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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