It’s American Atheists billboards time, again!

daveby Massimo Pigliucci

Christmas is fast approaching. So, naturally, American Atheists has launched its usual billboard campaign to nudge closeted atheists to come out and embrace the good news. AA President David Silverman is again spearheading what he calls the organizations’ “firebrand” approach to fighting religion. Despite being a lifetime member of American Atheists, I have criticized the group on this issue before [1], and recently, I did so again, on Twitter, which led to a back and forth with David and some of his supporters [2]. At some point, however, Silverman threw the evidence-based bomb: he claims to have data showing that his approach is working, and since quantitative data is science, and science doesn’t lie, the matter is settled.

Well, not so fast, I think. In this essay I will first explain why I object to “firebrand” atheism and on what principled (i.e., before evidence) grounds. I will then look at David’s data and argue that it doesn’t show what he thinks it does, and why even if it did this would still not settle the matter. I will then end with some constructive suggestions for atheist activism more generally.

Why firebrand atheism is a bad idea

American Atheists’ billboards have carried messages the likes of “You know it’s a myth… and you have a choice,” “What myths do you see?,” “Christianity? Sadistic God; useless Savior; 30,000+ versions of ‘truth’; promotes hate, calls it ‘love’” (I know, this is a mouthful…); “You know they are all scams”; “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody”; and this year’s entry, featuring a cute kid and the words “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I’m too old for fairy tales.”

The reason I find this approach objectionable is precisely the reason David pushes it: it is in-your-face, belittling religious believers by telling them in huge font that they built their lives around myths and lies, and that they worship morally reprehensible charismatic figures. The ads paint religion with one broad brush, implying, or outright stating, that it is fundamentally stupid and evil.

The first problem with all this is that the older I get the less I think that being offensive on purpose gets you anywhere. Few will listen to you if you start out the conversation by telling then that they are idiots.

The second, related point, comes from my embracing of virtue ethics, which is based on the idea that one’s character is the defining mark of one’s moral worth [3]. Since I consider it a moral failing when religious fundamentalists behave in a “firebrand” fashion, coherence leads me to make the same judgment call when it is my fellow atheists who do it.

Third, I think in-your-face atheism is pernicious because it projects exactly the wrong image of atheism to the rest of the world, reinforcing the already prevalent stereotype of atheists as callous, self-righteous individuals who are out to destroy civilization as we know it.

But, says David, the target of AA ads are not believers, nor fence sitters. The billboards are instead aimed at closeted atheists, trying to encourage them to come out and be counted. And of course my Twitter feed is testimony to the anecdotal validity of this claim, as a number of Silverman’s supporters reinforced the idea (though I can’t recall a single one who actually said that they personally came out of the closet as a result of seeing an AA ad).

I have no reason to doubt David’s intentions, nor his anecdotal evidence (we’ll come to his quantitative one shortly), but there are a couple of obvious rejoinders. To begin with, it is reasonable to assume that closeted atheists would be encouraged by any publicly displayed atheist message, not just by negative ones. And there have been, indeed, a number of more positive campaigns conducted by other organizations (some of which mix positive and negative messages, others sticking more to the positive side of the spectrum). For instance: “Don’t believe in God? Join the club” (United Coalition of Reason [4]); “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” (UCoR); “This is what an atheist looks like” (with a picture of a friendly, smiling atheist; Freedom from Religion Foundation [5]); “I can be good without God” (FfRF).

Moreover, even though one’s target audience may respond in the desired fashion, surely one should also be concerned with the likely side effects and collateral damage, in the form of other atheists, agnostics and religious people who may be turned off by the aggressiveness of the message. Presumably AA’s overall goal is to promote the cause of atheism broadly speaking, so the pros and cons of their campaigns need to be weighed against each other, on penalty of winning a Pyrrhic victory [6].

So to recap, I have two kinds of objections to firebrand atheism: one of principle (it is not the ethical thing to do); the other pragmatic (it may backfire on the whole movement). Notice that the principled objection needs to be addressed on principled grounds, not with a “but it works” type of response. After all, plenty of other things may (or may not) work, such as the death penalty, or torture, but we nonetheless can legitimately oppose them on a priori ethical grounds. Now to the pragmatic objection, concerning which empirical evidence is indeed germane, and where David thinks he’s got a good set of cards to play.

Evidence based atheism

Which brings me to a talk given by Silverman entitled “Ready, Aim, Firebrand!” [7], where he presented the data that are supposed to speak to the empirical side of the issue (apparently, a book is coming soon, with more details). The pertinent bits are found between 8’02” and 17’02”.

The data comes from an analysis of Google searches for the word “atheist” performed over the past several years. Here is my reconstruction of the graph, after having replicated the analysis:


David claims that the “floor of normalcy” (i.e., the baseline after each predictable peak of media-generated attention, in December) has been “permanently” raised since 2006, and he attributes this — with no evidence — to the publication of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which occurred at about the same time. For all I know, Silverman could be right on both counts, but it is actually pretty tricky to do a serious statistical analysis demonstrating long-term trends in highly noisy data sets like the one in question, and of course the date of publication of Dawkins’ book is suggestive but far from conclusive. Still, let me concede both points for the sake of argument.

Next, David noticed that every Christmas there is a spike in G-searches for the word “atheist,” which he christened “the O’Reilly effect” (after the Fox News commentator who seasonally complains about a “war on Christmas”). Again, the floor for Christmas searches seems to have gone “permanently” up beginning with 2008, which Dave attributes (again, with no direct evidence at all) to the Dawkins-sponsored bus campaign in England and to the launch of an FfRF law suit. At the least the first suggestion, the connection with the bus campaign, is questionable, on the grounds that Google also allows one to graph hits by country, and the UK doesn’t even rank among the top seven in this case, which makes it hard to see how a British advertising event causally affected a worldwide trend which is actually centered largely on the United States (the second ranked country for that search is the Philippines, the third Trinidad and Tobago, followed by Canada, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand; seems to me that the Brits simply don’t give a hoot about atheism).

David then pointed out yet another (alleged) permanent rise of the floor of normalcy, which occurred in 2010, when AA began its controversial billboard campaigns under his leadership. There is also a spike that seems to coincide with the Reason Rally, and moreover spikes for “atheist” correlate with spikes for “American Atheists,” which Silverman takes as evidence of the success of the campaigns for his organization in particular (no corresponding spikes appear for “secular humanist,” “agnostic” and “skeptic”).

Except that the number of hits for AA is a minute fraction of those for “atheist” (which David acknowledged), as shown in this graph:

SciSal-2-atheist and AA

This is relevant because any statistician will tell you that to correlate two variables when one has much less variance than the other often leads to spurious and unstable results. But these are technical caveats, which I am mentioning simply to reinforce the broader idea that this sort of analysis ought to be done by professional statisticians and social scientists in order to be convincing.

A more serious issue is that the “floor of normalcy” has apparently not been raised permanently at all: if you look at the first graph above, it is clear that things have begun to slide back down, on average, starting with October ’13. Indeed, the December ’13 peak is only at 82% of the highest peak, which occurred in April (not December!) of ’12.

In fact, it is curious that David didn’t even mention that the pattern of peaks is much more complex than he told his audience: peaks actually alternate at December (Christmas) and April (Easter?), and there is a number of off-season peaks as well, on 6/04, 9/05, 5/07, 10/09, 9/10, 8/12, and 8/14. Moreover, breaking the recurring pattern, there was no peak in April ’13. It appears that David took an inordinate amount of statistical liberties in focusing on aspects of the data that he could explain according to his narrative of AA success, while ignoring a lot of other aspects of the same data for which evidently he had no ready made explanation. And, once again, the floor of normalcy seems to have abated of late…

Back to David’s talk. Near the end of the data-based part of his presentation at SSA, he makes the interesting claim that a colleague of his (Ryan Cragun) found a correlation (which he did not show) quantifying the fact that “the slope of this line [‘atheist’ searches on Google] corresponds directly with the change in the slope of the line of people calling themselves atheists … a correlation of about 0.8,” which he then immediately interprets as evidence that “people are coming out of the closet” as a result of the billboards.

Now this is an interesting claim, but it is impossible to judge its merits on the basis of the brief (and a bit confused) mention it gets in the talk. So I wrote to David, who graciously explained how Cragun arrived at his conclusion. He said that the data on people calling themselves atheists comes from Gallup polls, going on to provide me with a quote from Cragun to the effect that:

“It is clear that there has been a very strong and consistent correlation between interest in atheism, generally, and interest in American Atheists, specifically, over the last three years. Causality can be more clearly determined when it comes to interest in the organization itself; the activities and events of American Atheists regularly result in heightened interest in the organization.”

The quote comes from a blog post by Cragun where he discusses in detail the Google trends data above, and it turns out to be a very selective quote indeed [8]. In reality, I can see little relationship between Cragun’s article and Silverman’s claims.

First off, Cragun does not seem to have used any Gallup data at all, his results are based on a fine-grained analysis of Google trends for the words “atheist” and “American Atheists” from 2007 through mid-2013 (thus missing the recent lowering of the floor mentioned above, which he obviously couldn’t know about).

Cragun’s essay is very carefully written, and it is worth quoting from him extensively. To begin with, after summarizing David’s results (which Cragun characterized as based on “a visual analysis,” i.e., no formal stats employed) and before presenting his own, the author explains what criteria need to be met to arrive at a strong conclusion of causality in this sort of data set:

“First, the cause must precede the effect in time. Second, the cause and effect have to be correlated. And third, you must be able to rule out alternative explanations.”

He then proceeded to report the results of analyses based on weekly (as opposed to monthly, therefore more fine grained that Silverman’s) data combed from Google, arriving at year-by-year correlations between the two search terms. Here is what the data looks like, with the year followed by the estimated correlation:

2007 = +0.16; 2008 = +0.52; 2009 = -0.05; 2010 = +0.48; 2011 = +0.46; 2012 = +0.50; 2013 = +0.81.

Notice the last number: that is the only occurrence of a correlation of about 0.8 in Cragun’s article that I could find, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with Dave’s claim about the number of people who call themselves atheists. Perhaps he was referring to something else.

Cragun then comments: “The correlations between ‘atheist’ and ‘American Atheists’ have varied pretty substantially from year-to-year … That searches for the two terms are correlated meets one criteria of causality, but the other two remain to be established. Temporal causality must also be established.”

In order to attempt the latter, he ingeniously looked at temporal lags between searches, essentially correlating the number of hits on “atheist” in one week with the hits on “American Atheists” the week after (repeating this for all weeks for which he had data). He also did the reverse, correlating “American Atheists” in a given week with “atheist” in the following week. The idea was to see whether there are consistent patterns that could be interpreted as at the least indicative of a causal link. The conclusion:

“In no year was one variable’s lagged values a significant predictor of the other variable. In other words, causality cannot be statistically determined between whether searches for ‘American Atheists’ cause searches for ‘atheists’ or vice versa. … it’s impossible from these data to determine causality. … as it stands, causality cannot be determined.”

Oops. Of course, as Cragun immediately points out, this doesn’t mean that there is no causal link, only that the data doesn’t show it, contra what stated by Silverman. Which is pretty much what I told David on Twitter: establishing causality, or even making a reasonable case for it, is a complicated job, best left to professional social scientists. Notice that Cragun didn’t even touch on his third criterion for causality — “you must be able to rule out alternative explanations” — until the very end of his post, where he says: “it is possible that other events influence both search terms … Such spurious events likely account for some of the spikes in both search terms/phrases, but it is also likely the case that American Atheist activism increases searches for the other terms at times, too. And if that is the case, then that is greater evidence for correlation overall, as specific spikes may be causal, but the long term trend appears to be more correlational [i.e., non-causal].”

And now for a final bit of data-driven fun: I ran a number of searches on keywords like “bad atheism,” “hate atheism,” and “evil atheism.” They all returned similar results, but here is the graph for “evil atheism:”

SciSal-3-evil atheism

As you can see, there was nothing before 2009, but since then — and particularly since David took the helm of American Atheists — there has been marked “interest” in that particular word coupling. Just saying…

What to do instead

The bottom line of the above analysis is that the evidence adduced by David to justify his firebrand atheism is shaky and inconclusive to say the least. This is not to say that AA’s campaigns necessarily aren’t having the specific effect he wants (getting people out of the closet), though this may presumably also be accomplished via more positive messages. It also remains to be seen how much the in-your-face approach has, on balance, more negative than positive consequences for the movement. These are all issues to be established empirically, and I would love to see a serious social science study of the dynamics of recent atheism.

Silverman and his supporters, however, seem to subscribe to the Oscar Wilde school of advertising, which is often rendered as “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” but in the original actually read: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

If that’s the standard, we are indeed talking about the AA campaign, and I don’t doubt that the billboards do increase traffic to their web site. Then again, I’m sure that the same is true for those anti-abortion organizations that organize on-campus campaigns featuring highly graphic photos of aborted fetuses, campaigns that are regularly — and correctly — condemned by liberal activists precisely because they are offensive, in bad taste, play on emotions, and so forth. Apparently, the latter are all bad things, unless we do them.

Many have pointed out that the tactics of American Atheists (and of a number of other organizations, though usually less consistently so) are precise mirrors of those adopted by fundamentalist religious groups. Maybe such tactics “work,” maybe they don’t (religious fundamentalism is on the retreat in the US, in part because mainstream Americans seem to find its messages too strident and its attitudes too aggressive [9]), but do we really want to lower our standards to the level of a Jerry Falwell or thereabout? (Though, to be fair, even the most strident AA billboard is nothing like some of the milder things one hears on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club.)

Frankly, I’d rather see the atheist (and skeptic, and secular humanist) movement(s) adopt a positive, constructive image while pushing their messages. This isn’t about abstaining from criticizing religion: everything — including religion and atheism — can and should be criticized, whenever warranted, in public, honestly. But the cartoonish characterization of religion one gets from AA’s billboards is not honest, as it glosses over the intricate complexities of the religious phenomenon, not the least of which is the fact that there really is very little empirical evidence that religion is, on balance, a negative force in human affairs, atheist dogma notwithstanding [10]. Put simply, I object to my philosophical stance coming across  even to some natural allies as being supported by a bunch of angry jerks [11].

How do we avoid that? I have already commented on a number of other billboards presenting atheism as a positive message, as a palatable alternative to religion, and I believe that is both the (ethically) right and (likely) most effective way to achieve our long term goals, particularly to make atheism a socially acceptable, respected viewpoint, with a place at the high table of public policy decisions in any democratic country. And again, I see no reason to believe that fellow atheists will not come out of the closet if they see a positive message, and I suggest that likely more of them will do so under those circumstances.

Ah, say David and his supporters on my Twitter feed, but religious people will find any mention of atheism offensive, regardless. First off, this claim is actually not backed up by any evidence whatsoever. Sure, some religious fundamentalists will be offended no matter what, but does anyone truly believe that there are no reasonable, moderate religious people (and agnostics, and atheists) out there? Second, there seems to me to be a pretty sizable (and, I would have thought, obvious) difference between actually being offensive — knowingly and purposefully so — and reasonably presenting your viewpoint while acknowledging that some people will be offended no matter what. To deny such distinction slides us into a sort of postmodernist theory of offense, where the very concept of offensive speech loses meaning (if everything is, or can be, equally offensive, then what do we mean by that word?). And if there is one thing that reasonable people don’t want to do, surely it’s to go postmodernist on each other, no?

[p.s.: I have, of course, invited David to respond to this essay.]


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Some thoughts about in-your-face atheism, by M. Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 11 January 2011. Here is David’s invited response.

[2] This round of conversations with David Silverman was actually triggered by the publication of a short essay by my friend Steve Neumann, critical of the AA campaign.

[3] On ethics, part IV: Virtue ethics, by M. Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 21 August 2011.

[4] United Coalition of Reason.

[5] Freedom from Religion Foundation.

[6] Pyrrhic victory.

[7] “Ready, Aim, Firebrand!,” talk by D. Silverman at the Secular Students Alliance.

[8] Does Atheist Movement Activism Increase Interest in Atheism?, by R. Cragun, 25 September 2013.

[9] The Decline of Evangelical America, by J.S. Dickerson, The New York Times, 15 December 2012.

[10] Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion? A Skeptic’s Guide to the Debate, by S.O. Lilienfeld and R. Ammirati, Skeptical Inquirer, Jul/Aug 2014.

[11] Culture War Update – The Dividening of America – American Atheists vs. Ground Zero Cross, The Daily Show, 4 August 2011. See also: Cross Controversy at 9/11 Museum, Colbert Report, 10 March 2014.

115 thoughts on “It’s American Atheists billboards time, again!

  1. The article’s author, who is the boss of this website, leaves the following response uncommented on, implicitly agreeing with it, since it insinuates agreement with his article. It is paraphrased below, but with Labnut’s actual words. It tells me that I have learned all I wish to know here, actually some rather surprising things about at least one segment of those passionate about philosophy.

    ‘Dawkins has written a guidebook for resentful haters, people quite like the SS, the KKK and the CIA torturers, people whose atheistic fundamentalism bullies a soft target’

    (a target of several billion people! “Bullies” sounds mild and meek compared to the activities of the SS in Auschwitz, the KKK with their ropes for murdering black people, and the CIA in Guantanamo, but perhaps Labnut tried and failed to find a stronger verb).

    Fortunately, I’ll not need to confess to a priest nor agonize with guilt towards Francis the talking encyclical, preserving even more time for looking elsewhere to learn some things which are hopefully worthwhile to me.


  2. ph, you are kidding, right? You are seriously arguing that if I don’t comment on a specific point raised by a particular reader in the course of a long thread, I “implicitly agree with it,” and that, moreover, that means you have learned something about “those passionate about philosophy”? As I said, you must be joking.


  3. Okay, okay. As it is not evidently clear that atheism has a universal character – other than simply not believing in theism (yes, that is all that atheism is, five to six words: “I have not heard of theism [except that it sucks]” (of course, brackets inserted to rest the anxiety of relevant ignorance).

    Most of us, however, as self aware, deliberate opposition to theism see it quite more informatively, philosophically, but also ideologically, and there are a few IQ weaklings (myself included) sharing the character of atheism at its bare minimum (disbelief), while demanding adoption as orphans (pragmatist abduction). Understandably so, there has been some confusion among the professionals (well paid atheists being the bare minimum criteria) what the future will bring as a result of the apparent rejection of consequences (using terms of war, as so called innocent civilians) at the hands of people who play with words (those very same civilians, who should reserve their mile long comments for their own blogs, as I do).

    First of all, this is language, which is never an adequate substitute for reality beyond terribly minute details about which our grand worldviews would be impossible to accept. This should offend the IQ weaklings more, but our freedom of speech was not intended to reveal nonsense, rather, to appeal to reason in advance of any law (if even mistakenly by appeal to nonsense). That’s all I wanted to say for now. Please, forgive my previous abruptness in reacting like a reactionary (clanging the alarm bells), rather than analyzing (seeing the significant portion of this essay devoted toward the “statistics as evidence” theme, rhetorically stimulated by appeal to some pretext of atheism in uniforms that is confusing.


  4. phoffman,
    you have badly misquoted my words, by taking two phrases, two paragraphs apart, joining them(with no indication that they have been joined), thus radically changing the meaning. You should know by now that this is an altogether bad practice.

    I used some rather heavy handed irony and sarcasm to bring home the message that atheist fundamentalists are using counter productive techniques. These techniques do not harm religion. Instead they stimulate religion to improve their act.

    Christianity was born in persection and expects persecution. It is a hardy, resilient belief system. For example, Christianity was brutally suppressed in Communist China. But it has now recovered to the extent that there are more members of the Catholic Church in China than there are members of the Communist Party. Given current trends, we expect China to become home to the largest number of Catholics in the world.

    On the other hand these techniques do harm atheism in a number of ways. It attracts the wrong kinds of people into the movement, those I called the ‘resentful haters’. Their behaviour poisons the public image of atheism. The evidence for this is quite clear. Consider the figures below extracted from a PEW survey at the beginning of this year. It is the net rating of different belief systems, arrived at by subtracting negative perceptions from positive perceptions. This has a scale from -100 to +100
    See also this graph –

    From highest rating to lowest rating:
    +34 – Jews
    +20 Catholics
    +8 Buddhists
    +3 Evangelicals
    +1 Hindus
    -8 Mormons
    -22 Atheists
    -26 Muslims

    Opinions of adherents of their own belief systems have been excluded.
    I think it is clear that the American public has a rather low opinion of atheists. This is not surprising, given the unpleasant, aggressive, in-your-face approach of some atheist organisations.

    After, all, if you set out to demean, belittle and deride core Christian rituals, you should expect they will develop a low opinion of you.

    As Massimo put it – “ I think in-your-face atheism is pernicious because it projects exactly the wrong image of atheism to the rest of the world, reinforcing the already prevalent stereotype of atheists as callous, self-righteous individuals who are out to destroy civilization as we know it

    The PEW survey shows exactly this.

    As Catholics, we couldn’t care less about the billboards. We are confident of our faith and sustained by joy. But we do care, a great deal, about the impoverished and suffering. We wish you would drop such foolish measures and join us instead at the medical clinics, aid centers and the soup kitchens(to name only a small part of the work we do). We need all the help we can get because there is a world of suffering out there. Join us in this work and you will receive a warm welcome. And then you will start to rebuild the image of atheism.


  5. Phoffman56 – This is not a sensible criticism from where I’m standing. It looks like you just don’t like what the author has to say but are unable to think of a good objection. So, you mischaracterise his view as extremism and criticise him for that Classic stuff. This sort of tactic will just fuel the idea that Labnut was right.

    You have no idea whether atheism represents the truth and you know it, so why not ease off with the bullying and ad hominem arguments? The billboards at issue seem to be exactly the method used to vilify the Jews in Germany a while back, emotive offensive manipulative propaganda without a fact in sight, and you can’t blame Labnut for noticing it nor blame the moderator for allowing him to express his view. It would also be my view.


  6. As much as I agree that the AA billboard campaign is silly and a waste, labnut, you don’t worry about the millions spent by the RCC to prevent same-sex marriage, to discourage birth control use, to hire lawyers to cover up crimes? Of course individual members are not the hierarchy and I know many Catholics and the good they do. I have even had priest friends ask me to join up – imagine that! Some of these priests are creating LBGT-friendly ministries and working on increasing roles for women and I respect them for toiling within an organization with some big faults (only my opinion of course). I can’t just can’t reconcile the good with the bad which is probably why I don’t belong to groups and volunteer on a case by case basis – which is in some ways why I know priests.


  7. in response to labnut, how can opinions about religions lack bias? Also, how can such data be qualified as “American public”? Such presumed objectivity (“see this graph”) is unsustainable. I have to ask, what is the purpose of all this? Historical ghost busting?

    labnut: “From highest rating to lowest rating:
    +34 – Jews
    +20 Catholics
    +8 Buddhists
    +3 Evangelicals
    +1 Hindus
    -8 Mormons
    -22 Atheists
    -26 Muslims

    Opinions of adherents of their own belief systems have been excluded.
    I think it is clear that the American public has a rather low opinion of atheists.”

    These latter statements demand acceptance as objectivity, but fail the objectivity test, right in the words, themselves. In short, paradox is confusing, forever. How do we get people to stop relying on paradox, e.g., “by any means possible”?

    As an atheist, I have often reconciled myself to regard this as someone else’s problem (the problem of which god to believe, or which religion to follow), because it’s not my problem, until the nonsense lovers pay politicians to frustrate American integrity by appeal to nonsense, resulting in a highly discouraged democracy (the US 2014 midterm elections). If I am not mistaken, we have proscribed such self sacrifices, already, and thank you all for joining me there. Yes, suicide is illegal. Self sacrifice, however, is expected, and that is clearly paradoxical.

    As an American, I am deeply appreciative of the market of ideas, not because I made any money on it, but because I received philosophy (which I can now find and rescue all the time where ever I go in the world, much less successful than my religious rivals possessing a different history and confidence, but with satisfaction that there is a meaningful lover out there). It seems to me that tit is that passion for life that is the underlying power of most religions, with the romance of love serving to inspire all of us. Then, someone has to idolize how, unleashing relentless competition for a better god, or a better religion.

    There is a saying, “don’t argue with fools, because you never know who is listening” (which is perfect for the Internet, and for religions, too). So, religions have temples and tax exemption, and people actually leave them to go eat or play on the swings, too. Postmodern atheism, I suppose, still has an opportunity to stop playing with words. What, should we each now stand each other up for the positive identification as philosophers rather than bullpucky players? Indeed, we do that all the time, already! I believe Sokal ran into this problem with me before, making a hoax known that was already known to be so, and then….. surprising how things get worse, isn’t it?

    Do not feel free to criticize this chart (unless you really can, it’s worth a try):


  8. To my surprise, no-one has used the concept of the Overton Window to defend aggressive, in-your-face atheism. Sean Carroll wrote about this in February 14, 2007:

    Arrogant or not, as a matter of fact Dawkins and company have done a great service to the cause of atheism: they have significantly shifted the Overton Window. That’s the notion, borrowed from public-policy debates, of the spectrum of “acceptable opinion” on an issue. At any given time, on any particular question, the public discourse will implicitly deem certain positions to be respectable and worthy of civilized debate, and other positions to be crazy and laughable. The crucial part of this idea is that the window can be shifted by vigorous advocacy of positions on one extreme. And that’s just what Dawkins has done.

    In other words, by being arrogant and uncompromising in his atheism, Dawkins has done a tremendous amount to make the very concept of atheism a respectable part of the public debate, even if you find him personally obnoxious.

    Here is a better description –

    The Overton window is the limit of what is considered reasonable or acceptable within a range of public policy options. Slide the window of acceptable debate by focusing attention on a position that is more radical than your own.

    The article concludes:

    Potential Pitfalls

    Not all radical positions are effective in shifting the Overton window, so don’t just reach for any old radical idea. Ideally, the position you promote should carry logical and moral force, and must include some common ground with your own position — it needs to be along the same continuum of belief if it is to be effective. It also must not be so far out of the mainstream that it becomes toxic for anyone vaguely associated with it, or the backlash will in fact push the Window in the opposite of the desired direction.

    Note that he says “Not all radical positions are effective in shifting the Overton window“. This is especially true when your chosen radical position is an attack on a core position of your opponents. This does not move the Overton Window, it splits the window, resulting extreme polarisation. This is something we see today.

    He also says “the position you promote should carry logical and moral force“. If it does not carry logical and moral force, it diminishes and tarnishes your own position. This is precisely where atheism finds itself today as the result of an unthinking application of the Overton Window. It may be emotionally satisfying to vilify your opponents, but emotional satisfaction has never won the debate.

    As he says “it becomes toxic for anyone vaguely associated with it“.


  9. labnut: “Opinions of adherents of their own belief systems have been excluded.
    I think it is clear that the American public has a rather low opinion of atheists.”

    This is sarcastic, right? Are we to believe that these are objective opinions about religion, and how is that possible at all, given that religion is so dearly subjective and inspiring? Next question: There is that “American public,” for which it stands, but what is it? We are not very good at nationalism, as Americans, especially if there is any confusion about our freedom of speech, its human creators, and its English statement (which isn’t supposed to warrant showers of sentiment for Royalty, but nevertheless does). The urbans outnumber the rurals, everywhere on Earth; and, the resources available to each are commensurately related, although it could be doubted to what longevity, given that the prevailing industries (food and oil) have so much power over elections. It is clear that a future of non-thinkers will not know what to do. So, I put together something requiring further research (actually, I should linkmap it, first, but it’s in draft stage). It’s confusing, perhaps, but can it alleviate any confusion, too?


  10. Labelled by me “..paraphrased below, but with Labnut’s actual words..”, the reader was invited to read what Labnut actually wrote originally, especially the phrases there about the SS, about the KKK, and about Dawkins’ supposed “manual” for their bedfellows in atheism. That may be done easily, being his only earlier submission. Now decide whether the truth is being stretched there by me, or rather by him in his recent response, the revision, as well as in his accusation of my “ indication that they have been joined, thus radically changing the meaning…”.

    Peter J.
    My straightforward (including never using any pseudonym here) attempt there, to cajole Massimo to express disagreement or otherwise at Labnut’s astounding remarks, contains no ad hominem, nor do any of my responses this time earlier. Possibly you have a non-standard definition of that Latin, but accusing factually falsely someone of doing that could itself be taken as an ad hominem, if the accuser did understand the phrase.

    Beth Clarkson
    Finally, apologies to you for only now noticing your response to me:
    “…calling his book ‘The God Delusion’ is a prime example of this sort of behavior and set the tone for the Gnu atheism routinely belittling believers..”.
    This seems no stronger than the other examples, especially when one considers what the non-reaction would be if a child-psychologist were to entitle his or her book ‘The Santa Delusion’, or a physicist called her or his book ‘The Multiverse Delusion’ or perhaps ‘The String Theory Delusion’. The problem is with an unwarranted sensitivity which organized religion is only too happy to exploit. The child is no more being insulted in the first above than are all sorts of present and particularly earlier naive or excusably uninformed people being insulted by Dawkins. Furthermore, your implication that delusion exclusively implies mental disease is easily countered by inspecting dictionaries. My delusions of intellectual grandeur are much more my own fault than they would be if I had inherited schizophrenia.


  11. One comment left.

    First, contra Labnut, the reality of Christian persecution in its first 200 years of existence is far different than the myth believed by many non-Christians and Christians alike. There was nothing close to empire-wide persecution before the time of Decius, and nothing serious before Diocletian.

    For Christians who don’t believe that, a Catholic professor at Notre Dame, Candida Moss, penned a whole book about that, “The Myth of Persecuition.”

    Going beyond her purview, its arguably that within a century after Diocletian stepped down, non-Donatist Christians in North Africa were persecuting Christians as fervently as Diocletian had persecuted Christians in general.

    We don’t know, or even close to know, the numbers of Christians at the time of Constantine and his conversion. Rodney Stark has taken a stab at it, estimating a steady 40 percent growth rate per decade before then. However, his simplifying assumptions ultimately strike me as simplistic.

    We do have some idea that, post-Constantine, the church was not seeded by the blood of martyrs or their descendants, but by the civic favors awarded the church by the imperium, combined with it becoming almost a parallel government.

    That said, agreeing in part; Christianity has been persecuted in the 20th century; arguably more Christians killed in the period since 1900 than all previous history. However, I think Chinese Christian growth rates will taper off in decades ahead.

    Related to this, the idea that religions with a high commitment cost will be more “successful” is partially, but not entirely true. First, such “payment” is more attractive to people of a certain rigor, and second, whether perceived in terms of this life, the next (assuming it exists for the discussion) or both, the payout also has to be high.

    And, that leads back to Silverman. The commitment cost is not high, but it’s not negligible, to be associated with atheism if it’s perceived to be his brand. And, the payout is pretty low.


  12. Socratic,
    Just to give a few random examples of persecution that Christians have endured.
    Of the 12 Apostles, 10 were martyred, one committed suicide(Judas) and one had a natural death –
    Large numbers of Catholic priests were murdered in Mexico in the 1920s.

    Please note that I used China as an example of widespread and brutal persecution of Christians where Christianity not only survived but recovered strongly. I lived and worked there in the early ’90s and saw for myself how derelict churches were being rebuilt. My interpreter became a Buddhist and her older sister became a Catholic.

    by all accounts religions in China had dwindled or vanished under Communist repression, and not only foreign transplants such as Christianity, but indigenized faiths such as Buddhism. Yet, a mere thirteen years later, a religious revival is just as undeniably under way in China, and on a scale and of a vigor that is astonishing.

    … Arthur Waldron, Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania –

    You may question the extent of persecution that Christians suffered. Yet it is undeniable that Christianity has suffered great persecution and the latest examples were in the Soviet Union and Communist China. In both places Christianity has rebounded vigorously.

    While nibbling away at the edges of my argument you have ignored my central point. My point is that Christianity has the resilience to survive great persecution and to recover. This has been demonstrated in the Soviet Union and in Communist China.

    Given this, a few mean spirited billboards are of no consequence whatsoever. All they accomplish is to further diminish the public image of atheism. But there is a useful consequence. Christians react by clarifying their arguments and by redoubling their efforts to help the suffering. Join us in this, we would welcome assistance from atheists.


  13. labnut,

    well, okay, my turn to make a couple of comments on this late development of the thread. Yes, it is a historical fact that Christians have suffered persecution, and still do in some parts of the world. It is also true that that has been and is the case for other religions, and it is also true that Christians have dished out their own portion on others.

    Yes, Christians have demonstrated a lot of resilience in the face of this, but – again – this is not unusual. Ideologies (and that’s what religions and political positions are, when embraced to their utter core) are like that, I doubt there is anything special about the followers of Christ and Paul.

    Finally, I must say that it is usually a bad mark in a discussion when someone, anyone, for whatever reason, brings up the nazi.



  14. Massimo,

    I take your later “nazi” comment as a reference to his earlier “SS”, and I thank you for it.



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