Taking Care of Our Own

Hemant Mehta

Last October, the thirty-member-strong Mid Ohio Atheists decided to run a billboard campaign in the city of Mansfield in order to let other atheists know they weren’t alone. Director of Communications Michael Adams posted a message on both the group’s blog and Facebook page asking for design submissions but received no responses. While members were quick to suggest the wording for the sign, no one had the skills necessary to design the actual billboard.

That didn’t deter Adams from giving it a shot himself. After all, what was more important: the message or the way it looked? Eager for his group to make its mark, he created a design himself, modeling it after one frequently used by the United Coalition of Reason—with a cloud background, a Scarlet A, and the message, “Don’t believe in God? Neither do we!” At the bottom of the billboard was the group’s web address. Adams was proud of what he had accomplished and hoped others (especially closet atheists in the area) would take notice.

The group then faced the difficult task of raising $2,200 to put up the billboard (plus additional boards that had already been planned in advance). Incredibly, they raised the money. The idea of letting the community know atheists were a part of it was too good to pass up. Everyone in the group seemed excited about the signs.

After the contracts were signed—but before the billboards went up—I posted an image of the design on my website. And then the criticism began. There weren’t suggestions about how to make the sign look better or how an alternative message might have been more effective but rather just unhelpful attacks on the group’s best attempt.

Commenters denounced the lack of professional design, calling the signs “tacky,” “hideous,” and “low-rent.” Adams was stunned—his group had already raised over $2,000 to put the billboards up, and getting to that point already represented several months’ worth of work. The last thing he was going to do was ask members for an additional $500 to hire a professional designer. It’s not like any of the critics were offering to hand over the money! Where were they when he had asked for help? he wondered. And why weren’t people appreciative of the effort to simply get the message out?

Other people barraged with that kind of criticism might very well decide never to manage such a campaign again. Or worse, eager activists subjected to such vilification could end up leaving the movement altogether. After all, why bother with activism when your best efforts aren’t supported by the people who are supposed to be on your side?

This isn’t just a case of some people lacking thick skins. This is a case of people who likely believe themselves to be kind and compassionate to others—but put them in front of a computer and they are anything but humanistic to people with whom they find fault. Make an honest mistake, and they’ll come after you.

It seems like this is a common occurrence in the online secular community these days—and since that’s the area I’m most familiar with, I’ll limit my comments to that. As soon as there’s a disagreement with other atheists—over sociopolitical views, the way we interact with religious people, activism methods, or even the nature of elevators—we turn on the “demonize” switch without a second thought. It’s true that atheists are alike only in the fact that we don’t believe in God, but one would hope more of us would treat each other with respect when we disagree. It’s not enough, it seems, to use reason and logic to pick apart another person’s argument. We also have to resort to name-calling or imply that the person is a traitor to our cause. I’ve heard atheist “firebrands” say that they support having more diverse voices in the conversation only to throw those attempting an alternative approach under the bus. Forget any potential merits to the alternatives; the battle is won only when you’ve made yourself feel superior.

When atheist philosopher Alain de Botton suggested that atheists could benefit from co-opting traditions that religious groups had mastered over the centuries (like eating together at communal tables), blogger PZ Myers explained why he had problems with some of de Botton’s ideas—but not without also letting everyone know they could “take a moment to retch” after hearing them (“Oh, Please,” Pharyngula, January 26) and not without tossing in a “fuck you very much” to de Botton (“I Am Officially Disgusted with Alain de Botton,” Pharyngula, February 28). I guess that’s how reasonable, respectful discourse works.

Not everyone does this, of course, but it’s prevalent enough in the blogging community to be a serious problem. (I’m sure readers who disagree with me are already plotting out how they’ll call me a “tone troll.”)

Republican strategist Edwina Rogers’s selection as the new executive director of the Secular Coalition for America was obviously an unorthodox choice. But there was also a notable advantage to having a nontheistic Republican as the face of the “atheist lobby”—she knew the very people the SCA had struggled for years to make inroads with, and she felt she had the potential to get them on our side regarding issues concerning atheists. I expected to hear people say, “Let’s wait and see what she’ll do,” or “Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.” Some did, but even many of those comments seemed like they were made with gritted teeth and a subtext of “I can’t believe the SCA did that.” Some didn’t even wait for results and suggested that the SCA had “gone off the deep end” or called Rogers a “despicable right-wing political hack.” All that before she ever took any significant actions in her new role.

Where’s the humanism in all this? Where’s the compassion? Where’s the respectful disagreement based on evidence and reason? Why must every critique be laced with sarcasm and mockery? Why are some atheists resorting to the very tactics we abhor in our cultural enemies?

No doubt there are legitimate reasons to criticize others within our movement. For example, blogger Greta Christina’s criticism of Rogers’s statements indicating ignorance of the GOP’s hard-Right stance on social issues such as abortion and gay rights were specific and measured. I’m not opposed to calling out atheists when they say something wrong. When Sam Harris said on his website that we ought to profile Muslims (somehow) at the airport because they are the most likely terrorist suspects, many critics explained the flaws in his logic in a calm, rational way. It was an actual debate on the merits of a politically incorrect idea. (And, in my view, Harris was on the losing end of it.) But, as you can imagine, many atheists immediately filed Harris under their mental list of bigots without actually disputing any of his claims.

We’re supposed to be better than that. We have a “post first, ask questions later” mentality when we could (in many cases) just write the other person an e-mail or call them to hash out disagreements. But part of being in an Internet-based community is that we air our dirty laundry for the world to see even when it hurts us all in the long run.

Is that an exaggeration? Perhaps. But the symptoms of that mentality are all over the place. We end up with Pyrrhic victories, alienating many people who are still on the fence and who are hesitant to speak up lest someone tear them down for making an unwitting mistake. There’s no reason we can’t point out the problems in others’ arguments in a gentle, helpful way. So why do so many of us choose a different path?

After the first billboard campaign ended (abruptly, after billboard owner Lind Outdoor found the statements to be “offensive to much of the community”), the Mid Ohio Atheists decided to hold a contest for their next one. They would accept designs from anyone, hold a vote, and pay for the winner’s submission to be featured on a billboard. They received twenty-nine entries. I posted some of my favorites on my website.

As soon as I did, the first comment came in: “Graphically, they all look terrible. . . .”

Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is a blogger at FriendlyAtheist.com and the chair of the Foundation Beyond Belief. He is also a high-school math teacher.

Last October, the thirty-member-strong Mid Ohio Atheists decided to run a billboard campaign in the city of Mansfield in order to let other atheists know they weren’t alone. Director of Communications Michael Adams posted a message on both the group’s blog and Facebook page asking for design submissions but received no responses. While members were …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.