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Chris Stedman Is Wrong On The Internet




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.

“Humanist chaplain goes in, Humanist chaplain goes out, never a miscommunication.”

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:

to fail pretty quickly. But that’s not what’s happening. The above billboard was made and paid for by one of the most popular creationist groups in the world, our old friends at Answers in Genesis.

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.


  • Don Delgado

    Stedman’s tactics assume that atheists already have a strong presence and an honored public face through which to educate people. Atheist thinkers who discuss atheist ideas are widely considered provocateurs in America when they dare to speak publicly.

    Very few people will be “educated” into considering atheist arguments until groups like AA, and campaigns exactly like this one, remove shame from overt statements of atheist ideas.

    Stedman is sitting pretty himself, famous, moneyed, friends with all sorts of liberal believers. He doesn’t grasp that everyday atheists need these types of campaigns if they want to be visible in America. As much as some atheists may bristle at the idea, we need some team spirit.

  • matt

    as long as it’s not those rational response squad douchebags, I’m for it.

  • Akira MacKenzie

    Well, I suppose every pissed-on minority has their version of an “Uncle Tom” who will gladly provide support for the very people who are pissing on them. Stedman, as well as FOX News’ pet “atheist” S.E. Cupp (who, despite her claims not to believe in a god will go out of her way to defend the antics of the Christian Right), prove that non-believers are no different.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      I wouldn’t go so far as to compare him to SE Cupp. That’s just mean.

  • Karla McLaren

    I’m wondering why arguments like this occur in the absence of the social science data that are pretty clear (as clear as data on people can be, changeable datasets that they are) about how aggression, ridicule, and polarization operate upon the individual, upon peer groups, and upon outsider views of the polarizing behavioral tactics.

    Michael McRae, a science educator in Australia, wrote about this last year and gathered some relevant studies (they’re linked at the end of his post): http://tribalscientist.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/a-ridiculous-essay-on-rational-outreach/

    It’s geared toward the DBAD uproar that occurred in the skeptical community — so it’s not exactly of a piece with the AA situation, but it’s close enough for jazz.

    From Michael’s comments to that post: “Yet the evidence indicates it’s more likely that ridicule has the effect of reducing the perceived validity of the argument. Rather than making something seem more ridiculous, it seems that the nature of the opposing argument is made weaker.

    Ridicule only seems to work if you’re already sympathetic to the values or argument of the mocking party.”

    There are mountains of data that show aggression and ridicule to be poor teaching tools, unless you’re looking at high-control situations such as bullying, intentional polarization, or propaganda: http://library.thinkquest.org/C0111500/proptech.htm

    But even then, as you’ll know if you’ve been bullied, or if you’ve belonged to a polarized conflict culture, or if you’ve been the subject of propaganda techniques — you might change your behaviors or go along to avoid ridicule, peer aggression, and other forms of social violence — but do you change inside your private thoughts when people attempt to control you through ridicule and aggression? Oh hell no.

    If social change that is moderated by each individual’s free choice is the goal, then aggression and ridicule are failtactics. You’ve got to reach out with respect and patience — neither of which are synonyms for niceness, I must point out.

    But if social control, peer pressure, and polarization are the goal, then aggression and ridicule will only work for a while … in malleable and easily controlled people … until they find someone who can manipulate them even more effectively … or the inevitable backlash occurs.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      1.There’s a pretty big gap between saying that atheists think Christianity’s a myth and ridicule, aggression, mockery, or propaganda. Maybe if AA were running ads like the KKK image in this article, these studies would be more relevant. But as things are, it seems like a huge stretch. Almost as much of a stretch as saying that studies which show that correcting errors doesn’t work means that correcting errors does work if you do it in a nice way.

      2. “You’ve got to reach out with respect and patience” – But if you don’t actually respect the person and/or their beliefs, pretending to respect them is only going to make you look condescending. And a lot of accommodationists do come across that way, IMO.

      3. How about you “reach out with respect and patience” while others just be honest about what they think and we’ll see who has the most impact? I might disagree with you on a strategy’s efficacy, but even if I think you’re wrong I’m not going to demand that you use the strategy I think is best. Accommodationists are going to resonate more with certain people and we’re going to be more effective with others.

  • Geo

    haha, the “back-fire effect.”
    it does seem logical that an overly-aggressive campaign with contradicting ideals might be off-putting and in turn defeat the purpose altogether. however, even when faced with logical and reasonable corrections, most people aren’t likely to change their minds, whether that’s because they were raised only being taught one thing and that anything else was Satan, or because they’re just morons is yet to be decided.
    unfortunately people are more likely to believe a falsehood simply because they had heard it before hearing any truth, and they usually don’t even accept a glimmer of ambiguity either. they must be totally correct.
    sad sad sad.
    this was a very funny article, btw. i quite enjoyed it

  • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

    @Karla, also, the point Stedman inadvertently made via the studies he cited was that people tend to not respond well to *any corrections at all.* So why should it be surprising that “hostile” corrections don’t work very well when we already know that all corrections don’t work very well?

  • Anthony

    Stedman is a deluded ivory tower academic who thinks his lame method of “positive inter-dialogue” matters. I’d like to see him try that approach in Texas (not Austin), Appalachia, or Utah. The forces keeping people faithful to religion are stronger than his misguided paternalism. Get a job Stedman.

  • Mike C.

    I like to split the difference, and make condescension my strategy.

    And by strategy I mean involuntary personality defect.

  • Harold

    It seems to me that anyone who finds the myth billboards offensive isn’t likely to change their opinions on dieties, so whats to lose?

  • robert van bakel

    Reminds of the, ‘There’s Probably No God So Don’t Worry’ bus hoardings campaign in Britain, Oz, and NZ. A few buses were attacked, but on the whole well received; yippeee!

  • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

    Karla not responding to any of my arguments and instead posting the same old refuted accommodationist arguments seems kind of… what’s the word? Oh yeah, disrespectful.

  • robert van bakel

    In this case as in most others,(most, not all) honesty is generally the best way to go. This is because religious people of all stripes are the most outragious liars on the planet. Evolution, and Global Warming denial, are cases in point. Despite overwhelming, consistant, varifiable, and repeatable evidence and experimentation, they, and their minions continue to wollow in the mire of their collective stupidity. These billboards annoy ‘the chosen’, we get it. So what? I’ve been annoyed for 45 years by their constant, unremitting, tedious, repititious, self absorbed, ego-maniachal UN-selfdoubt. How the fuck can you go through life knowing the answer to everything, without ever once questioning that self-confidence? Religious people are a-human, or even anti-human. I like doubt, it means I can say to morons, ‘no: I am not “for you”, and I am not “against you”, I choose to wait and see because other indeterminate factors are involved and not even the very wise can see all ends: By the way you are not even close to being amongst, ‘the very wise’.

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