This Atheist Activism Failure Might Actually be a Win for Skepticism

Over at Friendly Atheist, Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry has posted an open letter to imprisoned activist Alexander Aan that doubles as a rebuke to the skeptic/atheist/freethought community.  A month long drive to get 25,000 signatures on a WhiteHouse.gov petition failed.

We were not asking for money, we were not asking anyone to travel, or march, or even write anything. All we were asking was the click of a few buttons. Why so many thousands could not be bothered to weather whatever frustrations the White House website presented, I think, speaks very, very ill of the actual commitment to social justice and basic liberties of what we want to believe is a growing and powerful movement of atheists and skeptics. If we can’t withstand the minor inconvenience of a webform, what can we ever be expected to do?

…[T]hese developments speak to the growth of a community, not of a movement. A strong movement would have garnered 25,000 signatures on a website for you in the first couple of days. So, if anything, the silver lining of this falling-short tells us something we desperately needed to know: despite the growing numbers of declared freethinkers, we have yet to find the best ways to do something meaningful with those numbers beyond gloating.

I’m inclined to cut the atheist movement a lot more slack on this one.   I was pretty skeptical about the efficacy of a WhiteHouse.gov petition when I heard about the drive.  The petitions that hit the 25k mark are guaranteed a reply, not a real response (cf the multiple petitions against the drug war that cleared the mark and only got mealy-mouthed replies).  I guess the idea is to bootstrap up and use a successful petition to signal to reporters, whose coverage you can use to prompt more comments, which get covered by reporters, …., some kind of action is taken.

I ended up promoting the petition drive on the blog, but I’ll confess, I did it much more in a Squelchtoadian spirit of giving a gift to a friend, than because I thought it was a good option for activism.  And I followed by general rule of using pseudo-activism as a trigger to give to empirically validated interventions through Givewell.

Off-hand, I can’t think of any successful WhiteHouse.gov petitions (so I welcome examples in the comments).  And this ask seemed particularly dicey: the president doesn’t have any kind of authority over the Indonesian penal system, and he’s unlikely to take a “cops of the world” approach to religious freedom.  There’s already another blasphemy law case in Pakistan, where an eleven year old girl (who is reported to have Down’s Syndrome) may be sentenced to death.  If the president isn’t planning to back up exhortations with force, there’s little power in a moral appeal when blasphemy laws enjoy substantial support in the relevant countries.

But Fidalgo had an answer for people like me, who didn’t think these tactics would pay off:

I would ask those who presume the ineffectiveness of the petition, “so what?” Click the buttons anyway. If for no other reason, it would show you, Alexander, if not our president, that we stood in solidarity with you.

But, in any given day, I get a lot of opportunities to show solidarity with causes I support.  I sign petitions, repost those “repost this if you x….” statuses, add a like to the “One million strong against X…” pages, give buying-a-coffee amounts of money to causes, post action alerts to this blog, etc, etc, etc.  Taking any of these actions might give me the warm fuzzies, since I’ve reminded myself I’m on the right team, but most of them won’t do much good for the person or cause I’m ostensibly supporting.

It’s true that any of them might pay off.  (Reporters do like citing rival facebook like counts, so those sometimes do drive coverage).  But without a heuristic for judging how likely they are to pay off, the organizer is essentially presenting me with a Pascal’s mugging.  How seriously would you take a “nothing tangible may ever happen as a result, but we don’t know that, and it does send a palpable signal either way” if it were said by an organizer for a cause you weren’t personally invested in?

Atheists have had a lot more success when they’re organizing for a cause where the connection between action and result is clearer.  People turned out to be more likely to give money to the college funds of Jessica Alquist and Damien Fowler than they were to spend an equivalent amount of time “showing solidarity” with Alexander Aan.  That seems pretty reasonable to me.

If CFI and others want to up participation for the next drive (and embody the best bits of skepticism), I’d love to see some research on which kinds of activist interventions are most effective.  I’ve seen a lot on the best ways to get a target to sign a petition, but not much on whether you’d rather ask for the signature or money or volunteer time or what.  From my experience in advocacy, it can feel a bit like a cargo cult, where we’re endlessly petitioning capricious deities (read: elected officials) without much data on what will actually spur them to act.  We can end up measuring success by things that are easy to quantify (how many signatures?) but are not necessarily proxies for our actual goal (is Aan more likely to be released?).

So why not do the research and offer people better activism opportunities, or (while you’re running some experiments) offer them weirder asks.  As Sherlock Holmes would say, “Data data data!  I cannot make bricks without clay!”

 

And, in the meantime, to make sure you’re not just rewarding yourself when you follow up on an action alert, why not pair petition signing, facebook liking, etc with a donation through Givewell?  They’ve done the research, and you can check out their approach to evaluating charities.  Yay empiricism!

 

UPDATE: Michael Nugent is offering a list of alternate actions you can take to help Aan now.  No efficacy estimates, so you’ll have to make your own.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • deiseach

    The last time I ever signed a petition was in 1981, regarding the hunger strikers and even then I knew it would have no effect on the British government under Margaret Thatcher; it was as a symbolic act of protest rather than believing it would make an actual difference.

    So I can see why the freethinker community might not bother signing an online petition; these work best on local issues when your local representative sees hard evidence that he or she is likely to lose votes in the upcoming election unless action is taken and concrete results occur.

    Better to give time/money into providing legal support for appeals, or buying food/necessities for the person in prison, or local action on the ground.

  • http://nearearthobject.net Paul Fidalgo

    Totally fair critique and evaluation. I’m still skeptical of the idea that being iffy about petitions’ efficacy was excuse enough to not bother for folks numbering in the tens of thousands, but your point is well taken. Thank you either way for helping to promote the cause.

  • Ted Seeber

    [crotchety old man sarcasm voice on]I’m old enough, and have been online long enough, to remember 300 baud modems, and so may I kindly ask all of you young whippersnapper social media activists to stop wasting bandwidth?[/sarcasm]

    I love the idea of electronic democracy, but as long as 2/3rds of our population are over the age of 65, it ain’t gonna do us no good nohow. The kind of people who are up on tech enough in the older set were always a minority; those in the younger set that actually understand the technology involved will be a minority until 2060 (or maybe 2080 with life extension tech pushing more people towards a 125 year lifespan). Face it, this is one issue where the Baby Boomers have effectively used contraception and abortion to produce a political win that will last until their generation passes away.

    • Doragoon

      XKCD’s recent comic about “When we will forget” says that by 2038 most people won’t remember a time before facebook. I’d guess that by 2028 most of america won’t remember a time before the internet.

      • Ted Seeber

        Depends on how long the baby boomers end up living. 2/3rds of America is over the age of 65 NOW. Thanks to Medicare and life extension technologies, I don’t really expect them to start dying off in droves until the 2040s. Heck, we’re only just now losing the Greatest Generation at a rate of a few thousand a month, and they’re all in their 90s. Expect the Baby Boomers to live to be in their 100s, another 30-40 years from now.

        This is also why many of the statistics about contraception and world population are WAY off- The current population is made up pretty much of the parenting decisions made by an 90 year swath of people- from 1922 until 9 months ago. Only the past 50 years have even had to pill available, only the last 30 have seen contraception and a shrinking world population redefined as good instead of evil. The contraceptive experiment may yet turn out to be an instructive failure, to the 2 billion who are left at the end.

      • ds

        I am looking forward to the time when people will forget facebook even existed, or at least are embarrassed about being part of it.

  • kenneth

    I don’t think it’s a failure on the part of the organizers or electronic activism. You’re faced with a hell of a signal-to-noise ratio and a social media/mass media attention span that is measured in minutes, if not seconds. This is just not the sort of story that can grab people by the nose ring and draw them in. It’s not a bunch of hot women being jailed for street theater in a Russian church. It’s not some little kid facing execution. It’s Some Guy facing religious intolerance in one of a dozen Muslim countries known primarily for religious intolerance. This is a part of the world where people are executed for apostasy, or adultery (or even being a rape victim) and caned for almost any minor infraction. A guy getting locked up for atheism just isn’t going to cut through all that. Atheist don’t carry any water politically just yet, and religious freedom is a zero priority in foreign policy in any case. Keep in mind Christians constantly complain they can’t get any traction on overseas religious persecution. They weren’t even able to get things done when they had a president who was born again and they had the run of the White House!

  • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

    Signing an online petition had long been considered slacktivism. While I believe that a physical petition which actually required, you know, work, would be influential among policy makers, I find it difficult to believe that online petitions will be glanced at more than maybe once, by an unpaid intern. It is far better to have people send emails to their congressmen (who has more sway with the PotUS than the intern does, even if the two are in opposed political parties), or better yet, convince them to go through the trouble of sending a letter.

    I, personally, do not “share”. I do not “repost”. I view it as an invitation to complacency.

    • kenneth

      People vastly underestimate the power of an old fashioned, snail-mail letter, written in one’s own words and signed with real ink. I was a issue crank long before I was an online crank, and I can tell you that real letters to elected officials get noticed. They get handled and read by a real person, they get cataloged and someone always replies. More often than not, it’s a very low-level staffer, and it may be a canned response, but it gets some attention in a way mass electronic petitions never will. If your letter concerns an issue they haven’t dealt with before, it will provoke conversation with higher ranking staff and even the official themselves because they will have to formulate a position on that issue which they will commit to writing in a reply letter. Real letters also mark you as an old person/grownup, and thus someone likely to actually vote. In an age when mildly amusing viral videos generate millions of hits, an online petition with 25,000, or even 100,000 names, is utterly meaningless. A few hundred hand-written letters to the right people would have made a much bigger impact.

  • Michael R

    Leave Indonesia alone. In the spectrum of Muslims countries, it is relatively peaceful. But if Westerners go pestering it with their liberal standards, then guess what? You will piss off the fundamentalist Muslims, and then what? It will blow back in your face.

    Islam is a war religion. The “prophet” Muhammad was a head-chopping warlord, as were his early followers who solidified the religion. Ergo, Indonesia is peaceful *in spite* of Islam. So if you go and try to liberalise it, you will create a fundamentalist revolution backlash. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    There are only two possible responses to Islam (a) leave it the hell alone (b) burn every Koran. Unless you plan to do (b) then leave it the hell alone.

    • JoFro

      Leaving it the hell alone will not make Islam leave non-Muslims the hell alone – once they are done wiping off most of the non-Muslims within their own land and have terrified the survivors into benign dhimmis, they will come for the libtards who were too busy attacking the Christians….but then, it will be too late – they will have to learn that the hard way just like the Iranian Communists, who supported the Ayatollah’s return, had to learn that lesson the hard way – useful idiots always learn their lesson in the worst manner possible

  • http://multiversalist.blogspot.com/ Tony Houston

    Wow! How is the a win for anyone when a man is in prison for blasphemy?

    • leahlibresco

      Noticing your tactics are not as good as they could be is a prereq for getting better tactics and winning more often.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    If CFI and others want to up participation for the next drive (and embody the best bits of skepticism), I’d love to see some research on which kinds of activist interventions are most effective.

    I have a crazy idea.

    First off, maybe it was a mistake to treat this guy’s imprisonment as “a cause for atheists” as opposed to “a cause, period”. I’m not alone, I’m sure, in thinking that his imprisonment was unjust. Considering that we most often see blasphemy and censorship cases worldwide when it comes to censoring Christians, Christians would have been natural allies here. Why should CFI make this purely an ‘atheist’ endeavor?

    Oh, wait, I think I actually have the answer to that. A) Because CFI actually embodies some of the worst of skepticism (see Blasphemy Day, and B) this comes across as having had shockingly little to do with justice, as opposed to “good PR for atheists, particularly anti-theist atheists”. The failure isn’t being touted as a failure of justice, but a failure of PR effectiveness.

    So I’d suggest your metric (“We can end up measuring success by things that are easy to quantify (how many signatures?) but are not necessarily proxies for our actual goal (is Aan more likely to be released?).”) is off-base, because ‘getting Aan released’ seems to have actually been a secondary concern at best for these groups. Rather like with the ‘atheists donate to a church vandalized by atheists’ bit, the concern seems to be about PR – helping the victims is just a convenient means to that end.

    But really, if the concern is “making the world a better place”, maybe your first round of advice should be to stop promoting nonsense – like the idea that a religious upbringing is child abuse (see Dawkins), or encouraging out and out disparagement of theists a la Blasphemy Day, or really, being a ‘New Atheist’ altogether as opposed to some other kind of atheist. Surely you’d agree the Cult of Gnu is, well… both wrong and wrong-headed, to be blunt?

    • leahlibresco

      First off, maybe it was a mistake to treat this guy’s imprisonment as “a cause for atheists” as opposed to “a cause, period”. I’m not alone, I’m sure, in thinking that his imprisonment was unjust. Considering that we most often see blasphemy and censorship cases worldwide when it comes to censoring Christians, Christians would have been natural allies here. Why should CFI make this purely an ‘atheist’ endeavor?

      Paul asked me to promote the petition here because he thought Christians would also find Aan’s imprisonment unjust. They were doing reachout to natural allies.

      So I’d suggest your metric (“We can end up measuring success by things that are easy to quantify (how many signatures?) but are not necessarily proxies for our actual goal (is Aan more likely to be released?).”) is off-base, because ‘getting Aan released’ seems to have actually been a secondary concern at best for these groups. Rather like with the ‘atheists donate to a church vandalized by atheists’ bit, the concern seems to be about PR – helping the victims is just a convenient means to that end.

      Reading someone’s actions so uncharitably requires data. Every activist group can be accused of wanting to be seen as doing good things (in fact, the more important their work, the more selfish they must be!). If someone posted that a group you liked was only doing good works to help themselves, you’d probably be pissed if they left it at that. What kind of evidence would you want them to show you, to be sure their criticism was well grounded and offered in good faith? Offer that kind of evidence in this thread.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    Paul asked me to promote the petition here because he thought Christians would also find Aan’s imprisonment unjust. They were doing reachout to natural allies.

    That doesn’t seem very well supported, when the complaint is that the failure to achieve the required number of signatures is explicitly regarded as a failure of the atheist and skeptic community. In fact, the reporting on this, and the reactions from various sites, is heavily weighted towards treating this whole affair as an incidence of atheist activism on the behalf of atheists. The idea that this was some kind of collaborative effort between theists and atheists gets little to zero mention – because it wasn’t. Not insofar as the CFI led the charge.

    The claim that the CFI was reaching out to “natural allies” is especially problematic given the CFI’s documented anti-theist activism, as I already noted with Blasphemy Day – and that’s just one example I can bring up. Otherwise, what’s the logic being presented? “Hey, we hate religion. In fact we hate it to the point where we think religion and the religious should be mocked and ridiculed in public, and encourage this with our own made-up holiday. But you know, on this one we’re natural allies, so…”

    Reading someone’s actions so uncharitably requires data.

    I have data. For starters, I have the very thread on the very site which discussed the donations to the church in question. It was awash with “this is great PR” comments from people, and “there’s no way I’m donating, to heck with churches” comments alike. If the thread’s still around, have a look yourself.

    If someone posted that a group you liked was only doing good works to help themselves, you’d probably be pissed if they left it at that.

    I’d be pissed if they didn’t good data. In this case, I’ve seen it firsthand.

    Want more data? Alright, I’m game.

    “The petition’s failure has exposed another paradox of the nontheist community. In recent years, it has made an organized effort to promote its members as compassionate, caring and concerned about justice. The unofficial motto “Good without God” has been used to rally support for charitable organizations, food banks and blood drives, services for the homeless and disaster relief efforts.”

    That’d be from the previously linked Post article. Do you think we can extract anything from the “Good without God” motto – like, say, maybe a major point of these efforts is to generate PR regarding the godless, since a talking point to encourage donations is “hey look everyone, show the world that atheists donate to charity too”. Do you want me to turn up incidents of exactly that logic and claim being made? I’m game.

    Even the article itself backs my point. “promote its members as compassionate, caring and concerned about justice”. Again, there’s another word for this: Good PR. It’s there, made explicit.

    Now with Christians it’s more complicated. I do not doubt there are hypocrites (hell, I’m not the most upstanding guy in the world myself.) However, Christianity does come with charity, helping the sick, and more built in essentially with the belief. With atheism? There is no such built-in concept. In fact, we’re told time and time again that ‘atheism’ is mere lack of God-belief, period. So something other than atheism must be motivating any charitable concerns – and yet the atheism is front and center.

    There has been recent, concerted efforts to build good PR for atheists and atheism. That alone doesn’t prove that any charitable act an atheist or even atheist organization engages in is all about the PR, but between the comments, the articles and the strategy, yeah, I’d say I have data here.

    Or would you say I don’t?

    • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

      Mistake. This should have gone under Leah’s reply to me.

    • leahlibresco

      I mean, you can stick with this blog for citations and cite me back from the church vandalism thing:

      I’m honestly not sure what the correct course of action is. My action in donation and promoting the drive was not pure altruism. I saw an opportunity for atheists to go for the moral high ground by helping Christians who were attacked despite the ‘you were asking for it’ reaction we get every time one of our billboards are defaced.

      When we atheists are already despised and distrusted in large swathes of the country, we have to be visible saints just to make any headway. It’s just another analogous case of Fannie Hurst’s maxim that, because of prevailing prejudices, “A woman has to be twice as good as a man to go half as far.” Even though the churches turned out not to need the help, the drive generated positive coverage of atheists and may have made a personal impression on members of the affected parishes.

      When I’m engaging in charity all by myself or under the auspices of a mostly uncontroversial group, I won’t think as much about optics. Atheist activism and atheist charity is politicized from the start since the news media uses relative donation rates to keep score, since atheists are accused of being intrinsically heartless or immoral. It’s not unreasonable or too selfish to be attentive to the world you live in.

      There’s not much point in atheists holding a blood drive as atheists, except to make sure the charitable thing they would have done anyway is visible. I don’t have a problem with that, and I don’t think it reveals that the impulse to give blood was a corrupt one. It’s just two birds with one stone.

      • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

        since atheists are accused of being intrinsically heartless or immoral.

        Hold on. Who makes this claim? Because I’ve not seen this.

        Maybe what you mean is that atheism (particularly atheism + materialism) is accused of being a belief which, when worked out consistently, does away with morality, free will, and is intrinsically nihilistic, and thus it’s entailed by consistent atheists. I know you yourself disputed this as an atheist – I do not think you’d dispute that your views on morality were in a minority with regards to your morality views. If I want to see atheism as entailing there being no such thing as good and evil, for example, and that ideas about morality are fictions at best, I don’t need to go to the ‘news media’, or even a Christian. I need to go to Michael Ruse, Richard Dawkins, and various other atheists, who say as much in a frank way, if usually in a less prominently public way.

        I’ve also seen the claim that the irreligious aren’t as charitable as the religious on a per capita level. Putting aside for a moment that the irreligious contain but don’t exclusively pick out atheists, that’s data rather than accusation.

        It’s not unreasonable or too selfish to be attentive to the world you live in.

        When the overriding motivation is “this would be good PR” and “we need to improve our PR to spread atheism and counter theist influence, here’s one way” and such, it goes without saying that the central act is not one of charity. And I think I’ve rallied a good share of evidence, and could rally more, that this is a, or even the, major motivating factor among atheist charity campaigns. It certainly doesn’t follow given their atheism, while giving to charity does follow given Christianity.

        By the way – do you think things like Blasphemy Day, the actions of Madelyn Murray O’Hair, the anti-theist billboard campaigns, the associations of a religious upbringing with child abuse, the anti-theistic mockery (with Richard Dawkins explicitly advocating a lack of respect being shown to theists generally, and Christians particularly) has much to do with the bad PR atheists, particularly New Atheists have? I mean, you say that “it’s not unreasonable or too selfish to be attentive to the world you live in”. Is it unreasonable or selfish to want to A) be the big, bad, Christianity-hating anti-theist, mocking Christians and other religious groups, supporting Blasphemy Day, yet B) also want to be thought of as a nice, charitable, friendly person, while C) also expressing shock, horror, even outrage when atheists are viewed – in a nation where belief in God is pretty high – poorly?

        This is partly beside the point. My main point is this: the accusation that a major driving factor behind these atheist charity campaigns is PR is not unfounded – there’s quite an amount of evidence out there, and I’ve provided some. The petition campaign was very much billed as a “thing” for atheists, not some kind of broad-based initiative on the part of the CFI, which explicitly engages in some pretty foul and blatant anti-theism.

        • http://delphipsmith@livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

          The other instances you cite might have a backlash effect, particularly the associations of a religious upbringing with child abuse, though I’ve never heard anyone make that argument myself. But personally I love the atheist billboards. It’s just an advertisement, after all, and advertising is the Great American Sport (right after football). Some of them are quite clever, too.

          I’ve never heard “atheists…accused of being intrinsically heartless or immoral.” I’ve had people ask me on what I base my personal morals if I’m not Christian, but that’s about it. Of course I do work at a university, and as we all know universities are crammed with liberals, lesbians, atheists, feminists and other assorted moral detritus ;)

          • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

            though I’ve never heard anyone make that argument myself.

            Then apparently you don’t keep close tabs on Richard Dawkins. Can’t say I blame you, but he’s not exactly a marginal figure in atheism.

            But personally I love the atheist billboards. It’s just an advertisement, after all, and advertising is the Great American Sport (right after football). Some of them are quite clever, too.

            I notice an obnoxiously high number of signs which read “your God is a myth” or “we believe in reason – unlike you!” or the like. Pretty obnoxious, and it presents atheism as anti-theism. Either way, billboards weren’t my concern, but pseudo-charity as PR.

            Of course I do work at a university, and as we all know universities are crammed with liberals, lesbians, atheists, feminists and other assorted moral detritus

            People who happen to be wrong, even wildly wrong, about issues are not “moral detritus”. Except, I suppose, given atheism and materialism.

  • http://delphipsmith@livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    My objection to petitions on whitehouse.gov is purely technical: the website sucks. For one thing, you have to register, and for another it doesn’t appear to work right. I’ve registered twice and both times it said it completed but then didn’t and so I never managed to successfully sign anything. When you get ten or twenty or a hundred requests a day to sign petitions or support this or oppose that, yes, a poorly-functioning website can be a definite barrier. Why anyone would bother with a petition there when you’ve got change.org I can’t imagine. Is there some sort of cachet to having your petition there? Do they vet them or something?


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