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Should Atheists Slam Religion or Show Respect?

As the atheist movement expands, we need to consider whether non-belief will gain more traction if prominent atheists are more respectful of religion.

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Even reasonable confrontation tactics can backfire –especially in the hands of a hostile journalist. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USAToday attended the April Reason Rally in D.C.,  a gathering she described as “hell-bent on damning religion and mocking beliefs.”  There she found plenty which, when taken out of context, could be used to reinforce stereotypes.  Her article headlined with a quote from Richard Dawkins, encouraging nonbelievers to “show contempt” for baseless dogmas. It was accompanied by a picture of  Jen McCreight  cheerfully carrying a sign that read:  Obama isn’t trying to destroy religion, I am . Other speakers were depicted as ornery, offensive and more than a little scary. 

Ad campaigns by nontheist organizations reflects a struggle to find messages that connect with either teetering believers or closeted skeptics while avoiding backlash. In 2009 a London publicity  campaign went viral internationally with bus ads proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  A variety of billboard campaigns have followed, some more provocative than others:  “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence,”  “You Know It’s a Myth.  Solstice is the Reason for the Season.”  “In the Beginning Man Created God.”  “We are all Atheists about Most Gods; Some of Us Just Go One God Further.” “Don’t Believe in God? Join the Club.”  All have drawn protests or vandalism from indignant theists.  

It may be almost impossible to avoiding causing offense while challenging the religious status quo. Nontheist organizations have traditionally ignored communities of color, but  African Americans for Humanism recently launched an outreach campaign with the tag line, “Doubts About Religion? You’re one of many.” Billboards and posters show faces of familiar Black leaders – as well as ordinary group members.  Coalition of Reason organizer, Alix Jules of Dallas says that even this understated approach is plenty controversial for two reasons:  Almost 90% of African Americans express certainty about the existence of God, and honoring religion is seen as a matter of loyalty.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, Humanists of Canada wanted to run a bus campaign that said, simply, You can be good without God  . But the public bus agency refused the ads because they “could be too controversial and upsetting to people.” One reader  commented,

I think we should make atheist ads as innocent and non-confrontational as possible. Not because we should avoid controversy, but because it we will get the controversy no matter what we put up, and the kinder and gentler our message the more obvious the hypocrisy of our critics. I’m hard put to think of one more innocent than this one, though.

Humanist blogger and speaker James Croft, a doctoral student in educational philosophy at Harvard, insists that  it can be done:

There are ways of conveying our values that are both strong and civil, which avoid insults and (except in certain cases) ridicule without giving one inch of ground on the battlefield of our core values. All the evidence shows that this hybrid approach is more effective than simply seeking to be likable, or relying on confrontation alone.

In their effort to find the balance that Croft calls “strong and civil,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation has moved toward more personal messages, ones that offer a glimpse into a godless individual (or family) rather than some form of universal claim. Since 2007, they have purchased billboard space for  messages including “Imagine No Religion,” “Beware of Dogma,” and “Thank Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief.” But their latest campaign, “ Out of the Closet,” puts real names and faces together with simple statements of values or disbelief: “Atheists work to make this life heavenly,” says Dr. Stephen Uhl of Tucson on one sign. “Compassion is my religion,” says Olivia Chen, a Columbus student whose appears on another.  A recent campaign in Clarkville, Tennessee, merely shows a young woman identified as Grace beside the words, “This is what an atheist looks like.”

 
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