The other day, I expressed my disapproval of the latest American Atheist billboard that went up in New Jersey near the Lincoln Tunnel. And the more responses to it I see in the letters to the editor of my local Jersey newspaper and elsewhere, the more angry it makes me.
Sure, there are dumber criticisms such as the “why didn’t they spend the $20,000 on charity” charge, which exposes a complete double standard, since any motorist in the U.S. has undoubtedly encountered at least one of the thousands of aggressive Christian billboards across the country and never seemed to mind any of that money not going to charity.
But that shouldn’t distract from the legitimate criticisms of the billboard. While I completely agree that the Jesus story is accepted by many on entirely insufficient evidence and objectively has no greater evidence than any Greek or Roman myth (a point David Silverman makes himself in this clip), that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right message to stick on a billboard. David Silverman’s attempts to defend the billboard choice are not very persuasive because, quite frankly, they’re complete bullshit…and everyone knows it (or as American Atheists would say everyone “KNOWS” it). Regardless of the fact that the Jesus as myth argument is a completely valid position and one that even gets debated by actual historians, the message of the billboard is clear. It’s not to stir atheists from the closet, as Silverman pretends it’s intended to do, but to give Christians the finger. That’s it.
Finding positive reviews of the billboard from people not already firmly in the atheist community is as difficult as finding positive reviews of any given PETA stunt from people who aren’t already devoutly devoted to PETA. It’s an unmitigated public relations disaster for the atheist community…and it was delivered by members of our own team.
So what am I to do? Write my own letter to the editor? I can’t defend that billboard. It’d be easier to defend the Iraq War. American Atheists has $20,000 to burn on a billboard and they chose to squander that opportunity by thumbing their noses at Christianity for spite and going, “Na, na, na, na, na!”
I’m sorry but “Na, na, na, na, na!” is not worth $20,000. To be honest, that money would have been better spent as a donation to charity. That’s at least positive PR. Hell, if, like PETA or the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), the goal was simply to garner attention with a publicity stunt, that money would have been better spent literally tossing it out onto the streets of Time Square ala The Joker from the 1989 Batman film with David Silverman holding a bullhorn announcing that the money was courtesy of American Atheists.
You see, that would get attention and wouldn’t give people a reason to hate our fuckin’ guts…which is the reaction we’re now getting thanks to American Atheists. Suddenly, we’re again less popular than Al Quada.
But of course there’s another problem we face. This one.
Even when we put up a fantastic advertisement on the side of a bus that actually does say something positive like “Millions of Americans Are Good Without God”, we STILL get attacked from Christians insisting that such a benign message is offensive to them. Not only that, but you get tons of Christians, most of whom probably never rode on a bus in their lives, are organizing a boycott of buses that happen to feature the benign atheist ads.
So what’s the solution? I don’t know. All I can say is that if we’re going to continue to advertise atheism, skepticism, rationalism, etc. (and I think we should), we need to do a better job of choosing our ads and our message, and I think we should strive for ads that accentuate the positive attributes of atheism and reason instead of trying to out-WBC the WBC…even if it means we’ll be criticized anyway. Our ways are not their ways and I’d rather defend against illegitimate criticisms than legitimate ones.