A billboard campaign rarely makes the news unless it’s either wildly provocative or sponsored by an atheist group. As far as billboards go, it’s all well and good to remind people of some dehumanizing catastrophe like a Celine Dione concert at the local casino; but if you suggest that Christianity’s a myth or that atheists exist, everyone will freak the fuck out.
And part of that everyone who freaks out at atheist billboards includes other atheists. Like Chris Stedman.
Stedman calls himself a “Humanist chaplain.” [EDIT: Stedman responded in part on Twitter denying that he called himself that. I may have mistaken his defense of the position as a real job as self-defense] Don’t ask me what that means. Don’t ask Stedman either, because as far as I’ve been able to gather he hasn’t been able to elaborate on what that so-called “job” entails beyond simply being a decent person. It’s nice work if you can get it.
Anyway, Stedman’s been pretty upset with a billboard campaign by American Atheists. AA is admittedly on the more “in your face” end of the spectrum of atheist organizations, and for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas they’re putting up these billboards:
Stedman doesn’t approve of the billboards even though, as a secular humanist, he would mostly agree with the underlying claim they make. Sure, he knows that Christianity’s based more on mythology than history, but Christians don’t. So they might be offended by American Atheists pointing that out. They need protection from those mean atheists and their differing opinions. But who will protect them? The “humanist chaplain,” that’s who.
So Stedman took to Twitter (where we admittedly follow him) to take American Atheists president and wearer of bewildered expressions in reaction to Bill O’Reilly’s idiocy Dave Silverman to task for undermining the secular cause by being too offensive. Silverman countered by citing increases in AA membership and media coverage. In a surreal move, Stedman then criticized Silverman for just focusing on the numbers. Because when you want to demonstrate a strategy’s effectiveness, you’re supposed to measure it with…Japanese calligraphy.
At this point my head was starting to ache and I felt like I had to intervene. So here’s how it went down:
The studies he’s citing are pretty interesting, but almost totally irrelevant. The experimenters would take people grouped by ideology and have them read fake news stories and respond to them. Some of the fake news stories confirmed their beliefs. Others contradicted them. And some of them would have a correction at the end, while others didn’t. What the study revealed was that people don’t usually change their false beliefs when they learn of new evidence which proves them wrong.
Stedman seemed to think this proves that correcting misconceptions about atheists in a nice way works, while doing it in a more aggressive, American Atheists-style doesn’t. But there was no control in the studies he cited for tone. All it tested was whether or not people respond to any correction at all, and it looks like most of us don’t. So if he’s saying we should apply these findings to a strategy of explaining to people that atheists aren’t all evil people, then the new strategy would be no strategy at all. The whole idea of secular outreach, or even just education in general, is a futile endeavor if nobody will ever change their minds when corrected.
But it doesn’t look like he was thinking of things in the same way:
At this point I quoted from the abstract of a study he cited describing how the experiment was carried out, and pointed out that these studies weren’t about how people double down on their beliefs when they feel they’re under attack at all. He just made that up out of whole cloth. Here’s the relevant quote from the abstract:
We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.
As you can see, there’s nothing in there about how corrections are made. That’s not what these people were studying at all. Stedman the chaplain is just doing another form of apologetics by pretending that empirical evidence supports what he’s already decided to believe for his own subjective reasons.
Later he claimed he was thinking of another study and couldn’t find it because he was busy. As of now I’m still waiting on that. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he’s right. Let’s hypothetically say that being aggressive in your outreach usually backfires and reinforces the same worldviews you’re trying to change. If that were true, you would expect an organization running billboards like this:
And then there’s the assymetry to consider. It’s not like Stedman is objecting to a comparably ham-handed PR campaign like this one by some anonymous person on reddit:
The American Atheist billboards just present their general position on Christianity, i.e. that it’s a myth. It doesn’t say that myths are horrible things which will lead to you going on a senseless massacre. It should be no more offensive to theists than a Pepsi billboard would be to Atlanta. I pass by all kinds of advertising and marketing campaigns I don’t agree with every day, but I don’t go on a Quixotic Twitter crusade to stop them.
Another problem with urging people like Dave Silverman, PZ Myers, Greta Christina, and our other ‘angry atheist’ friends to be nicer in their approach is that people are pretty good at spotting phonies. If you think you’re being respectful on the outside, chances are the person you’re trying to reach will just see you rolling your eyes on the inside. Unless you’re trained as an actor or something like that, sugarcoating is always going to come across as disingenuous.
One last point: even if a nice accommodationist approach works for 70% of the population, there’s still a 30% potential audience for a more blunt approach. Why not let others try different approaches? Maybe it is less effective as a whole (and I’m not yet convinced of that), but do we really want to ignore everyone who doesn’t respond to the most popular tactic? It seems so short-sighted.
Sadly, our Twitter mini-battle ended pretty much where we started:
Not entirely opposed to multiple approaches…just partially. And that’s where the facepalming began.