The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

December 5, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: Don’t Take Offense But . . . You KNOW It’s A Myth!

I attended two holiday parties yesterday.  One Christmas-themed, the other Hanukkah-themed, but both really a mix.  I don’t know the actual religious beliefs of the hosts, but I am confident that at the very least they are honoring cultural/familial traditions that are personally important to them.  And their guests certainly enjoy the opportunity for merriment and noshing–not to mention catching up with friends. 

In this holiday season, the American Atheists, headed by David Silverman, elected in their infinite wisdom to post a billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel with an image of the 3 magi approaching the manger with the text: “You KNOW it’s a Myth.  This Season Celebrate REASON!”

Stephen Colbert addressed the billboard and the predictably ensuing controversy (at with his usual satirical skill.  Thank God someone knows how to laugh at this particularly ridiculous episode in the culture wars.

David Silverman appeared on Fox “News” to discuss the billboard (at  My perusal of the blogosphere indicated a fairly positive atheist response to his performance.  But I have the same question as the “moderator,”* “Why be offensive to Christians using their symbols?”  Silverman’s fundamental response seems to be: “What we said was the truth.  Now, if somebody takes offense at that, that’s their problem.”

Hmmm.  Silverman, I hope you don’t take that approach when your significant other asks how they look in their evening finery.

Is there a point to a frontal assault on the Nativity story at Christmastime other than to provoke by offending?  I can’t think of one.  That is not to say that atheists shouldn’t conduct a billboard campaign.  Silverman is right–fundamentalist Christians sure do.  And there is no reason atheists should shy away from such a campaign at Christmastime–but couldn’t Silverman and his AA come up with something more constructive to say?  I don’t know, like, a snowflake heart next to the message: In this holiday season, remember LOVE is a universal value.  Cheesy, yes.  But, hey, it’s Christmas–for Christ’s sake!

Also, I’ve celebrated a lot of things in my life, but “REASON” is not one of them.  Indeed, celebration itself is a rather emotive affair.  This particular billboard campaign is not going to do a damn thing to counter the popular impression of atheists as somewhat cold, if not heartless.  It’s as if we hired Scrooge as a publicist.  Perhaps if I were a real “American Atheist,” I would have shown up at my friends’ holiday parties with a t-shirt that said, “Religion is bullshit–Where are the DRINKS?”

This is my conclusion about the billboard: What a pile.  As sick as I am of all the fundamentalist Christian roadside proselytizing (and believe me, I am), a literal counter-offensive is just not the right approach–in any sense.  It will alienate, not encourage, those who are questioning their beliefs, and as the proverbial low-road, it is morally degrading. 

There is not a New Atheist or American Atheist or other angry atheist around who can convince me that arrogance, rather than compassion, will win the day.


*I put moderator in scare quotes because she acts more like a participant in the panel than a moderator.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson



  1. It violates the number one rule of persuasion: don’t offend your audience. Even my eleventh-grade students can grasp that after a lesson or two.

    Comment by Michelle — December 5, 2010 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

  2. Sorry the antecedent of it was unclear: the billboard violates the number one rule of persuasion.

    Comment by Michelle — December 5, 2010 @ 12:09 pm | Reply

  3. Wild gay pride parades make many people relived when all two guys want to do is get married. Extreme actions make all other actions, unfairly seen as extreme, seem normal.

    Comment by Brian — December 5, 2010 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

    • Interesting perspective, Brian. I think people engage in the wilder aspects as pure self-expression, not for the purpose of being so extreme as to normalize the more pedestrian lifestyles. Whether the presence of the wilder side normalizes the more pedestrian in people’s minds would seem to be an empirical question. I don’t know whether it does or not. My tendency is to think that the more normal representations of gay lifestyles normalize homosexuality in people’s minds. But I haven’t seen any studies on the question. I think that the American Atheists made their provocation also as a pure form of self-expression of their anger, not really with the goal of persuading anyone or normalizing atheism. If there are studies that show that the more provocative expressions of atheism make people more open to the tamer statements, I would be interested in seeing those. It certainly is counterintuitive. I would also say that the mode of expression of atheists’ beliefs is not as essential to a sense of self as the wilder expressions at gay pride. In other words, I think we can more legitimately ask other atheists to temper their expressions in the service of our cause than we could ask the more flamboyant gay celebrants to.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 5, 2010 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

      • “Is there a point to a frontal assault on the Nativity story at Christmastime other than to provoke by offending?”

        Offending has negative effects, but provided there is any other point in the billboard at all it has the positive effect of generating attention.

        “I can’t think of one.”

        Silverman cited two, so you don’t have to. This is a weakness of the campaign: it has multiple goals. First, to reach closeted atheists, secondly, to reclaim the winter solstice from Christmas. Believe it or not Fox had a perfectly fair and balanced interview: html=

        “It violates the number one rule of persuasion: don’t offend your audience.”

        That’s not always the right thing to do, though it often is.

        “I think people engage in the wilder aspects as pure self-expression, not for the purpose of being so extreme as to normalize the more pedestrian lifestyles.”

        If the act has a positive outcome, you’re moving the goalposts by asking for pure motives. Your criticism ceases to be about the billboard and becomes about the people.

        “I think that the American Atheists made their provocation also as a pure form of self-expression of their anger, not really with the goal of persuading anyone or normalizing atheism.”

        Well that’s unfair and entirely too broad. The institution is made up of multiple people who have conflicting motivations themselves, which change from day to day. You won’t convince me your criticism is justified simply by ascribing the worst possible motivations to those you disagree with. That’s an assumption I’ve seen no evidence for.

        “It certainly is counterintuitive.”

        “In other words, I think we can more legitimately ask other atheists to temper their expressions in the service of our cause than we could ask the more flamboyant gay celebrants to.”

        That has to do with our response to the event: assuming we find it has negative effects, how forceful should our protest be? First, motive (whether it’s venting, self-expression, or something else) is only relevant to our opposition if we find it’s in fact a negative act we should oppose. Secondly, I think this is in the same league as an act of communal expression as the parades, if not quite the same ballpark.

        The font choice and irregular capitalization were deeply offensive to me. Others found it offensive for other reasons, which gave wider attention to its message-which should have been of higher quality. Offensiveness also has value per se in normalizing non-provocative atheism.

        I think the billboard failed to hit either goal squarely in the process of trying for two. As you said, “reason” was the wrong thing to cite as an alternative reason to celebrate.

        Here are some alternatives I thought of:

        “Have a merry Christmas: with or without Santa. Enjoy an ethical life: with or without faith. -Brought to you by American Atheists”

        “For over 4,000 years, people have marked the winter solstice. Celebrate our cultural heritage and favorite legends: from Stonehenge to Jesus to Rudolph. -Brought to you by American Atheists”

        (Cartoon of Jesus riding/flying Rudolph around Stonehenge)

        “Early Christians weren’t afraid to change the pagan holiday of December 25th. Give it your own meaning this year. -Brought to you by American Atheists”

        Comment by Brian — December 6, 2010 @ 4:16 am

      • I believe that Silverman’s citation of attempting to appeal to closeted atheists in church pews was a mere pretext. If it was not, then Silverman is just ineffective. I have not moved a single goalpost in my argument. One of the aspects of the billboard that I think leads to its offensiveness is that it was not presented with the best motives, i.e., to make a positive presentation of atheism at Christmastime, but to be provocative. I think provocation was the motive and if it wasn’t, then the billboard was not well thought out. The evidence for the motive of provocation is in the easily predicted effect–it was provocative. Also, telling people who view the billboard that they don’t get to define what offends them and if they are offended it’s really their problem is also provocative. Since Silverman is their public face on this issue and the American Atheists spent their resources on a provocation at Christmastime, I think it is fair to attribute provocation as a motive of the institution in this act. The wikilink re the Overton theory provides no empirical evidence that putting forth a more extreme position makes the more moderate position more palatable, and I certainly think the effect could depend on the positions at issue. With respect to the normalizing of “non-provocative” atheism, I’m happy to do without that assistance. I think some of your alternative suggestions for a billboard could work, with a little fine tuning.

        Comment by SAJohnson — December 6, 2010 @ 8:38 am

  4. Deal with it.

    Comment by Durr Hurr — December 5, 2010 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

    • I deal with all kinds of things every day, Durr Hurr. As I’m sure you do.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 5, 2010 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

  5. I guess you missed all the blogs and interviews that keep reiterating that the target audience of the ads is closet atheists, not Christians or any other religious group. Is it your position that atheists are not allowed to try to persuade or influence each other? If so, fuck you.

    Comment by Durr Hurr — December 5, 2010 @ 4:24 pm | Reply

    • Clearly my position is NOT that atheists are prohibited from trying to persuade or influence each other as I am an atheist attempting to persuade and influence other atheists by this very blog. I even emailed David Silverman with my thoughts directly, in an effort to persuade him–one atheist to another. My position is that the message selected for the billboard, which I wholeheartedly support in principle, was counter-productive. Btw, I am a trial attorney. I deal with extremely contentious, high stakes disputes for a living. Your profanity has no impact.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 5, 2010 @ 4:43 pm | Reply

  6. I am posting this commentary string, which occurred at the youtube link for the Silverman Fox appearance.

    sannejohnson commented on David Silverman vs. Fox New… (7 hours ago)
    Reviewing the nasty nature of many of the comments below–from both sides–is disheartening. I am an unabashed atheist and I actively advocate against the religious fundamentalist assault on education and peace. The approach taken by Silverman and the AA by this billboard is, however, counter-productive and wrong. I devoted my most recent blogpost at “The Spiritual Life of An Atheist” at wordpress to it. Our discussions about our disagreements should be civil.

    philosophyman76 has replied to your comment on David Silverman vs. Fox News Panel:

    @sannejohnson you can have silent speech conversations on a blog all day but in order to effect change you goin gto have to offend some body. Whites were really offend when blacks went in the white only bathroom. Homophobes are offended when they see gay people hold hands. A billboard is hardly anything but an announcement that atheists are here and religion has to go. And all that AD does is make kids question the crap theyve been taught since birth.

    sannejohnson commented on David Silverman vs. Fox New… (5 hours ago)
    @philosophyman76 My blogs are not silent. I actually have readers. No doubt certain believers are offended by the simple existence of atheists. I am not suggesting, in my blog or otherwise, that atheists should not actively promote secularism, including through billboards. But more and less offensive and effective ways exist. If the billboard appealed to anyone but existing atheists would be surprising. Preaching to the choir is not an effective strategy for change.

    philosophyman76 has replied to your comment on David Silverman vs. Fox News Panel:

    @sannejohnson How many of your readers do you think are theists? you don’t think your preaching to the choir to 80% + of people reading a secular blog? The other thing is there are many people in religious families who dont even know other views exist or are thought of. And with children if they doubt they don’t dare call it a myth to their parents. So this Ad might strengthen their resolution. Telling the emperor he has no clothes on may insult the emperor but it still needs to be said.

    3 hours ago @philosophyman76 Again, I support atheist billboards, even during Christmas. I don’t think the message selected was effective. I don’t know how many of my readers are theists but some of my friends are and I want them to be able to engage with my blog. I doubt a large number of religious people who don’t know other views exist live by the Lincoln Tunnel. This billboard is not going to make irreligious children any more free to call their parents’ deeply held beliefs a myth to their face.

    philosophyman76 has replied to your comment on David Silverman vs. Fox News Panel:

    @sannejohnson why is calling something that is a myth a myth offensive? What would you rather say? “Christmas” it may or may not be true depending on how you think about it. Please don’t get upset theists? you don’t think children read billboards? you don’t think parents drive their kids into NYC during christmas time? and the point is not that they stand up and walk out of church and rebel against parents. Its so they know that they aren’t alone and its ok to think that way.

    sannejohnson commented on David Silverman vs. Fox New… (12 minutes ago)
    @philosophyman76 Myth, in addition to possibly referring to a valuable metaphor through which humans have attempted to explain or understand their relation to each other and the universe, also can have a purely derogatory meaning. Given the derogatory possibility, simply launching the word up on a billboard during a time of reverence for the myth is insulting. I was an 11-year-old atheist in Louisiana once and while I could have used support that billboard would have done me no good. ”

    philosophyman76 has replied to your comment on David Silverman vs. Fox News Panel:

    @sannejohnson As he said in the video if you choose to be offended that is your choice. If you want to prove its not a myth then come with some evidence. Bc someone gets offended means nothing. I’m offended by all the giants billboards bc I’m a jets fan. Tough. 2nd if the billboard wouldnt have helped you, so what. its not about you. Its about the people it does help. your blog doesnt help me. Should you take it down then? i’d gladly offend 1000 theists to help one atheist find some comfort.

    3 minutes ago @philosophyman76 My argument re its offensiveness is NOT based on the assertion that the Nativity is NOT a myth. Offending people you are trying to reach and could have common cause with DOES mean something. How many atheists or questioners are you willing to offend to bring comfort to the other atheists you care about? Consider: would it offend you if I told you that the fact is you are somewhat small-minded and self-righteous? If it would, by your measure, that’s your choice really.

    philosophyman76 has replied to your comment on David Silverman vs. Fox News Panel:

    @sannejohnson you seem to be missing who the target audience is.The people we are trying to reach are the people who ARE NOT the ppl who are offended by the billboard. The point is not to deconvert a theist. it’s to let people who are thinking its a myth or feel alone with those thoughts get comfort or are emboldened. if your offended as an atheist about a billboard that is in support of your belief then whatever. your a little too sensitive or a coward. [Removed, so I could not reply.]

    philosophyman76 has replied to your comment on David Silverman vs. Fox News Panel:

    @sannejohnson as far as your analogy aka side insult. your analogy sucks bc the billboard isnt attacking a particular person or saying anything particular about the group who believes. its about what they believe. there is a difference between me calling you a coward vs calling your belief about this subject cowardly. And yes it is still my choice whether to be offended or not. I am not offended when small ppl try and insult me. especially when i’m right. And true theists shouldnt either.

    12 minutes ago @philosophyman76 The billboard can easily be interpreted to be insulting the many people who honor the Nativity at Christmas as believing in a patent untruth without value. Myths can be valuable, whether or not true. I am not a coward. I proudly proclaim my atheism. I do not see the need or utility of presenting messages that are likely to be taken by many recipients (which here includes anyone driving through the Lincoln Tunnel) as insulting. There are more effective ways to communicate.

    Comment by SAJohnson — December 5, 2010 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

  7. I think there are any number of billboards that could have been put up that wouldn’t have been a slap in the face to all of Christendom and would have reached out to closeted atheists just as, if not more, effectively. I see that billboard and I have to ask “What are they calling a myth?” Is it saying the story of Jesus’ birth is a myth? Is Jesus himself a myth? Is God a myth?

    My family has celebrated Christmas my whole life, it’s one of my favorite times of the year, because we spend so much time together as a family. Our family is a mixture of Christian and, more recently, Jewish traditions. Most of my family members are traditional theists, but none of them are fundamentalists. Should I tell them they are idiots for believing in God just in case one or two of them are closet atheists?

    My coming out letter actually received positive responses, one of which was from my cousin who is an AP biology teacher at a local high school. He told me the closest he came to belief in God was marveling at the intricacies of life. I imagine I would have received quite different responses if I had sent a letter that said “The traditions you believe in are myths.” I’m sure they would find that just as offensive as I do when Christians quote Psalm 53:1 to me 1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

    I’ve just never seen the point in choosing to be a jerk.

    Comment by Mike aka MonolithTMA — December 8, 2010 @ 4:48 am | Reply

    • I agree wholeheartedly, Mike. Thank you for the engaging comment. From my interactions with other atheists over the internet about this billboard, those who support the billboard (and take offense at my response) do not seem to think that it is the equivalent of “telling theists they are idiots for believing in God.” But as you may have seen from the comments above, I do believe that was an easily foreseeable response to the billboard. Not only is the antecedent for “it” ambiguous, the word myth is too loaded for use in such a brief and one-sided communication. I really think “choosing to be a jerk” to the believing community is counter-productive. As my Nan used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” I hope you have a warm and wonderful holiday season with your multi-cultural family.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 8, 2010 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

  8. “Is there a point to a frontal assault on the Nativity story at Christmastime other than to provoke by offending? I can’t think of one.”

    If my neighbor wants to put one on his lawn, I have no problem with it. Using public money and public land is another matter entirely. It is local governments promoting Christianity, a violation of the Establishment Clause.

    You don’t mind your tax dollars going for it, fine. I can think of hundreds of better ways for that money to be spent.

    Comment by raysny — December 29, 2010 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

    • Most billboards along freeways are privately owned. No doubt the American Atheist billboard, which was undoubtedly paid for by American Atheist funds, was on a privately owned billboard. I am not aware of tax dollars that are spent promoting atheism. US tax dollars are spent from time to time promoting religions–mostly Christianity. I absolutely believe in the separation of church and state.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 29, 2010 @ 9:18 pm | Reply

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