Sunday, November 16, 2008

Adventures in atheist advertising

In recent news, the American Humanist Association (AHA) paid for a bus ad campaign in Washington D.C. This is what the ad says:

If you're interested in the response to the ad, Friendly Atheist has lots of links and an interview with an AHA representative.

I think it's rather interesting to watch how the atheists react to the ad. I see the same pattern of reactions occurring all the time. Some of us enthusiastically support the cause, while the rest of us are left wondering if it was really that good of an idea. You can count me in the latter group, at least with respect to the bus campaign, but allow me to feign some objectivity here.

Oh, the usual questions bounce back and forth. Are we targeting atheists, theists, or the middle? Is it intended to be an attack on religion, a call to freethinkers, or just a call for discussion? If religious people think it's an attack, is that acceptable or not? If not, is it our fault or their fault? Who are we trying to convince, if anyone, and of what? Are we imitating religion, and is that bad? How many people are we "reaching" and how many people are we pushing away? And to sum up all previous questions, was the ad campaign good, or bad?

Sometimes, I despair of answering such questions. I'll stick to physics, thank you.

Perhaps, if I try to explain it, I will help myself understand?

The plain message itself is not too hard to understand. "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." It is basically asserting the secular humanist* position: acting morally is worth it for its own sake, and that believing in a god or religion is not required. It's actually a rather mild message, I think. No, seriously, everyone should agree that goodness is its own reward. I would have agreed when I was Catholic (but apparently that's only because I wasn't Bill Donahue). For those who don't agree, obviously the message wasn't intended for them. The ad only states a position; there certainly wasn't enough space to argue the point. It is not intended to convince anyone, but rather to promote awareness. If you're a nontheist, you aren't alone, and if you're a theist, there are happy people with different beliefs.

*I find it really odd that the American Humanist Association advocates exclusively secular humanism. What about religious humanists? Aren't they important too?

You may also have noticed that the ad uses a slogan nearly like one of the lines in "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". This is simply intended to be a cutesy nod to the season. It's worth noting that many nontheists celebrate Christmas and enjoy the season, at least as much as everyone else does. Some don't celebrate, and there's nothing wrong with that. The so-called "War on Christmas" is a complete fabrication*, and as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no motivation to start such a war. Thus, the Christmasy tone of the ad is not meant to be mocking or subversive. It's simply because Christmas songs are a common cultural touching point, even among nontheists.

*Okay, I guess there's the "happy holidays" vs "merry Christmas" thing, but that's just tremendously silly.

But intentions aside, some people will react badly. The primary problem is that the question "Why believe in a god?" comes off as a challenge. If you ask atheist supporters about this, half of them say religious people are simply reading too much into it, while the other half say, yes it's a challenge, and what's wrong with that? What's wrong is that no one's going to be convinced by a one-liner on a bus, duh. And it builds on the impression that atheists have nothing to do with their time but challenge religion.

And yes, maybe religious people are reading too much into it. It's not really meant to be a challenge. It's just hard to navigate all the little pitfalls and convey a message without offending a bunch of people. But we have to navigate it. If you try to make a subtle point about how hard it is to avoid offending people, it's not going to come accross in a bus ad. So deal.

Another reason people react negatively is because it's similar to those religious billboards. You know, like those godspeaks boards that say things like, "We need to talk. -God" I don't propose to know what their motivation is, but the website says it's to, "create a spiritual climate and get people to think about a daily relationship with a loving and relevant God." Oh, so they can feel good about themselves as they think about all the people who've been inspired by a one-liner on a billboard. They're totally tacky, and I'm glad they don't appear where I live. Doesn't the AHA ad serve the same purpose, to make people feel better about themselves? No, I'd argue that the ultimate purpose is to increase visibility of secular humanism. But it's still totally tacky, at least according to my gut reaction.

Of course there will be negative reactions, but how could we possibly do any better? I dunno. I sort of like this billboard campaign better. It says, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." It's straight to the point: we nontheists exist.
It doesn't challenge religion, it doesn't need to. If we so wanted to challenge religion, advertisement isn't the proper route. Of course, even when the billboard clearly doesn't try to challenge religion, it still considered "controversial". So why bother trying to be "nice" if it'll be controversial either way? I'm not sure sometimes... Because... it's a matter of degree, and we only need generate as much controversy as is worthwhile.


Anonymous said...

I also like the "You're not alone" billboards better. As much as I would like to explicitly encourage people to deconvert (I'd love to see fewer religious people in the world), I don't think I can do that and also complain about religious proselytizing. But letting people know that it's okay to be an atheist is something I can support and defend wholeheartedly!

Anonymous said...

Amen, brother! ;)

J. J. Ramsey said...

"So why bother trying to be 'nice' if it'll be controversial either way?"

Simple, if you are nice, it gives your opponents no good reasons to hate you and leaves them flailing with bad reasons. That makes it much harder for your opponents to maintain a veneer of reasonableness.

Anonymous said...

It seems to be a highly misguided campaign, its forgetting the people who've believed in GOD and did great things, which no one would dispute - like Mother Teresa.

What if there was no religious belief, do you think we'd have Blessed Mother Teresa? How much worse the world would have been if we didn't have Blessed Mother Teresa!

How many people can AHA point out, showing the works that Blessed Mother Teresa did. This is not just Blessed Mother Teresa, but millions of Saints and Religious and Lay people.

Go to a Christian Charity - any home of Blessed Mother Teresa's Community, see how they work - see first hand and then show anyone, who is an atheist, do a similar work. Speak to the religious in that home and ask, how GOD helps them be very good.

Let us ask the people that do most good, how they do it!

A world full of atheists, is one that will have not even a millionth of goodness, compared to a world full of Christians (living true Christian lives)!

GOD Bless!


miller said...

Oh come on, that is only tangentially related to my point. Did you even read what I said?

Really, how do you know that there aren't any nontheistic philanthropists? (Bill Gates comes to mind.) And how do you know that none of the religious people do good for goodness' sake? I wouldn't dare oversimplify religion that much.