What is the Point of Smashmouth Evangelism?

Via SCCL, I find a post by Mike Duran, an evangelical who approves of AiG’s Times Square signage and disapproves of the Christians who are apologizing for it:

[Chuck] McKnight might think the billboard campaign “does not reflect well on my Savior.” Problem is, Ken Ham doesn’t. And they purportedly serve the same Savior. As far as how this represents “Christianity as a whole,” I’m a part of that “whole” and I kind of like this approach.

Does Ken Ham and AiG reflect me and my beliefs? Sort of.* Is this ad a cheap shot at attention-getting? Absolutely! Are there better ways to engage atheists in dialog? Of course! But if part of that “dialog” includes billboards, soundbites, stickers, T-shirts, logos, and pop cultural trivialities, then by all means — engage!

I suppose the question is: what are you hoping to accomplish by your act of evangelism?

Most of the atheist evangelism that actually makes it to the billboards is pretty mild, “Don’t Believe in God? You’re Not Alone!” Most atheists believe, based on their own experience in the church and during deconversion, that there are a lot of people in the pews who do not accept the truth of their inherited religion. These people continue to be church members because that’s simply what you do, or because they don’t see any other option, or because their afraid of the stigma of being unchurched.

Much of this side-of-the-bus atheist evangelism is intended to encourage these folks to leave the church, where we believe they will be happier. It’s a simple statement, “Hey, we exist, we’re an option, we’re not something strange and foreign, we’re not evil, try us out.” Obviously this will also bolster our numbers and give us more social and political clout. It also helps reduce the “evil atheist” stigma that still hangs around us.

In contrast, what does the AiG sign accomplish? Even if the doom-sayers are right about the collapse of the evangelical mainstream, most Americans are Christians and are likely to remain so. Few would need their hand held in order to remain in the majority faith, and even fewer are likely to find support in this jab at atheists.

As for atheists, exactly what message will this impart to them? That Christians believe we’re wrong? Thanks, we got that. And AiG’s main function, endorsing young earth creationism, is essentially hitting us in our strength. AiG accepts the validity of science and evidence while trying to undermine the scientific consensus, but their arguments end up strengthening the scientific worldview.

So what is the point of “smashmouth evangelism”? My guess is that this type of engagement is really just about point scoring. If you can get in an atheist’s face and tell them they’re wrong, you’ve gained a point for your side over theirs. This kind of counting coup doesn’t actually change anybody’s mind, but it incrementally raises your status and the status of your side.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – and FSM knows we do it enough, particularly in the blogosphere. And I certainly understand the desire for a more forceful approach that doesn’t require constant apologies. But it seems misguided to call it evangelism.

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  • evodevo

    They . just . cannot . leave . it . alone. Thank goodness for the 1st Amendment, or we would all be hunted down and in prison for “blasphemy”. The Ken Hams of the world would much prefer that we be closeted once again, but since that’s not happening, they MUST counter EVERY mild attempt of ours at outreach with an answer, or there will be CHAOS and FREETHINKING and FALLING AWAY and ….

  • http://www.atheistrev.com/ vjack

    When we do it, we often tell ourselves that it is about providing a positive message to those who really need it. For example, reminding atheists or those questioning their faith that they are not alone seems quite positive. I suppose that at least some of the religious might seek to accomplish something similar. Perhaps their messages are aimed at other Christians more than they are at atheists.

  • Ton_Chrysoprase

    I don’t see how this sign is intending to evangelize. Surely even AiG can’t think that this circular argument will convince anyone. I think this is entirely addressed to their in group, possibly to prevent a few deconversions or movement to less extreme flavors of Christianity.

  • mikespeir

    Overdefensiveness is a sign of something or other. (Okay, I didn’t mean “sign” as a pun, but I’ll own it anyway.)

  • James

    Like a lot of fundie messaging, the real target audience aren’t atheists – it’s the fundies own kids who they are losing in droves. If a movement is losing members when members begin to question, then why not double down on blind faith? For them there is no alternative as they’ve painted themselves into an intellectual corner.

    • closetatheist

      That’s what I thought – this billboard seemed to be aimed entirely at the Christian community, perhaps especially at those who experience doubt. They love snappy shit like this that’s void of any concrete logic.

    • R Vogel

      I totally agree, James. I grew up in the Fundie church and most of the monologue is directed to themselves. Strengthening the message to their own. Making sure it is us versus them. The biggest fear they have is that their members will start listening to other voices and, even if they don’t become atheists, will begin questioning what they have been fed for years. It is also why there is such resistance to education, unless it is done through homeschooling or an approved religious institution. Kids that go to regular universities have a real risk of being lost. I remember distinctly a booth we used to run at the county fair every year. A sign said ‘Are you going to Heaven?” Take a 2 question test and find out! We would go, do our thing with little to no impact. And then go have cake and ice cream. It really didn’t matter that people weren’t hearing the message, WE WERE. And we did it every year. It was about us, not them.

  • John W. Morehead

    I left extended comments that resonate with your own on the author’s Facebook page and blog where the original article you refer to is found. I couldn’t agree more. For me such approaches are more about boundary maintenance and individual or group forceful assertions than real interests in persuasion. And I’m an Evangelical! There is a more civil and persuasive way of engaging each other.


    Given the vast number of gods people have worshiped through out history, the chances of picking the right one is very small, so….who exactly do they think is wrong?

  • RickRayFSM

    Here’s a billboard message for xians ,muslims ,hindus etc: “BELIEVE IN GOD(S)? YOU’RE MYTHTAKEN”

  • JohnMWhite

    This sign might as well read “Thank you, god, may I have another?”. If the Christian god exists, there is nothing to be glad about, because it is an abusive, absurdly cruel bully, and these public displays of piety amount to nothing more than telling your friends you walked into a door.