The Problem with Confrontational Atheist Tactics

If you hang out in the atheist blogosphere during the month of December, you’ll probably hear a lot about challenges to nativity scenes on public property. Often these challenges involve atheists arguing that if nativity scenes are allowed on public property, they should be allowed to put up displays too – along with members of other religions too, of course. In some cases, atheists have won this challenge and been allowed to add their own displays next to nativity scenes on public property. While there is obviously variation in what text is selected, here is a sign that is commonly used:

[The sign's text 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.]

In Santa Monica, California, there used to be a nativity scene in a public park that consisted of numerous scenes telling the nativity story piece by piece. Here was a piece of it:

When someone complained, the city decided to let out the nativity scene spots by lottery, and an atheist group won a number of them. Here is what they put up:

And this:

What this group did makes me very uncomfortable. Why? Because if one goal the organized atheist movement has is to improve the public image of atheists and reduce prejudice against atheists, putting up signs like this as part of holiday displays isn’t helping. In fact, it’s doing the opposite of helping. These signs are, quite simply, designed to offend, and believe it or not, this sort of thing sometimes makes me want to reach for some other label besides atheist (nonbeliever? not religious?) when the topic of religious belief comes up.

When, in speaking with a fellow atheist, I voiced my disapproval for the message many atheist holiday displays send, he told me that the whole point of this sort of advocacy is for the atheist signs to be so offensive to the public that local governments opt to simply pull all holiday displays from public property. And indeed, that is just what ultimately happened in Santa Monica. So I do understand the motive. I, also, think that nativity scenes belong on private property, not on public property. There are plenty of churches with spacious yard space, after all! I don’t think, however, that this tactic is ultimately helpful, especially given its potential to enhance a negative public image of atheists.

I am very much reminded of a post by Greta Christina a year ago, in which she said the following about the goals of the organized atheist movement:

For many atheists, the primary goal of atheist activism is to reduce anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state. Their main goal is to get people to see atheists as happy, ethical, productive members of society, with full and equal rights and responsibilities. They want to see atheists be fully accepted into society, and to have our atheism recognized as legitimate. They want to counter myths and misconceptions about atheists. And they see angry, confrontational, firebrand atheists as feeding into those myths, and alienating religious believers, and thus making everyone’s job harder.

But not all atheists see this as their main goal.

For many atheists, our main goal is persuading the world out of religion.

I mean, yes, of course, most atheist activists would love to see anti-atheist bigotry disappear, and are working towards that. But many of us — I’m one of them — see that as only one of our goals. Many of us don’t just want a world where believers and atheists get along and let each other practice their religion or lack thereof in peace. Many of us want a world where there’s no religion. We don’t want to see this happen by law or violence or any kind of force, of course. But we think religion isn’t just mistaken. We think it’s harmful. Some of think it’s appallingly harmful. Some of us think it’s inherently harmful: that the very qualities that make religion unique are exactly what make it capable of doing terrible harm. What’s more, we see religion as not just hurting atheists. We see it as hurting billions of believers. So we’re working towards a world where it no longer exists.

Now. Even if I accepted that anti-atheist bigotry and church-state separation were our primary goals, I’d still argue for confrontationalism being a valuable part of our strategy. For visibility and the Overton window, if for no other reason. …

But convincing the world that atheists are nice is not our main goal. Not for everyone. For many of us, getting legal rights for atheists and making sure they’re enforced — such as the right to organize high school groups, or the right to keep custody of our kids, or the right to not have religious ideas taught to our kids in public schools, or the right to be soldiers in the U.S. military and not have religion shoved down our throats — is our top priority … regardless of whether people think we’re nice along the way. And for many of us, persuading more people out of religion and into atheism is our top priority. We think that’s the best strategy for achieving our other goals. And we think it’s a hugely worthwhile goal just for its own sake.

Now. If you disagree — either about the best tactics for reaching any of our goals, or about whether persuading people out of religion is a worthwhile goal in the first place — then by all means, let’s have that conversation.

But if you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause, then before you pursue that argument, I think it’s worth asking: Which cause, exactly, are you talking about?

Because we may not be talking about the same one.

I think Greta hits on something important there. Is the goal of atheist activism to decrease prejudice against atheists and promote the separation of church and state, or is the goal a world with no religion? It depends on who you ask, because not everyone involved in atheist activism has the same goal. And beyond just the question of goals, there’s also the question of which tactics are best to achieve those goals.

I personally don’t see a world without religion as my goal. When it comes to atheism, I would like to see prejudice against atheist decrease and I would like to see a stronger separation of church and state and more public recognition of the diversity of people’s beliefs and the existence of nonbelievers. My other goals include working toward a more egalitarian, fair, and just society, and I work toward those goals through feminist activism and social justice organizing. I may not believe there is a God, but I don’t have a problem with people believing there is a God if that belief isn’t causing themselves or others harm.

Given that I see improving the public image of atheists as an important goal, I get frustrated when certain atheist tactics – such as using signs that are designed to offend rather than signs with positive messages. Sometimes it can feel as though more confrontational atheists are trying to give the term “atheist” bad connotations. Now this does not mean I don’t think we should not be working against violations of the separation of church and state. I just think we should go about it differently. When atheists petition to add their signs to holiday displays, I think we should think creatively to come up with positive messages that make people think in non-offensive ways and focus on making positive statements about atheism or Humanism rather than on negative things about religion. I think this sign suggestion is a positive step:

[The text reads: When the season is dark, bring the light of your reason. When the season is cold, bring the warmth of your love. When the season is difficult, bring the ease of your generosity. And when the season is once again bright, warm, and easy, Keep bringing your reason, love, and generosity, for they're needed year round. With caring and respect for all people from (fill in your atheist or humanist organization)]

I also think that atheists concerned about violations of church and state should try to influence public opinion. I think we sometimes let the most shrill and extreme Christian voices lull us into thinking that the general public views the separation of church and state as something to overturn when this is simply not the case. If we can work together with members of other minority belief groups to explain to Christians the problems with things like nativity scenes on public property, we have the potential to make real and lasting change – change that starts with internal understanding rather than with a court mandate.

And actually, even if my goal were to achieve a world with no religion, I would still, based on my own personal experience, argue that the tactics outlined above – i.e. things like designed-to-be-offensive atheist holiday displays – are counterproductive. Why? Because, quite simply, the more obnoxious the public perception of atheists, the less likely a believer is to see becoming an atheist as a legitimate alternative. The more prejudice there is against atheism, the more believers with doubts will stifle those doubts. Why? Because if becoming an atheist means losing your family and friends because of the negative opinions they have about atheists, well, that’s a pretty strong disincentive against becoming an atheist. And like it or not, we all make bounded choices operating as best we can in the social constraints and realities within which we live. I guess what I’m saying is that if you want there to be more atheists, I really think you need to start by working against negative perceptions of atheists.

Now some will respond by saying that there’s nothing we can do, that Christians will have negative conceptions of atheists no matter what. But you know what? I don’t think that’s true. You know why? Because I have known Christians, both in the blogosphere and in my daily life, for whom this simply is not true. To be honest, I have encountered very little anti-atheist prejudice among the friends I’ve made in the college town I’ve been living in for the past several years. In fact, I haven’t encountered any anti-atheist prejudice, and yes, I do have Christian friends. Now it is true that I live in a very liberal college town. I get that. But you know what? What my experience indicates is that it is possible to decrease prejudice against atheists without eliminating religion.

I’m going to take it a step further, too, and say that I don’t even think evangelicals and fundamentalists, and other religious conservatives, are a lost cause when it comes to our efforts to decrease anti-atheist prejudice. You see, religious leaders capitalize on confrontational atheism in order to fan the flames of anti-atheist sentiment among their followers. In other words, placing designed-to-be-offensive signs by nativity scenes feeds anti-atheist prejudice among evangelicals and fundamentalists. And, similarly, efforts to change the public perception of atheism will throw water on those flames. If an evangelical hears her preacher saying one thing about atheists, but she knows people who are atheists who don’t fit that negative stereotype, that matters. As long as atheists are cut-out bogeymen it’s easy for her to maintain her prejudice against them, but when they cease to be cut-out bogeymen, she may be forced to rethink things.

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.

Do you know what finally enabled me to come out as an atheist, not to close friends or relatives but simply to myself? I met a family, a happy, healthy, lovely family. Two parents, two children. And it just so happened that they were atheists. Until I knew them, until I saw that atheists could be live fulfilled lives, and even raise healthy children, and hold a caring and compassionate orientation toward the world, I was not able to consider giving voice to my doubts. I didn’t realize it at the time, but knowing this family allowed me to look beyond the negative stereotypes I’d been taught about atheists and gave me permission to follow my questions out of religion. This family changed everything for me at a time when signs like those pictured above only made me want to hold any thought of atheism at arms reach.

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.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Notreligious


    I don’t get it- we fight so hard for our right to share in public holiday venues, and this is the crap we choose to put up? It is embarrassing as an atheist, and humiliating as a person, to see such mean spirited signage. I don’t care how true these sentiments might be, this is not how you share your beliefs, or celebrate your ideas, with the public during the Christmas season. If people merely thought we were mean spirited before, they have proof now! We have a golden opportunity to show people the positive side of atheism, and to join in the festivities. Why, oh why must we act like petchulant children?

    Look, I am all for being offensive to make a case, and I do find much of religion harmful, and would be happy if it was reduced, or eliminated, throughh social evolution. But purposely being offensive in hopes that all decorations be removed is just… rude and manipulative, in a bad way. I hate seeing nativities on public land as much as anyone else, but I would much rather see a nativity next to a humanist sign like Libbeys, than nothing at all. We are seen and heard when we choose to share the space, invisible when all displays are removed, and actively disliked when we include confrontational jargon.

    People (myself included) love holiday celebrations, and decorations, why must atheists be the kill joy, the grinch, of the season? Why not take the opportunity to spread some LOVE, and positive ideas, when we have the chance? Ruining holiday displays with confrontational signage does us no good, and even sets us back. This type of thing reverses all the work we do to make people accept us.

    • phantomreader42

      Why take the opportunity to spread love and positive ideas if you’re just going to be treated like shit no matter what you say or do?

      Why go to the trouble of making a nice display when you know the death cultists are just going to set it on fire? Note, I’m not speaking metaphorically here, as an example here’s a nice, polite, non-confrontational display that was LITERALLY SET ON FIRE:

      Why even try spreading a nice message if you know all you’ll ever get back from it is more hatred and suffering?

      Why bother being polite to people whose only joy in life is fantasizing about watching their monstrous imaginary friend burn you alive forever? Especially if they’re just going to whine about how horribly rude you are even if you never so much as whisper a single syllable of criticism!

      Christianists don’t want peace, or love, or joy, or harmony. They want everyone to kneel and lick their filthy boots until the end of time. And even then it’s NEVER enough for them. So why bother? Why bother trying to satisfy people who will NEVER be satisfied?

      • The_L

        SOME Christians will never be satisfied. There is a word for that sort of individual. That word is “asshole.”

        The majority of Christians are not like the assholes who set that sign on fire. The majority of Christians are not the straw man you are talking about, any more than the majority of atheists are the absurd baby-killing straw men that the nastier sort of Christian likes to drag out.

        Stop making all Christians out to be monsters. There’s been far more than enough of that on both sides already.

  • Rae

    Yeah, personally I didn’t like the displays much in general because it seemed odd that a church would get that much space in a public park just because they asked, and although the atheist signs are deliberately antagonistic, I didn’t find them nearly as offensive as the way that many of the local Christians reacted last year and this year, which was to complain about how they were being treated exactly the same as the other group. In other words, to them, simply going from a place of Christian privilege to a place of equality was something they considered “discrimination”

  • Kate

    I’m just not all that concerned about whether or not I offend theists. I don’t go out of my way to be an ass or tell them they’re wrong, but at the same time I can’t really dredge up enough care to accommodate them. I’ve reached the point where their insane amounts of privilege cancel out any desire I may have had to make nice with them. Perhaps I would feel differently if my goal was to be some sort of non-believer PR.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Do you really think all theists are a) equally privileged and b) more privileged than you are? Really? A Muslim in America has “insane amounts of privilege?” I’m sorry, this kind of attitude just seems so simplistic and frankly narcissistic to me.

      • Sara

        Nowhere did Kate write that she thought that all theists lived their lives with excessive privilege and completely without problems. Why are you so hostile, Petticoat Philosopher? Do you honestly think it was appropriate to call Kate’s POW narcissistic? Especially as this post of Libby’s is partly about not being so confrontational. Narcissistic? Please don’t use real problematic behaviours and mental health issues to mock other people.

      • Kate

        Perhaps I should have said “Christian” specifically, because they are mostly who I meant.

        Narcissistic? I don’t think I am superior to them and I don’t try to project an image of superiority to anyone, so.

        I’ll grant “simplistic”. I’ll even grant “bitter”. Mostly, I just feel a similar fatigue I feel as a women trying to accommodate men’s sensibilities (and no, NOT ALL MEN; just like not every theist or even Christian).

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Oh for pity’s sake. There is enormous difference in connotation between saying that certain behavior or perspective is narcissistic and invoking Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Can I not say that something is “depressing” either because clinical depression is also a mental health issue? Words have different meanings in different contexts. And I was not mocking her comment, I was criticizing it. If my goal were mockery, I would not have raised the questions that I did. There’s a difference between criticism, even strong criticism (which, yes, it was) and mockery. Or hostility, for that matter.

        To me, the term “loads of privilege” implies “excessive privilege,” no? Anyway, in my understanding, any unearned privilege is excessive and I think that’s a basic premise when people discuss various types of privilege. If you have a different understanding of privilege, by all means, share it. And I never said that she said that theists live their lives “completely without problems.” My point is that there are types of theists that deal with substantially bigger problems than atheists do. And they do so BECAUSE of the type of theist that they are. Yes, atheists experience discrimination in many parts of our Christian-dominated country but, as far as I know, nobody has violently attacked or killed an atheist for publicly displaying their atheism. The same cannot be be said of, say, Muslim women who publicly display their religious beliefs by wearing hijabs or Sikhs who do so by, uh, going to temple. I would pick being an atheist in America over being many types of non-Christian theist in America ANY day of the week! As stupid and wrong as it is, I’d rather be barred from the Boy Scouts than live in fear of violent hate crime. And, yeah, I think that ignoring the serious discrimination and threats that some theist groups face in favor of lumping all theists together and feeling sorry for yourself because they’ve all got it soooo much better than you is…kind of narcissistic, not to mention willfully ignorant. These are strong words, yes, but I’m really tired of the fact that some atheists, who are supposedly critics of religiously-driven oppression, seem to completely ignore groups who experience it much more than they do just because those groups are also religious. If you care about the harm that religion often causes than STAND UP for the people who are most harmed by it, even if you disagree with them. Doesn’t that matter a lot more than drawing some line in the sand?

    • MrPopularSentiment

      Even leaving aside Petticoat’s excellent response, how does this contribute to the discussion, exactly? The signs are not just apathetic, they are antagonistic. This isn’t a case of “I can’t be bothered to coddle the believers” (which is a statement that I might, under some circumstances, agree with), but rather “ha ha! We got a spot! And we took it from you! Neener neener!”

      We had an opportunity to share the things that we are passionate about, the things that are meaningful to us. Instead, we used it to crap on the things that are meaningful to others.

      To give you an example of what I mean, at my last job, we always had a Christmas party towards the end of the year. Most of my co-workers were Christian, but there was me and a Muslim woman, so the Muslim and I got together with the CEO and asked if we could do an Eid and a winter solstice party as well. She agreed, so not only did everyone get to enjoy two extra parties, but it also gave the Muslim and I a chance to share some of our beliefs. She shared some recipes of traditional Eid dishes from her country so everyone could contribute to the potluck and, at the party, got to tell everyone about Ramadan and the significance of Eid. For the winter solstice party, I talked about axial tilt and how symbolically meaningful it is for the days to start getting longer again (and I talked about many of the examples from other cultures where they celebrate something to do with lights, fire, or rebirth at around that time of year). At the end of the experience, everyone felt good about it, and we all came out understanding each other a little better.

      And I think that it accomplished both goals – Because I was able to educated people on the symbolism of the season, I think that it may have planted some seeds of doubt as to whether the Jesus story is really real or just symbolic (learning about other cultures and religious traditions is a large part of what deconverted me, and I know I’m not alone in that). But also, I inoculated all my co-workers against anti-atheist rhetoric. In their minds, atheism is a positive, nice thing that has a place in our multicultural country.

      • ERB

        MrPopularSentiment, what a positive outcome!

        Additionally, I’d like to add that these atheist displays are so boring. Three-dimensional diorama or a sign with text? I still admire elaborate nativity scenes.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Awwwww…I love this story!

      • Kate

        Like I said, I don’t go out of my way to be antagonistic. I don’t even necessarily agree with the tactics these atheists used against the Nativity scenes. I don’t even like the idea of telling little children that there is no Santa Claus if that’s what they believe, because I think that’s mean. I do understand why some people might look at my comment and envision me as some asshole who goes around sneering every time somebody brings up something religious and mercilessly mocks them.

        My response came from a place of weariness. I just don’t have it in me to sit down and educate some of these people as to why being a non-believer isn’t “bad” or “wrong”. I’m glad that others do, I just don’t. I’m sorry about how I came across with my original comment and have respect for a lot of the people that comment here.

      • Tracey

        You must work in an extra-ordinary workplace. Anywhere I’ve worked, even hinting that there’s any religion other than Christianity is cause for endless, butt-hurt whining.

      • Rachel

        That’s a fantastic story!

  • AndersH

    Maybe it’s just my perspective from the dark, cold north, but Yule as a celebration started for what to me seems a very good reason: to remind people that the light, in the form of spring, will return even though it seems dark and cold now (sun rises at 8.45, goes down at 2.45). It’s certainly a pity that the social forms of the past (whether paganism or the Christianity that co-opted it) made the season into a religious event, but I think it’s still valuable to present people with an optimistic, hopeful, and loving message when the world seems like a dark place. I would add that symbolically, the idea of light coming to the world which is what is celebrated (whether in the form of the days becoming longer or Jesus being born for the salvation of humanity) seems like it would fit quite nicely with atheist goals (the light of reason making the world a better place).
    Of course, I notice that the pictures above, at least, are from significantly brighter and warmer parts of the world, so maybe the need of an optimistic, affirming message isn’t quite as important there (of course, even up here there are plenty of people who don’t like Yule, and it’s totally fine if you don’t need it or want it).

    • Omorka

      Perhaps it’s just because I’m Pagan myself, but the symbolism of Yule – the return of the light just as it begins to get cold, the security that we can feast from our stores even a month or more before we start tilling the soil for the next planting – has resonance even down here in the southern end of the northern hemisphere, where our shortest daylight is still 10.5 hours long.

  • saramaimon

    I am jewish am an rather unbothered by christmas displays. i also think trying to equaliE things by putting up jewish menoraha is rather silly and copycat like. Gg

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I am Jewish too and I AM bothered by Christmas displays if they’re in public places. I mean they throw me into a rage because, seriously, there’s other shit to be angry about in this world, but they don’t belong in a country with separation of church and state, which is something I value. (And yeah, putting up a menorah or whatever in a public place is not a solution although I can’t say that this is something I’ve ever seen.)

      • MargueriteF

        In Virginia Beach, oddly, there’s been a prominent menorah displayed at a city park, but rarely Christian symbols:

        Seems to have been mainly a matter of the Jewish group caring enough to do it, and others not bothering. A guy is putting up a Christmas tree this year, though. I think I’ll run off and blog about this one, as it’s rather unusual!

  • saramaimon

    I would suggest posting such at other times of year
    if you aren’t religious why coopt a religious event

    • AndersH

      For the same reason Christianity co-opted the pagan events; to gain more influence. Of course, not quite the same thing atheists are doing here, since what atheists are doing is about stopping the state from promoting one set of beliefs over another.

  • jose

    Um, if the issue is separation of church and state, why did atheists ask for a spot of their own instead of requiring for religious displays to be taken off public property? As you say, churches have yards, they can put their displays there. Seems convoluted to essentially sabotage the whole thing by applying for a spot.

    • AndersH

      I think it’s been established that cities and municipalities can offer a space for public displays as long as they don’t discriminate on the basis of religion for who gets to put up a display. So it’s basically an open call for organisations to do displays in December; if Christian churches are the only ones who want to put up a display, they get it, but they will not be favoured if there are other organisations who want a spot.

      Also, a question to myself: why am I capitalizing “Christian” but not “pagan”? :/

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Well, “pagan” covers an enormous range of beliefs. It basically refers to any pre-Christian, non-Abrahamic indigenous religion anywhere. It’s not a proper name so I don’t think it should be capitalized, in fact, capitalizing gives the impression that it’s some kind of monolithic tradition. I can see maybe capitalizing Norse Paganism or something but I don’t think just “pagan” should have a capital.

      • Sara A.

        “Pagan” capitalized refers to a specific group of religions, not just any non-Abrahamic ones.

    • Bryony Vaughn

      @Jose, AndersH is right. The city claimed it wasn’t endorsing Christianity over other religions or over non-religion by having the private Christian display on public property. To cover themselves they claimed it was a public forum that no other group had applied to use in decades. The atheists had to go along with the city’s story until it was proven false. They won the majority of the slots in the next year’s lottery, only put up three displays, the citizens decided they really didn’t like the idea of a public forum, and there are no more private displays on public property. So, yes, you’re right… it just took more time to get there.

      @AndersH, I think your grammar is correct. I wouldn’t capitalize monotheism but would Islam and Christianity. By the same standard I wouldn’t capitalize pagan but would Wiccan and Druid.

      • ABaker

        Re: capitalizing ‘pagan’

        Personally, as someone who practices Paganism, I tend to capitalize even though I don’t practice any specific branch of Paganism. Like saying that someone is Christian, without being Episcopalian or Baptist.

  • MargueriteF

    I don’t love these signs either. I see that they have the desired effect, which is getting religious displays off public property, but I’d rather see atheists make an effort to put up signs that express our opinion without denigrating others. The “When the season is dark, bring the light of your reason” sign suggested by Richard Wade is a good one.

    “I personally don’t see a world without religion as my goal.”

    It’s not my goal, exactly. I don’t want to try to take anyone’s religious freedom away. I am naively optimistic enough to hope, however, that as we as a society improve education and talk more honestly about religious issues, religion will eventually fade away of its own accord.

  • flyn

    Though I’m not a Christian, those displays they had were pretty and could be considered art.
    It’s disappointing to see how fellow atheists used the space in turn… not only for the reasons you mentioned, but because it was just a boring billboard. Nothing creative or enjoyable to look at all.

    I agree that everyone should be able to have a chance at the space, but they utilized it terribly when they got it. It’s just so… disappointing.

    • E

      It’s not so much that they’re confrontational as that they’re ugly and tacky.

  • Avenel

    Sorry, I have to vehemently disagree with you, LIbby. Nothing we do, no matter how innocous, will appease the haters out there. In my town, they put up a billboard saying “Don’t believe in god? You are not alone.” It included cntact information for the local secular alliance. The howls of protest about how controversial and confrontational this billboard was were deafening. Just the fact we exist, and dare to declare that, is concidered outrageous.

    Confrontational tactics are not always aimed at the religious. Many of them are for closeted atheists. It’s lets them know others exist, and that they don’t have to stay silent and be punching bags for the religious.

    Accomodation has it’s uses, and if you personally don’t like to be confrontational, so be it. But, no civil rights movement progresses without those willing to confront and outrage the priviledged.

    • Jayn

      Libby has a point, though, that if you’re overly aggressive you’ll wind up alienating people who would otherwise be on your side. I have nothing against atheists–I’ve even flirted with atheism myself–but the signs she points out at the beginning of her post bug me. They’re unnecessary. You can say “We’re here” without adding “and you’re wrong”. I would be supportive of atheists putting up holiday displays, if they were actual, you know, holiday displays and not blatant attempts to piss off theists. Yes you’re going to piss certain people off regardless–don’t base your actions off of them. Base them off of the people who can be reached, who will support you under the right circumstances.

      Sometimes confrontation is necessary. The signs Libby is pointing out are confrontational beyond the necessity of their mere presence.

      • Aaron

        Confrontational tactics and non-confrontational tactics are both valid tools in promoting the cause. Note that the evangelical movement will also say some atrociously offensive things to promote Christianity. That may have turned off some people who would have otherwise become Christians, but what it has also done is make that polarized voice visible in the national media, and given a platform to something that would otherwise be quietly laughed at or ignored. Peoples’ memories are short–advertisers, for example, have long known that it’s sometimes worthwhile to be offensive if it gets your name out there. And while people may be gently nudged away from a movement if it is offensive, they’ll definitely never be nudged toward it if they never know it exists. I know that I, personally, didn’t leave Christianity because Christians were offensive–I left it because the people I talked to didn’t have answers for my questions, and in looking elsewhere, I heard about a reasonable alternative.

        But that leads me to my second point, which is this: Thanks to the fact that atheism goes against the status quo, it is extraordinarily easy for atheists to be considered offensive. What, for example, is inherently confrontational about, “Don’t believe in God? Join the club” ( Or “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” (–stop-worrying-enjoy-life-Atheist-group-launches-billboard-campaign.html)? That latter is astounding, because in the article it talks about the message having “gloomy undertones”. What kind of privilege does your religion need to have before you can talk about it “probably” being wrong as being a gloomy prospect?

        Anyway, to sum up, the very act of being atheist is offensive–the privileged majority would much rather think that atheism doesn’t exist. It is very important to counter that impression, and being confrontational has the effect of saying, “Yes. We exist. You’re going to have to deal with that.” It’s not the appropriate tactic to use in every context, and some people are better at injecting nuance than others. That’s life, and part of every movement. Still, that doesn’t invalidate its utility.

    • sara maimon

      I look down at proselytization of any kind, whether atheists or christians or jews or muslims or anyone else does it. (This is not a question of legal rights- all have equal rights).
      This being said, many people who are in fundamentalist religions need to have a number to call, because they do feel alone. Still, atheism isn’t necessarily the choice for all of them.
      I joined an ex fundie group and felt distinctly out of place because the attitude was so opposed to any form of religion, when i personally still love non-fundamentalist forms of religion. I did not get much support out from that group.

    • Lucreza Borgia

      In a world where the internet is ubiquitous and it’s neigh impossible to actually take down the number from a billboard next to a road, what exactly was the real purpose of it if not to annoy? Atheists don’t need to proselytize and I really don’t know anyone who converted because of a billboard anyways. It’s bad enough that our landscapes are cluttered with commercialism, we atheists don’t need to be putting up tacky and offensive signs such as this.

      • Anat

        The purpose of the billboard is to let people know they are not alone. That they are not the only person around who arrived at that conclusion. You’d be surprised how many atheists grow up not knowing a single openly atheist person. Or people who are doubting the beliefs they were brought up with but don’t realize letting go of the entire package is an option.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        Yes, but as I said above, we have the internet now everywhere to the point that Dan Savage is now mostly a relationship column rather than a kink one because of how easily it is to find information online. I don’t think those situations that you are describing are as common as they were in the past.

      • Anat

        We still have people coming to atheist fora describing such stories. People still are helped by things like that billboard. We don’t need to hide, damn it. the billboard was simply an invitation and a declaration of existence. If that is overly confrontational then why not just be confrontational, while making an argument at the same time, like the signs in Libby Anne’s post?

      • Aaron

        Just wanted to point out, “I really don’t know anyone who converted because of a billboard anyways,” has nothing to do with whether or not anyone has been converted because of a billboard. Anecdotes not being data, and all that. And I’m seconding Anat–if just saying that atheists exist is controversial, that is a bad thing, and giving in for the sake of politeness is just supporting the status quo, in which a privileged majority continues to make a minority feel like it can’t speak out without being shouted down.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I’ve encountered quite a bit of anti-atheist stereotypes and assumptions. And guess what? Once I explain that atheism just describes what *I* believe (or don’t believe, as the case may be), but that I have no interest whatsoever in attacking them for their beliefs, people chill out. I have quite a few friends who are Christian, Muslim, or Pagan, and depending on how open they are, we either just don’t talk about religion or we sometimes have really productive and interesting discussions in which we don’t worry about having to defend our religions, just our own personal beliefs.

    I do think that there’s value in being confrontational about specific beliefs. For example, the Pope being all chummy with the Kill The Gays people is something that we need to call out – but that’s something that we can call out WITH many people of faith, even many Catholics.

    But simply dismissing all of Catholicism, refusing to work with people of faith on issues where we share common ground, or fighting for the right to sit at the table only to use that position to be rude and abrasive, for example, only serves to make us into boogey-people, and what’s the point of that?

    • jose

      I’m all for dismissing all of catholicism, all of it. I’ve worked with catholics as a volunteer and I was the Other, the one who had to zip it and do all the compromising, they did none. My work was God’s work whether I liked it or not. When a secular charity became mainstream for receiving an award due to their response to the crisis, I jumped onboard and it is much better not to have the work interspersed with nonsense.

      When you have conservative christians saying Jesus hates gay marriage and liberal christians responding that actually Jesus likes gay marriage, I’m sorry but neither of those is my side.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        Most liberal Christians I know really don’t mind what secular people do and there ARE Christian homosexuals to whom it is important to continue in their faith. Don’t discount them so easily.

    • Twist

      “I do think that there’s value in being confrontational about specific beliefs.”

      About harmful ones, yeah. I can’t be a “everybody’s different, why can’t we all agree to disagree and get along” type of atheist (I know that’s not what anyone here is actually suggesting, but is it a position I’ve encountered!) with people who think, for example, that LGBTQ people should go through abusive ‘therapy’ to ‘cure’ them of the LGBTQ-ness, or people who think that as a woman, my place is as a baby factory, maid, sex toy and nothing more, or that their five year old totally doesn’t need chemotherapy because these herbs and homeopathic sugar pills will cure her. If someone makes those kind of beliefs known to me, I’m not going to shrug my shoulders and agree to disagree, I’m going to argue, I’m going to be confrontational and I’m not going to refrain from being open about exactly how harmful and wrong those beliefs are.

      If on the other hand, you’re a christian (to use christianity as an example as it’s the faith I’m most familiar with) but aren’t trying to outlaw abortion, make it harder to women to be independent, criminalise LGBTQ people, take away funding from branches of science that you think god has a problem with, get mythology presented as science in public schools, or raise your kids with no knowledge whatsoever of the outside world, there’s no reason why you can’t believe as you wish, although I’d hope that in time this kind of religion eventually faded into history as well. Why? Because the universe in all it’s reality is stranger and more incredible than any religion can imagine, and it’s a shame to believe mythology instead of looking at the wonders that are real.

      • Twist

        And yeah, the atheist displays could have done something clever and informative about axial tilt, and how it’s the real reason for the season!

  • shadowspring

    I’m not an atheist, but as a former evangelical, I have to agree: a sign full of positivity and good will takes the wind right out of the sails of the atheist haters, and let’s people attracted to religion because of the positives love-your-neighbor-as-yourself stuff see that love without religion is a thing too. You’d be surprised how often church-going people are told that’s not possible. Show them it is. <3

  • Terri Anne

    Recently I attended a Christmas event with my neighborhood Democratic party. When the topic of evolution came up, the person I was speaking with could not believe that I knew people who believe in a young earth. I suddenly realized that I have been living in two worlds . Until I graduated last week with a PhD, I have been living in the progressive world of the university while attending a fundamentalist church. I left my fundamentalist chuch in June, but still have good friends I met through the church who believe that the earth is only 10,000 years old. They have conservative opinions on politics, and things got heated during the election, but we still respect each other’s opinion. I find a lot of merit in their positions, even when I do not agree.
    People from the conservative, fundamentalist and the progressive cultures seldom talk to each other, and their encounters have been fraught with misunderstanding. This cultural divide is being played out in Congress today. My friends would be polite if they met an atheist, but I do not think they will ever see atheism as a legitimate alternative.

  • Tracey

    As a Christian I developed a very positive view of Atheism based on the evidence of a few friends of mine who I see as good people living good lives. What you do in the name of your beliefs absolutely influences people as to what they think of your faith and those who practice it. If I had been first exposed to obnoxious confrontational signs, I might have concluded Atheism was about being obnoxious and confrontational. Those are not appealing qualities and I would have been totally turned off.

    • Kodie

      Why would you generalize a whole group of people? I used to think all atheists were obnoxious too, even though I pretty much considered myself one, but I changed my mind. I used to also think all religions were harmless cultural differences.

  • JJ

    I wish that parks here had rotating displays teaching and celebrating all different cultural and religious festivities: Bodhi day, Hanukah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, whatever. This time of the year can be grim and dreary, it’s nice to have a reminder of love and kindness. I liked the example of a Humanism display. I wish that this is what had been brought to the park in Santa Monica by the Atheist group. I suppose they got the result they wanted (no displays at all in the park) but I think better then hiding religion inside private property is having a society where we rejoice equally in all the different cultures and faiths of our people.

  • A Reader

    Thank you! I’ve been seeing posts about these “great” holiday displays on certain atheist blogs, but when I read the messages, they leave me feeling cold and almost uncomfortable. I know I’d have an even more intense reaction if I were still religious. The holidays are supposed to (imo) be happy and positive, not a time to bash your beliefs into other people (isn’t that what so many of us find irritating about extreme conservatives and their “war on Christmas”? Or is that just me?)

    If your goal in being an atheist activist is to completely discount religion, fine. But that’s not my goal. I want us all to be more accepting of each other, and to work together to solve problems. And I don’t think bashing others’ beliefs really helps that at all.

  • Anat

    Personally the signs, especially the first one, warm my heart. They make me feel I belong, there are more like me around. Accommodating the dominant culture/religion/ideology leads nowhere. Many groups that achieved equality did so by being offensive and in your face. That’s how you avoid being ignored and swept under the carpet. Atheists don’t need to apologize for existing.

    • saraquill

      Atheists don’t need to say “You suck for not being like us,” either.

      • Anat

        That’s not what they are saying. At most they are saying that religions suck. They are not making statements about people. If someone identifies so much with their belief that they take an attack on their belief as an attack on themselves, they are the ones with the problem.

      • saraquill

        I still interpret that last sentence as “you suck for not being like us.” I spent rather a lot of time with people who believed that.

  • Verily

    I normally agree with you, but I think is where your strong suit weakens. What Christian and Christian apologists on here like to forget is that atheists won the display contest fair and square. After they put up their signs, Christians went and trashed most of them. So that’s when the City council decided to call the whole thing off. Yet, atheists are the ones attacked for being “confrontational”?

    You realize that every generation has said the same thing to its civil rights movement, yes? With blacks, they were told not to be “uppity”. Gays were told not to “flaunt themselves”. Women were told not to “act up” or “create a fuss”. All of it is language meant to constrain and marginalize anything that challenges tradition or the status quo, and it’s regrettable to see that the same people (civil right activists/feminists/liberals) resort to the same language themselves when faced with another group they don’t agree with. What made blacks, women, and gays accepted (or mostly accepted) was making logical arguments over and over, and putting people in the spotlight who were black/gay/feminist. It wasn’t from kissing ass and trying to “improve their image”, e.g. make themselves acceptable to bigots.

    And before you say that atheism doesn’t suffer any discrimination, keep in mind that atheists are as distrusted as rapists: even though most rapists are Christian (which coincides with Christians making up the majority in America).

    The Humanist/Ethical Union published a lengthy report about global atheist discrimination:

    • Libby Anne

      And before you say that atheism doesn’t suffer any discrimination, keep in mind that atheists are as distrusted as rapists.

      That’s not discrimination, that’s an image problem, which is exactly what I was talking about in my post. If we want to change exactly what you describe here, are billboards that are designed to offend people the best way to do so? I personally think not.

      • Anat

        I think people should realize that equality and rights are for everyone and we do not need to beg for them by ‘playing nice’.

      • Verily

        Who said billboards and signs were all that atheists do? There are many secular charities, atheist philanthropists (Warren Buffet and Bill Gates being the most famous now), and everyday run-of-the-mill atheists who do the same thing anyone else can. Most Scientists are non-believers, including the giants like Carl Sagan and Einstein. People who have helped build and shape our modern understanding of the world. So how does that warrant being as distrusted as rapists?

        And yes, it is discrimination. Part of the survey involved the job market, and atheists were consistently only entrusted with low-end jobs. When it came time for promotions/high paying jobs, atheists scored lower than women, blacks, Muslims, and every ethnicity/religion on a chance for the position. Just for proclaiming a lack of belief in God. Again, it’s regrettable the double standard held here. Were the names changed around and women were as distrusted as the most heinous members of a society and automatically deducted a big chance for a high paying job just because of who they are, you would be outraged.

        I’m guessing you also didn’t read the Unions report either, again, regrettable you refuse to do any research.

      • Libby Anne

        First, to Verily – Your response helped me clarify something for me on the discrimination issue. Thanks! Yes, atheists can be and at times are discriminated against. Technically that’s illegal and when it does happen we should fight it. The point I was trying to make is slightly different, namely that the reason people discriminate against atheists is because of the negative view so many people have of atheists. Does that make that discrimination justified or okay? Of course not! But it does mean that one way to fight such discrimination is to fight those negative views. Think of racism, for instance. Yes, we were right to make discrimination based on race illegal, and yes we are right to fight it in the courts when it happens. But ultimately, we could completely get rid of discrimination based on race if we could get rid of racism, and doing that would be a longer-lasting victory because we would also get rid of unconscious bias. So fight race-based discrimination in the courts? Yes. But also fight it by working to eliminate racism in the court of public opinion in order to target the ultimate root of the problem. I would say the same exact thing of discrimination against women as well.

        Anat – No, we shouldn’t have to ask for rights or equality. I never said we should have to do so. Rather, the point I am trying to make is that I think that the most effective way to improve the situation for atheists is to counter the negative conceptions people have of atheists, and I think that that doing so is possible and would ultimately further the disparate goals of atheist activists. And in that vein, I personally think that confrontational tactics that are designed with the express purpose of offending people are counterproductive.

        Both – This was the first time I’ve touched on this subject, and it’s a large and complex issue and I could only say so much in this one post, so I realize that I’ve left much either unsaid or unclear. Furthermore, this is a topic I want to keep thinking on and I’m not opposed to shifting my position as I work through this issue. Thanks for your input. :-)

      • Libby Anne

        Two more things for Verily –

        Who said billboards and signs were all that atheists do? There are many secular charities, atheist philanthropists (Warren Buffet and Bill Gates being the most famous now), and everyday run-of-the-mill atheists who do the same thing anyone else can. Most Scientists are non-believers, including the giants like Carl Sagan and Einstein. People who have helped build and shape our modern understanding of the world. So how does that warrant being as distrusted as rapists?

        First, I was talking about atheist activism, not everything atheists every do, and second, I never said billboards were the only type of atheist activism. Furthermore, I never said that atheists deserve to be distrusted, nor do I think so. I’m aware that atheists lead normal lives doing the same things as everyone else – I’m an atheist myself, after all. That is why I pointed out that the more atheists people get to know in every day life, the better. That helps eliminate stereotypes.

        Were the names changed around and women were as distrusted as the most heinous members of a society and automatically deducted a big chance for a high paying job just because of who they are, you would be outraged.

        In case you didn’t notice, women are paid less than men. Even though that’s illegal. But my solution is not just to be “outraged” but rather to make practical suggestions for ways to change this – such as moving from the motherhood/fatherhood dichotomy to viewing things in terms of equal parenting, or offering more social support in the form of subsidized childcare, or having the government offset the costs of businesses offering maternity leave. Do I wish we could simply legislate away the pay discrepancy? Of course! Do I think we should take legal means to oppose discrimination against women? Of course! But I am aware that legislation and the courts will never be able to eliminate the pay gap if we don’t also address the cause of the pay gap.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        I think there is a need to be more diplomatic because atheism is something that we totally control. No one forces us to be atheists. It’s not the same thing as being born a certain way.
        These signs are as obnoxious and offensive to me as the anti-abortion signs that pepper our roads here in Wisconsin.

      • Twist

        “No one forces us to be atheists.”

        I disagree – it’s not like people just wake up one day and decide to be atheists without a close examination of what they currently believe. While there may have been an element of choice involved in choosing to examine my own beliefs or lack thereof, once I came to a set of conclusions that included there being no god, there was no way I could have chosen to believe otherwise. I’m not from a particularly religious background, so atheism came easily to me, although there were times when I was younger when I wished I could be a believer, because it seemed like an easier way of life. You can’t force yourself to believe something that you know to be false. Sure, you can pretend to believe, but that’s a recipe for unhappiness.

        As I said, for me it was easy, but others have lost families and friends over their lack of belief, that they could no more choose to give up than they could give up their sexuality. It’s easier to hide atheism than sexuality/race/gender, but why should we?

        I guess I’m uncomfortable with being told that atheists ought to be nicer about their lack of belief because it echoes so much of what I hear about how feminists ought to just be nicer about wanting equal rights for women, that if we were just nicer when we talk about violence against women, harrassment, rape, workplace discrimination, reproductive rights, whatever, people would be more understanding, and it begins to grate on you after a while. People ought to realise that the issues themselves are important whether the person speaking about them is being polite or not, and not childishly turn away from issues because they read something where they felt someone was being too mean.

  • M

    I am usually polite, up to a point. And of course, how vocal about my atheism I am varies by how well I know a person and how many waves I want to cause (my husband’s family is pretty Catholic, though not fundamentalist, so while his parents know we’re atheists we don’t bring it up often and we haven’t really told the extended family).

    But I also live in Texas, which is part of the Bible Belt in the US. I got proselytized at a lot in school growing up because I was open about my Judaism and later, my Jewish Agnosticism. So I have certain buttons that will make me go off and say very rude things about Christianity and religion in general, even when it might not be the most appropriate response. And you know what? I’m ok with people thinking I’m rude and ungracious- yeah, it’s rude, but so is telling me they think I’m going to Hell or they’ll pray for me to change my mind (WTF? praying for your god to mind-control me is not cool!). I get that for evangelicals it’s a duty to save souls, but it’s also incredibly rude and condescending to the person they’re talking to. Sometimes treating a theist in the exact same way they treat me is the only way to get through just how horrible that behavior is.

    That doesn’t mean I think all the rude or outrageous signs are a good idea, tactically or ethically speaking. But I understand the rage and hurt and exclusion that a lot of the Christian banners and displays invoke and the desire to provoke that same response in smug, oblivious Christians. Now obviously not all Christians are oblivious or smug, and letting that emotional response dictate responses is not a good idea, and there is a lot of tactical thought that goes into the banners and signs that isn’t emotionally driven. That’s just where I come from, and why I feel a kind of bitter satisfaction when theists complain about rude or insulting atheist banners. Then I get really ashamed of it because it’s not a terribly healthy response :/.

    • M

      OK that was a bit all over the place. Basically I think there’s a time and place for confrontations, and the insulting banners and signs are sometimes fine and sometimes not. I don’t think it’s always counterproductive.

      On a side note, I’m still not quite sure why calling someone’s beliefs a myth is insulting, considering theists of all stripes call other theists’ holy books myths or lies all the time, but I accept that it is generally considered insulting.

  • Hilary

    Libby, I think you makea good point about highlighting the positiive side of your beliefs rather then condeming other peoples mythology. There is a time and place for both, I’m not denying the need to get confrontational and refuse to compromise over some things. But I would much rather see a statement like yours in a public holiday space, because it speaks to the human needs of light, warmth, and compassion that motivate a lot of solstice holidays.

    Look at the GLBT rights movement. There have been times when uncompromising confrontation is needed, I am always aware of the hard work and dept I owe to gay activist’s that I have the room to just live my life as a lesbian. However, I know I’ve touched a lot of people’s lives by just living mine, openly, with the woman I love at my side for the past 13 years. I’ve had people tell me that seeing Penny and I together made the difference for them to see gay marriage as an issue of two people with the same love, commitment, passion, and day to day boring normalness of their own straight marriages – just like you knowing a happy athiest family made a difference.

    There is deffinatly a time to stand up for your rights and say ‘no, you cannot do that to us.’ But if athiests are going to compete with nativity scenes during the December holiday season, I think it is the better part of wisdom to put up something beautiful with a possitive humanism message.


  • Michael R

    I agree. The recent billboard in Times Square was outrageously offensive. It just perpetuates the stereotype that atheists are negative, cold and heartless. But the biggest problem is that it puts the cart before the horse. Atheism/humanism, as a movement, is still very young and hasn’t bloomed into alternative concrete communities to rival religion. So, what happens when we aggressively promote atheism? The spotlight is shined on our movement and the religious person can ask “but what do you stand for? where is your community? where is your organisation?”. And we don’t have ready answers for that yet. Ergo, we are simply advertising that we aren’t yet an organised movement ready to rival religion and draw in people on mass. Our movement is still largely the intellectual, independent types that can make the move to atheism on their own. We are all negative, and little positive.

  • Mogg

    Having hung around atheist blogs for some time, I’ve seen this argument go back and forth a number of times. I am one of those who finds strongly confrontational interaction very off-putting, and indeed found the more agressive atheist arguers offensive when I was trying to find my way out of fundamentalist Christianity, to the point where it probably delayed my leaving by several years, even in a country where atheism is generally acceptable. I also dislike abusive attacks on liberal Christianity for the same reason – for many coming from the extreme end, there needs to be the stepping stone of a gentler middle ground. I may still think their beliefs are wrong, but it’s a vast improvement on fundie belief and less damaging to both individuals and society.

    Social psychology studies back this up, by the way – we tend to cling to our shared beliefs even when they are manifestly wrong if there is nobody standing up and saying otherwise, but when the debate becomes polarised, we tend to cling even tighter to the extreme we are already part of. Confrontation has its place, I’ve come to learn, but accomodation and generally not being nasty is incredibly important in this discussion.

  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    The problem with trying to not be confrontational is that the lightest and least confrontational things are considered controversial. A sign that said “Atheists” with the Web site of the local chapter of the American Atheists (I believe) was refused to be allowed on buses because it was too controversial. It only said the word “atheists” on it.

    Our existence is confrontational.

  • Brad Self

    “Our existence is confrontational.” Well said.

    That is the heart of the matter. Other than their less than artistic nature, I see absolutely nothing wrong with the signs presented. To claim religion is myth is the theme in every sign presented…a sentiment that rings true for most any atheist.

    Active, confrontational atheism gives the timid and religiously surrounded atheist a voice, strength and a sense of solidarity. I see that, just that, as having great value in the current climate. Whether that will convince the fundamentalist christian isn’t the point. These signs aren’t speaking to them, they are speaking to the woman or man not yet willing to share their atheism and those who have never been jolted into thinking a little harder about the whole issue.

    Like them or not, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and other confrontational atheists have done more to bring atheists OUT then any accommodationist might ever imagine. If the goal is to grow atheism, this is the better path.

    Ridicule is a powerful social tool, especially when that which is being ridiculed is so clearly wrong when looked at under the microscope of reason and evidence. I see no reason to soften the blow when dealing with those that believe in homeopathy, ghosts, or wild conspiracy theories. Religion is no different aside from the fact that it is more universally believed.

  • Cubist

    Yet another “can’t we all just get along?” atheist telling the in-your-face, “religion is bullshit” atheists that their in-your-face tactics are Hurting The Cause™. How… utterly unsurprising.
    No, Libby Anne, we can’t all “just get along”. Not as long as a billboard which consists of the word “Atheists” and a URL, and those two bits of text alone, is considered to be too ‘controversial’ for public consumption, we can’t. And if it actually was true that in-your-face tactics genuinely were Hurting The Cause™… if in-your-face tactics genuinely did get in the way of de-converting Believers… well, the last time I checked, non-belief is growing. In spite of all those in-your-face atheists who insist on using those unfortunate in-your-face tactics, some or other non-belief is growing. Do you suppose there might, just might, be a problem with the notion that in-your-face atheism is counter-productive?
    Yeah, I get that some Believers are repulsed by in-your-face atheism. But, again, non-belief is growing. So why do you conclude that in-your-face tactics are counterproductive, instead of… say… that in-your-face tactics are exactly and precisely effective, just not in 100% of all cases?
    Every in-your-face atheist I can think of explicitly acknowledges that the can’t-we-all-just-get-along approach does work, some of the time, for some people. I can’t think of any in-your-face atheist who declares the can’t-we-all-just-get-along approach to be intrinsically wrong and counterproductive and yada yada yada. I can’t think of any in-your-face atheist who says that atheists who use the can’t-we-all-just-get-along approach should stop doing that.
    On the opposite side, not only do can’t-we-all-just-get-along atheists berate in-your-face atheists as counterproductive and yada yada yada, but can’t-we-all-just-get-along atheists do that so often, with such regularity, that “complaining about in-your-face atheists” could be considered a defining characteristic of can’t-we-all-just-get-along atheism.
    Hmm. Curious, that.
    My position is simple: The in-your-face approach works. Not in all cases, no—but then, no approach works in all cases, so that’s alright. Heck, that’s why w need a range of different approaches! So why don’t you can’t-we-all-just-get-along atheists take all that energy you’ve been using to complain about in-your-face atheists, and use that energy to de-convert Believers in the can’t-we-all-just-get-along approach you lot prefer?
    Or, you know, continue to be can’t-we-all-just-get-along when you deal with Believers, while simultaneously tryna stomp in-your-face atheists out of existence.

    • phantomreader42

      I suspect there’s a substantial, if not total, overlap between “Believers who are repulsed by in-your-face atheism” and “believers who are repulsed by the fact that non-believers can no longer be publicly burned at the stake”.

  • phantomreader42

    I STILL have yet to see anyone whining about “rude” or “confrontational” atheist expression explain WHAT atheists can say that would be considered sufficiently polite.

    Was THIS too “confrontational”? Apparently so, since christians just couldn’t stand to allow it to exist, they HAD to vandalize it for the glory of their petty, useless, imaginary god!

    WHAT, if ANYTHING, would be acceptable? And given that ANY expression of non-belief is automatically branded rude/confrontational/intolerant/worse than the Nazis, WHY is it that christians can get away with THREATENING TO BURN PEOPLE ALIVE FOREVER, INCLUDING CHILDREN?!!!

    • Lucreza Borgia

      So sinking to their tactics is OK?

      • phantomreader42

        Well, Lucreza, since any action taken by atheists other than sewing our mouths shut until we all starve to death will be denounced as “sinking to their tactics”, then yes, sinking to their tactics is OK as it is the only available option. Of course, no atheist billboard has ever been one TRILLIONTH as offensive as the official christian dogma that anyone outside the christian cult deserves to be roasted alive for the depraved entertainment of sadistic christians, but I don’t expect you to admit that fact, because doing so would require you to recognize that the usual whining about “confrontational” atheist tactics is built entirely on false equivalency. There simply never have been any atheist tactics that even come anywhere close to being as “confrontational” as standard christian dogma.

        AGAIN, WHAT message can atheists use that will be “polite” enough? It’s quite obvious that no such message exists, and no such message CAN exist, because THE VERY FACT THAT ATHEISTS DARE ADMIT WE *EXIST* IS CONSIDERED INTOLERABLY RUDE!!!!

        Really, Lucreza, WHAT was so “confrontational” about that sign I linked to, that christians felt compelled to set it on fire? What is so “confrontational” about “With reason and compassion as our guide, let us work together to produce a world in which peace, prosperity, freedom, and happiness are shared by all.“?

        If even THAT is too much, what are atheists allowed to say?

      • Twist

        I don’t think that these displays are quite sinking to their level. Really, they’re not even particularly offensive unless you believe that religious belief is somehow above the kind of criticism that say, political beliefs are subject to. I can see why displaying them over christmas can be seen as rather killjoy-ish, and they’re not particularly clever or well designed, but compare them to the barrage of death threats and threats of violence that Jessica Alquist faced for demanding that her school *obey the law*. Fine example of christian love that was.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        First off, enough with the capslock.

        Secondly, I don’t like the religious signs either and I consider most billboards to be eyesores, regardless of their content. I seriously doubt anyone was converted to religion by a stupid billboard. Same for atheism. Hell isn’t a concept for all Christians and I’ve yet to see a sign that says “Turn or Burn” or something similar. Many of my Christian friends don’t believe in hell or that I am somehow a lesser person for not believing.

        Third, the sign you linked wasn’t an ugly piece of crass nonsense like the stuff Libby linked to. Yet signs to me aren’t very meaningful. Like I said above, no one converts over a sign. Personally, I would have liked a homage to FSM or something equally ridiculous instead of a verbal statement, but that’s just me.

      • phantomreader42

        Lucreza, you don’t get it. My whole POINT was that the sign I linked to, in spite of being as inoffensive and non-confrontational as possible, was STILL vandalized, TWICE! My point, a point that has been made repeatedly, was that there is NOTHING atheists can say or do that will not be denounced as “confrontational”, no matter how much reality has to be twisted, so there’s no reason to bother trying to satisfy whiny little asshats who refuse to be satisfied with anything but absolute submission to their cult.

        You want atheists to express themselves in non-confrontational way? I just showed you what happens to non-confrontational atheist expressions. They get treated exactly the same as the confrontational ones. You refused to acknowledge that. Just as you refuse to acknowledge the difference, both in kind and degree, between allegedly “confrontational” atheist messages and ACTUALLY confrontational or outright criminal christian messages (including libel and terrorist threats).

        Why should I bother being polite to people who will whine about how rude I am no matter what I say or do? Why should I show any respect to people who can’t respect me enough to be honest in their dealings?

      • Christine

        Just because some crazy people will call anything you do rude, it doesn’t mean that there is no way of you telling, for yourself, what is and isn’t rude. The basic rules of civil discourse can still be applied. If you were on the other side, would this seem respectful to you? Are you applying a double standard to anything? Is everyone being treated with awareness of their existence as a person, and not just as a stereotype? &c.

      • M

        Sad to say, Lucreza, I have seen billboards that say things along the lines of “Turn or Burn”. Not too many, granted, but definitely some. Yay Bible Belt! “Jesus died for you” is one I see, often with a background of flames to make extra special sure it has the implicit Hell cultural/religious baggage attached.

        I like seeing the atheist billboards. I agree with you that they don’t really do anything to deconvert people, but they are an indication of the existence of atheists and that is a valid purpose. Especially during Christmas, when a lot of people are full of religion and atheists are often in uncomfortable family gatherings, just seeing “I am not alone” can be … nice. I also don’t understand why “your beliefs aren’t true” and “you’re going to be tortured forever” are considered even in the same ballpark of insulting!

      • Jayn

        So because just saying “we’re here” is considered to be too much by some people, it’s fine to add “and you’re wrong” to the message?

      • phantomreader42

        Jayn, if saying “you’re wrong, and you deserve to be burned alive forever for it, and I can’t wait to WATCH FROM MY GOLDEN MANSION IN PARADISE!!!” is fine, then “you’re wrong” is perfectly acceptable and vastly less offensive. Now, if the dogma of hell were utterly eradicated from the face of the earth, after a period of at least three centuries of all christians and muslims publicly apologizing for it at least twice a day, then I’d reconsider that. But until the grotesque dogma of the christian death cult is no longer acceptable in public, I fail to see how disagreement with such dogma is so intolerable and scandalous.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        Phantom: Your answer still boils down to it being OK to sink to their level.

        M: Regardless of the theology of hell, most people take Christmas as a time of celebration and merriment. I was never a Christian and my family is made up of recovering Catholics who don’t believe in the bible. Yet I still do enjoy well done nativity scenes (I don’t think they should be on public property and my fav is on a church lawn: ) because the message isn’t about hell, it’s the mythology behind Christmas.

        I’m not saying that atheists should be quiet and never do anything bold. Public spaces should not be used for the display of religious symbols outside of legal gatherings of people. That being said, putting up signs which equate to “you suck – neener neener” seem to me to be extremely unhelpful, tacky, and spiteful during the holiday season.

      • phantomreader42

        Christine, my understanding of the basic rules of civil discourse is that such rules frown upon lying, threats, and vandalism, and do not demand absolute silence from atheists while allowing christians to scream anything they want. Christians apparently consider themselves exempt from such rules. If the basic rules of civil discourse do not apply to everyone, why should anyone be limited by them?

        And again, since no one has yet made any attempt to answer this question, WHAT atheist message, other than absolute silence and submission, would be considered acceptable under the rules YOU consider to be necessary to civil discourse?

      • Anat

        Lucreza Borgia, the reading of “you suck – neener neener” is in the head of the reader. It is not what the signs convey. People who can’t see the difference are probably not prepared for public debate.

        Jayn, yes, it is a good thing to add ‘and this is what we think’ to ‘hey, we exist’. That way people know what we think, what we agree with and what we disagree with.

      • M

        Lucreza: Eh, part of it is growing up Jewish, probably. Nativity scenes and Christian billboards and Christmas music and just everything Christmas all the time for a whole month- it’s really very alienating to a religious outsider or at least it was to this particular religious outsider. Of course these things should all be allowed. Private property, private religious expression, all very properly protected by the Constitution. Just because it can be done doesn’t mean I have to be very happy about it though, and I never have been. Even when I was a believing Jew I still liked seeing non-Christian billboards because they at least acknowledged that there were some non-Christians out there. I was certainly never offended by anyone telling me my beliefs were wrong- heck, I got told that all the time in school (by my classmates, not my teachers) and I told them so in return. Why is it more offensive to hear “you’re wrong” coming from someone who disbelieves all gods than someone who believes in a different one/pantheon?

      • lucrezaborgia

        M: I grew up in South Florida where school districts plan around both the Jewish and Christian calendars. Lots of places has Jewish decorations as well as Christian. My HS experience has heavily Jewish and I myself went to the local JCC summer camp where I learned prayers, Shabbos, and all that jazz.

        Maybe it is the bible belt that is the problem? It does seem like the most vocal assholes come from there. Nuke it from orbit?

      • phantomreader42

        Lucreza, your answer still boils down to ” nothing atheists say can ever be acceptable.” And you can’t even be honest enough to admit that. Yet no matter how many times you’re asked, you cannot bring yourself to explain WHAT, by your most holy and revered decree, atheists might be allowed to say. You keep whining that any atheist message that’s mentioned is unacceptable, but you won’t say what is acceptable to the great and mighty Lucreza, self-appointed arbiter of all civility!?

        What are atheists allowed to say, Lucreza? When and where? What, other than absolute silence and submission, is acceptable to you (and those you cannot bring yourself to criticize)?

      • Christine

        phantomreader42, you and I clearly have entirely different attitudes towards conflict management. I don’t see the fact that the people I’m arguing with have decided to be inappropriate as anything resembling justification for doing so myself. “But we’re right” and “they started it” tend to be counter-productive reasons, so I avoid them. You have to remember – just because some Christians (other religions too in theory, but I’ve never encountered it) will be jerks and say “you’re wrong”, doesn’t make it right. We can all agree that it’s offensive when a Christian does it, why would that be a good thing for atheists to emulate?

        As for what would be acceptable, how about the standard “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” billboards? I’ve never seen anything uncivil with “You don’t need God to be good.” message, but it’s stupid to the point of being counterproductive, so I’m not really in favour of encouraging it.

      • M

        Lucreza: I definitely think the Bible Belt is a lot of the problem! I’m not so fond of nukes myself, but if there was a “reason and logic” virus I’d be all for releasing that into the air/water!

  • Christy

    I’m an anti-poverty activist, and I’ve wandered my town trying to find places to advertise for marches or rallies. There are a lot of places where political signs are not allowed. Public libraries, grocery stores… they don’t want to offend anyone by putting up political signs. It is hard to rent space too, for politically themed events. Of course some political groups have an abundance of money and can rent space easily, but for those of us on a shoe-string budget just trying to get local people involved, its hard.
    So I think about the idea of a world where religious symbols are to be kept hidden and private too, and I think, I wouldn’t want that. There is a local church that uses public property to put on a living nativity scene on Christmas Eve. If we made it harder for them to do so by requiring that they rent commercial space rather than use public space, they probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Other religious groups should be allowed use of the space too, if they do so respectfully. But the idea of atheists trying to force local communities to not allow space to be used for religious groups… that strikes me as so sad. I see it not in terms of struggles between different religious groups but one of economic issues… it ends up meaning only the wealthy voices, that can rent private space, get heard.

    • phantomreader42

      Christy, is there some reason this church cannot put their idols on their own property? Why should they, and ONLY they, be allowed to hijack the government and steal tax money to promote their cult to a captive audience on public property?

      • Lucreza Borgia

        Are you suggesting that no religious group ever be allowed to have a gathering on public property?

      • M

        Religious groups should of course be allowed to have a gathering on public property, subject to all the rules and fees any other group would have to follow. But there’s a big difference between a one-time gathering (which I gather this living nativity scene is, and I’m actually not upset by it because of that) and a banner or display all year round or for days/weeks/months at a time.

      • phantomreader42

        Lucreza, you know perfectly well I am not saying that. Why can’t you stop lying? And since you refuse to even pretend you have any interest in honest discussion, why should anyone treat you as worthy of any response but ridicule and derision?

        If, as you demand, no atheist is EVER allowed to say ANYTHING publicly, why should christians get any different treatment?

  • lucrezaborgia

    phantomreader: What the hell? I think Libby’s blog post answered what I think is acceptable. No where did I say atheists should be submissive and silent. I am not demanding anything. I am not lying and I certainly am able to discuss. All I am doing is disagreeing with you, yet you seem to be taking it personally as if I am attacking your core self.

    As to why Christians are “allowed” to be offensive? Blame the Constitution. Religious speech is protected more than other words. It is perfectly legal to be a ranting loon on a streetcorner as long as they are using religion as an excuse. I don’t like it, but there it is. Atheism is not a religion, and while speech is protected, it isn’t the same as religion.

    Of all the things to worry about with religion, a silly Nativity is hardly something to get riled up about. How about focusing on educating people about religiously motivated child abuse? Helping people get out from under spiritual abuse? No…we atheists need to get in a tizzy over a Christmas display…ah…first world problems…

    • phantomreader42

      Lucreza, even MENTIONING religiously motivated child abuse is denounced as an intolerable attack on religion, just like any mention that atheists exist and are human beings with rights. The sign I linked to, which christians felt compelled to set on fire, seems to meet Libby Anne’s proposed standards, but was nonetheless vandalized, just like signs that merely admit atheists EXIST. Everything you suggest as “acceptable” atheist speech is rejected as unacceptable, either by you or by others whom you are so eager to defend from the slightest whisper that someone might be allowed to disagree with them. Meanwhile, the folks you defend are hijacking the government and stealing tax money to promote their cult on public property, lying to children raping them, and screeching about how HORRIBLE it is that anyone is allowed to say a word against them doing those things.

      • lucrezaborgia

        You have found me out! It was all a ruse…

    • Anat

      Nativity scenes on private property are fine. What people are getting riled up about is the use of government property for promoting religion, which is a big deal. And if members of the dominant religion don’t get it on their own they should be shown what it looks like to be on the receiving end.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        I’m not saying that they aren’t problematic. Compared to other installations that are more permanent tho? Such as stone engraved with the 10 commandments? Are any Christmas decorations promoting Christianity or is there any way to have a nativity shown that isn’t an outright declaration of support for Christians? St. Patrick’s Day Parades aren’t seen as a celebration of Catholicism.

        Maybe my life experience hasn’t shown me the need to push atheism? Secularism in government and the judiciary is more important to me.

  • Cado

    I’m honestly not clear on what negative impact this would have. The aim was to get the city to ban public displays of this type, and there’s nothing else that could have accomplished that goal. Something more extreme would have likely led to the group itself being banned from winning slots rather than causing this whole thing to get shut down, and simply joining in with messages of holiday cheer would have done nothing but add to the problem.

    I say this because I look at this from the perspective that the most valuable thing that atheist activism can do is broaden the separation of church and state. I don’t feel there’s a PR battle that needs to be won because there is no atheist community to speak of; not believing in a god or gods isn’t something that unites people. It’s great when you want to bitch about the religion you left – and that is a necessary catharsis for those who are fresh out of the fold – but beyond that atheists are so different that creating anything more cohesive than that is a pipe dream. That makes it great for this kind of confrontational style, but turning it into something more fundamentally alters what atheism is.

    I most strongly identify as a rational mystic. That’s a title I’ve made for myself, but although I hold some spiritual beliefs I share a lot in common with atheists. I share so much in common with them that I publicly identify myself as that to anyone who clearly won’t accept nuance in someone’s worldview. I believe all religions have it wrong, and I think that what most of us experience as gods or demons are deep parts of the human psyche that lie within the unconscious mind. If there is something divine it is within us. I’ve considered fully embracing the atheist label before, and part of me feels that I don’t want an atheist group to fight a positive PR war because I’m perfectly capable of representing myself, and I know from my own experience that going that route forces you into an uphill battle from the word go.

    Discrimination doesn’t happen to atheists because of the stereotypes; it happens because conservative Christianity is so favored in some regions of the country that the nicest person in the world can say, “I’m an atheist” and his boss will never forget it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure the obnoxious stereotypes play into it in some cases, but generally speaking there’s a deeper prejudice that gets in the way of everything else. A lot of people are simply uncomfortable with the fact that there are people who don’t actively believe in anything, and as long as that kind of thinking guides some decision makers there’s no way to get the upper-hand by playing nice.

    The signs that this group used to accomplish their ends are not that offensive. I’ve seen far worse leveled at non-believers or believers of different faiths on church signs around the country. Granted, I can’t name examples that have occurred on public land, but the fact that there’s always a church nearby means that there’s no reason for religious groups of any stripe to access public land for their displays. I feel that a much more significant victory was won than could have been won through other tactics.

    This is only tangentially related to the core topic, but it’s worth bringing up: I don’t think the deconversion of every believer is a worthy goal. It’s simply not a winnable battle, and I think it promotes a homogenization of thought that overlooks the good things spiritual practices can offer to those inclined to use them. When you strip spiritual dogma of its status as absolute truth it becomes a tool through which human consciousness can be transformed into metaphor, rituals and songs that serve as a means to transform it. I practice magic not because I think my will can move the world but because it changes me, and my life is better for that. What needs to be combated is harmful practices and rigid ideologies, and aiming for total de-conversion misses the mark.

    With that said, I still wouldn’t oppose a group taking that stance as long as it’s effective at deepening the divide between church and state. The PR war will sort itself out as the US becomes more diverse and the baby boomers die out. In the meantime, we need to maintain the momentum that came with the religious right’s defeat last November.

  • Cubist

    sez lucreza borgia: “Phantom: Your answer still boils down to it being OK to sink to their level.”
    And your answer still does not acknowledge the empirical fact that Believers totally lose their shit over the mere fact that atheists even exist, to the point that an advertisement which does absolutely nothing other than point out the existence of atheists is considered too “offensive” for public consumption.
    So. You say atheists shouldn’t put up ads/billboards/whatever that offend Believers? Okay, fine. The problem is… the problem which you have consistently failed to address… the problem is, any pro-atheism message whatsoever will offend Believers.
    So. Your explicit message is that atheists shouldn’t offend Believers… but given the practical, empirical, rubber-meets-the-road, push-comes-to-shove reality that any pro-atheism message whatsoever will offend Believers, I gotta ask you: How, exactly does your preferredatheists shouldn’t offend Believers tactic differ from atheists should just plain STFU, end of discussion? Don’t respond with yet another instance of we-shouldn’t-sink-to-their-level, because that’s just another way of saying atheists shouldn’t offend Believers, and hey, you’ve already said that atheists shouldn’t offend Believers. My question is, if atheists take not-offending-Believers as their Prime Directive, what the fuck can atheists say?

    • Lucreza Borgia

      “Believers” is not a monolithic entity consisting of people who all go crazy over atheists. I have Pagan friends, Hindu, friends, Buddhist friends, Jewish friends, Christian friends of all stripes swinging from Conservative to flaming Liberal, and believe it or not, their day isn’t destroyed and they aren’t set to burn me at the stake over my lack of religious beliefs. The main reason we get along? They don’t question my lack of faith and I don’t question their faith.

      Not every person of faith is out to burn down a sign with a humanistic message. Not every person of faith is out to vandalize atheist signs. The real battles aren’t against the majority of the various versions of the faithful. Maybe people think that in the echo-chamber that is Pharyngula and other atheist sites that loose their shit over the fact that someone thinks differently than they do?

      I already stated that I didn’t think that the sign phantom shared was offensive. If people think THAT statement is offensive to the point of wanting to burn it, then they need their head examined. I also never said that atheists should make not-offending some sort of prime directive. Life isn’t black and white. Some people are going to be pissy no matter what and you can’t go through life tip-toeing through the tulips for everyone and everything.

      Does that mean that the signs that Libby shared are OK tho? To me, no. Other people will disagree, some people will disagree, and some people will be on the fence. That’s life.

      • Cubist

        I ask you again, LB, because I don’t see an answer in your reply: In brute practical terms, how, exactly, does your preferred atheists shouldn’t offend Believers tactic differ from atheists should just plain STFU, end of discussion?