There’s been a lot of reaction to the Atheist Christmas Billboard. While most atheists have been supportive of the campaign, there are (undoubtedly) some who are joining the throng of the more common religious complaint that atheists are “shoving (our) beliefs down (their) throats”, a phrase which never fails to prompt snickering from me.
This reaction is spawned by an extreme level of conceit on the part of the religious – they assume that the billboard is for them. After all, everything’s about you, right? You’re the center of God’s creation, and so anyone who says anything is really just talking about you. Thus is the humility that is the hallmark of faith demonstrated.
Over at my blog, I have just posted a discussion of why ad campaigns like this are a very good idea, and why they have nothing at all to do with the religious (at least not directly).
This ability to make certain identities more apparent can be used as an incentive to make decisions. If I would like you to donate to my women’s rights charity, I might do well to remind you that you have a sister, or a mother, or that you are a woman yourself. By bringing an aspect of your “self” to the foreground of your mind, I am able to influence you (as a rational agent) into making one decision (donating your money) rather than another (keeping it).
It is for this reason that things like the Atheist Bus Ads and the Out Campaign are useful – not for antagonizing the religious (although that is certainly what they’re saying), but for bringing atheists out into the open. By making nonbelievers aware of their nonbelief, it brings that aspect of their “self” more apparent and helps motivate their behaviour.
I thought I’d expand on that here.
When Jen McCreight was here in Vancouver, the group fell into a discussion about whether or not there is an “atheist community”. To do this, I have to talk about the difference between de jure and de facto. Something that is true de jure is so because of some kind of rule. The Rotary Club is a de jure community – it has laws and structure, and is an group whose existence is governed by rules. Your neighbourhood is a de facto community – there is no formal structure, but there is a “group” that has formed based on mutual geography.
In the same way, the atheist “community” is not a de jure entity – there is no governing body, no rules and regulations, no criteria for membership. However, there is very much a de facto community, as evinced by the amount of discussion present on the internet, in universities, in pub nights, in newspapers – the “community” exists even in the absence of official guidelines.
We talk about things like the “feminist movement” or the “suffrage movement” or the “civil rights movement” as though they are de jure entities. However, this is simply ignorance of history – there was no formal entity known as the Civil Rights Movement; it is simply a label that has been applied to a de facto group of people. There were no official elected leaders, no manifesto or charter, no rules for membership – it was a “movement” only in the sense that there were a number of people with similar goals working toward their realization.
The atheist “community” is one that exists in exactly the same way. Despite a lack of rules, official leadership or any inclusion/exclusion criteria for membership, there is a de facto atheist community. This very blog you’re reading is evidence of that. Atheists speak to each other, share goals, have disputes, suggest strategies to improve the lot of atheists everywhere – it is identical to any other community except that it is unofficial.
There is a real implication of this de facto community – things that affect atheists individually also affect the community. When people say things like “you’re an atheist? You must have no moral centre” or “you can’t be a patriot and an atheist”, it slanders a number of individual atheists. When I, as an atheist, talk about atheist morality, I am not simply defending myself – I am defending the entire community. Conversely, those who would try to slander the community “why are atheists shoving their beliefs down my throat?” (hehehe), their comments reflect on the individuals that make up that community.
For this reason, attempts to bring atheists out into the open are valuable, because as we make people aware of their identity as atheists, we make them part of the community. While some may rankle at being “part of” anything, membership in a de facto movement is largely unavoidable. However, as the community distinguishes itself as a noble and worthwhile cause, people will become more willing to participate and see themselves as Atheists.
All of this, you’ll see, has absolutely nothing to do with believers.