Pharyngula

I’ve been privy to some of the behind-the-scenes arguments among atheists about this episode of the Bill O’Reilly show, in which they discuss (if anything is ever discussed with O’Reilly) an aggressive billboard sponsored by American Atheists.

Most of the complaining I’ve heard has been about David Silverman’s performance, and I think that’s misplaced. Silverman was good: he’s confident and a bit flippant, which is exactly what you need when dealing with a pompous blowhard like O’Reilly. Silverman isn’t the problem, it’s the sign, and he was stuck defending an awful message.

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That is one ugly-ass sign. Rebecca Watson has this one covered: she’s precisely right that it is a badly designed, ugly sign. If your intent is to be newsworthy and assertive and get yourself noticed, you don’t want to undercut yourself when you do make the national opinion shows by having to show off a sign that looks like it belongs on your refrigerator with your children’s other drawings.

Seriously, if you’re going to sink money into a billboard, hire a professional graphic designer. Get something that looks good first. For a good example, look at the Coalition of Reason. Their signs don’t hurt your eyes when you look at them, and the focus of any public argument is the message. It also helps to develop visual branding. I can recognize a CoR sign from a long way off. The message I take home from the visual inconsistency of American Atheists is that they’re an anarchic mob of amateurs with copies of Paintshop Pro.

The other problem with that sign is the message. I’m fine, as you all know, with an aggressive message, and I think it also makes sense for American Atheists as a kind of content branding — they’ll be the brash wing of the atheist movement. But that message does not work.

Bill O’Reilly would have been floundering if the message had been “Religion is a scam”. That’s something atheists are comfortable with wrestling over, and it’s something most of us godless folk do agree on. They could have spent their time arguing about the validity of religion’s truth claims. The problem is sticking that “You KNOW” in front of the phrase, because that suddenly moves the message into the realm of the indefensible. And look again at the O’Reilly interview — it got derailed right into a long, pointless harangue about the “You KNOW” part of the sign. That was a wasted opportunity right there.

You could try to argue that the billboard is only aimed at atheists who agree with the sentiment, but then it’s admitting that this is an in-house game you’re playing and isn’t part of an outreach campaign. The one thing you cannot do is try to argue that most of the church-going public agrees with you. They don’t. Most people who go to church, I’m sure, are sincere in their beliefs and really, really believe in Jesus and Heaven and Hell. They’re wrong and they don’t think very deeply about those beliefs, but it’s honestly what they believe. Trying to tell them what they really believe when it’s not is incredibly annoying.

We atheists get that all the time. How often have you heard the claim that we actually do believe in God deep down, but we just hate him? How persuasive do you find that approach? The only thing persuasive about it is that it convinces me that the person making that claim is a blithering idiot with no comprehension of atheism at all. Likewise with religious people: going up to them and suggesting that they don’t really believe in God is only going to convince them that you’re wrong.

I do have one criticism for Rebecca Watson and also Colbert, who made the original comparison: don’t criticize David Silverman for looking like Satan. It’s really obnoxious because we don’t have much of a choice in what we look like; it’s like carping at me because I look like an old bearded white guy, or at Rebecca because she looks like a snarky hipster girl. Sure, I could shave, and Rebecca could start dressing like S.E. Cupp or Ann Coulter, but is that really the straitjacket we need or want to wear? And seriously, turning into a young black woman isn’t an option for me, nor can David Silverman turn into a blond Aryan football player.

Also, another subtle point is that the reason Silverman looks like Satan is that the standard renditions of Satan are based on stereotypes of Semitic facial features. I’m sure everyone has noticed that Jesus is typically painted as a white European, but perhaps you’ve missed the fact that Satan is usually drawn as an Eastern European Jew caricature…so criticizing someone for “looking like Satan” ends up being a suspicion of anyone who looks to be of Middle Eastern descent.

The bottom line for American Atheists: Keep David Silverman, I think he does a good job. Crack down a little bit on branch chapters of AA and enforce some standards of presentation. Hire a professional ad agency with some skills in graphic design to come up with a visual brand for the organization. Keep up the assertive style, but make sure that what you put on your signs and literature is stuff you actually want to argue.