Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Case Study: The Atheist Bus Sign Campaign

It is convenient that the week that I decide to write about the necessity of publicly responding to anti-atheist bigotry, a campaign is launched in England that reflects much of what I have been writing about.

The campaign was designed to respond to various claims from various religions that people who do not believe in God are doomed to an eternity in hell. They sought to raise money for a campaign that says, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Within two days of launching the fundraising portion of the campaign they had all the money they needed, and the money has continued to come in. The organizers of the campaign are now looking at how they can expand it.

The Good

This campaign has many of the elements that I have been writing about for the past few days. In this campaign, a group of people decided that they wanted to respond publicly to some common anti-atheist claims. They designed a campaign and figured out what would be required to run it. Then they put out a call for funds. They received their funds, and they are launching the campaign.

This campaign happens to be in response to the claim that atheists are doomed to an eternity in hell (so don’t become an atheist). I am arguing for responses to such things as the Kieffe and Sons advertisement that secularists should sit down and shut up, Monique Davis’ accusation that atheism is a philosophy of destruction, General Petreus’ endorsement of a book that claims that atheists make poor soldiers, and Elizabeth Dole’s campaign (later reinforced by the Republican National Committee) that no candidate for public office should listen to the concerns of godless Americans.

The fundamental structure is the same. A situation exists that warrants a response. This incident is used to raise money so that a public response can be made in condemnation of this incidence of anti-atheist bigotry.

Another campaign that follows the same model is the campaign to put up billboards that say, “Imagine No Religion.” Here, too, a campaign is designed. People interested in the campaign raise money. The campaign is then launched.

One of the particularly beneficial things about both of these projects is that they can provide an infrastructure for the type of campaigning that I have been writing about. With these projects we now have a cadre of people who have a certain amount of experience getting a campaign organized from conception to launch. This knowledge and experience is an extremely valuable resource. Yet, like any tool, its value depends a lot on how it is put to use.

If this campaign were taking place in the United States, there we would have another good effect. American atheists sufer from a form of out-group passifism that is best combated by anything that would suggest some element of ‘atheist pride’. These advertisements may have an effect of picking up the morale of atheists, so that they are more likely to stand up against the injustices imposed on them, rather than passively accept them. Anything that breaks the grip of out-group passivity would be good in this sense.

The Bad

The advertisements are not given any type of empirical testing as to their effect. If people are going to spend large sums of money on a project, there should be some effort going into making sure that the project is having a desired effect.

For example, consider the London bus campaign. The intent of the campaign is to give a light-hearted response to the assertion that “If you succumb to the atheist’s message, you risk eternal damnation.” This was the intent. But what will the actual effect be?

Sometimes, the real world is not as it appears to us. We need to objective research to determine if what we think to be true is true in fact. I can easily imagine a huge segment of the population reading the sign and suddenly getting a burst of anxiety and fear. “Here is somebody telling others to do whatever they please because there is no God. Rape. Murder. Theft. All sorts of evil are possible from this type of campaign.”

This type of emotional response would then likely contribute some of those who have that response to contribute more to the fight against atheism. In fact, this could well explain why some religious organizations have contributed to the atheist bus campaign. Because they see it as an excellent way of increasing the level of public anxiety about the bad consequences of atheism, and thus driving more people to religion.

I think that the “Imagine No Religion” campaign is a waste of time. The person who imagines no religion is going to take his or her own prejudices into that imaginary world. The theist will imagine a world of rampant crime and suffering, while the atheist will imagine a world of tremendous scientific progress and prosperity.

There are ways to find out what these effects may be. Simply pay a group of people $50 to come in off the street and answer a few questions, get their reaction to a few suggestions, and simply talk about the various possibilities. This work should be done with all of the scientific rigor that all experiments should be done with. For example, the people doing the work should not care what the results are (should have no vested interest in which campaign gets the better reaction).

Also, the type of advertising that I am talking about requires a much quicker response time. The response must hit while the item is still newsworthy. It would do no good today to launch a campaign against Kieffe and Sons or against Monique Davis (though it would pay to keep an eye on both targets). In two weeks it will do no good to respond to Elizabeth Dole (though, if she wins the election, it would be worthwhile to keep an eye on her as well).

This means having a reserve of money in an account that can be put to immediate use, and using the fundraising associated with a particular incident to rebuild that reserve.

An Alternative Campaign

I have little interest in atheist activism – promoting the belief that no god exists. My interest is in virtue activism. This is not an atheist blog – I make no attempt to defend atheism itself in these postings. This is an ethics blog, that happens to be written by an atheist.

This concern with virtue leads me to suggest another type of campaign compared to those discussed above. This is a campaign that would promote particular virtues, but then link those virtues to atheism. For example, it could consist of billboards with a value-laden word in large type, a short tag phrase, and the identity of the atheist sponsor.

Here are five examples of what could be put on such a billboard.

It pays to know what the world is really like.
*insert name of atheist organization here*

The only people we have to help us in times of trouble are each other.
*insert name of atheist organization here*

We have only one life. Nobody should spend it enslaved to another.
*insert name of atheist organization here*

Faith that somebody else is deserves to be harmed is not good enough.
*insert name of atheist organization here*

As I see it, these billboards would promote positive values, should not generate any type of anxiety, and would be difficult for the enemies of atheism to exploit for their own ends.

However, anybody can come up with an idea, and each is going to think that theirs is perfect. The test should be to collect these ideas and test them, to the best of our ability. As an advocate of empirical observation, I would not say that a suggestion of mine must necessarily be better than the suggestions of somebody else. If we are going to advertise, we should use empirical facts, not feelings and intuitions, to judge how best to spend that money.


I am, in general, pleased to see these types of campaigns spring up. They are laying an important groundwork for future efforts – efforts that should eventually have an effect in reducing anti-atheist bigotry in the United States. However, these projects should grow in the direction of providing some objective data on the effectiveness of the various projects and selecting those that have the best effect for the least amount of money.


anton said...

Great idea. Insert the name of the Atheist Organization in here. Another valid hypothesis that only needs one thing . . . a valid Atheist Organization. Might I add that if one is created, here is a suggested litmus test. "Kids should want to be a member!"

Currently, their is little if any "family orientation" to any Atheist "organization". Without one, you can't win the hearts and minds of the people . . . let alone their sustained financial support!!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The Freedom from Religion Foundation's "Imagine No Religion" campaign uses the model of going to different cities and states and teaming up with local organizations to fund its billboards.

As I said, one of the useful things about these current activities is that it is establishing a useful infrastructure.

The same method can be used for what we might call the Virtues Campaign. Except, in this case, the local organization gets its name prominently displayed on the advertising. This gives the organization more exposure and, thus, more of an incentive to participate in the program.

We will talk about kids in a future post.

Unknown said...

90 percent of the world's population believes in a higher power then themselves. These core beliefs are very personal and should not be subjected to hate mongering by miss guided, self centered devil worshipers. That's fine if you wanted ignore what is all around, just keep your stupid opinion to yourself.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


"Treating you as inferior second-class citizens is very important to me. I get great joy and pleasure out of viewing myself as your moral and social superior. How dare you ruin it by demanding that I treat you as social and political equals."

anton said...

Dave Mathews:

Watch out for the Purple People!

Anonymous said...

The Justice line seems to be written in incorrect English.