Caveat Emptor: The atheist as consumer advocate

S.C. Hitchcock

Atheists agree on one point and one point only: there is no God. So-called new atheists can be said to agree on two points: (1) There is no God; and (2) We need to do a better job of getting this message into the mainstream. So far, the most popular approach, one advocated by Richard Dawkins, has been to label ourselves as capital-A “Atheists,” come out of the closet (perhaps proudly wearing a T-shirt with a scarlet letter A) and, like all other minorities, demand respect. I greatly admire Sir Richard, but I have to disagree with him about this. Many of the assumptions that we “new atheists” make are based on a false analogy. We are not like most minorities at all; we are not in the same category of minority as homosexuals, African Americans, or even Muslims or Jews. There is a crucial difference between us and these other groups.

We are much more like those annoying consumer advocates. Religious belief is not a delusion so much as it is a consumer fetish. Once this is widely understood, we’ll be able to more effectively promote atheism.

One can be a minority and still buy the religious product in all its guises. The arguments in many churches over homosexuality are not, in effect, arguments over religious doctrine at all. (Leviticus 20:13 clearly says that God wants homosexual males killed—either this is the Word of God or it isn’t.) The question is what to do about this (and other) divine injunctions. Churches, like restaurants or stores, have found that as far as homosexuality goes, they can cater to different types of consumers. There is a market for antigay hatred that is as large as the market for religious tolerance of gays. Homosexuals, then, don’t threaten the religious money and power structure. People may smoke different brands of cigarettes, but as long as everyone is lighting up, the tobacco companies as a whole still win.

No minority group threatens religion like atheists do. You can be African American and religious. You can be Latino and religious. You can be gay and religious. But you can’t very well be an atheist and religious, now can you? We threaten to unravel the scam industry of a very large and wealthy group of corporations.

The mistake that we new atheists are making is in assuming that we can break into the marketplace of ideas simply by publishing, advertising, and advocating. The problem with this is that atheism does not lend itself to such methods. Atheism is the end result of deep philosophical and logical thinking. It is not a product to be sold in competition with religion. We don’t have the resources to compete at the level that the religious corporations do, so we have to use different methods.

So, what should we be doing? Clearly, we must publicly advocate atheism more, but what approach should we take?

First, we have to begin advocating to the right people. Companies (McDonald’s, Phillip Morris, etc.) that sell harmful garbage target young people because young people are less likely to think about their purchases, and, better yet, once hooked, young people can become loyal, lifelong consumers. Purveyors of religion like nothing better than to build brand loyalty at a young age. We need to do what consumer advocates have always done: refine mountains of research and deep thought into something easily digested by young people.

Second, we have to begin at the beginning. Our statement should not be that the atheistic viewpoint should be represented fairly. Why? Because there is no such thing as an atheistic viewpoint. God’s nonexistence is a fact—just like the fact that cigarettes are a direct cause of lung cancer and emphysema. Scientists who proclaim that smoking is harmful don’t have to defend themselves against crackpots who claim that smoking is harmless.

Instead, we should make the case that logic, when properly understood, naturally leads to atheism—every time. This is the great truth of logic. Socrates understood that whenever one reasoned through something, agreement, even among disparate groups, could be reached by getting everyone to agree on each logical step. This inescapably leads everyone to the same place. In matters of religion, the nice white pagoda at the end of the logical path is of course labeled “godless.”

This is not to say that we should mount a campaign similar to what the anti-smoking forces have done. A nonexistent deity knows that most of those anti-smoking commercials (where young people shout through bullhorns at some nondescript corporate headquarters) are so lame that they make even a health nut like me want to light up. We don’t need that. The real story is interesting enough.

Modern logic, which revolves around the logical fallacies, was originally created when medieval Christian monks “discovered” Greek logic through Arab translations and then tried to see if, by using this newfound stuff, they could prove the existence of an Almighty. They could not, of course, but they reshaped logic and gave it a power that would lay the foundations for the scientific method. God’s servants created modern logic, and then their creation killed God. Like all good products, logical argument needs no advertisement. For atheists, it is enough to make this point over and over again: logic should be learned by everyone, and it should be learned in the same way that it was created: by applying reason to the question “Does God exist?”

Why bother, one might ask, with this approach? After all, consumer advocacy has not reduced obesity rates or eliminated smoking, but it has heightened awareness, which is what we are trying to do. And in the long term it does have an effect. Most smokers would love to quit now that they know the costs of smoking. Very few obese people want to be overweight, and few of them labor under the illusion that a meal at McDonald’s is good for them. No one wants children to smoke, for example, and the hazards of smoking seem to be clearly recognized by just about everybody. In fact, after decades of consumer advocacy, the smoking rate among U.S. adults has finally fallen below 20 percent.

Another reason to move to the consumer advocate model of atheism has to do with ends. By presenting ourselves as a minority wanting to be respected by society, we seek to have the same outcome as other groups such as Latinos, Muslims, Hindus, or homosexuals. These groups are accepted (sometimes) but only as parts of a mosaic. Few Christians convert to Hinduism, for example, but most Christians will not hesitate to allow Hindus to live and worship alongside them.

But I don’t want to coexist on equal terms with religionists any more than I want to sit next to a smoker in a restaurant. Secondhand smoke is toxic to everyone around a smoker, and religion is toxic to our entire society. Almost invariably intrusive, it promotes illogical thought processes and belief (faith) as virtues. Consumer advocates would be perfectly happy to live in a world without cigarettes. And I would be perfectly happy to live in a world without religion.

S.C. Hitchcock

S.C. Hitchcock (a pseudonym) is the author of Disbelief 101: A Young Person's Guide to Atheism (See Sharp Press, 2009).

Atheists agree on one point and one point only: there is no God. So-called new atheists can be said to agree on two points: (1) There is no God; and (2) We need to do a better job of getting this message into the mainstream. So far, the most popular approach, one advocated by Richard …

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