January 27, 2012

The Fallacy of Atheism's Public Relations Problem

I think we can all agree that atheists are an unpopular minority in the United States. We've seen countless examples of bigotry directed at us by Christians, including elected officials who are supposed to know better. And it is not just the Christians; the record is not much better for members of other mainstream religions. I suspect we can agree that there are multiple reasons for how we are perceived by many religious individuals.

A number of prominent atheist bloggers, women and men whose work I respect, seem to share the opinion that one of the most important obstacles faced by modern atheists is our lousy public image. Some even appear to suggest that this image is largely of our own making. Again and again, we are cautioned against offending the religious. We are told, "Don't be a dick," and our tactics are criticized as too rude or too assertive. We are accused of picking the wrong battles, and some of our activism is labeled as counterproductive. Many of us are now seen as part of the problem because our particular brand of atheism contributes to bad PR. That is, we are not nice enough, tame enough, or passive enough.

A Public Relations Fallacy

Does atheism have a public relations problem? We know we are perceived negatively, but is this primarily because of our actions? Some in the atheist community seem to think so. I disagree, and I'm here to call bullshit on what I am labeling atheism's public relations fallacy. Here's how I define it:
Atheism's public relations fallacy refers to the claim that certain types of atheist activism are primarily responsible for how atheists are perceived or are key to changing how atheists are perceived.
I am not denying that our behavior is relevant; I am denying that it is primarily responsible for how we are perceived and that it is key to changing these perceptions. I find it relevant but comparatively trivial.

Our presence and are willingness to speak our minds are sufficient to agitate many religious believers. Short of converting or remaining silent and scared, I do not believe that our church-state activism is the main reason we are hated. Erecting billboards with vanilla messages about how one can be good without god are perceived by many as assaults on Christianity. Speaking out is enough. Being visible is enough. Merely existing is enough. We do not have a public relations problem; we have a bigotry problem.

Welcome Diverse Tactics, But Be Strategic

To the degree that we embrace diverse tactics, the atheist movement is stronger. That does not mean we should not criticize each other - constructive criticism, disagreement, and dissent are vital to our progress. But it does mean that we should be reluctant to label each other as counterproductive simply because someone wants to try a different approach.

I'm going to welcome any nonviolent approach for which someone can articulate a coherent strategy. Want to picket fundamentalist churches? Go for it. Want to place a crucified Santa in your yard? Be my guest. I may not agree with a method, but I'm willing to give it a shot because I may be wrong. As long as we are acting strategically and not purely out of emotion, we probably aren't going to screw things up too badly. In case you haven't noticed, we're already hated to a degree that few other groups have faced throughout history. And if we try new things and pay attention, we might just learn something useful.

Reject Bigotry

If toning down our "dickishness" is not going to dramatically improve our public image and reduce the bigotry we face, what will? Here's the short version: we must confront bigotry, stand up for ourselves, and refuse to be treated as second-class citizens.

There have been many civil rights movements before ours, which while far from over, have been far more successful than we have. What has been common to the historic and current struggles of women, African Americans, and LGBT persons? They overcame the notion that how they were mistreated by other segments of society was primarily their fault. It is time for us to do the same. It is time for us to move beyond this public relations fallacy.

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