If you’ve read my book Rethinking Religion, you know how much I want reactionary Christians to stop trying to force the rest of us to bow to their tribal totems. If it were up to me, there’d be no Ten Commandments monuments or Nativity scenes on pubic property. No store clerk would ever be harassed for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” There’s be no special legal favors for “Christian” corporations, no proselytizing anywhere, and separation of church and state would be global policy.
Although achieving this happily tolerant state won’t be easy and won’t happen in my lifetime, I think it could happen some day. But there’s a smart way to work toward a religiously tolerant world, and there’s the stupid way.
For examples of stupid, see 5 atheist and Muslim billboards that drove the Christian right nuts at Salon. One is a large billboard with a picture of Santa Claus, captioned “Keep the MERRY.” Under that is Christ on the Cross, captioned “Dump the MYTH.” Another billboard reads “Who Needs Christ During Christmas? Nobody!” The name “Christ” is crossed out. These billboards were both sponsored by the group American Atheists.
The Salon article quotes American Atheist president David Silverman: ““We all love this time of year…Christianity has been trying to claim ownership of the season for hundreds of years. But the winter solstice came first and so did its traditions. The season belongs to everybody.” I agree. I also think that’s what they should have said on their billboards — The season belongs to everybody. Ridiculing Jesus was unnecessary.
Seriously, atheist dudes, the Christian Right is not Jesus’ fault. The CR may have adopted Jesus as its team mascot, but it’s ignored his teachings for years. And seeing Jesus ridiculed is as jarring to Christians — including the tolerant, progressive ones — as watching their mothers being publicly humiliated.
This is not a way to win hearts and minds; it’s just a cheap self-indulgence.
Before buying any more billboard space, I suggest that American Atheists sit down and have a good, long think about what they are trying to accomplish. And then they should take a look at current research in cognitive science and social psychology to craft a smarter way to achieve their goals.
For example, is the goal (a) to wean humankind from religion completely? Or is it (b) to foster a society in which religion is respected as a private matter and not something we’re perpetually hassling each other about?
I can tell you right now (a) is not going to happen in your lifetimes. Or this century. Likely not in this millennium. Something that has been part of civilization since there has been civilization doesn’t disappear that easily. I’m not even going to try to persuade you that (a) wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, although I don’t think it would be. I’m saying it’s a fool’s errand to even try.
If (b), now we’re talking. That is more do-able. And a lot of religious people, like me, would happily join you in the effort. Even then it won’t be easy, but I think enough people are getting fed up with the antics of religious extremists that a smartly run campaign might actually work.
“Smartly run” brings us to the cognitive science and social psychology. Google “motivated reasoning” and read up on it. Rmuse at Politics USA explains,
What results of the several studies demonstrate is that once a partisan is confronted with unwelcome facts about their beliefs, the centers of their brain associated with emotional distress light up and remain active until their defective brains “rationalize away the unwanted information.” According to one of the scientists conducting the studies, when conservatives and Christian zealots rationalize away unwanted information, the centers of their brains associated with positive feelings turn on and “overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their ‘fix.’”
The studies also prove that despite showing conservatives, Republicans, gun fanatics, and evangelical special interests facts, scriptures, and even video evidence that their strongly held beliefs are pure fantasy or absolutely wrong, conservative (and some liberal) brains automatically reject facts because they refute their personal beliefs. Research teams at Yale and Dartmouth discovered, for example, that highly skilled mathematicians will, more often than not, deliberately reach an incorrect answer if data leads to a conclusion that is contrary to their political worldview. There are myriad examples of conservatives and evangelical fanatics disputing hard data, the Constitution, and the Christian bible because they are programmed by conservatives’ buzzwords, memes, and outright lies into believing their errant conclusions and faith are fact.
I doubt that surprises anyone, but do re-read the first paragraph of the excerpt. If your message is one that triggers a negative emotional reaction in most folks, including those who might be persuadable, you are hurting your cause more than helping it.
Negative attack ads work in elections — usually, anyway — because they can whip up enough low-information voters to vote against the guy the ads are attacking. Especially in a close election, just a few hundred voters can change the outcome.
But, dear atheists, you aren’t trying to be elected to a county commission. You’re trying to change society itself. That’s a whole ‘nother thing. And your “target audience,” the people whose minds you are trying to change, are not the hard-right religious extremists, because their minds will not change.
Your audience is everybody else, religious and not-religious.
Take a cue from same-sex marriage advocates. They are winning public opinion by engendering public sympathy. They are changing minds by presenting a positive image of themselves as loving, responsible and family oriented, not by bashing their opposition.
Years ago I formulated a basic rule for successful demonstrating that I call the “Bigger Asshole” rule. The job of public protesters is not to change the minds of the powerful people they are opposing, but to gain public sympathy for their cause. Especially in politics, the powerful won’t change until they are compelled to do so by a sufficient critical mass of public opinion saying they must.
So the job of protesters and demonstrators is to make the people they are protesting look like bigger assholes than they are. But if the protesters come across as bigger assholes than the protestees, the public will side with the establishment. And I assure you that, in terms of the Bigger Asshole rule, ridiculing Jesus is a losing strategy.
LGBT activists are winning public opinion by making gay-bashers look like the bigger assholes. And considering there’s a lot of overlap between homophobes and religious extremists, atheists ought to be able to do the same thing.