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"Spreading the Good News About Atheism": Why We Need Atheist Ad Campaigns

The hostility that the atheist ad campaigns generate proves why we need them so badly.

"Are you good without God? Millions are."

"Imagine no religion."

"There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Atheist ad campaigns are everywhere. Around the U.S. and around the world, atheist organizations have been buying space on billboards, buses, TV and more, with messages ranging from the mild-mannered "Don't believe in God? You are not alone" to the in-your-face "You know it's a myth." The current "Living Without Religion" campaign from the Center for Inquiry, letting the world know that "You don't need God -- to hope, to care, to love, to live" -- is only the latest in a series of advertising blitzes: from American Atheists, the Coalition of Reason, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and many other organizations. Even local student atheist groups have been getting into the act, using buses in their college towns to spread the good news about atheism.

And whenever they do, they are almost guaranteed to garner resistance. Conservative religionists often object vehemently to the very concept of atheist advertising: in many cases trying to get the ad campaigns stopped altogether, and frequently even vandalizing the billboards. (In what has to be the irony of the year, some bus companies have stopped accepting all religious-themed ads, simply so they don't have to accept ads from atheists.) And while moderate and progressive believers have never (to my knowledge) tried to stop these atheist ad campaigns from moving forward, many are still baffled and even offended by the ads. They see them as proselytizing, evangelical... and they don't understand why people who are opposed to religion would be proselytizing and evangelical.

So why do atheists do this?

Why do atheists spend substantial amounts of money and resources to let the world know we exist, and to get our ideas across?

Which Atheists?

The first thing you have to remember is this: Not all atheist ads campaigns are created equal. Different atheist organizations create different ad campaigns, with different goals, and different strategies for achieving those goals. So when you ask, "Why do atheists have to advertise?", the first question you have to answer is, "Which atheists?"

Some atheist ad campaigns, for instance, are purely about visibility. The sole message behind them: "Atheists exist." The folks behind these campaigns know that visibility is key to acceptance of atheists -- just like it's key to acceptance of LGBT people. Simply getting people familiar with atheists, and getting them comfortable with the concept of atheism, goes a long way to countering anti-atheist prejudice and hostility. What's more, the folks behind these campaigns know that plenty of non-believers feel isolated -- cut off from family and friends if they're open about their atheism, hiding in secrecy and silence if they're not -- and they want these people know they aren't alone. It's like the annual Coming Out Day campaign for LGBT people.

Other ad campaigns are about information. They're there to counter myths about atheists. They're not just telling you, "Atheists exist" -- they're telling you, "Atheists exist, and are good, happy people." Misinformation and bigotry against atheists abound, and many atheist ad campaigns -- including the current "Living Without Religion" one from the Center for Inquiry -- are aimed at countering this misinformation. They're aimed at letting the world know that, contrary to popular opinion, atheists have morality, meaning, joy, and hope in our lives... just as much as religious believers. It's like a public service information campaign, letting you know that, contrary to popular opinion, HIV is a treatable illness/Arab Americans are your peaceful hard-working neighbors/the library is open late on Thursdays.

Still other campaigns are trying to gain new members for their atheist groups. They aren't necessarily trying to persuade anyone out of religion... but they know there are non-believers in their communities, people who feel isolated, people who may even think they're the only ones who think they way they do. And they want those folks to know that atheist organizations are available: to provide community, support, education and entertainment, or simply to provide reinforcement for the idea that they aren't crazy or immoral for thinking the way they do. Like a softball team distributing flyers for new players... or AARP advertising for new members, and letting you know about the wonderful programs they have available for people over 50.

And still others are, in fact, actively trying to change people's minds about religion. They're trying to persuade people that atheism is, you know, correct: that there is no God, and people should stop believing... or, at the very least, consider the possibility that their beliefs might be mistaken. Or they're trying to persuade people to respect the separation of church and state, even if they believe in God. Like Pepsi trying to persuade you to buy their products instead of Coke's... or Marriage Equality trying to get you to vote against Prop 8.

Of course, while these ad campaigns do have different goals, many of those goals dovetail and overlap. The "atheist visibility" folks may not be deliberately trying to persuade people out of religion, for instance... but since religion relies on social agreement to perpetuate itself, the mere act of saying "Atheists exist, not everyone believes in God" lays a small but powerful piece of dynamite under its foundations. The "deconversion" folks may be trying to get people to question their faith... but they're also getting atheism on a lot more people's radar. And while the "countering misinformation" campaigns aren't necessarily designed to increase group membership, that's often the effect.

And I would argue that every single one of these goals is valid.

After all -- they're valid for every other human endeavor.

When it comes to every other human idea/affiliation/activity/organization, we think it's perfectly reasonable for people to make themselves visible. To make information available. To let others who might be interested know that a group exists. To persuade others who don't agree to change their minds. When it comes to politics, science, art, medicine, hobbies, philosophy, food, etc., we consider it not only acceptable, but positive and worthwhile, to share our ideas, and to get our points of view into the world, and to make our case when we really think we're right.

Why should atheism be the exception?

If it's okay for Democrats to run ads saying, "Vote Democratic"? If it's okay for the Boston Red Sox to run ads saying, "Go Sox"? If it's okay for the Red Hot Organization to run ads saying, "Safe sex is hot sex"? If it's okay for Greenpeace to run ads saying (seriously) "There's probably no cod, now let's stop overfishing & think of the future"? Then why on Earth is it not okay for the Center for Inquiry to run ads saying, "You don't need God -- to hope, to care, to love, to live"? Or even for American Atheists to run ads saying, "You know it's a myth"?

Why should religion, alone among all other ideas, be entitled to a free ride... free from criticism and questioning and the uncomfortable reminder that not everyone in the world agrees with it?

And in fact, when you look at the ugly responses that atheist ad campaigns typically get, the need for them becomes even more obvious. Religious believers have called the ad campaigns "aggressive," "hateful," "offensive," "a disgrace," "political correctness gone amok," "terrible," "disturbing," and "dangerous." They've said that they "have had their sensibilities assaulted" by the ads, that their beliefs were being "attacked" and "vandalized" by them. They've suggested that someone "accidentally burn" the billboards. They've equated atheist advertisers with Fred Phelps. And these responses are hardly isolated: they're very much in line with general American sentiments about atheists, which view us as the most disliked and distrusted minority in America.

Of course atheists need visibility -- lots of people are bigoted about us. Of course we need to spread information about who we are -- lots of people are ignorant about us. Of course we need to let other atheists know that support networks are available -- lots of people are hateful about us. Of course we need to advocate for separation of church and state -- lots of people want to make it actually illegal for us to advertise. The very hostility that the atheist ad campaigns generate proves why we need them so badly.

Sauce for the Goose?

Now, some people may think I'm being a hypocrite here. Some people think that religious evangelism sucks, whether it's atheists or believers doing the "evangelizing" -- and they think it's hypocritical for atheists to cut slack for the atheist ad campaigns. "Sure, she doesn't like religious proselytizing," these folks are probably saying, "but she thinks it's totally okay for atheists to try to swell their ranks and change people's minds! How is that fair?"

But these people would be mistaken.

Because I don't, in fact, have any objection to religious evangelists trying to change people's minds.

Don't get me wrong. I have serious objections to many of the religious evangelists' methods. I object to their use of fear-mongering as a form of persuasion; to their offering of false hope; to the way they present unsubstantiated opinion as authoritative fact. I object to their arrogant use of personal experience as the keystone of their case, with little or no understanding of the fallibility of the human mind. I object to their dismissal and even contempt of the most fundamental notions of evidence and reason. I object to their use of social pressure and even shunning to enforce complicity and silence dissent within their ranks. I object to their knocking on people's doors at eight in the morning on a Saturday.

But I do not have any objection whatsoever to the basic idea of religious believers trying to persuade people that they're right. None. If they think they're right, then that's exactly what they ought to do. That's how the marketplace of ideas works: people share their ideas, they make the case for their ideas, and (in theory, anyway) in the long run the best idea wins. In fact, if these believers were right, and our eternal afterlives in bliss or torment really were contingent on believing the right religion? Then not trying to persuade others to share the faith would be objectionable. Immoral, even. Callous to the point of being monstrous. I disagree passionately with their case, I disagree with how they typically make that case... but I have not even the slightest objection to the idea of them making it.

And I'm not afraid of them. I think the case for atheism is better than the case for religion... by several orders of magnitude. I think that, when stripped of the fear-mongering and social pressure and unsubstantiated opinion and so on, religion falls apart almost laughably fast. I think that religion is a house of cards built inside a fortress, and when the fortress of excuses and diversions and non-arguments gets breached, the actual case for religion is so flimsy it's almost pathetic. I think atheism is correct; I think the case for atheism is winning, and will continue to win... and I'm not afraid of religious believers making their case.

And the fact that so many believers are afraid of atheists making our case?

That just makes my point for me.

Atheists aren't the ones trying to shut up religious believers. When religious ads go up on buses and billboards and TV, we roll our eyes and go about our business. We don't agree with the advertisers... but we don't try to stop them from advertising. Sure, we're trying to get religious messages out of government -- no Ten Commandments in City Halls, no creationism in public schools, no prayers to start city council meetings, etc. -- but that's a separation of church and state issue. (One that works for religious believers just as much as it does for atheists, I might point out.) When it comes to religious groups hawking their message on their own private property -- or on other people's private property they've rented with their own money -- we may think it's obnoxious or silly, but we totally respect their right to do it.

And the fact that so many believers don't respect atheists' right to hawk our message? It just shows how weak their message is -- and how afraid they are of having it contradicted. As my wife Ingrid points out, "If you've got God on your side, why are you so afraid of a billboard?"

If religionists thought their case for God was strong, they wouldn't be trying to silence atheists.

And the fact that they are trying to silence atheists, all by itself, is Exhibit A for exactly why we need to keep advertising.

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