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Dear Atheists: Stop doing this.


I read a lot of feminist blogs (surprise, surprise) and I’m particularly fond of Bitch Magazine especially their regular ‘Douchebag Decree’ pieces which highlight a specific example of somebody being a horrible, horrible bigot. I get updates on Facebook when they post a new article, and today was a new Douchbag Decree.

I felt a wave of disgust and a strong urge to facepalm when I read it:

In an attempt to protest the Pennsylvania state House’s recent designation of 2012 as “The Year of the Bible” (which is admittedly messed up), two atheist groups went the fight-douche-with-douche route last week and erected a slavery-themed billboard in “one of the Harrisburg’s most racially diverse neighborhoods.” Ostensibly meant to highlight the hypocrisy of the “Year of the Bible,” the billboard instead pissed people off because it’s racist.

billboard depicting an illustration of a shackled black man. Text reads: Slaves, obey your masters. This lesson in the Bronze Age brought to you by the year of the bible and the house of representatives.

If I had three heads and 12 hands, I still wouldn’t be able to facepalm enough.

This is why I am tempted to stop identifying myself as an atheist: Organisations that keep trying to form a cohesive in-group by picking on, insulting, belittling and vilifying the out-group (not to mention coming across as horrifically racist).

Atheists, stop it. This is not helping. This is just as bad as Christians telling their kids they are going to hell if they think bad thoughts. What you do and say amongst members of your own group is one thing, but putting up billboards like this, which are so very easy to take out of context, is not helping any of us come out of the atheist closet. We need to be better than that. This is schoolyard bullying.

Sure, writing a book pointing out the hypocrisy of African Americans embracing a book that was once used to justify their enslavement is a good thing. But putting up a big billboard in a racially diverse neighbourhood and then insisting that it’s you who is oppressed? No. No. No. That is just making us all look bad. Not just bad, but racist and stupid and short-sighted.

How about this: get your act together and start a before school free breakfast for school children (like my dad used to do alonside the Black Panthers). Or how about this: organise a book van in underprivileged neighbourhoods and sponsor after-school tutoring programs in these same neighbourhoods. How about starting an ‘adopt an atheist’ fundraiser to get churches to donate money to your organisation and give some Christians a chance to get to know one of us so they can stop acting like we’re the enemy? I’m just spitballing, but all of these seem like they’d be a better way to reach out to communities than these billboards which are only going to polarise, rather than get people on your side.

Or wait… is this just a way to get people angry so you can feel like a victim? Is that what this is about? Because that’s a cycle of bullying that I’d like to see stop. I’d like people to see atheists NOT as an enemy. This kind of thing smacks of deficit thinking (i.e. there are limited resources and can only be one winner). Isn’t there enough resources and goodwill for us all? Can’t we fight for equality rather than supremecy? African American groups that sought to build bridges, that focused on ‘hey, we’re just like you’ were much more successful than the ‘kill whitey’ approach. Shouldn’t that tell you something? Like maybe, you should try not to alienate the very members of a group whose movement toward social acceptance and equality you are trying to emulate.

I’ll give them one thing, this Year of the Bible thing is pretty awful, but this is not the way to educate people. Presenting the other side is important. I think people should know the history of the Bible when studying it, and I think that most churches probably don’t do that. But as my Daddo, a Baptist minister used to say, “The only people who think the Bible should be taken literally are Fundamentalists and Atheists.” And more and more, that seems to be true.

Sidenote: I quoted my grandfather before on an Atheist Facebook group and got a apoplectic reply from the group’s moderator. Something along the lines of ‘I don’t see how someone could take it any other way! If you’re not taking it literally, then what’s the point?’ which reminded me that many atheists I seem to meet are either raised without biblical education or raised fundamentalist and rejected their upbringing. A lot of educated, reasonable, rational religious folk are able to take the bible as a historical document (not as an accurate history, but a historical artifact) and interpret the meanings, lessons and implications within it as a window into human nature and therefore, the nature of their god. Since I don’t believe in god, I see it as simply a window into human nature and history. I see what ways I connect with these bronze age goatherds, iron age propagandists and medieval holy men, and what ways I do not.

  1. William Campbell permalink
    04/05/2012 6:20 am

    You would assume that atheists, hard agnostic here, would be intelligent enough to determine that a billboard that belittles and insults only becomes a fecondous ground for hostility. But no, they just have to act as bad as the fundamentalists. *Sighs* Anyway, it is nice to see an atheist with some common sense in relations. Best wishes!

    • 07/05/2012 3:28 pm

      I make no assumptions about the intelligence of atheists, agnostics or believers. I also think the current framing of the debate: Atheists vs. “Believers” is pretty unhelpful. It would probably be better to frame it as ‘Secular pluralists’ i.e. those who value a secular society (which includes many faithful people) that allows many viewpoints and belief systems, vs. ‘Religious (and other) fundamentalists’ i.e. those who believe their beliefs are the only correct ones (which includes a few Atheists I can think of) and that other viewpoints should be eliminated or silenced. This, however raises the question, can you be truly pluralist without including and allowing fundamentalist views?

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