The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Evidence-Based Atheist Activism

This is a repost from the Humanist Community Project website, a project designed to host useful materials to help non-theist communities around the country develop and grow. It introduces the Freethinkers’ Political Textbook, my effort to bring together mountains of research into effective activism and persuasion into a mini book specifically dedicated to the challenges of freethought activism. I will be posting all the old content here, updating it to reflect what I’ve learnt since writing the original posts. Here are the current posts in the series:

Go for the Gut – On the role of emotion in persuasion
Framing for Freethinkers – Introducing Lakoff’s concept of “Framing”
Mr. Jefferson, Reframe that Wall! – Changing the language of secularism to win more to our cause
Know the Audience – The single most important element of any persuasive campaign
Steel, Velvet, and the Honorable Duelist – Questioning the “Accommodationist/Firebrand” dichotomy
Logos, Ethos, Pathos – Aristotle’s classic peruasive tripod

The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Textbook

In the late 1800s, Watson Heston, a freethinking cartoonist from Missouri, published the Freethinkers’ Pictorial Textbook, a collection of cartoons designed to depict and critique “the absurdity and untruthfulness of the Church’s claim to be a divine and beneficent institution and…the abuses of a union of church and state”. A blistering attack on the abuses of church authority, the Textbook is still one of the most powerful collections of freethinking images ever created, harnessing the power of evocative drawing to show the difference between a world exalted by reason and compassion, and a world dragged-down by dogma and superstition.

Take the Freethought Road!

Leading People Up the Freethought Road

The Textbook is not just a historical curiosity: it is a political work, seeking to use powerful, emotive images to sway the viewer toward supporting freethinking values and, as such, is represents one of the most effective uses of art to promote freethinking that has ever been created. Heston understood that we Humanists are working within a cultural marketplace of hearts and minds (in that order), and that if we want the world to become more reasonable, more compassionate, more scientific, less dogmatic, and less authoritarian – if we want more people to take the Freethought Road – we must persuade them to do so.

As I have argued elsewhere, the Humanist movement seems peculiarly averse to harnessing the arts, narrative, music, imagery, symbolism and, more broadly, the emotions to promote its values and persuade the public. We often seem emotionally tone-deaf when we reach out to the broader public, creating appeals more likely to enrage than to entice. Ad campaigns for atheist and Humanist organizations are often badly-conceived, poorly-designed, and lacking a clear emotional message. They are frequently targeted without a thorough understanding of the different audiences who might be receptive to our message. We tend to react to attacks on our values, rather than forcing our ideological opponents onto the defensive with initiatives of our own. As such, although the American public often shares our values (a commitment to science, or the the separation between church and state, for example), we punch below our weight, and find ourselves scrabbling to defend old victories against a better-organized, more energetic, more emotionally compelling religious right.

This state of affairs is particularly strange given the reams of evidence available regarding what makes for an effective political campaign. For decades scientists, pollsters, advertisers, marketeers and politicians have conducted experiments to determine what works, empirically, when trying to persuade the public. As a self-identified rationalist movement, one might think we would be up-to-date with the latest findings, and would be using them methodically to get our message across. On the contrary. It seems very few of our movement organizations have grappled with the necessity of framing, have investigated the political brain and what it can teach us, have studied the role of narrative and storytelling in persuasion, or have harnessed the insights of effective community organizers. Instead of developing a guiding persuasive strategy, based on the best science and expertise, the Humanist movement too often lurches from one ill-conceived campaign to another, with no master narrative, no connecting themes, and little grasp of the importance of the gut.

What’s needed, I believe, is a Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – a series of articles on all the latest findings related to how to move people to your position, specifically designed to help Humanists and freethinkers effectively appeal to the public on issues that they care about. This introduction is the first post in such a series. It will tackle the principles of persuasion, analyze examples of effective and ineffective freethought activism, and provide concrete suggestions to improve current and create future campaigns. It will draw on a range of empirical findings from psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, political science, organizing literature and more to ensure, to the greatest degree possible, that the insights offered are well-supported (what are my qualifications for writing this? Take a look at the “About Me” section below).

By taking to heart the best advice that science has to offer on the subject of effective persuasion, the Humanist movement will become better at convincing people to take up and support freethinking values. As our cultural and political influence grows, we’ll lead more and more up the Freethought Road!

About Me

In addition to my work as a philosopher at Harvard (I’m ABD, writing a thess on Free Thinking), I’ve been a political activist since my teens, working with the UK’s Liberal Democrat party in various roles as a volunteer in political campaigns. There I learnt how to go door to door convincing people to put up signs in support of our candidate, how to respond to constituents’ concerns over the phone, how to conduct effective petitions, and the traits of good political candidates. I continued my activism as a student at Cambridge, where I was Education Campaigns Officer for my Student Union. As an actor and singer with over 50 public performance credits to my name, I have honed the art of using my body and voice as an instrument to convey ideas and emotions.  As a high school debater, and later a high school teacher, I learned how to speak effectively in front of a hostile crowd, and win them over.

Now, in Boston, I’ve been a board-member of Join the Impact MA (a direct action gay rights activist group), am a board member of SpeakOUT Boston (which uses stories to win hearts for LGBTQ equality), and travel around the country speaking on Humanism as a member of the Speaker’s Bureaus of the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry, and the Secular Student Alliance. For three years I helped teach Persuasion: The Science and Art of Effective Influence with Gary Orren at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government – a class President Obama himself took as a graduate student, and which he credited for some of his success. I have studied, and this year helped teach, Public Narrative with Marshall Ganz, legendary community organizer who created Camp Obama, the community-organizing training program credited with much of the success of Obama’s Presidential Campaign. My final speech for that class is now used around the world to teach Public Narrative to others, alongside speeches by Obama and Gandhi – there are versions of my talk with Chinese subtitles floating around, legacy of its use as a tool to train activists worldwide. I now help organizations and individuals become more persuasive as a communications consultant through my project ROUSE Them: you can see my website for this work here. I’ve helped non-profits win tens of thousands of dollars in social entrepreneurship competitions, have helped political lobbyists push preferred policies, and teacher inspire their students.


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