When you have an unpopular message, however confident you are that it is factual, it is important to know how best to deliver that message so that your audience, however predisposed they may be to agree or disagree with you, is receptive, willing to give you a fair hearing at the very least.
Some atheists make the argument that Christians will never give us a fair hearing at all, so there's no reason not to be as rude and abrasive as possible. But this simply isn't true. The God Delusion sat pretty on the New York Times bestseller list for a solid year. And while Dawkins is certainly vilified out of all proportion to what he says and does by indignant believers, the point is, the book has sold over a million and a half copies. They didn't all go to atheists, obviously. Otherwise, every book about atheism would be as monstrous a seller. Whether they like it or not, believers are getting the message via books like TGD and blogs and what have you that there are a lot of atheists out there, and that we're prepared to defend our views with a great deal of intellectual rigor.
And yet there are effective and appropriate means to deliver those views. I'm not a Malcolm X, "by any means necessary" atheist, because not all means work. And while it's a good thing many times to be provocative, provocative isn't necessarily the way to go at all times. Which leads us to the Christmas sign.
To recap events of the last week: the Freedom from Religion Foundation had a sign placed next to a nativity scene in front of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia. (Let us, for the moment, blow off any tangential arguments about the church/state separation issues that may be involved there.) At some point on Friday it was ripped from the ground and found some miles away tossed in a ditch. "Ah ha," sayeth the atheist blogosphere, "does this not prove how petty and small-minded and censorious those Christian thugs are? How thin skinned they are about allowing any belief contrary to their own in the public sphere?" Well, maybe, but then, let's look at what the sign which has been used by FFRF before actually said, and remember that it was placed next to a traditional Christmas decoration.
At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no angels, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
That last sentence is an example of what is commonly called "overplaying your hand."
Look, you won't get any arguments from me about the truth content of the sign as a whole. But, mindful of the whole "time and place" concept, as well as the general mindset of the people (Christians) whom you intend to reach with the message...well, what they read when they read the last sentence is not necessarily what might have been intended by the FFRF. You see, they aren't going to read that last sentence and think, "By golly, they're right. How gullible and foolish I've been to shackle my mind to these ancient superstitions." No, what the last sentence of the sign says to them is this.
Hey, Christian fucknuts. You know this Christmas thing you're all into right about now? You know, that time of year where you gather together with your family, decorate the tree, put lights up around the house, sing carols, stuff yourself silly with yummy turkey and cranberry sauce, wrap presents while eagerly imagining the looks on your childrens' faces when they unwrap them, then snuggle with your loved one under a comfy blanket before a roaring fire while sipping eggnog and reminiscing about Christmases past and how big the kids are getting? Yeah, you know, all that insect-brain three-hanky horsepuckey? Well, the reason you like all that is because you're a gullible, hard-hearted, uneducated, dimwit FUCKTARD! So come on over to our side, where we don't have any of that sentimental shit we just listed, but we do have the thin and feeble pseudo-satisfaction of looking down our noses at everyone we pretend to be better than.
Pretty much something like that, anyway.
Given that's what the message says to them, is it any wonder it was ripped from the ground? Is it any wonder they nurture their persecution complexes? Is it any wonder they never lack for ammunition in their bleating about a "War on Christmas"?
In short, the sign is provocative when an atheist message delivered this time of year ought to be nothing but fluffy bunnies. That doesn't mean watering down your atheism. It means putting it in a positive, humanitarian and humanist context. You know, that thing we mean when we refer on the TV show to "promoting positive atheism."
The irony here is that the FFRF has gotten it right before, with their billboards that simply read "Imagine No Religion." That is a message that simply seeks, in Dawkins' words, to raise the consciousness of the reader. All it asks is, imagine a world without religion. The believer may do so and see nothing but a bleak, nightmare void. But that's where the discussion can start and the consciousness-raising can begin in earnest. You see, signs need only the pithy consciousness-raising message. They should not try to encapsulate a detailed atheist worldview the whole "religion is superstition and, really, isn't it kind of silly for grown adults to believe in invisible magic men in the sky" thing in a nutshell. Especially not in a venue where the received message will be, "What, you like Christmas? What kind of shithead are you anyway?"
"But Martin," you say, "the FFRF is suing because the city had their harmless, inoffensive, 'consciousness-raising' billboard pulled down after two days! So positive atheist messages are no better, obviously!"
Yes they are, my little sprogs. Because while few people will blame Christians for tearing down a provocative atheist sign next to a nativity scene and I'm sure the FFRF has been dismissed in a number of media outlets for simply pulling a publicity stunt when they try to suppress truly inoffensive messages such as that on the billboard (or the even-less-offensive one that simply read "Don't believe in God? You're not alone.") then they do look like reactionary, thin-skinned bullies, and it's easier for atheists to claim the moral high ground and come across, even to some in theistic camps, as more sinned against than sinning.
So while it's all fine for us to throw punches at religion in most of the forums available to us our blogs and books and TV shows when atheists make the choice to take the atheist message out to the general public on their turf (and yes yes, you can say "the Capitol grounds is everybody's turf," but I'm dealing with the way things are in this country, not the way they should be), then that message needs to be 100%, undiluted, positive atheism.
If I were to place a sign next to a creche, I'd have it say something like this.
During this holiday season, and at all times of the year, let us remember our shared humanity and come together in love and mutual support, striving towards a better future for us all. A person's goodness comes, not from what they believe or don't believe, but from who they are inside and what they do to better the world around them.
And then, when people look at the small print and see it's from an atheist organization, will they think the sign is attacking them in the way a sign telling them they have hardened hearts and enslaved minds seems to be? Would they still want to pull it out of the ground? Or would they be less inclined to think of atheists as petty, mean-spirited pricks who are just bitter because they don't have Baby Jesus and eggnog and crackling fireplaces in their lives? Would they have their consciousness raised? Maybe only some. But I bet that's more than the FFRF's present sign has won over.
So happy holidays, bountiful Solstice, and merry Christmas. Everybody.
Addendum: Well, predictably enough, not only have a number of readers completely misunderstood my point in this post, but some of them seem to have gone out of their way to make a special effort to do so, with one idiot even accusing me of "Uncle Tom" atheism. Another commenter wrote, "What you are saying boils down to, 'If you're not saying what I want you to say in the manner that I want you to say it, then shut the fuck up.'" Which is, of course, not what this post boils down to at all, period, not even a little bit. I've responded in detail in the comments myself.