About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Some further thoughts about in-your-face atheism

by Ed Buckner, Former President, American Atheists
[A response to Massimo’s post about the recent AA ad campaign]
I write here as one leader of American Atheists and as a friend and admirer of Dr. Massimo Pigliucci (hereafter “Massimo” because of my longstanding personal friendship — and not in any way to suggest that my awe at his intellect and accomplishments has declined) and of his blog. (While it is probably unnecessary for me to say so, I should nevertheless be clear in stating at the outset that my opinion is not necessarily the official position of the organization, in general or in any given detail.)
I agree with the David Hume’s quotation that Massimo includes in his header as a motto: “Truth springs from argument among friends.” I think and hope that Massimo’s latest Rationally Speaking column and the replies of those of us who disagree with him will be fruitful examples of that motto.
A few asides before I address the main issue: 
1. I cannot imagine that American Atheists would in any sense “excommunicate” Massimo Pigliucci over criticism of us that he offers, even unreasonable criticism (and his critique here is quite reasonable — though mistaken). If we start excommunicating wise and reasonable friends, I would quickly resign my own life membership.
2. I take Massimo at his word that his column is not meant to promote accommodationism or intellectual dishonesty, nor do I conclude that his intention is to advocate “any sort of wishy-washy position about the existence of god.” I have no doubt at all that some of those atheists who think an accommodationist arrangement is the best we can get or who prefer wishy-washiness regarding the existence of one or more gods will find some comfort in Massimo’s words, but it will be a false comfort.
3. I agree with Massimo that “the accuracy of the message [any public message, billboards included] and the way it is presented matter.”
4. I agree with Massimo that far too many of my fellow atheists are insufficiently skeptical of all sorts of ideas, including the ideas that science and reason can offer easy paths to all truth. He is right that “woo-woo stuff” all too often deludes too many of our number and that we are all subject to reading events in light of preconceived conclusions without adequate evidence. (One of the RS blog commenters provided a good example of this regarding coming too quickly to the apparently false conclusion that the deranged Jared Loughner must have been created or worsened by religion.)
Our billboard declares, “You KNOW they’re all scams,” and we stand by that declaration if the “they’re” is interpreted as referring to “major theistic religions,” as the context of the billboard makes most reasonable. We understand that the word “religion” does not always mean a theistic system or one we’d otherwise consider a scam. An easy to name example of a religion we do not consider a scam is one of our partners in the Secular Coalition for America, the American Ethical Union — American Ethical Culture often calls itself a religion, but it holds out no false hopes of supernatural assistance or future lives to its members. And the symbolism on the billboard clearly refers to Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Shintoism. We know, of course, that the five symbols shown oversimplify the real complexity and differences within those religions and leave out some powerful theistic world religions. A billboard is not, however, a place for making fine distinctions. A billboard message must communicate with startling speed and efficiency, and philosophical perfection will often not be possible.
The meaning of “scams” is also quite relevant, of course. Massimo declares that “an intentional fraud” is what one is claiming when one says “scam” and there are certainly elements of that intentionality implied at some level. But if one Googles “scam definition,” the very first things that pop up are:
1. Victimize: deprive of by deceit; "He swindled me out of my inheritance"; "She defrauded the customers who trusted her"; "the cashier gypped me when he gave me too little change"; a fraudulent business scheme. (Ref)
2. A confidence trick or confidence game (also known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, hustle, scam, scheme, swindle or bamboozle) is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence. (Ref)
Given such definitions, it is reasonable to argue that someone can be victimized by a scam even when the immediate agent for victimization is wholly unaware of the fraudulent nature of the transaction. My own late father, a clergyman, was kind, gentle, and honest; and, as far as I am aware, he sincerely believed that his promises to parishioners of salvation and ultimate justice were actually going to be fulfilled. I sincerely believe that he was not only mistaken in this but was in an intellectual position to have known, had he been willing to think carefully and investigate the matter fully, that his promises were unwarranted. I think he perpetrated a scam, one that had real destructive force in many people’s lives. I think he was part of “a fraudulent business scheme” that dangerously defrauded people “by gaining their confidence.” This cost them money, wisdom, and control over their own lives. But I never saw any intention on his part to swindle or con people.
I have firsthand testimony from a respected Atlanta area clergyman, a graduate of one of the most distinguished, respected Christian seminaries in America, that most — not just some, but most — of the professors in most of the mainstream seminaries in America are not themselves orthodox believers in religion. Does this constitute the “extraordinary evidence” that Massimo requires? Probably not, and my source, himself an atheist, continues to this day to earn his professional living as a clergyman, so he would not even be willing to testify publicly as to this. (I have other sources who have offered similar declarations, similarly confidentially.) Do I “know” that all major theistic religions are scams? I do, within a reasonable common definition of “know” and “scam.” If I were writing an essay like this one, with space and time to offer careful distinctions and shades of meaning, it would be intellectually incumbent on me to do that. I didn’t write the billboard copy, but I do agree with it as billboard copy. I reject flatly my friend Massimo’s claim that I must either be lying or deluded to approve of this billboard.
Three other slightly less important aspects of the Rationally Speaking column in question with which I take serious issue are Massimo’s claims that: 
1. The billboard is less effective in reaching atheists in the way we want to reach them.
2. His claim that the billboard is unlikely to affect the religious believers as we might want it to.
3. His assertion that this is a failure in terms of advertising or “PR strategy.”
We have some short-term, preliminary, but pretty good evidence that many (assuredly not all) atheists understand and appreciate what we’re up to. Attention to and attendance at the regional meeting in Huntsville seems quite likely to be good, and local and national membership numbers and financial support have improved. Religionists of various stripes are certainly paying heed to us, some of them, we think but cannot prove, doing more thinking than they would earlier have done. And getting a message, including humor about Dave Silverman’s appearance, onto national TV — onto three national TV shows, one right-leaning, one left-leaning, and one renowned for humor — has been a huge plus. Massimo concedes the effectiveness of Stephen Colbert’s satire of religious simple-mindedness; but how would that have been achieved if our billboard had had no bite?
The words of two writers of letters to the editor of the main Huntsville newspaper are noteworthy. Neither writer is known to me. The first of these two is from Ward P. Welty, who describes himself as “a retired professor of advertising and English.” Professor Welty makes the interesting observation that our billboard seems designed both to target “closeted atheists” and to induce “cognitive dissonance” in closeted atheists and, perhaps, in believers as well. He concluded that our slogan was “deliberately provocative.” And he noted. “I give it high marks for effectively communicating to ‘doubters’ that they are not alone.” He predicted a good turn out at our meeting there.
The other writer, Tom L. Williams, writes emphatically (and, I’d argue, quite illogically) that “even the forces of hell have a better theology than an atheist.” Whatever else his letter demonstrates, it shows we made him notice and think about it. Not that I want him to show up at our meeting, as I do the professor.
Massimo Pigliucci’s sincere disagreement and taking us to task for what he sees as an inappropriate (or worse) campaign is truly an argument from a friend. His public essay on the matter — like complaints and praise from Bill Donahue, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olberman, Stephen Colbert, and many others — helps greatly in furthering our cause, in explaining our means and goals. We thank him for doing so, quite aside from whether he — or any of his readers — are persuaded by our explanations.
The final point I want to make is about strategy for “the movement” — a movement of skeptics, atheists, rationalists, scientists, agnostics, and many others with overlapping labels who read this fine blog. Our goal should indeed be, as Massimo wrote, to “build a better society,” one freer of irrationality and ignorance, one more likely to encourage or at the very least permit individual development and freedom. I am firmly convinced that there is no one right public approach, no exclusive style or image for organizations or individuals to adopt. We — all of us, not just fierce atheists like me — need to have, as a part of our movement a “wing” that is blunt, unambiguous about our own conclusions, unabashed, sure-footed and confident, willing and eager to do intellectual battle with the irrational theists. American Atheists has long been in the vanguard as the marines of the movement, the atheist wing of the atheist movement. We do not want to be, or to be seen as “superior” or to be eager to piss off the religionists. But we are willing to risk pissing people off to get them to think. If that’s “in-your-face atheism,” put us down as the proud leaders of that wing.
I welcome comments posted on this blog; I’d also appreciate direct comments via e-mail.


  1. Response to Ed:

    First of all, let me thank my friend Ed Buckner for so graciously taking up the task of responding to my original post criticizing the AA ad, and particularly for his kind words about my role in the community.

    That said, I find - not surprisingly - Ed's arguments wholly unconvincing. He begins by citing two online definitions of "scam" and then attempting to split hairs to the effect that "Given such definitions, it is reasonable to argue that someone can be victimized by a scam even when the immediate agent for victimization is wholly unaware of the fraudulent nature of the transaction." But that simply doesn't follow from either of the definitions he cites. The first one says "Victimize: deprive of by deceit," and the second one says "an attempt to defraud." That is, both clearly and unambiguously include intention to deceive as part of the definition of scam, so Ed - according to his own sources - cannot possibly argue that the AA ad can be interpreted to suggest lack of intentionality.

    I think Ed ought to be a bit more charitable to his own late father, who was an honest clergyman and did not willfully try to deceive his parishioners. Ed says that his father "was in an intellectual position to have known." Perhaps, but that quickly puts us on a slippery slope about intellectual honesty that I don't think would further this debate. The bottom line is that Ed's father was honest, if mistaken, in his beliefs, and therefore did not perpetrate any scam according to the generally accepted definition of scam.

    Ed then brings up the well known rumor among atheists that "most" clergymen do not actually believe what they practice. Of course there is no systematic evidence supporting this rumor, which is often repeated by atheists who at some point in their life entered into seminary. Even if true, which is certainly possible, it is a huge and unwarranted extrapolation to go from "most young people in [Catholic] seminary" to "all religions."

    Was the billboard effective? Ed claims that attendance to the regional AA meeting in Huntsville is up. Even if this is a causal effect (as opposed to a spurious correlation), this simply means that AA has effectively catered to his own converts. Not useless, of course, but not particularly useful either, I submit. The bit about religionists "doing more thinking than they would earlier have done" is, as best as I can determine, Ed's own wishful thinking - there is no evidence whatsoever for that claim. As for getting into three national TV shows, well that's a good example of the thinking that negative publicity is better than no publicity, a creed with which I respectfully disagree.

    The two letters cited by Ed, published in the main Huntsville newspaper, provide a mixed message at best. The religious writer did do some "thinking" in writing his, but hardly the kind of thinking AA would want to catalyze (as Ed himself acknowledges). As for the professor of advertising, he does praise the ad, but he has no particular evidence-based reason to state that it "effectively communicat[es] to ‘doubters’ that they are not alone." Besides, in the era of google, wikipedia, and social networking does any doubter not know that they are not alone?

    Finally, Ed argues - convincingly, I think - that the movement can benefit from a variety of approaches, perhaps including the blunt, in-your-face take that I have criticized repeatedly in this blog. Well, if by that he means that we need billboards like the AA so that people like me can come across as reasonable and moderate in a game of bad-cop good-cop, then bring it on, baby!

  2. Massimo:

    You repeatedly claim that Ed has no evidence for his statements, but make statements without providing supporting evidence. For instance: "...negative publicity is better than no publicity, a creed with which I respectfully disagree"; why do you disagree? What supporting evidence do you have?

    Additionally, Oxford defines "scam" as "a fraud", which is then defined as "wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain". Ed's obvious interpretation of the billboard emphasizes the "wrongful" clause. Most religions may not be criminal, but they are wrong.

    In fact, you used the word "scam" in this sense on your own blog: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2006/05/dems-ahead-except-for-fear-mongering.html, "Could it be that the people are beginning to realize that the Republican version of the American Dream is a big scam meant to favor the already ultra-rich?" Similar objections could be leveled against the usage in this sentence, but no doubt you assumed that people would interpret the word "scam" in a "wrongful" sense, not "criminal" sense.

  3. Ian, my skepticism about the negative publicity creed is based on the fact that it is a positive claim ("negative is better than none") which itself is not backed up by evidence, so I think I'm on safe ground.

    As for the scam thing, I keep thinking that some people here, including Ed, are really splitting hairs so fine because they don't have anywhere else to turn. And in my own usage, I actually did mean that many elected officials in the Republican party *knowingly* favor the rich and shortchange the rest of us, which fits the definition of scam.

  4. Ian, btw, there is also evidence in the cognitive science literature that once a negative association has been generated in the mind of the public (say, about a politician, or a cause), it is incredibly hard to correct and it remains in public memory. I think this is actual evidence against the claim that negative publicity is better than no publicity.

  5. "Well, if by that he means that we need billboards like the AA so that people like me can come across as reasonable and moderate in a game of bad-cop good-cop, then bring it on, baby!"

    That is not the point. Buckner is arguing - convincingly, I think - for the billboard on its own merits. Certainly most viewers of the billboard will not encounter a "good-cop" (talk about a scam!) atheist's viewpoint. And if the billboard started off as the "good-cop", its message would not have broken through as well as it did.

    The whole debate is entirely speculative - beyond the realm of claims to be proven (including mine above) - that arguing against the AA seems irrelevant. "Different strokes for different folks" and be done with it!

  6. "splitting hairs so fine because they don't have anywhere else to turn" pot meet kettle.

    "I think this is actual evidence against the claim that negative publicity is better than no publicity." Even if I grant this, how do you determine if it is indeed negative?

  7. Norwegian, it is negative because the studies show that the affected politicians / causes lose credibility and ratings among the public. What other definition of negative do you need, in this context?

  8. Massimo:

    Re: negative publicity

    But in this case, we're trying to impart a negative association about religion, which would then remain in public memory. Isn't that what we want*?

    * given that the negative association is true**?
    ** for the proper philosophical interpretation of the word "true"? :)

    Re: Scam

    I would venture that your evidence that many Republican officials "knowingly" favor the rich is on par with Ed's evidence that many clergy-persons "knowingly" perpetuate religion while being non-theists themselves: both are circumstantial and based on anecdote, with a possible kernel of truth to the idea. And I'm sure you are sympathetic to the idea that some (or even many) Republicans in governmental positions are honest yet deluded in their belief that Republican principles are in the American public's best interest, yet you have classified Republicanism as a scam or its adherents as scammers (I'm not sure which one).

    Sorry, Massimo, I'll have to respectfully disagree with you; your use of the word "scam" is identical to Ed's.

  9. I meant how you do determine the billboard publicity is negative?

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Norwegian, by the press coverage.

    Ian, good point about Republicanism (not about the negative association thing: we want negative feelings about religion, but the billboard, I think, generates negative feelings about atheism). There is one major difference: one can analyze Republican bills and speeches and reasonably infer intentions. Here the "intelligent designer" and the "believer" are the same person. The same does not apply to gods and religious authorities, at least not across the board.

    To be more clear: it is easy to catch a lot of Republicans in flat self-contradiction about their statements which, while possibly the result of simple delusion, is too often too uncanny not to strongly suspect malevolence.

    But that said, yes, of course most Republicans are convinced of what they are saying and don't engage in scams.

  12. @Norwegian, you wrote:

    "If the billboard started off as the "good-cop", its message would not have broken through as well as it did."

    Give me reason to believe that. Compared to the AA billboard, we got just as much, if not more, media coverage for our measured "Good Without God" ad campaign in NYC.

    You wrote:

    "The whole debate is entirely speculative - beyond the realm of claims to be proven (including mine above) - that arguing against the AA seems irrelevant. 'Different strokes for different folks' and be done with it!"

    Here we go again with approach relativism. Massimo argued in his essay that the AA billboard was not an example of *another* approach, but of a *wrong* approach -- mainly because religion cannot be considered a scam. I am all for a diverse and broad community and movement, but sometimes those on the far sides of the different approaches go beyond different, and enter the realm of wrong.

  13. I've worked for a old marketing guru once.

    One of his mantra's was: "negative words, associate negative." End of story. Will have to look up the research that backs his mantra up though.

  14. Massimo,

    Your argument seems very good to me, but I think Ed Buckner's point that one can unknowingly perpetrate a scam is on the mark. Triangle schemes work well when their front-line salespersons believe in them. Your neighborhood dealer could be honest while their product is not.

    But I'm starting to get confused. Isn't the definition of a scam beside the point? The billboard's claim is "you KNOW they're all scams" In common use, non-philosopher talk, the definition of "know" is often expanded to include incorrect beliefs, before they've been exposed. Regardless of whether people ought to use the word this way, shouldn't messages be delivered in the audience's native language? Anyway, the subject is "you" and the main verb is "know", so the billboard is presumptuously telling readers what they think. Whether it's a figure of speech or a psychological gimmick, this seems pretty rude to me.

  15. "Scam implies intent! This is not rocket science."

    In my experience, most clergy lie or at least strongly mislead all the time. They withhold from their congregants knowledge that would challenge their beliefs - the same knowledge that their professors in divinity school couldn't reconcile with simple faith. They are pious frauds, intentionally lying, though for a cause they believe true. Is this covered by the word "scam"? Not perfectly, no. Is there a better word to use for this? Not that I know of.

    A minority of clergymen either tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth or simply don't believe what they say. The latter category are scammers.

    I doubt this was among the most effective billboards that could have been erected. For lack of a better word, let me say that I am deeply offended by the bizarre font, italicization, and capitalization chosen. Is the fundraising strategy to assault us with such monstrosities until atheists pay a ransom?

  16. Michael, comparing a NYC ad campaign coverage to an Alabama billboard is apples and oranges. Do you doubt that the more edgy a message is, the more it breaks through the clutter?

    I'm saying that the wrong-different edge is blurry and subjective. Do you disagree?

  17. To stir the pot a little...

    Is it possible that negative publicity might help a cause whilst simultaneously making its advocates less popular? One might argue that the negative publicity of second wave feminism made feminists less popular but also helped to achieve lots of valuable feminist aims.

  18. I am actually sort of glad for American Atheist Inc.'s campaign as it allows the rest of the world to see that only a few thousand of the nation's 30 million nonbelievers can get behind this idea enough to send money to this group or support it in any way, and the overwhelming majority of nonbelievers can not be bothered to get into arguments with religious people about their beliefs.

  19. Ed (in case you're reading these comments),

    Thanks for your post. You mentioned getting believers to think:

    > [...] to induce “cognitive dissonance” in closeted atheists and, perhaps, in believers as well.

    > Whatever else [...], it shows we made him [...] think about it.

    I'm not particularly angry about the ad. However I do struggle to believe that religous followers would find "You KNOW they're all SCAMS" much of an intellectual challenge. After all, it doesn't make much of an argument other than "religion: bad". A generation of young people forming their opinions on religion will learn nothing from this ad other than that atheists dislike religion.

    Please allow me to take this opportunity to cast my vote: I want to see atheist ads that attempt to challenge the most common fallacious defences of religion. For example...

    It seems to be a very common view that since "you can't prove it's NOT true", it is equally reasonable to accept or reject a set of religious claims. This is a poor argument but it appears to have very widespread acceptance. I would like to see a billboard that said something like:

    You can't prove it's NOT true

    ...in a large, bold typeface, surrounded by lots of non-disprovable but obviously silly claims in a much smaller, quieter typeface. An associated strap-line could say something like:

    Without disproof, it might possibly be true.
    Without evidence, there's no good reason to think it is.

    Since it actually makes an argument, I think this is more likely to stimulate debate and make people think. You might say that this is far too much text for an ad but I think that people will read quite a lot of text if their interest is piqued (although this is obviously not true for billboards beside fast roads). In particular, many people are fascinated by the religion debate; when they noticed the subject of the large type, I think they would be pretty likely to read the small type too.

    I take the point that ads must have impact but I would still rather have a good ad read by half the population than a bad one read by all of it.

  20. Very good criticism by Massimo Pigliucci, which I agree with fully at least regarding his first point. Ed Buckner: you seem to be "splitting hair" in your discussion of "scam"? Isn't it quite clear from the dictionary definitions that it includes intention? Delusion is not "scam" and we have no good evidence that religionists in general are not deluded.

    And whether or not the billboard message is effective in promoting atheism; atheism per see is not our primary objective to promote. What we primarily want is rationality. Atheism is as natural consequence of that but not vice versa. Clearly religion is a big obstacle to rationality, and sometimes one can get more rationality by people by non-rational (but not irrational) (e.g. emotional) reasons first starts to question religion, and from that later continues to more rationality. Nothing wrong in that, the order is not the important thing. But by messages as yours you actually risk (if it should be effective) to create a culture of dishonesty and irrationality in the atheistic movement. And note e.g. from the debacle with Bill Maher and "alternative medicine" that this is by no way just a theoretical risk. Just as important as building the atheist movement larger and stronger, it is to build the atheistic movement more honest and rational.

    But also to build the atheistic community larger it is important to have a true picture of the religious community. Is religion mostly delusion or mostly scam? I don't know, but I guess mostly (but not only) delusion. To fight your opponent effectively you need to have a correct model of him. To delude yourself by not-too-correct propagandistic of him will not help.

    In some contrast to Massimo Pigliucci I have nothing against in-your-face atheism. But I do have a lot against factual claims that are not backed up by proper evidence, and unfortunately your billboard message seems to by one of those. See also critique be Atheist Ethicist's Alonzo Fyfe:

  21. I am active in progressive politics as well as atheism, and one thing I learned years ago was that we liberals would never have accomplished a damn thing if we hadn't looked like a safe, reasonable alternative to the radicals who were often half a century ahead of the curve.

    From the time of the Seneca Falls conference to the day women finally got the right to vote took 70 years of hard work. But it had to start somewhere, and it started with serious women who weren't afraid to give offense.

    I hope American Atheists keeps pushing the curve in the desired direction.

    And now I'm going to post a rather lengthy quotation which I have found insightful and relevant, but you may feel free to skip over it if you wish:

    = = = = = =

    At every crossway on the road that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past. Let us have no fear lest the fair towers of former days be sufficiently defended. The least that the most timid among us can do is not to add to the immense dead weight which nature drags along.

    Let us not say to ourselves that the best truth always lies in moderation, in the decent average. This would perhaps be so if the majority of men did not think on a much lower plane than is needful. That is why it behooves others to think and hope on a higher plane than seems reasonable. The average, the decent moderation of today, will be the least human of things tomorrow. At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, the opinion of good sense and of the other good medium was certainly that people ought not to burn too large a number of heretics; extreme and unreasonable opinion obviously demanded that they should burn none at all.

    Let us think of the great invisible ship that carries our human destinies upon eternity. Like the vessels of our confined oceans, she has her sails and her ballast. The fear that she may pitch or roll on leaving the roadstead is no reason for increasing the weight of the ballast by stowing the fair white sails in the depths of the hold. Sails were not woven to molder side by side with cobblestones in the dark. Ballast exists everywhere; all the pebbles of the harbor, all the sand of the beach, will serve for that. But sails are rare and precious things; their place is not in the murk of the well, but amid the light of the tall masts, where they will collect the winds of space.

    -- Count Maurice Maeterlinck, “Our Social Duty”, in The Measure of the Hours (1907)

  22. I have to agree with Dr. Pigliucci on this issue. Since religion is such an emotionally charged subject, putting up a billboard, whether pro-religion or anti-religion, does little more than preach to the choir. (Assuming, of course, that atheists have choirs.)

    In a recent blog post, I took on the Humanists and their “Consider Humanism” campaign. My screed can be found here - http://thehumanistchallenge.wordpress.com/ - if you’re interested.

    In short, I think the atheists and the humanists could use a little humility, not to mention a little critical thinking. Painting all religions with the same brush creates a strawman argument among other fallacies in reasoning. And negative ads are a turnoff for many, if not most people anyway.

    That said, the AA may want to consider whether, as we say here in Oklahoma, the catch is worth the chase.

  23. I still think Massimo shouldn't have said the ad is "technically, lying" without qualifying that (provocative) charge until a paragraph later.

    But I also think the ad is not a good choice. As EAS said above, the ad is "presumptuously telling readers what they think." It's bound to irritate, and not in a makes-you-think way but just in an irritating way.

  24. A feature of "scam" that I just realized is that the ad shows symbols for 5 different religions. For believers in any one of these religions, the other four are scams in their mind. The cognitive dissonance might be sub-conscious, but it is definitely there.

  25. Nobody could have predicted Bill O'Reilly's odd "the tides go in, the tides go out" reaction and the priceless look of befuddlement on David Silverman's face as he said it, so we could say that the AA dodged a bullet. If any of the prominent theists had been as thoughtful in their criticism of the billboard campaign as Massimo has been, the PR battle may have gone to the other side.

    So far we have seen a correlation between the prominence and aggressiveness of the "new atheism" and the proportion of Americans willing to identify as "nones," so the "good cop, bad cop" routine as Massimo calls it seems to be working.

    My concern is that the battle between America's Puritan and Enlightenment roots has led to periods of secular dominance before, and what has always followed is a Great Awakening of religious fervor. I would hate for "you know they are all scams" or some similar ad campaign to be the new "Is God Dead?" Time Magazine cover.

  26. FWIW, I am planning to read all comments, at least for the next few days. Anyone who wants to be sure of a specific response from me should probably e-mail me ebuckner@atheists.org as well as posting. Interesting discussion. Regards to all, Ed B.

  27. Ophelia, I made a (somewhat inelegant) correction to the original post.

  28. We ought to judge the billboard's slogan and graphic by the high standards incumbent upon a group actually spending money on such things. It is possible to criticize the production without being able to think of a better version, yet it only strengthens the case of critics when we offer superior alternatives. This transforms the conversation from one of hair splitting definitions and loose accusations about others into a productive one about what can be done better in the future and exactly how far this billboard falls short of the ideal.

    Only with such knowledge can we properly calibrate how much attention we pay to this issue. If no one can think of a concise, effective, unequivocally true statement that can fit on a billboard, that's important to know in this discussion.

    "Your pastor knows why your religion is a lie."

    "Pastors, Priests, Monks, Rabbis, Imams: many agree, lying in service of religion is AOK! (citations at website)"

    "Atheists are not convinced there is any god. Don't sneer at them, neither are you."

    That was awful. But it's the best I could do.

  29. Massimo, I think the appropriate phrasing in this case is: "in-YO-face atheism." Otherwise, well said. :-)

    But, seriously, while I get the desire to go on the offensive against ideas that I disagree with - be they religious or secular in orientation (I'm an equal-opportunity offender), theism (if that is, in fact, what the AA meant by "religion" in its ad) is a low-priority concern (as opposed to certain "conservative" political ideas, which cause me considerably more pain and worry).

    What's more, I don't share the need to raise a bullhorn to my disbelief. People figure it out simply by getting to know me, and if they challenge me on it, I'm pretty well prepared to defend it...politely and in no uncertain terms. Now that, I hold, is a proper way to provoke thought with an emotionally charged issue like this one.

  30. Jerry has some fighting words directed your way Massimo over at his whyevolutionistrue blog.

    What are your thoughts on Jerry's comments?

  31. There's a lot of talk in atheist circles regarding "negative claims" in order to shift the burden of proof. However, it is the case that I can prove a negative claim, such as the square root of 2 is not rational, or through the modus tollens.

    Further, there's a lot of talk regarding evidence based reason. Can we decide what constitutes evidence differentiated from reason? What is this thing called "empiricism" that it matters to the point that one can claim that all religions are a sham? For instance, a theist would point to the world as evidence that God exists -- how is that not evidence? If you counter this argument, would you not have to admit that there's more than evidence based reasoning going on? When is it appropriate to use reason contra evidence, or is there even a worthwhile distinction to be made?

    If atheists bang out a decent epistemology, then I think they'll be warranted in making these claims. At present, I think the community is used to contending with weaker positions. Sure, the party line works against a basic unthought theism and fundamentalism, which I'm all for -- and I use the standard talking points to counter such. But when you generalize to this level I begin to wonder if atheists have the proper argumentation to make these much stronger claims, regardless of whom the message is intended for.

  32. Ed and AA,
    I personally liked the billboards, and I buy the argument that "If you are insulted by something like this, then thats your problem".
    I am not going to work myself up over some "offensive" billboard such as "Atheists are going to Hell"", and will laugh it off, and even throw in a few expletives.
    This language isnt a "call to destructive action", so people should cool off. Destructive action is happening in various well known real-world religious actions (such as those listed in Greta Christina's Atheists and Anger piece).

  33. "A billboard is not, however, a place for making fine distinctions."

    It is however, a place where one can make true statements. 'Plural you' and 'what all of them know' about 'all of religion,' is false.

    If you don't mind "reaching" people with patently false statements, why do you mind others doing so?

  34. Using inflammatory rhetoric... and then defending it with an argument from definition is more than a little hypocritical in my opinion, especially coming from people who often claim 'critical thinking', this is highly uncritical.

    Labeling religion, in general, as a scam, is no different from calling it a cow turd. If you want to sink to the level of name-calling, that is of course your choice, but at least be honest enough to admit this is what you are doing.

    But as a blunt and unambiguous person once said:
    "Don't retreat, reload."

  35. Thanks, Massimo, for your original post and to Ed for a productive response. IMO this is how blog debates should happen. It's very heartening to see fundamental disagreement like this take place in a way that doesn't resort to character attacks against either party. This kind of point-counterpoint seems rare these days. I just had two comments:

    First, regarding the existence of "wings" within atheism, I don't dispute that wings exist. However, I do think that each wing should remain mindful that its actions or behavior reflect on nonbelievers or skeptics as a whole. For example, I think that few people reading this billboard would see it as a reflection on AA specifically instead of just "atheists." Thus, I think we all have a role to play in messages that affect our perception and should have criticism valued on its merits and not dismissed as being "soft," etc. Not that Ed has done this in this post, but it does happen frequently elsewhere.

    Second, I agree with Ed that "anger" or being blunt is necessary, but I think that it should be used judiciously. Misplaced anger, IMO, can be just as detrimental as taking only a soft approach. I see this billboard as a fine example of such a detrimental effect. Referring to all major religions (by any accounts a massive generalization of a diverse range of viewpoints) as "scams" is inherently going to include some who do, in fact, not intentionally use their religion to defraud anyone. This only makes us look incapable of arguing against some of that nuance effectively and resorting to bad stereotypes, no?

    I suppose what I'm saying is that we need anger, but we need judicious, well-applied anger and not the reflexive kind, especially in messages aimed at those outside our own camp. No matter how wronged we have been by religion, I think we should understand that just because a message or statement taps into anger shouldn't mean that it's immediately appropriate or sufficient to move towards to a greater cause. We should always be skeptical, even of ourselves.

  36. Having read the majority of the above, I must admit that I am in a real rut as to how atheists ought to reach out to others. I never realized how much trouble the word "scam" could cause when used in this context. Still, I respect the no-bullshit and blunt approach, but I hope that "the movement" can show its other faces as it attempts to gain more traction. The extremely magnificent history of critical thinking (i.e., science, mathematics, and philosophy) is a part of free thought that, I believe, deserves more time in the limelight; atheism is, in many cases, only one of many side-effects of learning how to think for oneself, not just a result of having bad experiences with religion.

  37. As one who is NOT an atheist I find the whole argument rather amusing. It seems that atheists are more worried about all this hoo ha than those of us whose belief system might be different than theirs. You see, I really don't care what Ed Buckner or Michael Silverman thinks. Let me clarify that remark; if they choose to spend their lives trying to "prove" that MY belief system is wrong, I have no problem with that. I do, however, find it amusing.

    It is somewhat like watching my dog chase her tail. She ain't never gonna get there, but it makes me laugh watching her try. I would no more try and convince those two that my belief system is correct and theirs is wrong than I would try and get Dr. Piggliucci out here to the Ozarks to go to the Sucker Festival in Nixa, MO.
    That's what I mean when I say I don't care what those two believe. The statement is not meant as derogatory, just that it has absolutely no bearing or importance to the way I and most others of faith live our lives.
    Nothing they can say will change my mind since my beliefs are not based on objective chains of evidence, tested hypothesis, or experimental inference. My belief system is based on personal experience and unless Mike, Ed, or Dr. P could crawl in my skin, turn back time, and experience those things that I have, they cannot know why I hold the convictions I do.
    Does that diminish the validity of my beliefs? In their minds, most certainly, but when commenting in a blog filled with so many, and I mean this sincerely, incredibly bright people, I don't think it is necessary to define the word "faith".
    There is an aspect practiced by a certain percentage of Christians that has always bothered me a bit. That is, some Christians point to certain passages in the Bible to prop up their belief that it is their job to "witness to" and therefore convert, as many of the "unbelievers" as possible. I have been the object of their "witnessing" and even when I have told them that I have my own set of beliefs that perhaps coincide closely to theirs, some have continued to try and convert me to their particular version of belief. I don't like that.
    I find the atheist "movement" and the whole discussion above analogous to the evangelicals who promise proverbial fire and brimstone for me if I did not convert to their particular brand of principle.
    Atheists may not threaten, but many certainly insult, provoke,and cajole. It seems to drive them CRAZY that ANYONE could be such a sap as to buy into any of the nonsense associated with religion, organized or not. Their rage seems to increase proportionally to the intellectual pedigree of the person professing faith. Faith in something that has not and cannot be tested by conventional scientific methods or criteria.
    It all seems like such a waste of time and energy, but oh well. Beliefs are beliefs. You have yours, I have mine. I choose not to try and make you believe as I do. It seems that atheists on the other hand, are hell bent (intended) to bring me into the fold. Good luck!

  38. James, I understand that you don't officially care about the beliefs or conclusions of David (not Michael-a small and unimportant mistake of course) and me. And I can think of no reason why you actually should care. But, since you posted, I do have a question: since faith in something untestable is considered by you (and millions of others, I know) reasonable or at least acceptable, how do you choose which things to have faith in? If not evidence or anything testable, what's the basis? You suggest that the answer is personal experience--but do you advocate evaluating such experience without any tests for reasonable or verifiable connection to reality? Do all personal visions, dreams, etc., count the same?


    Ed Buckner


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