it harder on those of us who aren’t walking assholes, it sends a message that on the other side of the reader’s religious fundamentalism is an atheist fundamentalism with just as much malice to share. I’ve had to mostly opt out of the atheist blogosphere because the AA attitude is so prevalent it makes trying to relate to people impossible. Hemant’s readership is among the most civil, but even there it gets difficult sometimes. Look at the reaction to Ben Corey’s LGBT apology article, for example. So much bile, so little community.

  • Anton

    As someone pointed out when this story appeared on Hemant’s blog, the American Atheists love to be confrontational in their publicity, then feign shock when the religious majority gets offended.

    I’d like to see more positive expressions of what nonbelief is, not more nasty potshots at what’s wrong with belief.

  • Rullbert Boll

    Well, well. Offensive and ridiculous behavior won’t benefit any cause whatsoever.

  • Jeannie Boen

    I have met a few pepple who were fundy Christians who switched over to this type of atheism that I refer to as fundy atheism. To me, this is the equivalent of door to door witnessing or playing loud Christian music on the beach. It shows a basic disrespect for others.

    • JenellYB

      I’ve observed the same thing. And even among those professed atheists that didn’t at one time accept fundy religion, they still act very much like them, have very similar attitudes, and if you look at their history, many may not have ever claimed to embrace a fundamentalist religious ideology, many did grow up within and around that kind of family/community. And I agree, too, at the core of it in any case, no matter what ‘beliefs’ about God or religion are expressed, is a basic disrespect for others, to the point of dehumanizing others. A common rallying cry among such people, religious or not, seems to be, I don’t OWE anyone my respect….they gotta EARN my respect. Whatever that actually means.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com/ John

    Careful, many Atheist’s will tan your hide for describing them as Fundamentalists. That is supposed to be reserved for Protestants according to those I talk to.

    • Sharla Hulsey

      They can tan if they wish, but there does seem to be a fundamentalist streak in a lot of the public expressions of atheism we’ve seen here lately.

      • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com/ John

        Christianity/Atheistic divide has become like politics these days only Atheist’s are doing major marching in the name of the Constitution. Yet Christians often see them as the enemy when Atheist’s are not. Their ideology is the enemy. We wrestle not against flesh and blood.

    • Matt

      If they’re angry about it, that’s their problem. Atheists are human beings and not exempt from the usual human failings of hubris, self-righteousness, and in-group bias. “Fundamentalist” is a term for faith systems, not Christianity in particular.

      • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com/ John

        Yes, but the Atheist movement has taken on a form of fundamentalism without a set of tenets written out. Funny how fundamentalism has become a bad word when it refers to the cornerstone of one’s belief and not wavering from it even if it isn’t popular. Takes character to live that out.

        • Matt

          Yes, it takes character to stand by one’s values and convictions in the face of resistance. Atheists face a not very hospitable climate for their beliefs, especially in the US.

          But character is not being shown when any group puts down another in the name of being right or asserting their superiority. That’s the distinction here. As a transgender Christian who has had to learn to love some extremely hostile enemies, I’m not impressed by some atheists’ behavior at all.

        • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

          Fundamentalism is a movement often based on trying to keep or wrest control, percieved threats and fear.

  • Pubilius

    Indeed! I’ve met some very awesome atheists (who struggled and had a difficult “coming out” process, something I can respect, being an LGBTQ person), and I tend to have more in common with many atheists on social justice than I do with fundamentalist Christians. But it’s a competing worldview, and there are indeed some really some equally obnoxious (prideful) atheists that can best Gene Mills and Tony Perkins (from my home state)…

  • IATSH

    Hear Hear!

  • Zeke

    John, I’m surprised that you would find this even remotely offensive, given your fondness for Harris, Hitchens and Hemant, whom have produced far more critical statements about Christianity, and no doubt read by vastly more people than will ever see this billboard. And why should an atheist “cringe” at something so innocuous as this? Atheists cringe far more during the game, during the inevitable player tributes to Jesus and on-field prayer circles, which this billboard ostensibly makes light of.

    • https://elizabeth-fullerton.squarespace.com/resume Elizabeth

      tl;dr. See, the mantra of blogging is people actually want to read your “billboard”.

  • Shadsie

    I was reading about this thing earlier on “Formerly Fundie” and was tempted to respond there, but didn’t (- to the blogger’s “can’t we all stop fighting?” plea). I don’t think the “outrage” and the tit-for-tat between the religious groups and the anti-religious groups who set up stuff like this will ever end because humans love to fight and we love to set themselves up as “heroes” against the forces of evil / forces of stupidity / forces of whatever floats your boat. This seems to be especially true in America where people can manufacture outrage without facing heavy consequences in most cases / most of the time. Think about it: No one’s going to jail over this. No ones’ going to get executed. The more I think about “billboards that offend,” (from *either* side, from any side) the more I become glad for them because it means we don’t live in Pakistan. Call it all out for being crass, but, in the end, we have the freedom to be so, so I cannot be bothered to take a lot of offense.

    The other thought that occurs to me, is that, since I don’t live in the New York area, where these guys seem to do most of their advertising, I never would have heard of American Atheists if it weren’t for the Internet and news outlets and bloggers drawing attention to them.

  • Robert McHenry

    I thought the billboard was tacky, not well designed, kind of juvenile… but then it is a billboard and the message usually have to be understood in just a few seconds and the graphic have to “eye catching”… and tacky is “eye catching”.

    If it upsets and challenges people… so what?

    Challenging the fundamental beliefs is not a “bad” thing… especially if those beliefs are part of a system that has been used for eons by some powerful people to dominate, subjugate, milk and abuse there folks. Religions are not benign and have often used their status as “god’s mouth piece” to do terrible things… so poking fun at them even in a tacky manner is ok.

    When I was 19 and came out as an “atheist” just before thanksgiving dinner… I was condemned, called an unholy heathen and taken to task by my holy rolling aunt. (and I hadn’t even acted rude)…Then she said she didn’t want her teen age kids around me… I said… “if your faith is so strong then nothing I say should really matter”… with that she gathered up herself, her kids, her husband and the cranberry sauce and left.

    that was 33 years ago… But I think my statement still holds… if faith is never questioned is it faith? when you state you believe in the “unbelievable” (such as walking on water)… and that your beliefs are beyond human reason… or “unreasonable”… then doesn’t this mean you should question them… or at least not be offended when others do. If you are then who is being “unreasonable”.

    For me… when we turn “faith” into “fact”… we miss the mystery of “faith”.

    Over the course of my life… which has been long and winding… I have shifted to a more “theistic” position but one devoid of dogma. Religious traditions hold some important teachings (and some very nasty one)… I have picked what resonates for me and let go of the rest… Jesus had some very powerful things to say… as did the buddha… mohammed… confucius… as did machiavelli, freud, jung and countless others…

    the mystery lays not in doggedly clinging to superstitions and rituals… but in each moment… the fluttering of our emotions, the spark of thoughts, the smiles and laughter we share… the depth of our sorrow… the preciousness of experience… the fleeting nature of ourselves as seen in comparison to the vastness of the universe…

    so, if poking some fun (even in a tacky manner) will help some people get out from under the yoke of lets say… southern baptistism… then let the baffoons frolic.


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