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When the Message Shoots the Messenger – Why Atheist Ad Campaigns Don’t Work


“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” 

Strother Martin to Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke, 1967)


In the case of communicating through advertising by nonbelievers, what we’ve got here is failure to acknowledge that, regardless of label – Humanist, Secular Humanist, Neo-Humanist, Freethinker, Bright, Secularist, Agnostic, Skeptic, and on occasion, Buddhist, Taoist, and Chinese Traditionalist – we are all atheists in the eyes of most religionists, especially the Christians and Muslims.

That understanding of how we are seen in the public eye should be a starting point for the planning and developing any advertising campaign sponsored by any non-theist organization. When the public gets wind of something that they perceive as a treat to their religious beliefs, then all the euphemisms – Humanists, et al – disappear and believers and nonbelievers alike quickly realize that they are looking squarely into the face of atheism. So, for the purposes here, I will refer to all non-theistic organizations as “atheists.”

Back in December, 2010, the AmericanHumanist Association launched its ad campaign, Consider Humanism” (I discussed this effort elsewhere on this blog – AHA’s ‘Consider Humanism’ Campaign – A Critical Review –  so I won’t repeat those comments here.) But now we have the Center for Inquiry entering the fray. In a March 1, 2011, press release to launch its campaign, CFI says, in part:

“A national multimedia ad campaign, with the message that it is possible to live a fulfilling life without God, launched today from the Center for Inquiry (CFI). Three major U.S. cities will be home to the advertisements and billboards, which proclaim “You don’t need God-to hope, to care, to love, to live.”    


‘With this campaign, we are aiming to dispel some myths about the nonreligious,’ said Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI president & CEO. ‘One common myth is that the nonreligious lead empty, meaningless, selfish, self-centered lives. This is not only false, it’s ridiculous. Unfortunately, all too many people accept this myth because that’s what they hear about nonbelievers.’

“‘Most everyone in the United States knows someone who is not religious, whether they’re aware of this or not,’ observed Lindsay. ‘We’re your friends, neighbors, and colleagues-and we have similar hopes and concerns. Irrational prejudice against nonbelievers has no place in twenty-first-century America.’”

So, the question here is, could CFI do better with its message than AHA did with its? Unfortunately, we don’t know the metric CFI will use to measure the ad’s success. (Nor, by the way, did we know the metric used by AHA.) But that is probably moot because, as Mr. Lindsay says, “we are aiming to dispel some myths about the nonreligious.” That goal probably won’t be achieved in twelve words on their billboard, but if passers-by bother go to the web site Livingwithoutreligion.Org, they will be treated to pleasant, non-preachy descriptions of how non-believers deal with hope, care, love and life without a need for the supernatural. This is quite different from the AHA’s Consider Humanism campaign, which was a full-out frontal assault on a belief system held by more than 200 million people in this country alone.


All things considered, I think the CFI ads will be much better received than those for the AHA campaign if only because they are less threatening to the religionists. But the major hurdle, in my opinion, is with the negative reference to “God;” as in “You don’t need God.” In the minds of some believers, the God reference may put the CFI message on the same plane with the negative ads from other atheist organizations, such as, “No Gods, No Masters,” “There’s probably No God. So, Stop Worrying and Enjoy Life,” “Why Believe in God? Be Good for Goodness Sake,” “Are You Good Without God? Millions Are.” To the religionists, these messages are often seen as an attack aimed directly at them personally and on the belief systems in which they have made significant emotional investments. If it smacks of atheism, it is anathema to the faithful.

I think most everyone, including nonbelievers, would agree that over the years the term “atheist” has taken on a negative connotation. In its most literal definition, “atheist” simply means without theism, in the same way that “apolitical” means without politics, “amoral” means without morals, and “asexual” means a bunch of microbes that are missing out on a lot of fun. However, for those in the religious community, the label “atheist” these days conjures up such despots as Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot,  “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, and Slobodan Miloševic. Hitler is also usually included in this rogues gallery, even though he was a Roman Catholic who proudly claimed that his duty to God was to eradicate the Jews. Also, in a gross over-generalization, college professors, scientists, gays, communists, socialists, and even liberals, are often described by the faithful as “godless,” if not outright atheists.

A “theist,” on the other hand, is simply one who believes in the existence of a god or gods, while “theism” is the doctrine that establishes a system of belief in such supernatural beings. Thus, a theist can either pray alone in her closet or go to a place of worship and join with other theists to practice theism. Although theism technically includes multiple gods, as a practical matter, it is generally understood in this country to mean monotheism; specifically the Abrahamic religions that offer a belief system involving a personal God who is the sole creator and ruler of the universe and everything that exists. Besides, who the hell knows about all those Hindu gods anyway?

But this creates a kind of paradox. The atheists must first concede the existence of God before they can deny it. So, we have books like “The God Delusion.” “God is not Great,” and “God, The Failed Hypothesis.” Of course, the authors are not just taking on God, they are taking on religious theology itself; setting it up as a foil to be dissected and torn asunder. And, in the doing, they have effectively turned God into an ad hominem. Folks don’t like ad hominems, especially when directed at the object of their deeply felt belief. It’s hard to reason with somebody who’s already pissed off before the conversation even begins.

Believe as we say, not as we do:

 As anyone who has ever made a presentation or run an ad knows, the first order of business is to identify your audience. It’s one thing to make a commencement speech at a high school graduation and another to give a speech to, say, the American Humanist Association’s annual conference. So who, exactly, are the atheist ads supposed to be directed to? If they are for other atheists, then maybe they will inspire a kumbaya moment of solidarity. But if they are intended for zealous, evangelical, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, then, as we say in Oklahoma, that dog won’t hunt. Going for the mainstream religionists, however, presents its own set of challenges.

 As a starting point for designing the ads, it seems to me that the atheists will first have to consider how to mitigate the highly negative and pejorative remarks of their leaders toward religion, many of which are out there in the public domain. Richard Dawkins, for example, in Is Science a Religion? appearing in the January/February, 1997, issue of “Humanist,” says,

“. . . a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”

Then Christopher Hitchens, in his 2009 book God is Not Great, makes the absurd and indefensible claim that,

“Organised religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

Not to be outdone, Sam Harris slams the faithful with this rant from his The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation,

“It is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.”

Then, there’s Victor Stenger’s stinging,

        “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”


These tacky remarks may be cheered by the nonbelievers, but to the faithful, they come across as unadulterated hate-mongering, pure and simple. And lest you think I’m cherry-picking these comments for effect, I have personally witnessed, thanks to C-Span2’s BookTV, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris hawk their books in various public forums and, in the case of Harris and Hitchens, engage in debates. As witness to that behavior, my impression is that the above quotes are accurately representative of their respective attitudes toward religion, especially theism, and more especially, Christianity.   

But these leaders of the “New Atheism” have created yet another irony, They have cast themselves as mirror images of such famous evangelists as Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Douglas Coe; they are just as aggressive and dogmatic and intransigent in their beliefs as their Christian counterparts. There is no doubt that atheists are discriminated against, even hated in many parts of the country. But one has to wonder how much of that is blowback from their own pomposity and unambiguous, almost universal, disdain for the lowly believers. Now, I don’t mean to sound like an accommodationist here. It is what it is. Call it what you want.

In fairness, I should point out that, in a kind of reversal, Sam Harris has new book out, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, in which he posits that, in his own words, “Moral truth entirely depends on actual and potential changes in the well-being of conscious creatures.” This is quite a departure from his usual diatribe against religion.

Try to play nice:

Obviously then, atheists have a serious PR problem. This is exacerbated, I believe, because of the many legal challenges to the involvement of religion in government – from taking prayer out of public schools to taking “In God We Trust” off our money. This, of course, is secularism. But many organizations promoting secularism have both religious and nonreligious members, including, for example, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (lead by the Reverend Barry W. Lynn,) The Interfaith Alliance, and People for the American Way, Nonetheless, the average church-going man and woman of the street, being misinformed, tend to associate secularism with atheism, even though these concepts are apples and cumquats.

Then there is the infamous Madeline Murray O’Hare. Those of you who were around in the 60’s and 70’s no doubt remember her well. According to Wikipedia, 

She is best known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling ending government sponsored prayer in American public schools. O’Hair later founded American Atheists and became so controversial that in 1964 Life magazine referred to her as ‘the most hated woman in America.’ In 1995 she was murdered, along with her son and granddaughter (whom she had adopted), by a member of the organization, David Roland Waters.”

O’Hare had numerous run-ins with the law and was apparently escorted out of Maryland in 1963 after she allegedly assaulted five Baltimore police officers. (Five!) She once sued NASA over the astronauts reciting of passages from the bible while in outer space. She lost. The point being that, for many Americans, any mention of “atheist” conjures up the legacy of the bombastic, confrontational, take-no-prisoners effrontery that was Madeline Murray O’Hare.

Of course, all of these diversions complicate the message or messages that atheists may want to put on a city bus or on to a billboard. Since they have no particular philosophy or mission, atheists have often attached themselves to the Humanists, the Secular Humanists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Freethinkers and similar groups that reject the supernatural while promoting reason, science, naturalism, ethics, and, one hopes, a little compassion.

In contrast, The Brights, the American Ethical Union and some 25 Ethical Societies here in the U.S., have taken the high road in communicating their worldview. They don’t find it necessary to push bumper sticker hyperbole like, “Democracy Not Theocracy,” “There’s a Sucker Born Again Every Minute,” “The Bible – A Grim Fairy Tale.” Nor do they promote board games like “Blasphemy,” and “Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination.” Those would be verboten to these ethical societies.

On it’s website, the American Ethical Union offers a kind of FAQ for those wanting more information about its philosophy, I found this one especially elucidating: 

        Is it possible for human beings to live a good life without belief in God? 

“A respect for the dignity and worth of every human being and a capacity to enter into decent and just and loving relations with other human beings is not dependent upon a faith in God. There is no reliable evidence or scientific study which reveals that those who hold to supernaturalism necessarily lead better lives than those who would call themselves agnostics or atheists. Goodness is not dependent upon theology. Crime and delinquency, dishonesty and cruelty in human relations, destructive behavior in the family and the community are found among human beings in all groups. So also justice and compassion and love are found among the traditional believers and nonbelievers, the religious and the nonreligious. The essential element which may make the difference in the life and relations of an individual may be a faith in the human rather than a faith in God.

“Some people may accept moral teachings only if they come with a belief that they are God’s law and that there is a Supreme Being who gave the moral law, who watches over human beings and gives reward and punishment according to their obedience to that God. But more and more people recognize that moral teachings originate in the experience of life as people learn how to live together. Thus, for those who hold to an ethical humanist philosophy, the authority and the motivation for a good life is within themselves.”

Against this background, I would caution the atheists, especially the “hard,” “angry,” “militant” atheists, about the messages they want to send. If they are meant to inform rather than playing “got-ya,” or explain rather than condemn, or to offer a hand of friendship rather than the closed fist of anger, they might have some degree of success. If, however, they come across as intolerant, or indignant, or anti-pluralistic, they will only ramp up the divisiveness between them and the religionists. Ridicule begets ridicule. And that is a zero-sum game that leads nowhere.

Respect the laws of nature: 


And then there is the big old elephant in the room that the atheists keep ignoring. If converting the faithful with reason was relatively easy, then the world would be dominated by nonbelievers and religion would be in the margins. But that is obviously not the case. Why? Well, the anthropologists, archeologists, neurologists, and psychologists are beginning to provide some answers. From cave drawings, ritual burials, and other artifacts that go back at least 100,000 years, the supernatural, probably starting with ancestor and animal spirits, was an integral part of life for early humans. Once we evolved the ability to use our imagination, developed a crude language, and understood that our own death was inevitable, then the genie was out of the bottle. Belief in the supernatural became a social, cultural, and political imperative. 

Over time, the spirit world was joined by the mystics, became ritualized, which produced strong emotive states, and then all of it transformed into the anthropomorphic deities and related religions we know about today. In fact, religion may have been one of the first of what Richard Dawkins calls “memes.” But religion is much more than that. It may, in fact, be biological; a neurological necessity for survival; a coping mechanism to help soothe negative emotional states, mostly fear and grief.

Also, we humans may be carrying around something like a “God Gene” in our heads. A good description of this possibility can be found in the October 25, 2004, issue of Time magazine


(See http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101041025/) Then there is Dean H. Hamer’s The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, which provides much more detail on this subject. (I’m currently writing a new post for this blog to address the physicality of religion, among other things, in Part 3 of the Alchemy of Religion and the Quantum Theory of Humanism series So, stay tuned)

The findings from the prehistoric world of humans, together with new studies involving brain chemistry and DNA, have prompted the cognitive scientists to pursue what they call, “dual inheritance theory,” also known as gene-culture co-evolution, in hopes of better understanding the interactions of cultural dynamics with neurologically produced emotional responses. (For more information on this fascinating subject, check the article on Wikipedia titled, “Evolutionary Origin of Religions,” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_origin_of_religions,)

In light of the foregoing, and although not yet conclusive, science is providing strong evidence that religion may, in fact, be a perfectly natural phenomenon, Or, to say it another way, religion might just be a part of human nature. Given this twist, it would seem that we nonbelievers, including of course the atheists, are an aberration because we deny the natural state of things and ignore the inherent psychology that is part and parcel of religion. In short, it is the atheists who are out of sync with nature and reason, not the religionists. Now, ain’t that a bummer?  

Bait and switch?                                                                                          


Therefore, all things considered, atheists have a steep hill to climb and a lot of baggage to get rid of before they can establish any rapport with the general public. Their only hope, in my opinion, is to tone down the nasty rhetoric and point out the many benefits enjoyed by nonbelievers. For example, in countries that have relatively low populations of religionists – Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland, and Denmark – are among the healthiest, wealthiest, most educated, and most free societies on earth. They have lower crime rates, lower divorce rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, and lower infant mortality rates than the U.S. Their citizens tend to have less stress and be much happier than their American counterparts. There are many factors that contribute to these benefits, assuming they are statistically valid, but surely the diminution of religion is one highly significant variable.

I am cautiously optimistic that CFI’s Living Without Religion campaign will be a success, however that might be defined. At least it is willing to take on the same emotional issues that religion tends to put forward as a justification for its belief system. And that should gain some currency in the marketplace of ideas.

The problem is, well, CFI itself. Someone who’s curiosity is aroused about the nonbeliever community due to these ads might want to go on CFI’s website to see what it’s all about. There they will encounter a fusillade of snipes at religion, activities promoting secularism, litigation involving human rights causes and constitutional issues, and a plethora of information sources and media. And they will see the same cast of characters – Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al – found on virtually all of the other atheist sites. There is nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but it may be more than a potential member might be ready for. The kinder, gentler atheists presented in the ads may seem less kind and less gentle when they quit talking the talk and start walking the walk.

For other atheist organizations planning ad campaigns, I leave you with a few thoughts from Stephen Prothero, a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University, from his recent book, God is not One, (HarperOne, 2010,) 328-329:                                                    

“The New Atheism stands at a crossroads. Until now it has been spearheaded by the sort of white, male firebrands that led the charge for evangelicalism during the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century. But there is a different voice emerging—call it the “new” New Atheism—and with it a very different agenda from the “Four Horsemen” of the angry atheist apocalypse (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett). This friendlier atheism sounds more like a civil rights movement than a crusade, and it is far more likely to issue from the lips of friendly women than from the spittle of angry men. 

“If the hope is to pummel into submission every theist from Salt Lake City to Sao Paulo to Sydney, then the atheist movement has about as much of a chance as an evangelical revival in the National Assembly of France. But if the hope is for a world in which children can play with other children without regard for the religious (or non-religious) beliefs of their parents, then this is a wave that many Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus would happily catch.”


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