How Not To Run a Public Relations Campaign

The Internet Infidels News Wire linked to a story today about a Pennsylvania town which refuses to include an atheist banner as part of a holiday display. I understand the church-state issues involved, but I scratch my head when I try to make sense of the public relations strategy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) here. I understand why they want to have a holiday display to represent atheism alongside religious displays, but I don’t understand what they hope to accomplish with the banner they selected. The rejected banner, supplied by the FFRF and identical to other signs they have used for years, says:

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.

It seems to me such a banner does nothing to improve the public image of atheists while there is a significant chance it will reinforce negative stereotypes of atheists. Unlike like a Nativity scene and symbols pertaining to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, that message celebrates nothing; instead, it is confrontational. As the mayor of the Pennsylvania town said, “Nothing in our [Nativity] display challenges or puts down what others believe. I don’t think you can say that about the banner the group is supposed to be sending.” I agree.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05868095335395368227 vjack

    We'll have to disagree on this one. The public image of atheists is not the goal here. I am confident that the FFRF has seen the same data I have about how negative our image already is, simply because our existence suggests that the religious might be wrong. No, this is about encouraging the government to keep religion out of public buildings.

    A nativity scene is not inherently confrontational; putting one in a public building is a confrontational act, however. And that is the point of the FFRF sign. None of these symbols belong in a government building, and the FFRF hopes that this will be the eventual outcome.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi vjack —

    I recognize "this is about encouraging the government to keep religion out of public buildings." (I thought I acknowledged that in my post.) Furthermore, I accept that the public image of atheists was "not the goal here." My point is that it should have been the goal.

    You wrote:

    I am confident that the FFRF has seen the same data I have about how negative our image already is, simply because our existence suggests that the religious might be wrong.

    What data are you talking about? According to a study just published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the data does not support your conclusion that the main reason atheists have such a negative image is not that "the religious might be wrong." According to that study, at least, "anti-atheist prejudice is particularly motivated by distrust" which researchers found to be "fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them." In other words, atheists have a poor public image not because theists are afraid of being wrong, but because many (though not all) theists think atheists are less moral than theists.

    Let's assume that study is correct. What impact is an atheist 'holiday' banner proclaiming "there is no God" going to have on the perception of atheists by others? I don't see an upside for atheist public relations here. Such a banner is clearly not going to convince people that atheists are just as moral as theists. So the best case scenario is that the atheist banner has no impact at all.

    But the worst case scenario is that the atheist banner reinforces and increases public mistrust of atheists. Indeed, I can easily imagine a theist thinking the following:

    "I've never known any athests, at least none that are out of the closet. But I did hear a story a story about a group of atheists who wanted to display an offensive banner in a holiday display. That's rude. If atheists are going to be rude when people are watching, they must be really nasty when people aren't watching."

    While invalid, it's certainly understandable how someone might reason in that way. And, most important, there's a non-trivial chance that someone will, in fact, reason in exactly that way, further damaging atheist public relations.

    You wrote:

    A nativity scene is not inherently confrontational; putting one in a public building is a confrontational act, however.

    That's a non sequitur. Putting a nativity scene in (or in front of) a public building is not necessarily a confrontational act. In fact, if the government actually provides equal accomodation to other viewpoints, it seems to me the presence of the nativity scene isn't confrontational.

    And that is the point of the FFRF sign. None of these symbols belong in a government building, and the FFRF hopes that this will be the eventual outcome.

    You and I agree these symbols do not belong in a government building. We disagree about the best way to achieve that objective. You seem to think the best option for atheists is to insist that the display be confrontational. I think a better option is for atheists to insist on a non-confrontational display that identifies itself as atheist, but doesn't go out of its way to insult other people or their beliefs. For example, Margaret Downey with the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia has attempted to include a "Tree of Reason" in a government holiday display in her area. That seems like a vast improvement over the message of the FFRF sign.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14360566092148805751 Damion

    Suppose that FFRF (or AHA, or FSGP, or whomever) wanted to get across a solstice message which includes atheists and other freethinkers but doesn't look confusingly like ordinary seasonal greenery.

    Seems to me that we need a more generally recognizable symbol, or at least signage with a more affirmative message. Something about doing good for the sake of promoting goodness, or the like.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Damion — Good point. I agree with you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10509401627805923739 SWBTSguy321

    Mr. Lowder, I have come across the FFRF before as a Christian, and I find that I wholeheartedly agree with you on this.

    I understand that many atheists and agnostics point to religion as a heart-hardening and mind-enslaving thing (I would be interested in your opinion on this), but I don't know that anyone reading this banner would walk away more interested in atheism. I have heard debates with Dan Barker (of FFRF) and know quite well how antagonistic he is toward religion. His approach is often far beyond what I see on sites like this which demonstrate a common respect for people of faith. His approach often comes off more like outright hatred.

    As a communications grad, I don't know that I would fully agree with the state not allowing this to be shown alongside other displays. TPM (time place manner) restrictions are one thing, but content censorship is quite another.

    As a Christian I can appreciate the offense that is taken by some at the disbelief of others. On the other hand, to a sinful world, myself included, I think a nativity scene is ultimately a greater offense. The nativity scene tells us that we have all sinned. We, in that sin, find ourselves under the just wrath of the God who made us. In God's kindness, and because of our inability, He sent His Son. The baby in the nativity scene grew up to be the man Jesus. This man, perfect in all His actions, died in my place.
    God's forgiveness came through that manger baby. I cannot work my way or morally reform my way into God's favor, but that little child could. That is the offense of the cross, and the offense of the manger.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    SWBTSguy321 — Thanks for your comment. You wrote:

    I understand that many atheists and agnostics point to religion as a heart-hardening and mind-enslaving thing (I would be interested in your opinion on this),

    There are some atheists who have spent a lot of time thinking about the practical consequences of religious belief. I am not one of them. So please take my comments with a grain a salt, i.e., as more of a kneejerk reaction than the result of any real study.

    I start with a fundamental distinction between (a)theology and epistemology. Both theists and nontheists can have (and have had) "hardened hearts" (though I really dislike that expression). Both theists and nontheists can have (and have had) closed minds or even "enslaved" minds.

    The question is whether a person, theist or nontheist, has a sort of intellectual humility and avoids dogmatism. If you want to speak in generalizations, that's an empirical question. My bias and my intuition is to say that conservative / orthodox versions of theism tend to encourage dogmatism more often than nontheistic philosophies. But I don't have a lot of confidence in that opinion. I don't have the empirical data to support any sort of general answer. As I said, I haven't really studied this.

    What I can say with some confidence is this. I think we can probably all think of specific subsets of both theists and nontheists who have hardened their hearts and had closed minds. On the nontheistic side, 20th century communists would be exhibit A in my book. On the theistic side, well, I'll throw the ball to your court and let you identify a subset of theists who you think have exemplified dogmatism. :)

    Regarding Dan Barker, I want to separate his organization from him as a person. While I disagree with FFRF on this particular issue, I've always found him to be a nice person. (Of course, I've been a nontheist the entire time I've known him, so my experience may not carry much weight.) My hunch is that certain philosophical or legal positions can cause a person to come across as very antagonistic, no matter how nice a person actually is.

    Your point about the nativity scene is interesting. When you put it that way, I can see why someone might call it offensive. I wonder how many people actually think that way, i.e., how many people think about the implicit message of sin and salvation. It wouldn't surprise me if a lot of people, especially non-Christians, did NOT think about that when seeing a nativity scene. (FWIW, I drive past one on my way to work and I don't.) On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if a lot of people did think about that. That would be an interesting empirical question to study.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10509401627805923739 SWBTSguy321

    Lowder said:
    My hunch is that certain philosophical or legal positions can cause a person to come across as very antagonistic, no matter how nice a person actually is.

    This is a great point, I think in my comments I may have taken my critique of Mr. Barker too far. I can name some speakers on the Christian side that probably come off in much the same way to those they're debating who are also in person very kind people.

    I too would love to see an empirical study on the understanding of the nativity, especially in the fairly nominally Christian culture in the U.S.

    Continuing the discussion, would you consider Biblicism to be dogmatism? In other words, if I claim that I believe the Bible, rightly interpreted, is the rule for faith and practice, and that it is true in all that it affirms, is this equivalent to dogmatism?

    My take on it would be that rather than dogmatism, this is a position of submission to authority. This may seem like a strange way to say it, but what I mean to convey is, I believe the Bible much like, and in my case often to a stronger degree, I believe a hard scientific work or study in that it has an authoritative word on a subject.


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