On The Uses and Abuses of Tragedies for Atheism

On The Uses and Abuses of Tragedies for Atheism November 25, 2013

American Atheists has decided to put up the following three billboards this week in New Jersey:

The first thing worth noting is that American Atheists seems to sincerely want to help with relief efforts in the Philippines and to raise awareness about how to do it more effectively. They were offered free billboard space to advertise during the Thanksgiving season and they chose to switch the billboard to be a message encouraging to donate to victims in the Philippines and they are using the main page of their site to send people to Humanist Crisis Response, Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. As an organization that depends on donations in order to exist, in their minds, sending their donors to other organizations is the kind of self-sacrifice that is consequential and an expression of their heartfelt desire to put another important cause above their own organization’s.

But there is a lot that is problematic with the way they are doing this.

First, most people will only see the billboard and they will have no idea about the backstory of the American Atheists having a cost-free billboard to use. They are likely to have the same reaction I had, which was: “it’s ironic to spend money on an ideological billboard about one’s position on religion instead of giving to tragedy victims while accusing others of wasting their money not helping tragedy victims but instead promoting one’s religion.”

Now, I am glad that American Atheists did not actually make the choice that spending money on a billboard attacking religious people’s charity was wiser than spending that same money on donations to the victims. But I imagine only the tiniest fraction of people who see the billboard will know anything about the billboard being free. So, the appearance of hypocritical irony very well could be what many see. That’s not really well thought out from a PR perspective.

Relatedly, the billboard is the message. Most people who see the billboard will not go to the website. American Atheists did not even put the “/relief” url in the actual billboard but just the address of their main website. So, while the message is clear that they don’t like the way that they think religious people go about donating and otherwise helping, it is really clear from the billboard that they are actively raising funds themselves. There is nothing on the billboard showing the great orgs they’re promoting. If people go to the website they’ll see all that. But without it the billboard is a much more paltry, petty, and condescending message.

But much more seriously, the billboard is exploiting a time of tragedy to get ideological. American Atheists is acting aghast that anyone is calling them exploitative, saying that it is ironic since they are sending their donors to donate to other orgs than their own, which they take to be the opposite of exploitative and purely altruistic. Except that it’s not just altruistic. Of course no one is naive enough to think organizations helping with relief efforts are going to (or should) give charity without any expectation of benefit to the organization, whether it be in PR or tax write-offs, etc. So there is nothing wrong with American Atheists hoping to benefit in some way from their attempt at charity here.

The exploitative aspect of this is that they are taking advantage of a tragedy to demean the prayers of the suffering and those in solidarity with them. They are taking advantage of the tragedy to send a message that can easily be read as implying that there is something mutually exclusive about praying for people and giving them real help. This also comes off as tastelessly self-righteous. “You foolish, useless religious people pray, but the rest of us know to give real help.”

American Atheists are calling this “an educational message” that “religion is a lie”. But it’s not educating anyone to just make an assertion. And while in numerous appropriate forums I am all for having hard confrontations with religious people that deeply challenge their beliefs and values, mixing a combative agenda into a post-tragedy charitable gesture wrecks the opportunity to prove you can be magnanimous and tasteful and above the fray. When responding to a tragedy you should be just putting your logo out there with a message that is unambiguously focused on those you are purporting to help and maybe something about how helping is an outgrowth of your values and commitments (though less is more even here). It should not be about you and your agenda. It shouldn’t be advertising and it certainly shouldn’t be a time for picking fights.

“But how will anyone pay attention to my organization if I’m not being controversial?” People will get the point that you’re there because they will see your name credited and they will learn about the proactive steps you are taking to help. And even more importantly they will implicitly understand and respect your restraint in not taking the moment to advertise. They will not be distracted from your charitableness by your attempt to coopt the forum for your own purposes. To do otherwise and to turn your charitable gesture into a smear against your enemies like we find in the American Atheists’ press release bashing churches for their supposedly inferior understanding of charity and their proper place, is to effectively grab the mic, steal the spotlight, and make everything about you and your axes to grind as though you and your concerns are the only thing important in the world and can’t ever not be center stage. When responding to a fresh and devastating tragedy, all your normal politicking should be on hold. Deviate from that and you make the story about your lack of shame and tact.

And in cases like this American Atheists represent atheists all over the country like this whether we like it or not. It’s really frustrating. As much as I love some of the people who work at American Atheists and eagerly support and am proud of most of the nuts and bolts activism that they are behind, they make some huge tone deaf and offensive choices about big optics issues and moral fights to pick. I didn’t like it when they mishandled the iconography of slavery offensively, when they decided to take on a Holocaust memorial monument on Ohio statehouse grounds as a supposed violation of the separation of church and state, and, James Croft has persuaded me, I should have been more skeptical of their choice to go after the cross at the 9/11 museum related to the 9/11 memorial.

Back to the one billboard’s false implication that giving prayers and more tangible aid are mutually exclusive endeavors and the religious somehow do the former to the detrimental exclusion of the latter. The fact is that religious people are demonstrably more charitable on average than religiously unaffiliated people. There are very good reasons to think that this is for reasons that have nothing to do with beliefs in gods. Luke Galen recently gave an incredible lecture broadcast on the impeccable Reasonable Doubts podcast in which he gives a richly detailed and insightful analysis of what the data on the pro-social behaviors of religious, irreligious, theist, and atheist people really says and does not say. (Seriously listen to it, it’s a must!) But, here’s the thing. While there is no reason to think that theists or religious people are inherently more capable of charity than atheists or irreligious people, what is demonstrably clear is that all the praying statistically has not created people who never give “real help”. Prayer is part of an entire matrix of religious practices that have an end result of quantifiably more charity from religious service attenders than us. So it is not the enemy of charity.

And who knows just how many of the people driving past the American Atheists billboards did give tangible aid and then when they realized the limits even of their money to help they also took a shot on prayer just in case that might also help? Such people don’t need to be condescended to that they don’t care about “real help”. A lot of people who resort to prayer are kitchen sink types willing to do anything to achieve the good, even desperate long shots like prayer.

They’re usually not fools who just wait on magic when tangible resources are available. And neither do the countless people who tweeted “Pray for the Philippines” need to be chastised. Expressions of solidarity matter to people. And since we’re looking at a country that is 95% Christian and, as of a 2000 census had only .7% people who either specified no religion or outright claimed to have no religion, it is fairly reasonable to expect that the prayers by the average Fillippino who learned of them were taken as an appreciated global expression of sorrow, love, and hope for their well being, rather than as an expression of religious people’s indifference to giving “real help”. The implied claim that somehow those calls for prayers stopped religious people in any significant numbers from actually helping with material aid where they might otherwise would have is sorely lacking in evidence. And unless it can be demonstrated, it’s fairly insulting and condescending to praying people to assume it.

And, in fact, it is quite likely that plenty of people in the Philippines want religious support and resources as they deal with the existential horror they are suffering. As one book once put it, “man does not live on bread alone”. People have psychological, “spiritual”, and philosophical needs, in addition to their material ones–even in the wake of tragedy. In fact, especially in the wake of tragedy. And, whether we like it or not, a sizable proportion of human beings prove regularly and adamantly religious in nature and find any manner of solace, resilience, and hope in dark times through the use of religious resources.

Now do I think that supernatural, superstitious beliefs are an awful route to solving philosophical and existential problems? Yes. Do I have serious qualms about the nature of the supernaturalistic religions that people turn to during tragedies? Yes. Do I worry that the psychological palliatives of faith are a poor substitute for a truth based view of the world and a proactive, naturalistic, humanistic ethics? Yes. Yes. Yes. I will continue to do my level best to devote a huge proportion of my personal and professional energies to liberating people from faith-based falsehoods and their frequently attendant authoritarian ethics and institutions. I swear on the graves of Socrates, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, and Christopher Hitchens, peace be upon them all, that I will continue to oppose these falsehoods.

But I won’t take the moments of grief and tragedy as the opportunity to pick these fights. That’s one of the few really important lines.

Many atheists report being rankled by religious people who foist their religious perspectives on them in their moments of grief, who insist on trying to force them to think within their tediously false supernaturalistic worldviews at precisely those moments when the lies and banalities of faith are the most hollow, worthless, and even morally offensive to many atheists.

And so I will not be equally insensitive in return to religious people. I am not going to seize upon moments of tragedy to take pot shots at religious believers.

Now, I have gone after (and would again) religious believers who exploit tragedies to attack atheists, secularists, heretics, or any other sorts of “infidels” who they disgustingly try to scapegoat. And I will speak out against the exclusion of atheists from civic ceremonies that invite religious representatives. There is no reason for us to suffer abuse, demonization, ostracism, marginalization, or erasure when a tragedy strikes. There is no reason to let others use us as a political football when they are the ones exploiting a horrific event to try to score ideological points. It is important we challenge and reverse such narratives. (See my post On Criticizing Religious Statements in the Wake of Tragedy.)

And there are two extremely legitimate roles that atheists and humanists and other non-believers have in the wake of tragedy that can rightfully employ billboards. For one thing, we can do (better) what American Atheists was trying here in part to do and motivate fellow non-believers to give time, money, and other resources to charity through an appeal to our shared identity as fellow atheists or humanists. And what we can also do that is directly germane to our missions as activist atheists is reach out in a positive way to those who are suffering disillusionment and rejecting their faiths as part of their grief. And we can reach out to those who didn’t believe in the first place and are irritated with the religiousness around them after tragedy. These doubters, new apostates, and existing non-believers each need to know they are not alone and that there are others they can talk to and join with who won’t complicate all their pain with religious banalities, trivializations, impositions, and lies. There are ways to do variations on our existing and very successful “Don’t believe in God, you’re not alone” style campaigns, that can be clearly distinguishable from negative attacks on the sources religious people are turning to while their minds and hearts are fragile and desperate.

I don’t want people turning to superstitious and ultimately exploitative religious resources for working out their grief. But it is their moral right to not be ideologically attacked in those sensitive moments unless there is a serious overriding good at stake. People deserve that psychological space to turn where they feel comfortable. If they want my input or if they have doubts, then I’m happy to let them know they can safely talk to me and I’ll share my perspective if they ask. This is the respect I would want from them. It’s the kind we should be giving to them immediately after tragedies.

Finally, there are some really important issues with religious charity that seem to be in the background of the billboards. American Atheists probably had in mind the stories about Catholics sending typhoon survivors bibles and rosaries. I doubt the average driver passing this billboard knows anything about that context, so the point about not sending bibles but instead giving real help is probably going to whizz past them on that and, again, seem like a random, petty, and clueless pot shot.

But, again, the idea that Filipinos have no religious longings that can be psychologically assuaged for them by religious paraphernalia just ignores the relatively strong Catholicism of the country. This is a place where more than 80% of people are Catholics. This must be a deep part of their culture. For fellow Catholics to be motivated to help them restore just a little bit of that is about as non-offensive to me as people sending toys so that kids who have suffered a tragedy can have a little bit of normalcy and pleasant distraction. Again, “man does not live on bread alone”, and all that. That’s all this is. Yes–I know the survivors’ material needs are monumental, urgent, and overwhelming. But is the money spent on bibles and rosaries the difference between full recovery overnight and destitution? I hardly think so. I doubt money is even being spent on them. These sound like organizations that had them on hand because that’s what they already keep stockpiles of.

Again, it’s a small gesture that may be disproportionately meaningful to what must be many devoutly Catholic people who still could not, with the cost of the bible, have had their whole livelihoods restored but could with that bible at least seek out whatever it is they want their faith to provide them as they face an awful uphill struggle. Has any atheist bothered to ask Catholics in the Philippines receiving these bibles and rosaries how they feel? Where is the humanistic compassion here? Where is the ability to imaginatively and empathetically enter into the mindsets of those religious people we disagree with, who likely make up the majority of those affected by this disaster, and to think about what they would say they wanted, needed or appreciated?

Now, I know the Red Cross discourages donations of toys and clothes immediately during a crisis and urges people to give money instead. And if the bible shipments delay basic necessities reaching people and they suffer and die, then, from a logistics perspective, groups sending religious paraphernalia can be asked to be more mindful of what they are doing and to hold off until a more appropriate time when things are more stable to send such gifts. But that can be done without attacking Catholics who are in possession of large stores of religious resources from donating what they have to give to their religious kin.

There are other problems with religious charities. The proselytization motives of missionaries (and many local church run charities) can be much more about the interests of their religion than the people they’re supposedly there to “help”. This bothers me greatly, especially with government money now flowing to religious charities through the “faith based initiatives” program of Bush and, now, Obama. And many secular people may not want to give to charities that are more about religious practices (or which enforce religious bigotries) than just straight charity work, and should be educated about issues related to that. And, of course, any given religious charity can be inefficient or counterproductive like many secular charities.

But these issues are complicated ones that are hard to address on billboards and they really are not where the focus should be after a tragedy. What we should have been doing as humanists is what American Atheists does on its website but not on the billboards: send people to the wonderful, evidence based, charity Foundation Beyond Belief, Humanist Crisis Response, Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. (Please go there and donate!) We should be publicizing what those organizations do in terms of tangible efficiency and effectiveness, and we can do that in positive terms.

As a parting thought: American Atheists’ new billboards echo closely their founder’s words that “An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said.” Here is what Rebecca Vitsmun, the atheist Tornado survivor who made so many of us so proud after she told Wolf Blitzer that she was an atheist on CNN, had to say about this quote on her Facebook page (quoted with her permission):

I’m kind of appalled that one of the quotes that the Atheists Alliance chose to put on their monument says “an atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said” as if religious people are only praying and not helping. I can’t stand when either side falsely accuses the other for not being kind, considerate and loving to those in need. While atheist friends of mine were first responders at Briarwood Elementary, reuniting frightened children with their families, my theist brother walked around pulling victims out of their homes. Anders is wearing diapers donated by theists and I am wearing clothing donated by atheists. 15 theists shoveled out my house while just as many atheists were shoveling in Shawnee.

My point is this, I don’t know a single person who didn’t do everything they could to help those in need in any way they could think of. Even Brian and I pulled shoes out of the heap that was our home….still in a daze only moments after the storm….to shoe neighbors who road the storm out in their house and were walking down the street, shoeless, in the debris.

Okay, so atheists didn’t pray, but they worried. They said to themselves, “oh no! This is terrible! What can I do?”

I’m tired of both sides pointing fingers and pretending the other side doesn’t care. We all care. Empathy is a human emotion. It is time to stop creating a divide that isn’t there.

Atheists took a major step back when they decided to use that quote on their monument.

It’s shameful.


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