Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"American Atheists" and the "best arguments"

Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it.
Shunryu Susuki

Greetings my dear reader!

During my time at Purdue, both my social circle and my ministry has included many brothers and sisters from the Non-Theist community. I treasure the relationships that I have built with my Non-Theists friends, and even when we disagree about certain things, I am confident that some of these relationships will continue for many years and I look forward to that beer, glass of wine, or coffee 20 years from now when one of us will say: "Hey, remember that time at Purdue..." :)

Now my dear reader, let me ask you a question: have you ever heard the expression: the engine's running but there's nobody behind the wheel? The group American Atheists decided to pay to have the following billboard put up in Harrisburg, PA:

As to the reasons for the billboard, I got this from the official Facebook page of AA:

A literal application of a scripture, Colossians 3:22, will enrage communities into full blown anger, voicing personal attack and death threats. The application of this scripture proves that the Bible is barbaric, horrible, awful, repugnant, and racist? Why do people parade the Bible as the best book on planet Earth? The Bible is by far, the worst book ever compiled and adored by countless humans, including the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. American Atheists detests the Bible and the slavery it condones as much as the vandals detest the image of slavery portrayed on the billboard. Maybe the public can now understand our anger and frustration at the House of Representatives' "Year of The Bible" resolution? The unanimous theocratic passage of this resolution was a bigoted, narrow-minded and self-centered act against all citizens in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On January 24, 2012 at 3:12 pm, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives vandalized the citizenship of Atheists and other non-Christians in this Commonwealth by relegating us to second class status.
Ernest Perce V,
American Atheists Pennsylvania State Director

...the engine's running but there's nobody behind the wheel...

Now, I usually try to speak and communicate in a way that gets me away from receiving "death threats", but true, our country has struggled with the demons of racism for a long time. I have no problem admitting that the Bible was used to justify slavery because to disagree would be to deny history and deny reality. I am also one of the first to admit (and I have done this both in private AND in public as part of my ministry) that the Bible is being used in some parts of the world to discriminate, harass, incarcerate, and kill members of the LGTBQ community. However, if a group like AA wants to point this out and protest a resolution passed by politicians, I can think of a thousand different ways to do this. Yet, they chose this way. The problem with a message that wants to enrage communities into full blown anger, voicing personal attack and death threats is that you can never be sure of how this message is going to be received.

Among the many things that came to mind were message and minorities. When you are a minority (like the Non-Theists) struggling for your rights, fighting against discrimination, trying to advance an agenda, and/or trying to gain respect in society, the type of message you use to advance your goals is very, very, very important.

Now, some of my Non-Theist brothers and sisters tell me that one of the differences between them and me is that while I have crappy (or shitty) arguments as a religious person, Non-Theists always have the "best arguments". The logic goes that the "best arguments" should lead the person to the "right place" with less chances of being misdirected or confused by silly ideas, like my religion and/or my belief in "Sky Gandalf" for example. ;)  Yet, the billboard points to a big problem with this idea.

AA used their "arguments" to come up with a message. And they used the billboard to transmit this message. And like the expression goes, here's the rub:
1) There is message, and there is perception.
2) The "best" argument is not going to work if the person will not listen to you.
3) When a minority tries to make a point that includes something connected to another minority, be careful how you say it.

The billboard was vandalized. And AA reacted this way:

Our thoughts on the "Slaves" billboard in Pennsylvania that was vandalized during the night...

You SHOULD be offended! You should be VERY offended! You should be offended at the racist caricature used by newspapers of the time to sell the pictured item to slave owners. You should be offended at southern preachers who used this verse to justify slavery, the Civil War, and the continued denial of rights to freed slaves after the war. You should be offended by the Bible that promotes slavery and gave slave owners rules on how to treat and properly beat their slaves. You should be offended that slaves adopted the religion of their slave masters. You're damn right, it's offensive! But hey, let's shoot the messenger instead.

AA concluded that their message was correct, people are upset because their message was correct, and those same people should not "shoot the messenger" since AA is pointing out the truth and for example pointing out how "southern preachers" used the Bible (and the verse they quote from the Bible) to justify horrors like slavery and how slaves themselves adopted the religion of their slave masters.


While AA was ready (and perfectly happy) to be criticized by theists and religious people like myself, it is clear to me that they never expected to get the type criticism they got...from their own community. And this goes to the complex reaction in the Non-Theist community.

Some Non-Theists see nothing wrong with the billboard, some approve but not of way it was done, and others simply do not approve. This is to be expected. When you have multiple groups with many different people you will have different messages with different opinions on those messages. In fact, the debate in the Non-Theist movement regarding this billboard has been very robust and trust me on this one: they certainly have no problems in disagreeing publicly with one another.

Hemant Mehta saw it this way and he quotes AJ Johnson, Development Director of AA. Johnson gives his own personal view of the reasons why AA was justified in using the billboard:

As an African American and an atheist, the recent stir caused by the PA Nonbelievers/American Atheists billboard is both surprising and disheartening. While I expected a negative reaction from religious African Americans, I was disturbed to find dissent from Black people within the Secular Movement.

The quote presented, “Slaves obey your masters,” was not taken out of context and is only one of the MANY locations in the Bible that you can observe a pro-slavery message. The image used was not created by American Atheists for this purpose, but was reprinted to illustrate the brutality that the Bible condones — and the reality of the conditions my ancestors endured. I am deeply saddened that the purpose of our billboard has been labeled as racist or as an “attack” on African Americans or a particular PA community. This vitriol is sorely misplaced, and should be directed at those who peddle Scripture as fact — or toward the PA House of Representatives that successfully sought to legislate it as such.

If you are rightfully upset by the Bible passage or the image used to represent it, do not take it up with American Atheists. We don’t agree with them either! The only difference is that we refuse to deny the reality of what is in the Bible, and its role the historical & ongoing oppression of African Americans. If that is controversial, then so be it. As long as 2012 is the “Year of the Bible” in PA, we will be providing even more samples of the “Good Book” to show the folks of Pennsylvania what their government thinks is important. Maybe 2013 will be the “Year of Improved Infrastructure” or the “Year of Job-Growth” instead.

AJ Johnson
Development Director
American Atheists

However, Sikivu Hutchinson (also an African American and an Atheist) did not see it this way:
The black body has always been an object of deep and abiding obsession in the American imagination.  Be it cavorting in “funky” abandon on a dance floor, vaulting off a basketball court in dunk mode, suckling apple-cheeked white babies, trotted out in a police line-up, or greased down, poked, prodded and staged on a slave auction block, the black body occupies that mystical place between corporeality and supernaturalism. Recently, American Atheists, a predominantly white group with a largely white leadership, slapped up a billboard in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania neighborhood featuring a picture of a shackled naked black slave and a bible quote that said “slaves obey your masters.” The ad was intended to protest Pennsylvania’s boneheaded declaration of 2012 as the so-called “Year of the Bible.”  Much to the “astonishment” of AA reps, the billboard was reviled, defaced, and labeled a hate crime by some in the African American community.  Apparently offended black folk just weren’t intelligent enough to grasp the sage lesson that American Atheists, prominent champion of anti-racist social justice, was trying to teach them. Instead, some “misconstrued” the message as racist, concluding that, in a country where white nationalists have issued a clarion call to take back the nation from the Negro savage/illegal alien in the White House, “slaves obey your masters” probably still means them.

Hutchinson also said:
In the Harrisburg incident some black residents spewed anti-atheist slurs and labeled the AA group the Antichrist.  Vandals tore part of the billboard down and it was removed shortly after it was mounted.  But AA’s ahistorical paternalistic approach to “secular” public service messaging is one of the main reasons why New Atheism is still racially segregated and lily white.  Clearly AA doesn’t give a damn about the reality of urban communities of color in the U.S. vis-à-vis the institutional role of organized religion in a white supremacist capitalist context. 

PZ Myers took notice of this when he said:
All the religious fanatics and Christian and Muslim weirdos who criticize atheists can take a flying leap — and when Bill Donohue rants and raves about atheist billboards, it’s a vindication and a triumph. But when one of our own, the black atheist Sikivu Hutchinson, speaks out in criticism, it’s a message that must be taken seriously and addressed.

As you can see my dear reader, Myers is NOT exactly what one could call a diplomat in the Non-Theist community. So when someone like him tells the following to David Silverman (president of AA) it shows a legitimate concern on how the message of the billboard was received:

David Silverman, are you listening? I know this is not the message you want to send, but it’s what people are hearing. Fix this. Don’t tell people of color what they want, listen when they tell you what they need.

...this is not the message you want to send, but it’s what people are hearing....

Again my dear reader:

There is always a huge gap between what a person wants to say, how she/he communicates that message, and what the other person actually hears. This is nothing new, is just the nature of communication. And sometimes the "best arguments" that make 'us' conclude that 'we' have the 'truth' are useless if the message to communicate this 'truth' is faulty and it blows up like this.

Will this be a learning experience for AA? Only time will tell. So far, this is what they said:
We want to thank everyone for sharing their opinions with us about the "Slaves, Obey Your Masters" billboard. While we certainly respect the opinions of those who disagree with our tactics, we respectfully disagree with that opinion. We are unapologetic about the billboard and stand behind it 100%. There will be no apology from American Atheists for saying what needed to be said: sometimes the truth is offensive.

By all means, continue to talk about it and hash it out among yourselves, but we have said all there is to say on the issue and will say no more.

We are moving on to our next project and look forward to putting up more billboards!

Thank you for your support!

"...sometimes the truth is offensive..."

Sorry AA, but the tree has fallen and there are many who are not around to hear it. And when you have people in your community telling you that there is a problem here to say to them hash it out among yourselves does not sound (again, perception) like you are listening and it does not sound like you care about the truth. This sounds more like:


AA this makes you sound like the same people you are trying to criticize and not because you are racists but because instead of using the "best arguments" it sounds like you are simply saying to everyone else you don't get it! And while you wanted people to think "Wow, I never thought of that" or "Yeah, the Bible is horrible", all of that gets lost in the sea of "Atheists said what!?!?" Because to many people this billboard was not done by "American Atheists" but by ALL "Atheists". And many of them don't see things exactly they way you do and they don't necessarily want to be called racists, REGARDLESS of you thinking that the billboard was not racist.


Of course I could be wrong and I may not be getting it....then again...message...perception...

Too bad. The good news is that I personally know people in the Non-Theist community that understand that this is issue is more complex than AA is willing to say or admit. AA was at the table of this conversation...in fact, it was a conversation they started with this billboard but they have left the table. So now, it is up to others to continue the conversation without them. As a member of a minority myself, I understand that this type of conversation is a serious business.

My dear reader, I hope you are having a great week. Untile the next time. :)



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