Friday, December 05, 2008

The FFRF Christmas sign, and why it's a bad atheist message

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.


  1. Martin,

    I agree with the sentiment of not antagonizing your audience, but I still have mixed feelings on the issue.

    There is a deep bias in our culture that Christians somehow have some special claim to the holidays and they therefore get special consideration during that time. Holiday displays on public property were never intended to be fair to all points of view.

    There seems to be a similar sentiment concerning Sundays--that religious people somehow own the day of the wee. I can even remember back to 2000, which the Catholic Church claimed as their Jubilee. As I recall, there were several times when the Pope claimed special offense at religious protesters because they were somehow claiming special privilege over the year.

    I think this misplaced sense of ownership is the underlying issue. Hard core atheists see this and resent it. Perhaps this is original motivation for the sign.

    The sign may still not be the most constructive way to address the problem, but I certainly understand both sides.

  2. mindful of the whole "time and place" concept It appears that you want to play nice just because it is their special holiday when they absolutely and bombastically assault and ignore every other belief than their own?

    I think the point of the message is not to rub anything in their faces - but to reinforce the idea of separation of church and state - or if that isn't possible, to at least provide some sort of parity to all religions.

    From my perspective on the other side of the world (South Africa) the FFRF sign appears to be quite reasonable.

    Your response appears to play into the christian demand for respect (and participation) in their beliefs. They don't need a sign saying 'there is a too a god and his son was born to in a manger so get on your knees and participate with us' - because the whole world knows that message when the cards and decorations and carols start pounding into our brains late November.

    what they read when they read the last sentence Sounds like projection to me. Perhaps this is is really what you are reading into it?

    Being nice is one thing, allowing principles and rights to be trampled is another. The FFRF sign appears to be a firm and assertive response to the latter.

  3. I'm on a mind with Martin on this one.

    The point that is being missed here is that the point of putting up the sign in this context was to celebrate a time of year that it is not solely Xian to do so. Then in the text of the message the FFRF shows its antagonistic side. There is a time and place to address conflict and this to me did not seem the time and place for that, not because it is Jesus-time, but because it doesn't jive with the message I think we should have there. It doesn't promote dialog, it doesn't invite people to think, it gives another excuse to write us off as radical extremists.

  4. 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."

    The person who put up the FFRF Christmas sign expressed the message that they wanted to deliver, and delivered that message in the way that they found best. It's completely irrelevant that it's not the message you wanted to deliver and/or was not delivered in the way you found best.

    I find this sort of criticism tedious and irritating, and betrays a very superficial understanding of the notion of freedom of speech at the philosophical level.

    (Note that I'm addressing the content of your post; I'm saying you're wrong, not "out of line". It's a subtle but important distinction.)

  5. When I first heard about this, I didn't know the sign was a response to a Christmas display, and my reaction was that it was wrong. But then when I heard the big picture, I changed my mind. Christians are offended by the sign...and it IS offensive. It is intended to be. This is exactly how many atheists feel about the fact that Christmas is (essentially) a state-sponsored holiday, about the pledge of allegience, about "In God We Trust", about a religious oath of office, etc.

    I think the sign should have had one final message, something like: "If you feel offended, consider how your display offends others."

  6. The fact that the Nativity Scene was on public property is an important context not to be dismissed as tangential.
    If the FFRF had put their sign next to a church or somebody's private property then it would certainly be offensive.
    But placing the sign in the same public context does draw attention to the problem of public religious displays. The FFRF sign points out the violation of saparation of church and state.
    The whole thing, of course, has also provided the FFRF with tons of free publicity.

  7. Sounds good to me...Would a sign saying "Winter Solstice: The Pagans had it first"? also be too much?

    Meh. Probably.

    It'd make a good T-shirt though.

  8. I both agree and disagree with Martin. Reading the first article...the state did not put up the nativity. An individual paid to put it up, and he had no problems with the sign (also paid to be put up).

    I DID have some problems with the wording of the sign. I thought(and still think) the last line was obnoxious. Religion may be a myth to me. But many people don't think that way and I feel it is as discourteous to attack their belief as it is for them to attack my unbelief.

    I really have no complaints with the other lines, although I would have preferred a simpler one that only said (as other FFRF signs have) "Don't believe in God? You're not alone". It may still have offended the godbots, but it can't be construed as an attack on the christian belief system.

    However, the theft of the sign was wrong. I really hope the person who stole it is arrested and sentenced in accordance to the law.

  9. I suppose that after a long line of 'nice' attempts at atheist ads, the FFRF decided to go for a meaner alternative, perhaps to cause more controversy and raise awareness. But I agree with Martin, this sign will probably cause more anger and resentment, than curiosity.
    When I read the last phrase, I can picture theists thinking "There's someone who's pissed off at God over something", and completely skipping over any kind of positive message we might want to convey in this holiday season.

    It's ok to take the gloves off every now and then, but this shouldn't have been one of those times.

    Merry Xmas/Solstice! ;)

  10. I think you've missed an important point to the FFRF content. The sign is meant to be offensive, not to convert people but to demonstrate why it's a bad idea to display these types of messages in government buildings and public property.

    In the previous year a Jewish group sued the city in order to be allowed a menorah placed next to a Christmas tree. Instead of doing the right thing and saying there would no longer be any religious displays, the city caved and said any religious display could be placed.

    So, the FFRF wrote an intentionally offensive sign to demonstrate exactly why the city's decision was wrong. It opens the door for any number of displays which large segments of the population may or will find offensive in some way.

    Your description of how some Christians see the sign is probably accurate. But in the comments here, I've read people who find the Christian display offensive. Eliminating all such divisive religious messages from government property is the right way to minimize such hurt feelings and simmering animosity which can arise in a free society. That is the true message of the FFRF sign, not conversion. It's too bad no one has realized that.

  11. @Barefoot Bum:

    I don't think Martin is making any kind of decree demanding people NOT say what they did in the sign. I don't think he's denying the group's right or ability to put the sign up. Their money...their sign. Martin is just expressing his own disgust at the abrasiveness of the sign. I don't think he's trying to say that his version of the "atheist message" is what should ALWAYS be displayed no matter what. I think his basic point is just that, atheist organizations should stop and consider what they're putting out there before they say something rash or that ends up working against them. I agree with this sentiment. It isn't that I think they should have purposely tried to keep the sign from being offensive at all. After all, part of the purpose of the sign would be to catch peoples' attention and give a response to the nativity scene. I think that Martin, with his post, is really just trying to ask us all "is this kind of message from atheists going to help atheists promote the kind of image they really want to promote?" He has every right to give his opinion that he thinks the sign went too far, and I don't think it's fair to accuse him of declaring that this organization CAN'T do it. He's just letting you know where he falls.

  12. This whole post reeks of what Austin Cline rightly called "Uncle Tom Atheism".

    For one, as a "snobbish, righteous indignant" know that creating messages with the intent to sway or merely persuade people is the definition of rhetoric. The aim of this post is not whether or not the content of the sign is true (it is), but about political vanity--how to properly motivate and sway a hostile audience.

    If I gave a damn about merely swaying the masses, I'd become one of the clergy, or a sophist. Or, a goddamn(!) religious apologist (same thing).

    Taking a message on their terms, in their language, in their manner of morals, in their manner of understanding has never swayed anybody. Appropriating their degraded morals is just what Nietzsche called adopting a "slave" or degenerate "Christian morality." This whole post, as the Barefoot Bum said, is incredibly disingenuous, concessionary, and reeks of a kind of ease for being a second-class citizen--"How To Make Your Oppressors and Those Who Wish For Your Eternal Bondage Like You".

    I would rather keep my fidelity to truth no matter how many toes it would step on, and not to a kind of ass-kissing-'nicery' that is best reserved for the fake gestures of kindness, eye-rolling deference, and inter-animosity of Stepford wives at tea parties.

    You can be a "Stepford" or "Uncle Tom atheist" Martin. Go ahead. But the content of this post accepts a servile position in society that Elizabeth C. Stanton, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Susan B. Anthony, Baron d'Holbach, and Spinoza would find repulsive.

    I've gotten off of my knees and "told it like it is" a long time ago--it worked a lot better than playing by my adversaries game and their rules.

  13. Kein: Well, I was expecting people to misunderstand me, and you've done so in the expected way. I have not ignored the tendency of Christians to disrespect beliefs other than their own, nor was my post an appeal to "play nice." I was making the point that the sign was not only an ineffective way to communicate an atheist viewpoint, but was needlessly bellicose as well. You have not said anything to repudiate this point. As for me "projecting" my interpretation of what I think the sign actually says to Christians, allow me to remind you that the sign was pulled out of the ground and thrown into a ditch. So no, I don't think my interpretation was off-base at all, was it. Tell me honestly, do you really think the FFRF's message had a positive or negative effect on public perception of atheists and atheism? It's a simple question.

    Barefoot Bum: I must confess to being tremendously amused by the fact that you actually wrote, without the least awareness of the irony, that you think I have a "superficial understanding of the notion of freedom of speech" in the very same sentence in which you tell me I was wrong to criticize the sign. Am I supposed to care you find my criticism "tedious and irritating"? Well, welcome to that "freedom of speech" thing that you think I don't get.

    Should all of us as atheists simply adopt cultish groupthink? Should nothing any atheist says, or anything any atheist group prints on a sign, be subject to criticism of any kind from any other atheist? In your world, I guess so. You're welcome to it.

    Reynold: I actually really like "Winter Solstice: the pagans had it first."

    Andrew: You write, The sign is meant to be offensive, not to convert people but to demonstrate why it's a bad idea to display these types of messages in government buildings and public property.

    The mistake people keep making here is that I didn't get the point of the sign. Hello, everyone, duh! I know exactly what FFRF's intended message was. I was arguing that they chose an ineffective way of communicating it. I mean, come on Andrew, do you honestly think that people have been looking at the sign going, "By golly, they're right. It's totally wrong and unconstitutional to have nativity scenes on government building lawns!" Or did they just see a gratuitous insult to their beliefs and their holiday? And if the latter, was the sign still a success?

    Se7: You can be a "Stepford" or "Uncle Tom atheist" Martin. Go ahead. But the content of this post accepts a servile position in society that Elizabeth C. Stanton, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Susan B. Anthony, Baron d'Holbach, and Spinoza would find repulsive.

    Dude, if you honestly believe this horseshit, you're even stupider than the people who tore the sign out of the ground.

    How, exactly, does a preference for conveying positive messages that help the atheist cause make me an "Uncle Tom atheist"?

    All of the people you mentioned, whom you smugly seem to think share your spirit of reactionary and righteous indignation, actually devoted their careers to spreading ideas and messages that made the notion of freethought and religious dissent intellectually respectable. The idea that atheist messages can and should sway hearts and minds, rather than just piss in Christians' cornflakes, was not alien to them in the least. And they'd laugh at your idea, as would anyone who understands communication at all, that speaking to people in language they actually understand and respond to is not the way to change their minds. However, given your own poor level of understanding inherent in your reaction to my post, I am not surprised you think this.

    I see no reason to defend myself against brainless charges of "Uncle Tom atheism," as anyone who knows me and has followed my work on this blog, the TV show, and local atheist activism over the last several years will tell you how stupid you are for saying so. Look, if you think the best approach to being an atheist is to just piss people off, by all means, go for it. For my part, I will continue to encourage and promote positive atheism. Believe me, when the time is right to take the gloves off, I'll be first to do it, and have done so many many times. But the point you lack the nuance to understand is that there are times when that's the right approach, and times when being less confrontational really does work better.

    Sparrowhawk and Caffeine Addicted understood what I was getting at. I'd encourage my critics here, both the smart and not-so-smart ones, to read their comments.

  14. Martin,

    I very much agree with your post.

    As I often tell theists, "why would you present that argument if it isn't persuasive to its intended argument?", and I feel the same way about the sign.

    To me, I don't care how logically-constructed an argument is... if it isn't crafted to be persuasive to its intended audience, then I consider it useless.

  15. Agreed wholeheartedly, Martin. I've been uneasy about the FFRF sign since I first heard about it (which, as I recall, was last year on their podcast), and you really made it clear why. That last line is overplaying their hand.

    Criticisms of your post here kind of remind me of Dinesh D'Souza's idiotic question of why there were no scientific arguments or well-reasoned philosophical treatises on the bus ads. There's certainly a time and a place for scientific evidence and philosophical arguments--but a bus ad or billboard isn't it; those are better places for short, pithy, positive consciousness-raising phrases. There's a time and a place for being strident and uncompromising and bellicose, but I don't think the front of a state capitol next to a Nativity scene is that time or place. That's the time and place for messages of peace and community and reminders that you can be good and happy without silly superstitions.

  16. i was going to write in about this to see what you guys thought, and was pleasantly surprised when it was already covered! i agree 100% with your argument. my friend sent me the article and asked what i thought about it, and i definitely didn't explain it so eloquently.

    i've been an atheist for about 6 years and found that one of the most basic lessons i've learned to combat the "word of the lord" is not to be condescending and not treat others as though i'm better than they are. i felt that the sign did just that and really hurt the social perspective of atheism. the fact that they put the sign right next to a nativity scene tells me they think they are above christianity and that their word is better. they stooped to the level of their opponents and basically stuck their tongues out and spat. it's almost enough to encourage me not associate with atheist communities, if that's the childish banter they choose to display. your sign would have been wonderful and pleasant.

    i'm so glad there is an atheist experience blog! i will frequent more often. keep up the good work!

  17. In any movement of thought small steps need to be tactfully executed.
    Happy End of the Year!

  18. I think I pretty much agree with Martin on this one. Whilst I like the FFRF and some of their previous campaigns, I think this one will only come across as abrasive.

    I wish we would see more signs in the gist of the bus campaign ones "Be good for goodness sake".

    On a side note, can someone please take Dan Barker aside and politely explain to him that he's not Tom Lehrer.

  19. Martin is of course, entirely correct in my view. It comes down to something far more basic for me however - not necessarily even an Atheist issue.
    In our day to day lives we must be assertive, we must confront others, we must establish boundaries. Some people don't know how to do this without being pr*cks, and having hissy fits in the process. Others are able to be assertive in a friendly and reasonable manner.
    The sign finished with nothing less than a 'hissy fit', the author obviously deciding to vent his emotions at a bad time.
    Let's all be honest, he didn't write that last line with any particular intent, he was having a tantrum. As adults, we need to choose the time, place, and avenue of expression for our tantrums - and at the very least to ensure that they are constructive when they are experessed.
    His tantrum? Not constructive. That's what it comes down to.

  20. I'm with Martin.

    Jason wrote well, with:

    "In our day to day lives we must be assertive, we must confront others, we must establish boundaries. Some people don't know how to do this without being pr*cks, and having hissy fits in the process. Others are able to be assertive in a friendly and reasonable manner.

    The sign finished with nothing less than a 'hissy fit', the author obviously deciding to vent his emotions at a bad time."

    As they say, "Bingo!"

    The correct, CIVILIZED response to holiday well-wishing is "Thanks, you too," a smile and nod - or, if you can't even manage that - silence.

    It is not "Shut up, moron! I'm too smart to fall for such superstitious crap!"

    This is not Uncle Tom-ism. This is civilized, mature behavior.

    The issue here is not whether Atheists, as American citizens, deserve a place at the table when it comes to public displays and expression. We do.

    The issue is: Once you're seated, how do you behave?

    There is such as thing as being gratuitously offensive - note the key word: gratuitous - as opposed to the offense often and unavoidably given when telling people something they don't want to hear.

    If our "holiday wish" is that other people are dolts for, well, having sincere holiday wishes, then we are rather completely missing the point.

    We are not some daring tellers of Truth to Power. We are not "edgy" or "radical." There is no courage to be found in such boorishness.

    Also, in terms of our collective atheist interest, this is a self-destructive tactic.

    PS - Se7 might want to actually READ Voltaire before calling him in for backup.

    Voltaire, like Erasmus and even Martin Luther in his more sober moments, knew the difference between principled conflict and picking a fight just for the sake of it.

  21. I agree, Martin. I found the comment to be unnecessarily abrasive.

    When it comes to government religious displays, the best solution is "no displays at all." Barring that, the second best solution is "equal time for all faiths and non-faiths." Naturally, since there are thousands of faiths represented in America, no government could possibly have a display covering them all, so government leaders are compelled to throw up their hands and declare that none of them are appropriate, which is of course the best solution.

    But for the FFRF to use such aggressive languages is taking too strong of an advantage. The FFRF is requesting "equal time" and then using that time to make an argument. None of the faith-based displays assert that atheism leads to evil, so the FFRF display is pushing back unfairly.

    It would be the equivalent of a random stranger wishing me a Merry Christmas, and I reply back with a profanity-filled insult about the pointlessness of religion. Such a response says more about myself as a person than my ideas.

  22. Based on the argument Martin put forth, I would have to agree with him. Putting out an abrasive message at such a time and in such a way seems to be playing into the accusing christians hands, providing evidence that there is a "War against Christmas" and that atheists as a whole are responsible for it. When I hear the term "War on Christmas" in news reports it makes me sick, as if I as an atheist inherently want to destroy the season. That's just not the case and it is my opinion that the majority of atheists feel similarly, at least I hope so.

    As an atheist, let the season be about winter joy, family, celebration and rest; Let it be about beauty in a unique time of the year, with lights and singing; Let it be about traditions grounded in reason.

  23. It is unique to have a news story that is actually in my neck of the woods. There was a protest of a couple hundred people, letting the gov feel their displeasure. One of the people leading the protest was rev Ken Hutcherson, a real shit bag if you care to research him. He added a sign to be put next to the atheist sign saying "there is only one true god, atheists are delusional" or something similar to that.

    The Seattle/Tacoma area is one of the least religious areas in all of the united states. Around 25% don't believe in a God.

  24. Well said.

    As "correct" as we may believe the atheist world view to believe, it certainly only hurts the cause to be that adamant in public displays. The flip-side is exactly what pisses so many atheists off. So use the golden rule.

    That being said, I respect the decision to put the sign up as it is worded. People who are offended by it are showing their intolerance (just as folks offended by the other displays show theirs).

  25. Martin, I agree with you. The first thought was how ineffective it was. Growing up in a religious family I know what arguments against their faith work and which don't. While I agree with the spirit in which the sign was errected the message could have been far more potent had it been delivered properly.

    The first sentence of the sign was fine. Then it just lost me.

  26. "As an atheist, let the season be about winter joy, family, celebration and rest; Let it be about beauty in a unique time of the year, with lights and singing; Let it be about traditions grounded in reason."

    Throw in presents, food, great traditional music, food, presents, food, women in sexy elf outfits, Heat Miser / Cold Miser and food and I agree...

  27. Well, since the recent comments have supported Martin's view, let me be the voice of dissent.

    First, I do agree that there is a place for the "softly, gently" approach. It is the best way to reach some people, and as Martin has noted, the FFRF has taken that approach many times.

    However, I think that most believers who are potentially convinceable (there is no point in trying to reach the raving fundies) tend to suffer from social complacency and intellectual insecurity. These are the obstacles we must overcome, first and foremost.

    The social complacency comes from the fact that by being religious and conforming to social expectation, the believer attains acceptance. Thus, he/she is reluctant to consider an atheist message, for this jeapordizes social status. Furthermore, the believer thinks regardless of what's true, religion is good for people (i.e. Dan Dennett's belief in belief).

    The intellectual insecurity derives from knowing, at some level, that one's beliefs just don't add up. Thus leads to an unwillingness to discuss religion with anyone who might disagree, lest those insecurities be exposed. How many people have you known who simply change the topic when you bring up religion?

    The only way to break through the complacency and insecurity is with a forceful, in-your-face message. The "softly, gently" message essentially tells this person, "If you want to ignore us atheists, that's perfectly OK." Ignore that message they will. The forceful message is more likely to have a real impact in the long run, even if the person initially reacts with hostility or disgust. If the goal is to spur critical thinking (rather than to simply disarm reflexive hostility), I think a figurative whack on the head with a 2 by 4 is more effective most of the time.

  28. Eric Ross I don't think what you say contradicts anything Martin has said.

    Martin has, AFAIK made it abundantly clear that there are times when it is more than appropriate for us to be provocative. Sometimes we do need to "afflict the comfortable" as well as "comfort the afflicted". Sometimes being in-your-face is the best way to do it.

    What Martin is saying, though (and I agree) is that the FFRF episode is not one of those times.

  29. Martin: Amen.

    To those who would claim "sophistry", I would point out that sophistry is a deceptive argument, not a polite one.

    To those who would claim "Uncle Tom Atheism", I would say that atheism is not a political movement, it's a philosophical stance. The lovely thing about being an atheist is that I certainly don't owe any other atheist anything by nature of their stance. I can be reasonable and polite to whomever I wish, including theists.

    The sign sends the wrong message - a message of superiority and infallibility that I hear from many atheists who don't understand that Christianity itself spread by first accepting the beliefs of its would-be converts.

    We can do the same. Wandering around with a "God Is Dead" sign tells people nothing. Aggressive and negative language gets us nowhere.

    Instead we should pursue the path of knowledge that we already know but that many theists do not - that a person can be good without God, that a life can be positive and fulfilling without God, that we atheists do not subscribe to the boundless brand of moral relativism that they imagine we do, and that we do not "believe in nothing."

    I don't care to make converts. I only care that people understand that I am both an atheist and a positive, thoughtful and loving human being. That sign doesn't certainly represent me well.

  30. I would go even a step further and say that a sign at all that is posted in reaction to a particular positive message (albeit Christian in nature) is itself negative.

    The billboards and bus messages are positive because they're independent. The FFRF sign is intrinsically adversarial. It's a sign of protest, not a sign of inspiration.

    The subsequent backlash and proliferation of protest signs shows the damage of allowing such media to be approved. Some have said this proliferation means the government must not allow any displays whatsoever.

    I disagree. The government could easily approve only displays that are independent and inspirational and exclude displays that are adversarial and reactionary.

  31. I read the article on CNN and I have to scratch my head.

    I'm a Christian. I find the sign amusing. I do not find it to be hateful or a threat. It's someone's point of view. They're entitled. It may be a bit disrespectful that I openly say that I find it amusing. I'm not too worried about that though. I've done worse and God has forgiven me for that.

    About the theft of the sign. Was it wrong? I honestly think that there are two schools of thought on this one. Firstly, clearly wrong. Secondly, the theft was sort of a act of free speech in its own right. It almost attempts to say "I disagree". Is the speech free? Perhaps not. It clearly crosses the line and violates the rights of someone else. Ok. It's just speech. Speech that clearly crosses a legal line and is therefore neither protected nor free.

    Still, I scratch my head. The CNN article quotes the FFRF representative as having said:

    "It's not that we are trying to coerce anyone; in a way our sign is a signal of protest," Barker said. "If there can be a Nativity scene saying that we are all going to hell if we don't bow down to Jesus, we should be at the table to share our views."

    It disturbs me that this is the message that a Nativity scene gives to some. I personally don't find this statement to be a reasonable conclusion. There are many around the world that celebrate xmas and they don't go to church or erect Nativity scenes.

    For many xmas is merely a time to overindulge and take a break from a hard years work. A time to be with family. A time to cherish friends. Could it be called something else? Yes. Would I want it to? No. Why? It's fimiliar to me. It's comfortable. I wouldn't want to give up that name any more then I do my lucky shirt, my comfortable tattered chair, or those jeans I can no longer fit into. It's like comfort food. People may not like the smells that my body makes after I eat it but I don't care. If I didn't have some self indulgence ... I couldn't thrive.

  32. Some nice thoughts, Brian, but I don't really see how stealing the sign was an act of speech. I'm not accusing you of condoning it, but theft is not an act of speech by any stretch. A good way to counter the sign with "speech" would be to speak out against it publicly...even stand next to it with a protest sign or something. As for the "message" that a nativity scene conveys, my issue with them isn't that I feel like they explicitly tell me "I'm going to hell", but just that it gets a little too close to state endorsement of a religion.

  33. I could see it as some sort of speech, if the perpetrator took it from its position in public and in protest. Seeing as we can't demonstrate this action isn't more meaningful as a drunken mob stealing it in their stupor, we can't infer it. I suspect that the person(s) who did this had a message in mind, but it was lost in their secrecy.

    As regarding the message given by the nativity scenes, I think its a more complex situation than described by Barker, although I don't dismiss his comment.

    From the POV of an individual christian, the nativity scene is a sign of worship, a staple of fondly remembered times, The focal point of the Xmas story. From the POV of the institution, it is a sign of status given, through which it validates in the public eye its existence and its tenets, one of which is the the fear-mongering "if you don't believe in Jesus (the baby in the crib) you will suffer eternal torment". This is used at other points to demonstrate that 'this is a Christian nation" and push for whatever the person wants to push.

    I concur in that this line of reasoning is far from the minds of both believers and atheists that aren't actually involved in this PR battle.

    Under this light the nativity becomes "currency" and it behooves the atheists, and the FFRF as an organization, to make their presence known and as such I am in agreement with having the display there. Seeing however as this is not something that most people think about, the final line in the display comes out of the blue for them. It doesn't make them think, it just disturbs them (case in point) and makes them confused or hostile.

    Regarding the argument that this was a ruse to show that any one display allowed would require they allow even the most extreme views and therefore force them to close the whole thing down, it is a good tactic, but one that can be ultimately deleterious. Acknowledging the possibility of "Uncle-Tom'ing my position, the whole point could have been made without being confrontational, but by just 'staking our place' and subtly encouraging others to do the same.

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