Is Anyone Else Talking About How Bloody Awful The American Atheists Inc. “Slaves” Harrisburg, PA Billboards Are?

Hello. Let’s get this out of the way.

I’m Australian. I’m female. I’m white. I’m college-educated. I’ve been to the USA a few times and I have a few friends who are atheists, and a lot of friends from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, who greatly inform my world-view. You won’t often hear me mentioned by mainstream skeptics or atheists (if at all) and I guess I’m happy doing podcast episodes, writing articles and supporting as many fellow non-mainstream promoted skeptical folks as I can. I’m second-last or something on the Big List of FreeThought Blogs banner on the front page. You might be only reading this because of the Steampunk videos I post on occasion. Bleah. That was as uncomfortable to write as it was to read, I assure you.

I occasionally check out the other posts by fellow Freethought bloggers and I’ve quite enjoyed learning about a number of views and perspectives, such as “What Not to Say to Radical Atheists/Humanists of Color“; “Black Atheists Rising: Solidarity for Black Non-Believers” ; “African Americans for Humanism“; “An Open Letter to Members of the Secular Community” and “Black History Month: looking back, looking forward“. No, that doesn’t make me an expert on such topics, of course, but I think they’re vital voices in the atheist milieu, the same way I’ve supported the recently published Young Atheist’s Handbook and other projects via the podcast and so forth.

And with all that (because of that?), perhaps there’s something I’m missing. Because I honestly don’t freaking get this:

 

I don’t get how the hell this was ever approved as a billboard by an atheist group. I just don’t. I personally find it rather shockingly confronting, distracting me from seeing it as being about atheism (was that its intent? This lesson?) and… maybe it’s meant to compliment (somehow?) the recent African Americans for Humanism campaign?

I tried contacting a few people who identify as African American atheists and a few other people – and people aren’t really talking much. Well, maybe they’re talking, but not to me. One politely said that they pretty much rather focus on interacting in a non-confrontational way and use more positive messages. And that they didn’t wish to be quoted. Bugger.

I can understand THIS reaction to the original poster, because I wouldn’t want it up around my neighbourhood either:

:

I noticed that Hemnat has written about it, over at Pennsylvania Atheist Group Buys Billboard To Exploit ‘Year of the Bible’, but I’ve just learned that there’s yet to be another Freethought Bloggers post about it. Maybe they’ll have more to tell me as to the how, why… and whatthe?

What did the group who made it have to say?

A literal application of a scripture, Colossians 3:22, will enrage communities into full blown anger, voicing personal attack and death threats. The application of this scripture proves that the Bible is barbaric, horrible, awful, repugnant, and racist? Why do people parade the Bible as the best book on planet Earth? The Bible is by far, the worst book ever compiled and adored by countless humans, including the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. American Atheists detests the Bible and the slavery it condones as much as the vandals detest the image of slavery portrayed on the billboard. Maybe the public can now understand our anger and frustration at the House of Representatives’ “Year of The Bible” resolution? The unanimous theocratic passage of this resolution was a bigoted, narrow-minded and self-centered act against all citizens in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On January 24, 2012 at 3:12 pm, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives vandalized the citizenship of Atheists and other non-Christians in this Commonwealth by relegating us to second class status.
Ernest Perce V,
American Atheists Pennsylvania State Director

The full quote ; Colossians 3:20-23 reads:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.

Recently the group posted on Facebook (within the last day):

The remaining billboard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was removed by the advertising company earlier today. PA State Director and David Silverman are fast at work on a brand new message and design with the same level of intensity as the prior message. We will show that the bible is evil and immoral once again. Round two, here we come.

To be fair, my introduction to the American Atheists efforts to promote themselves via banners like these really wasn’t the best (the O’Reilly interview, where I thought that Silverman came across poorly and seemed to struggle for an answer as to why the approach taken was seen as the best) and I thought “Perhaps having someone from a faith or former-faith background would be really useful on their campaign, to give some alternative perspectives and avoid what I saw as a disaster like this happening again“.

I noticed that there’s a “A poll on AA’s new billboards” on PZ’s site for different billboards – and perhaps I’ll learn more as to how effective these billboards are in general.

I am now waiting to see if the brand new message and design will have me going “Seriously?!” again. At the moment, my hopes aren’t up.

But then again… am I the target audience? And (since, I’m clearly not) – who is?

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Gordon

    I think this billboard was really clear. It says “your morality is superior to the bible’s.”

    It asks “are you really going to take guidance from this book?”

    • Lewis

      I think this is all conjecture until we know some facts.

      1. Have there been any people who have approached the American Atheists as a result of these billboards to say that they wish to join or support them?

      2. Have there been any people who have done the same to say that they will have nothing to do with them whether they are or are not identifying as atheists?

      Until then, this could be as successful as Plait’s Don’t Be a Dick or Tim Minchin’s Storm but we won’t know.

  • S. Hill

    I was a former member of PA Nonbelievers and ran the Harrisburg Drinking Skeptically. When Mr. Peirce came into the group, the tone drastically changed and many people left, including me. It was about the time when he showed up with a friend at a Drinking Skeptically event (where I promoted more skeptical discussion, not religious discussions) dressed as priests and handing out holy wafers (around the time of the frackin’ cracker incident). I was appalled and I quit that function. I did not go back to PAN events.

    Their current tone is disgusting to me. Show me the numbers of people that have been recruited to an atheist cause because of this billboard. Then, show me the number of people who now think PAN and Amer Atheists is a bunch of assholes. The scale is mightily tipped. They are utterly clueless about persuasion and prefer to shock and provoke people. They and Rush Limbaugh have a lot in common.

    I’m disappointed that these orgs have turned into something perceived as hateful, prejudiced, rude and nasty. I refuse to be associated with any atheist group at all. They have not only done damage to the public reputation of atheists but have annoyed a whole lot of supporters as well.

    As is their way, I half expect to get shit for this. That’s how it typically goes. They slam people who who don’t agree with them. Yep, way to be freethinkers.

    • d cwilson

      S. Hill:

      I also live in the Harrisburg area and work downtown. Ironically, I’ve been looking to get involved in the local skeptical/nonbelievers. I was even thinking of going to the PANonbelievers meeting tonight. Then I saw this billboard. I agree with you. If their goal was to just be provocative, then they succeeded. But if their goal was to get people thinking about the message and maybe questioning the Bible, then they failed miserably. The image is ugly, and not just because it depicts a man in bondage. No one who sees this billboard will walk away thinking, “Gee, maybe the Bible isn’t a good source of morality”. Instead, the message that people will take away here is that atheists are assholes.

      I won’t be going to that meeting tonight.

    • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun, the Linguist of Doom

      is this the same Mr Pierce as in the Zombie Muhammad guy?

      • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun, the Linguist of Doom

        sorry for the typo, that should’ve been “Mr Peirce”..

        • Kylie Sturgess

          That story? I think it is:
          “Talaag Elbayomy, a 46-year-old Muslim man, allegedly physically attacked Ernest Perce V, who was dressed as “Zombie Muhammad” during a Mechanicsburg Halloween parade.”

          • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun, the Linguist of Doom

            So maybe S. Hill made a typo here?

            For what’s it worth, the panonbelievers website has some pages tagged with “Ernest Perce” who is the Zombie Muhammad guy..

          • Kylie Sturgess

            I thought I made the typo – I wrote his name in the blogpost? I took it from their Facebook page:
            Ernest Perce V,
            American Atheists Pennsylvania State Director

          • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun, the Linguist of Doom

            As a linguist, I had been following the Zombie Muhammad case with great interest (as it involved something known as the sports conditional regarding the question whether the judge had said he was Muslim or not). So I remembered the name “Ernest Perce”, in that spelling. But S. Hill using “Pierce” kinda threw me off.

            Sorry for adding to the confusion..

      • d cwilson

        Yes, it’s the same guy.

        • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun, the Linguist of Doom

          this explains a lot to me. In the wake of the Zombie Muhammad case hub-bub, Mr Peirce has been showing some shall we say erratic behaviour around the blogosphere.

          If he is behind those billboards, then the apparent tone-deafness does not surprise me.

      • Stevarious

        Yeah, it’s the same Ernest Perce as the zombie Mohammed guy.

    • Stevarious

      @ S. Hill
      I was never an ‘official’ member of PAN but I have been active on their email list and forum since well before Ernest Perce joined, and I think you’re slightly mistaken about the effect Perce had upon joining.
      The group always had a ‘good old boys’ feel to it to me, that only straight white men (and their wives) were really welcome. Do you not recall the mass exodus of all non-cis people some months before Perce joined, when the then-president just wouldn’t shut up about how much he opposed gay marriage?

      I don’t think Perce is directly responsible for the changes. I think that his arrival was just the catalyst that brought some very ugly things out into the open.

      The situation seems to me to be more complicated than how you described… but unfortunately not much better. However, I admit that since I am only privy to the details that come out in the arguments on the email lists, I may not have the whole picture here. If any ‘official’ PAN reps want to correct some details I’m all ears.

      (And it’s worth mentioning that Perce is not a member of PAN anymore, and that there is still considerable opposition to his ‘style’ within PAN’s membership – though obviously not enough to prevent PAN’s name from being on that billboard.)

      • J. Burke

        The anti-gay marriage hub-bub that caused some people, including gay activists, to leave PA Nonbelievers was not caused by the then-president – he was staunchly pro-gay rights.

        You’re close. The hub-bub was caused by Carl Silverman, who is one of Ernest Perce’s BFFs, and who appeared as the “Zombie Pope” alongside Ernest’s :Zombie Muhammed”.

        Carl was a lieutenant to the PAN president, the “Capitol Area Director” of PAN, ie the coordinator of group efforts in the Harrisburg area of Pennsylvania, PA’s state capitol.

        • Stevarious

          My mistake. Appreciate the correction.

    • J. Burke

      Fancy meeting you again today, S. Hill, LOL ;) I’m with PZ Meyers on this, that I appreciate the sentiment behind the billboard – but piss poor execution! I don’t have anything to do with Atheist groups these days either, btw.

      For the rest of you all, I belonged to PA Nonbelievers for a number of years too and left on account of the transformation Ernest Perce wrought in the group’s leadership (to summarize: he outright schmoozed and bamboozled half the Board of Directors, causing the other half to quit in disgust, leaving his faction in control of the direction of the group) – but not until after a number of us put up quite the fight over the course of a year, if I do say so.

      And I’ve never said this before publicly in quite so many words, although I have all but said it on numerous occasions – SHAME ON ME, AND SHAME ON EVERYONE WHO KNEW – but I should have come forth a long time before now. Publicly available criminal history records show that Ernest Perce is an ex-convict from Texas who was sent to maximum security Huntsville State Penitentiary, Texas, for fraud – the charge, I believe, was felony “Theft By Deception”. That’s what they charge CON ARTISTS with in Texas. (If anyone goes looking for it, these days the statute appears to have changed a little bit, and various fraud/robbery/theft charges are lumped together under an umbrella, though you can still find TbD if you look).

      Remember at this time in Texas that he was supposedly a fundamentalist Pentecostal minister, and he supposedly went to seminary, was a big-shot, etc, etc… Yes, well… *snort* He has angrily dodged demands that he provide evidence to support these grandiose claims of his, and independent investigation fails to turn up any evidence that he ever attended any post-secondary school or seminary, let alone was a proper minister, rolling in the dough. By all indications, he seems barely literate in English (that statement above, supposedly by him, bears no resemblance, whatsoever, to his demonstrated lack of facility with the English language). The boy does know his Bible, I’ll give him that… perhaps his seminary’s name was “Huntsville”?

      Minor nit-picky point amongst the multitude of egregious, grandiose fabrications, but he is NOT Ernest Perce V – that’s just him putting on grandiose airs again. He’s actually the illegitimate son of a Mexican woman and a Texan man named Ernest Sevenau IV, and he’s got about 12 siblings, half of whom are down in Mexico. His mom did name him after the man who impregnated her, but Ernest does not carry his father’s family name or any claim to being the 5th in the line. This is all just the TIP of the iceberg when it comes to Ernest’s colorful past, all the aliases (variations on Ernest Shane Perce), all the places around the country he moved…

      Last point, but the president of American Atheists, David Silverman, was told POINT BLANK over the phone, at length, for quite a while!, about Ernest’s criminal history and his exhibition of traits typically associated with Anti-Social Personality Disorder and convicts… and yet he went ahead and made Ernest the PA State Director of American Atheists anyway. For David to ignore that… yep, Ernest sure as heck is charismatic in his ways with the people he wins over (incidentally, glib, superficial charm is one of the major diagnostic criteria of ASPD, ha). According to Ernest, the first thing David Silverman did after he was informed about Ernest was to turn around and call Ernest right up and let him know. Because they’re really good buddies, talk every day on IM and Facebook and such, surprise.

      Well, apologies to all for not coming clean on this attention-whoring parasite earlier, but honestly, people were trying to play things safe and not tip their hands/compromise any potential case being built against Ernest and allies. After so many months it became obvious, though, that such an undertaking would be unfeasibly monumental, with dubious chance of success. So, it’s a shame that Ernest was not exposed earlier. In being reticent to talk, though, there was also the Carl S. factor to think about (Carl, the Zombie Pope, ie Ernest’s BFF). He comes across as lawsuit-happy himself as a Scientologist, and has had a hand in bringing at least a few – so publicly opposing the united front of Ernest and Carl, and actually exposing Ernest, has always been a dicey prospect for a whistle-blower. Sigh. Ah well. This has all been such a fascinating and ridiculous circus that dragged on long enough without getting anywhere – so to hell with it now, I don’t think I can really be arsed to care anymore, come what may, I might as well tell all. And hope Bill-O The Clown doesn’t get a hold of what his favorite atheist, Dave Silverman, has been doing with his buddy, Ernest The Felon.

  • http://therionclothing@bigcartel.com Chris in Cape Town

    Exactly. And why exactly are you so squeamish about confrontation?
    Christianity approves of slavery and was the religion of slave owners. Do you think atheists should just be quiet and not point any of this out because it may offend your delicate sensibilities?
    If this is “the year of the bible” then it should be made clear what this actually means.

    • http://ms-daisy-cutter.dreamwidth.org/ Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform

      Gee, I dunno, because white people analogizing religion to slavery, in a country where the wounds of color-based slavery have not healed yet, comes off as massively insensitive to African-Americans and what they’ve been through?

      Here, go read this and maybe you can catch a goddamn clue.

      • Hibernia86

        All the signs are doing is stating a fact that the Bible supports slavery. The idea that a person shouldn’t be allowed to mention that because they are white is incredibly stupid.

        While I can see how the signs could be misinterpreted, the fact is that anyone who took the time to read the sign should come off with a better understanding of the situation. We shouldn’t apologize for stating these facts.

        • love moderately ॐ

          The signs are doing quite a bit more than that.

          The idea that a person shouldn’t be allowed to mention that because they are white

          Nobody said this, but from your twisted reaction I suppose you also complain that black people “get to” use racial slurs which a white person would be judged racist for.

          • Hibernia86

            You still have not explained why a sign mentioning that the Bible supports slavery makes the sign racist. The fact that you jumped to offense without providing any logical support shows your own biases more than anything about the sign.

      • Mriana

        Ms Daisy, the article was talking about what not to say to African-American humanists/atheists, not black people in general. My sons are 1/2 black and I’m going to tell them the truth about Xianity and Islam- they are religions of slavery. I am going to tell them the truth about how many black people became Xians and are Xians today. To do otherwise would be wrong of me as a mother and possibly risk their minds going into mental slavery if they don’t know the truth about Abrahamic religions. That’s the last thing I want as a mother. In all honesty, I think every African-American Xian needs to know that they wouldn’t be Xians today if not for slavery and while they are free from slavery in the physical sense, many still have their minds enslaved by religion. However, I don’t go around telling every black person I meet that. If I didn’t tell my sons though, I would be doing them a disfavour as their mother.

    • pyrobryan

      The billboard would have been much less antagonistic without the picture on it and it would have still gotten the same message across.

  • sumdum

    I love how, even though they vandalized the other billboard, the pertinent information is still all visible. Who cares that the atheists are no longer mentioned on it, as long as people see that the bible condones slavery it’s worth it.

    I don’t think the billboard is awful, it’s the bible that condones slavery that is awful. This message just points that out.

  • Aquaria

    The ads aren’t awful. The babble is.

    Try to keep up.

  • Anonymous

    Kylie,

    We don’t see eye-to-eye on a number of matters and you more than likely can identify my IP address and find out who is writing this. But I’m asking that you respect my anonymity for a number of undisclosed reasons. My point is this:

    Firstly, these banners have appeared in predominantly Black neighbourhood of Philadelphia. If there was any hope of the audience in the area noticing the African Americans for Humanism campaign in favor of this one, it would be lost. The cherry-picking of Bible quotes that can apply to a number of races that have been subjected to slavery projects an incomplete and temporally inaccurate projection of “the slave”. Finally, I too am at a loss as to who exactly is the intended audience for this campaign and would settle for the message as being potentially interpreted in a number of ways, including:
    “We Atheists think that you are slaves to religion and deign to tell you what you are”
    or
    “We Atheists think that you religious believers deserve to be sneered at as being akin to turn-of-the-era slaves for your beliefs”.

    The attitude is that atheists should not be “playing nice” and I agree that atheists are not unified and that there are a number of approaches that can and should be taken. When it comes to horses for courses (or “different strokes for different folks”), this is not a path I would personally take and I do not support the campaign as it stands.

  • http://Skepreview.com Nigel

    I live near Harrisburg and my work is in Harrisburg. This Billboard came up as a topic of a post meeting conversation. The general attitude was one of “what the hell?”. First, the knowledge that the state legislature made this the year of the bible was not known by the most of the seven or so in the group. Now all of these folks are professionals and church attending folks, but the consensus was “that is a waste of time, doesn’t the assembly have better things to do?”. The attitude toward the poster was “I get the message and disagree with it generally, but the form of the message shows those atheist are wacky.”. I sat there thinking great: another reason to think atheist are jerks and a bad sort.

    A side note is that the location of the billboard is heavily African American, and quite religious. It is just tone deaf all around.

    I know the above is anecdotal, but for me illuminating.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    The major reason for this is that Pennsylvania’s legislature (in a move that’s blatantly a violation of the first amendment) declared 2012 the “Year of the Bible” so AA is showing just what’s in the Bible.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    The intended message of the billboard — namely that the ethical imperatives from the Bible are often terrible — isn’t particularly impressive. On the other hand, it seems to have been designed by people who aren’t thinking of how it will be read by those who are just glancing at it, especially when driving at speed. The offensive Bible quote is in big letters, but the text that indicates, “Yes, if you find this endorsement of slavery offensive, good, because it is messed up,” is in much smaller print, and if one were to have covered up that latter text, the billboard would be straight-up racist.

    In short, message hamstrung by a graphics design fail.

    • michaelgreen

      Well put. I’ve seen this point about the Bible and slavery made much better by the team on The Atheist Experience.

      That is an appropriate forum for it, being a call-in TV show where the point can be discussed, explained and debated in detail.

      Even if it’s well done (and this is awful), a billboard simply isn’t the appropriate medium for this kind of message.

      I have no idea how the AA chapter responsible thought it was

    • Charlie O

      Perhaps the graphic should have shown a bunch of white people in chains? I agree with a previous poster that the message was spot on, but the imagery used was a fail.

      • J. J. Ramsey

        I don’t think it’s so much the imagery itself that’s a fail so much as it is that the billboard fails to convey its intended message when glanced at. Billboards are not essays. They are meant to be viewed by those who are putting most of their attention on other things, such as driving. Small print and longish sentences do not belong on billboards unless one can overlook them and still get the intended point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

    This is America. A country where lots of people believe, or claim to believe, that we should turn to the Bible for guidance on issues like gay rights and women’s rights. So pointing out the bad stuff in the Bible is kind of important. Yes, some people will think we’re assholes for daring to point out that their holy book isn’t perfect, but the solution to that is to keep pointing things like that out until they get used to it.

    JJ Ramsey may be right about the graphic design fail, though.

  • Lyra

    I’ve read your post once and skimmed it twice, but I’m not able to find where you express exactly where you express what you think is wrong with the billboard, other than you don’t like it.

    Is it ugly, terrible, shocking, and appalling? Yes, but I don’t see how you can have Colossians 3:20 not be ugly, shocking, terrible, and appalling. Furthermore, the bible WAS used as a justification for slavery, so it’s not like the billboard is historically inaccurate, and it isn’t like Christians have since decided that they don’t have to listen to the bible. This passage is in the bible that so many people insist is the word of God, perfect, inerrant, and must be followed.

    Maybe the billboard is bad. I don’t know, as I haven’t thought about it much, and am certainly not the best one for making that call (being white). However, I also don’t understand that your problem with it is, other than possibly you think it will not accomplish it’s goal (and, oh, the fights we atheists get in over whether or not what each other is doing is the “best” approach).

    • May

      She did, she says in the post
      ‘I personally find it rather shockingly confronting, distracting me from seeing it as being about atheism (was that its intent? This lesson?) and… maybe it’s meant to compliment (somehow?) the recent African Americans for Humanism campaign?’
      and that Silverman didn’t articulate with how these approachws were seen as the best. Also that she didn’t know who the target audience for it was. I think the bible has lots of bullshit in it and sexism and racism and is the most hate filled book out there but the moderate religious people I know wouldn’t support atheists who took to these kinds of shock tactics and I want support for secular concerns overall. But that’s just me.

  • cswella

    I don’t think this billboard is meant to draw attention to Atheism specifically.

    It’s intent, as I see it, is to plant certain verses into people’s minds about what the bible really says. Shocking and disturbing indeed, but that shock is being associated with the bible, not atheism.

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  • http://www.instituteforscienceandhumanvalues.net NORM ALLEN

    The ad is shocking. But what do you expect from American Atheists? That has always been their style. There are “different strokes for different folks;” and there are many different ways to interpret what the message of this ad might be. I strongly agree that the graphics could have been much better. As an African American I was disturbed at the image of an enslaved African American. I had to think for a while before I concluded that this predominantly White atheist organization at least meant well. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. There should have been more thought put into this idea. The Bible is certainly a terrible book, but there might be more sensitive and productive ways to make that point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1490122280 scottplumer

    The image and the “bronze age ethics” commentary I can do without, and indeed may be insensitive gien where the billaboards was displayed, but otherwise I like it. I think posting whacky quotes from the Bible is very effective.

  • jflcroft

    What’s so frustrating about ineffective, poorly-designed posters like this is that there is absolutely no excuse for them: AA have access to all the resources they need to make an effective, compelling, thought-provoking and beautiful campaign, but seem to willingly ignore them.

    For those members of atheist groups wanting to do better, here are places you can go to get effective advice on this topic:

    Facebook Groups:

    Freethought Group Organizers discusses topics like billboard design frequently. There is also a group especially to discuss issues of communication strategy, “Strategic Freethought Communications”, which I know for a fact has AA State representatives in it.

    http://www.facebook.com/groups/freethoughtorganizers/

    Blogposts:

    The Humanist Community Project has spent the last few months collecting the very best evidence on how to design great media campaigns and has started offering the fruits of that research to the community. The biggest part of this is my book-in-progress, the Freethinkers’ Political Textbook:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/tag/the-freethinkers-political-textbook/

    Particular sections relevant to billboard design are the following:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/01/31/the-freethinkers-political-textbook-know-the-audience/

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2011/12/26/the-freethinkers-political-textbook-go-for-the-gut/

    This post by Ed Clint is an excellent anatomy of a successful Humanist billboard campaign:

    http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/01/24/anatomy-of-a-successful-humanist-ad-campaign/

    We have more going up every week, much of it practical and addressing precisely the sorts of concerns about messaging and strategy found in this thread.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      It really, truly is an ugly billboard. Graphic design is a skilled trade and it’s easy to tell the difference between what a professional produces and what an amateur produces. PAN would be well advised to hire a graph designer to design their next billboard effort.

      • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

        You’re so right. It just baffles me that professional design is not standard practice in these expensive, high profile campaigns.

  • jamessweet

    A lot of the AA billboards make me cringe a bit, and this one is no exception. But, I’m not really willing to criticize them directly for it (well, I will join in the criticism of the poor graphic design on many of the AA billboards, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment).

    For one thing, it’s very illustrative of anti-atheist bias that the reaction to this shockingly provocative billboard is not much different from the reaction to the “Atheists.” billboard that was recently denied.

    For another, we’re still figuring out where “the line” is in terms of in-your-face criticism of religion, and I think it helps in figuring that out to have some people who have most definitely crossed “the line”.

    Lastly, I’m inclined to be inclusive of a wide variety of approaches at changing the public face of atheism. Certainly my outspokenness makes a lot of people uncomfortable; AA’s billboards make me feel uncomfortable, but I am sort of inclined to afford them the same benefit of the doubt that I’d like other more moderate atheists to afford to me.

    In short, I’m not inclined to throw other atheists under the bus for being too loud about their atheism — even when they are being so loud it’s even making me uncomfortable.

  • Markarian

    This kind of attention seeking, deliberately controversial propaganda seems more like something PETA would do…

    • josh

      Criticism of the Bible is inherently confrontational to many believers, I don’t see how any criticism wouldn’t be deliberately controversial. PETA gets in trouble for analogizing the treatment of animals to various human atrocities, which, if you have the views of a PETA member, is a perfectly legitimate argument. They also get heat for using sexually provocative methods in some of their campaigns. Regardless, this billboard has nothing to do with sex and is not an anology. The bible clearly endorses slavery, that’s a bad thing.

  • satan augustine

    I like the idea behind the billboard – pointing out that the bible is most definitely not a moral book – but in this case it was horribly executed. The billboard is far too ambiguous in its message and its easy to see how it would be offensive to many people, not for the usual reason that people find atheist billboards offensive (because it says we exist), but because it can easily be interpreted as racist. This billboard project was indeed very poorly thought out. In fact, it’s embarrassing in it’s utter cluelessness. How could someone design such a billboard, and vet such a design, and not be able to foresee that it’s going to be misinterpreted as racism?

    In short, I agree Kylie.

    • Juris

      The nub of the problem with the billboard, it seems to me, is as satan augustine says: that it can be interpreted as racist and/or to my mind as highly prejudiced. It can be read on a quick look as providing justification in the Bible for slavery, confirming and justifying some people’s prejudice. This kind of ambiguity, even though unintended, is inexcusable in an advertising campaign. Confronting and truthful about the Bible’s capacity for prejudice, but who gets it? Seems to me, it preaches mainly to the converted atheist and gets mostly everyone else, including some atheists, offside, although there may also be some people who would be rejoicing that it supports their prejudice. The message should clearly indicate that the Bible has passages in it that are abhorrently prejudiced, and this quote is an example. How can one believe in the Bible? But the message as it stands, prima facie, is that the Bible says slavery is okay, and slaves need to know their place.

  • sherylyoung

    I’ve seen so many billboards in my life that tell me I’m going to hell. I’ve never defaced any of them although I’m deeply offended. It is an honest billboard, ugly, but honest. Slavery is never attractive.

  • http://fallenfromgrace.net Bruce Gerencser

    The shock approach is used by religious groups, political candidates, social advocacy groups, etc. The ad didn’t seem too extreme to me. I don’t think the “in your face” approach works but, as others have stated, different strokes for different folks.

  • F

    Once again, I’ll say that the billboard crowd really needs to take a lesson from the campaign of the African Americans for Humanism and Stiefel Freethought Foundation.

    Educational materials may be found, for example, at
    Black Non-Believers Billboard Campaign.

  • Darrell

    I grimaced when I first viewed the billboard. I think the picture was a little over-the-top. But the quote was spot on. It is too bad news agencies in the USA are so X-tian-centric.

    In response to the anti-aggressive posts on here:
    The movement away from religious fanaticism takes all kinds. Aggressive ads, peaceful ads, gimmicky ads, dorky ads, etc. So this one wasn’t up your alley? That’s cool. But don’t claim that the only way down the road is your way. We live in a diverse world. Instead of avoiding the local group, why not visit them and tell them what you thought? Pitch in. Don’t just gripe.

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  • http://fallenfromgrace.net Bruce Gerencser

    Lots of accusations being hurled about. Since I know none of the players, nor do I have a dog in this fight, I would love to see some proof for the claims made here. (about Per e)

    Some have also claimed the billboard did not have a professional designer? Has anyone actually said that? Or is this just a whole lot of assuming?

    We say we are Freethinkers. How about some actual evidence we can think about?

    • J. Burke

      Yeah, fine. But the rest of it you’re going to have to do a little googling and reading yourself to find, as I’m going to bed.

      Here’s a free link to where you can see the bare basics of Ernest’s convictions in Texas, for Theft/Robbery and Other:

      http://www.criminalsearches.com/summary.aspx?input=name&fn=Ernest&mn&ln=Perce&city&state&zip&ageFrom&ageTo

      Note the ROBBERY one in particular. That’s a general category on this site, covering a multitude of offenses. If you want anything more specific, you’re going to have to spend the $40 to get a background check on this guy, Ernest Shane Perce, 37, from El Paso, Texas, born August 24, 1976, if I remember correctly.

      And just read the darn page on the genealogy website I linked to. Think about what he’s saying there. Then go compare it to what he says about himself all over the internet, particularly at his Youtube channel. “The River Boat Service” video goes into great detail about his supposed past.

      I’m going to bed now, so nobody expect any responses for me till sometime later tomorrow, US EST, Greenwich -5.

  • Mriana

    While I agree the billboard is over the top, I’ve also skimmed the comments and one comment I saw missing that appears so obvious to me in the billboard is that Black people in the U.S. and alike countries who had slaves from Africa during slave times, probably would not be Xian today if not for slavery. Many of the slave owners forced Xianity on slaves (the ancestors, of course). The slave owners gave them promises such as, if they were a good slave and obeyed their master, they’d get to heaven. Today, it is a promise of prosperity (Prosperity Gospel) if they are good Xians.

    Butterfly McQueen said, “Just as my ancestors were free from slavery, I am free of religion” or something like that. It’s on the FFRF’s website somewhere. Greydon Square pointed out in one of his songs, that fellow Black people would get upset with him when he pointed out that they probably would not be Xian today if not for slavery. The dude who makes the “Slave Sermon” videos on YouTube makes the same point. Thus, I think that’s basically what these billboards are trying to point out too. The Bile is loaded with verses that condones slavery and verses about being a good slave, as well as some Xians talking about being a “slave for/to Jesus”. Whatever the case, religion is a form of mind slavery.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      I’m just popping in to say thank you to everyone for providing links, information and context – I really do appreciate it as I am an outsider (and outside the country!) and I really appreciate people putting in their views.

  • Hibernia86

    I hate when Atheists fight and bicker among themselves, but my experiences before when I was in the church show me that the religious do the same thing, so I think it must be just a general human trait.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Human is as human does.

  • Tiktaalik

    To me, the billboard has this message:

    The morality contained within the Bible is flawed. For example, the Bible says that slaves should obey their masters.

    We clearly today know that slavery is wrong. (Although there are still plenty of white supremacists alive and well who still use the Bible to justify racism. If you’re unaware of them, then perhaps you need to become aware of that.)

    Therefore, perhaps the viewer of this billboard should reflect upon the rest of that Bible. One flaw means it’s imperfect. What else might be wrong? (Women are not equal; non-Christians should be killed; non-virgins should be stoned to death; don’t eat shrimp.) If a portion of its morality is wrong (clearly!), then perhaps more of it is.

    Additionally, it’s reminding minorities, particularly African Americans who may today be Christians, that the Bible was used REPEATEDLY, as one of the strongest arguments IN FAVOR OF slavery.

    Read Thomas Dew, for example, who uses the Bible against abolitionists. Read the pastoral letters of the era, when thousands of clergy in the U.S. were JUSTIFYING why slavery was not only morally okey-dokey, but in fact was commanded by “God.”

    This sign is only offensive if you’re offended by history and reality, in which case you SHOULD be offended by the past and what Christianity has (and still does in many cases!) defended.

  • neon

    The problem is, that the bible quote doesn´t refer to the kind of slavery that is shown in the picture with the african american (that would be slavery because of skincolour, what is the kind of slavery we think of when we hear the word slavery). However the bible quote refers to that time slavery, that was more of a very low social status. You would sell yourself to support your family or because you could´t pay your debt into slavery, more or less voluntary.Thats why the slaves in that time also had different skin colors. and even as a lawyer or doctor you could become a slave (for example in the need of money). In fact, the bible actually has parts that condemn skincolor based slavery like the one in the graphic. The Israelites were slaves because of their skin color and beliefs, and the bible says that god inflicted the ten plagues to egypt to have the israelites released from slavery. I’m not a christian or religious in any other way, i’m just posting this to show that if you want to use the fact that the bible has parts in it that approve slavery, you can´t ignore that you also find parts that disprove this hypothesis.
    please excuse my english, i´m german :)

  • http://jfinite.blogspot.com Justin Bonaparte

    I’m a black atheist. I love the billboard. That is all.

    • Mriana

      Living in the city that is the A of G HQ, and most Black people are religious, I look at it and I must admit sign starts to grow on me, because it is saying what I have told my sons for years now. It confirms it. I just wish the sign was in this area, because if it were, it might get Black people in this area to think and stop trying to invite my sons to their church. Of course, my sons are 20 and 23 now, but I still worry about them going to some neuro-chemical stimulating church and getting sucked up in it. I would be very sad if I saw their minds enslaved by religion. Of course, I feel sorry for those who grew up with a lifetime of religious mental slavery. There isn’t much I can do for them, but I’m glad I educated my sons about religion as best I could.

  • Alex

    I’m glad they went this route. Religion deserves to be ridiculed and it’s time for atheists to stop trying to be polite.

  • http://chainthedogma.blogspot.com/ Perry Bulwer

    “You won’t often hear me mentioned by mainstream skeptics or atheists (if at all)…”

    Ok, I know that is not the main point of this article, but I chuckled when I read that, Kylie. I haven’t yet read anyone else referring to that division between mainstream skeptics — the famous, the elite, those with the right connections and support, etc., — and non-mainstream skeptics, as you refer to us. We are used to being ignored, even by our allies, and often wonder if our voices are being heard at all, but still we persist in our advocacy work dispelling the myths, lies and immoralities of religion. So thanks for at least acknowledging our presence and role in this war for reason.

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  • petzl20

    The problem is, that the bible quote doesn´t refer to the kind of slavery that is shown in the picture with the african american (that would be slavery because of skincolour, what is the kind of slavery we think of when we hear the word slavery). However the bible quote refers to that time slavery, that was more of a very low social status.

    This is a fascinating issue. Because the bible is either off-key or abominable, depending on the translation of one word: δοῦλοι, which can mean either “workers”, “servants” or “slaves.”

    So I checked where else Paul (author of Colossians) uses the word δοῦλοι. And what I find extremely interesting is the way he uses δοῦλοι in 1 Corinthians 12:13:

    Ἕλληνες, εἴτε δοῦλοι εἴτε ἐλεύθεροι …
    “Greeks, whether δοῦλοι or free …”

    This is like an SAT question. In the previous context, does
    δοῦλοι mean: (A) worker, (B) servant, (C) slave.

    Look, slavery was different in Hellenistic Greece. It wasn’t based so much on your being preyed upon because of your race as on your being the losing side of a battle with an opposing city-state. Obviously, you had the lowest social status, but there wasn’t the visceral racist mindset that “modern” slavery excelled at. And, after many years, it might just be possible to earn your freedom. However, this wasn’t “good” slavery. Your κυρίος (“lord”/”master”) always had absolute power of life, death, and everything in between, just like in the Confederate South.

    tl;dr Yes, slavery was “different” in Greece circa 60 AD. So what? It wasn’t different enough to make Paul’s statements any less heinous.

    Curious note: there is never this type of revisionism when referring to the original slaves of the bible, the Israelites under Pharaoh. You don’t hear anyone referring to their situation as merely being of “low status.”

    • http://euroatheist.wordpress.com/about/ pelamun, the Linguist of Doom

      Curious note: there is never this type of revisionism when referring to the original slaves of the bible, the Israelites under Pharaoh. You don’t hear anyone referring to their situation as merely being of “low status.”

      Probably because there is no conclusive evidence that they were ever in Egypt. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the archaeological record point to the Israelites being a native tribe of Canaan?

  • matt

    its in the bible and yes the bible is offensive to many people

  • Pingback: Against American Atheists’ Slavery Billboard | Camels With Hammers

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    I think a better strategy would be to quote an egregiously bad verse from the Bible, like the one used here, with “STILL THINK THE BIBLE IS INERRANT?” underneath. No pictures, because those would distract and take up space needed for easily-readable text.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    The bigest problem with this billboard was the picture: in addition to triggering the wrong emotions, and thus diverting attention from the intended take-away message, it took up too much space.

    And the second biggest problem was the text that explained what the billboard was trying to say — it was too small to read quickly from a distance, which is as stupid as advertizing a product and not including the brand name.

    This fiasco does not reflect at all well on AA or PAN. A Christian Reich plant would have had a hard time topping that act of sabotage.

  • L

    You and George Hrab would have a lot to agree upon, I think?

    “Yes, it stinks that we live in a world where aesthetics counts almost as much as the content of the message, but DEAL WITH IT! That’s the way it is.”

    This buildboard is aesthetically junk and refers to slaves of a different period of time than that portrayed, features a message which puts Christians on the backfoot about what atheists think about them (“no we don’t think that”) and is just plan crap.

  • Pingback: “Slaves Obey Your Masters”: The Billboard « More Women in Skepticism

  • http://practicallyharmless.blogspot.com Caperton

    The problem isn’t spreading the message that the Bible promotes slavery, or even the placement of such a billboard in a largely Christian area–I mean, it’s inflammatory, but sometimes people need to be inflamed. It’s the appropriation of someone’s (painful and heinous and oppressive) cultural heritage to take an ideological jab.

    At the risk of sounding like someone who calls out white guys on their privilege, this is a great example of white-guy privilege. It’s a bunch of people who have no connection to the struggles and atrocities of the early slave trade in America, not giving the slightest thought that it might be as hurtful, cheapening, and triggering as it is eye-catching.

    Of course you immediately see it as a message about Biblical morality. You’re atheists. That’s your mindset. For people who aren’t already primed that way–in other words, almost everyone who sees this billboard–it’s a big slap in the face, not about the Bible but about the insignificance of African-American history such that a black person in shackles can be reduced to a marketing tool. Before you put up a billboard, take just a moment to consider the people you might be hurting as well as the people you might be reaching.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      “Before you put up a billboard, take just a moment to consider the people you might be hurting as well as the people you might be reaching.” – always something I’ve considered (or at least tried to!). Thanks everyone, again, for your comments.


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