by Joe Varadi
Atheists suck at marketing.
I mean, even the label itself is like one strike against us.
What with the prefix -a and all, meaning “not” or “against”.
Think of the pro-life versus pro-choice debate. Both of those camps figured out a way to be pro something. That seems to be the PR master stroke — to pivot away from denying or opposing, and instead embrace something positive that can sway folks on the fence.
But what are us atheists for?
Could use some tweaking, but already these are a vast improvement over “anti-theology” or “anti-belief”.
(And this is what bugs the Hell out of me. Why even label us as anti anything? Why is it on us to disprove something for which no empirical evidence exists. That goes against the fundamentals of discovery. Give me an observable phenomenon any day — face of the Virgin Mary on a carpet stain, feverish night visions, churchgoers speaking in tongues — and I will explain as best I can using our current toolkit of accumulated human knowledge.
Ok, will continue that rant elsewhere. Back to our regularly scheduled low-carb humor-infused PR discussion.)
Indulge me for a brief survey of counter-religious marketing materials and paraphernalia. This won’t take long — there just isn’t a lot out there. First, some billboards:
Seriously? I’ve seen ads for proctology exams that were more exciting than this. At least they had the good sense to forego the word “atheist”, in favor of the harder-to-pronounce but less polarizing “rationalists”.
Is this an appeal to reason, or a slasher movie promo? Just like the previous ad, which starts with the negative “don’t”, this one is premised on replacing something (“faith”), hence both reinforce the idea that atheism is against something.
I have to give this one a bit more credit — at least it attempts to be funny, with that ground up biblical quote. And the font selection gives the sign an accessible, non-threatening vibe. But why undercut your message with that PROBABLY afterthought?
If anything, ENJOY YOUR LIFE, buried in the fine print, should be the main message, front and center. ENJOY YOUR LIFE is the one line on the entire billboard that is positive and non-cynical.
Furthermore, such wishy-washy attempt at humor is easily countered, even by the usually humorless finger-wagging Christian fundamentalists:
Well done, folks in charge of atheist marketing strategy — you’ve managed to make the religious right look more hip and witty than yourselves.
Alright, so the poster-based messaging needs work. Let’s look now at the more prominent spokespersons for the so-called New Atheist movement. There are a number, but four names in particular stand out: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett — gents that have written books and hold regular speaking engagements on the subject. (Held, in the case of Christopher Hitchens, who passed away in 2011.)
I know, the guys are not exactly radiating warmth with those glares, and it’s unfortunate that as a group they somehow acquired this moniker referencing the most ominous of the books of the New Testament. So yeah, not gonna win over too many believers with the optics alone.
This despite the fact that if you take the time to read or listen to their stuff, they are brimming with thoughtful and I dare say even motivational ideas. Take this line from Daniel Dennett, an accomplished philosopher, author and cognitive researcher, and a very likable white-bearded Santa-like figure to boot:
The only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it
It’s a wonderfully flexible quote, because examination can be taken to mean either empirical discovery of the laws of nature, or individual reflection and self-discovery. He doesn’t let us off the hook easily; he tells us to take nothing for granted and to seek our own answers, but offers that the quest for knowledge can be a uniting force for all humanity.
There are further notable public figures who have donated their time to promoting secularism and critiquing religiosity — entertainers such as Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais, Penn Jillette. Which leads me to another point of optics: the movement needs women!
Sure, there are some well-known women who have made public statements about their atheism. Within the English-speaking world, they tend to be British or Australian celebrities (Mirren, Thompson, Knightley, Griffiths). In America, being openly non-religious still tends to be a liability in many circles, so fewer names come to mind (Foster, Sarandon). Wouldn’t it be great if some of these ladies could lend more of their time and star power and step up to be thought leaders of secular activism?
And if we’re looking for positive and inspiring leaders of the secularist movement, we need look no further than Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Mostly forgotten by now, she was in many ways an ordinary single mother who in 1963 sued her local public school district for her son’s right to freedom from religious influence. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and achieved the banning of Bible readings in public schools across the U.S.
O’Hair went on to found and be first president of American Atheists. For her efforts, she was rewarded with persistent bullying of her son, death threats against her family, and the label of The Most Hated Woman in America, bestowed on her by Life magazine. A Netflix movie by that same name is streaming now, focusing on the kidnapping and brutal murder or Madalyn, her son and granddaughter.
We owe it to Madalyn to rehabilitate her legacy and celebrate her accomplishments. Her quote below may serve us well in our current thoughts-and-prayers news cycles of senseless extremist violence.
Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer
One other remarkable individual deserves a shout-out here. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, science evangelist, rock idol of space geeks. He, perhaps more than anyone else active today, through his electrifyingly infectious communication style, has managed to turn the celebration of knowledge into a transcendental, dare I say spiritual, experience.
Not only do we exist in this universe. It is the universe itself that exists within us.
That association, to me, is quite enlightening, and ennobling, and enriching.
Now tell me if that ain’t some uplifting, dance-in-the-aisles, praise-the-heavens sermon, that any spiritual adviser or minister could draw inspiration from. And all in the name of knowledge and discovery.
What have we learned here? I think it’s that atheism, and more broadly speaking the secularist movement, has a strong underlying message, and some damned fine spokespersons, yet it fails on two key points of presentation. Namely, it needs to improve
- Optics — a more compelling visual language
- Naming — a more positive label
I’m no graphic designer, so I’ll leave the first point to those with the skills to frame the message in a more appealing visual framework. (A catchy, universally recognizable logo, perhaps?) But I do know a bit about crafting words, so I’ll take a stab at that more positive label.
Let me say quickly that the one word I dislike even more than atheist is agnostic. To be agnostic is to declare that knowledge can fail us; that there are certain things which are unknowable. This I strongly reject. In fact, I identify with the opposite of being agnostic. If given the luxury of choosing a label, I would go with this (hey, a word can have multiple meanings):
prognostic — someone who is a believer in knowledge, and in the human ability to create meaning through learning, experimenting and self-discovery
(from the Latin pro- “for, in favor of” +Greek gnōstós "known" )
Allow me to conclude with another Dennett quote, mined from this interview. We, you and I, by writing, reading about and debating this and myriad other topics, are carrying on the long and rich tradition of human creativity, and contributing to the discovery of meaning in our lives.
We are meaning makers, and we care … You don’t have to be told by an eternal being what’s right and wrong — you figure out what’s right and wrong … Rather than thank the nonexistent benefactor, the way to thank the human beings that created all this, is to create a little bit more … and add to the goodness in the world.
Thanks for making it this far! Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.