It’s the season of the Atheist Billboards argument once again


I’m starting out with a recent rant by Pat Robertson, but stick with me here, because this posting is not really about his absurd monolog, that is just a platform to get into the real debate about these billboards.

Pat Robertson is indeed the gift that just keeps on giving, and so as I’m sure you know by now, he has a truly remarkable gift for saying things on his weekly show that are either absurd or utterly outrageous.

As you might imagine, when faced with an Atheist Billboards, he takes a stance that is driven by his burning desire to censor things that he does not agree with …

we should “forget this first amendment stuff”. A billboard with an atheist message is “repugnant” like one depicting “two teenagers having sex”. Rather than respect their right to different beliefs, people should “tell those atheists to take a hike” because “it’s a mistake to put that kind of garbage in public view”.

Did he really say that, is he actually arguing against both the constitution and also the universal basic human right known as “Freedom of Speech”?

Yes he really is …

I confess it is more than a tad hypocritical of him to object to the AA billboards given that the milder things one hears on his 700 Club  are sufficiently strident and obnoxious enough to make the AA billboards look very tame. Perhaps the pure joy of making the observation that the very existence of the AA billboards upsets Mr Robinson so much is almost sufficient justification for them.

There is a real debate here

Putting Mr Robinson to one side, an interesting question to ponder over is to ask if such billboards work, do they actually reach out successfully and make a difference, or do they instead just end up upsetting those that believe?

I’ve seen an online twitter dialog between Dave Silverman of American Atheists and Massimo Pigliucci, and I can see that both sides of the argument have points, which in summary are

I confess that Massimo, who takes the later stance, makes a really good point … “Few will listen to you if you start out the conversation by telling then that they are idiots.“. The counter argument to that is “The billboards are instead aimed at closeted atheists, trying to encourage them to come out and be counted“.

So to be clear, Massimo is not objecting to any Atheist billboard, but is specifically concerned with ones that attack and carry the negative, “you are an idiot if you are religious” message, and has no problem with alternatives such as these more positive ones …

  • “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)

Side note, I suspect Pat Robertson would also object to those as well, and would most probably like to see anything and everything that does not exactly align with his beliefs banned.

Another argument might be, “But this is exactly what the religious do“, and the counter argument to that is, “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“, so would we really want to fall into that same camp?

So does all this imply that Massimo Pigliucci and Dave Silverman are not friends?

Nope, not at all, it is a friendly civil debate, as noted by Dave

Here you go Massimo. A civil response to a civil attack.
Thanks for handling this issue as you did. You’re a gentleman (who is sometimes wrong), and I respect that.
I want to start this article by thanking Massimo for his civil tone and frank honesty. The billboard about which he writes has generated a substantial amount of discussion, and many of its detractors have been anything but civil, instead devolving into ad hominem and personal attacks against American Atheists or me. It is my hope that the entire movement can learn how to attack ideas without attacking people from Massimo.
I also want to state categorically that Massimo is still counted as one of my friends, a friend of the organization (of which he is a Life Member), and a serious player in the movement. As we all know, atheists don’t always agree, and we will never progress without acceptance of our own diversity.

It is healthy to have such debates and that is of course a reflection of the reality that Atheists may indeed agree that there is no god, but need not agree about anything else at all – and that is fine, because life is like that, and so there is room for AA to have their format of billboards, and there is also room for others to suggest that this is not their approach and would prefer to see a more positive less antagonistic message.

I would perhaps have once, not too long ago, agreed with Mr Silverman on this, but Massimo makes a compelling credible evidence-based argument, one that is sufficiently robust enough to change my mind.

“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 … Put simply, I object to my philosophical stance coming across  even to some natural allies as being supported by a bunch of angry jerks.”  – Massimo Pigliucci, a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York

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