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 , and recently, I did so again, on Twitter, which led to a back and forth with David and some of his supporters . 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 . 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 ); “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 ); “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 .
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!” , 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:
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 . 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:”
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 ), 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 . Put simply, I object to my philosophical stance coming across even to some natural allies as being supported by a bunch of angry jerks .
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).
 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.
 On ethics, part IV: Virtue ethics, by M. Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking, 21 August 2011.
 Pyrrhic victory.
 “Ready, Aim, Firebrand!,” talk by D. Silverman at the Secular Students Alliance.
 Does Atheist Movement Activism Increase Interest in Atheism?, by R. Cragun, 25 September 2013.
 The Decline of Evangelical America, by J.S. Dickerson, The New York Times, 15 December 2012.
 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.
 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.