Now that the Darwin Reclamation Project collage has been posted, I can confess that I have a few problems with the recent atheist action that sought to counter the dunderhead Ray Comfort and his Creationist propaganda ministry. I’m not sure who originally suggested this action, but I don’t think it was well thought out. Having athiests systematically round up as many copies as they can of a work they disagree with (however ridiculous such a work may be) stinks of censorship and creates an impression in the broader public that Comfort’s arguments are somehow threatening to evolutionary biologists. Obviously neither is the case. But a successful campaign is one that changes the debate and/or uses the powerful group’s strategy against them.
For example, the activist group Billionaires for Bush (now Billionaires for Wealthcare) have done an excellent job of using humor, creativity, and effective strategy in their many campaigns. Andrew Boyd, one of the founders of B4B, told me about a particularly successful action while we were both attending a conference a few years ago. On this occasion Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political tactician affectionately known as “turd blossom,” was arriving at a fancy hotel to give a speech. This being the height of the administration’s colossal stupidity in Iraq, the usual suspects had turned out to protest. There was Medea Benjamin with Code Pink, her fashionistas bedazzled in pink boas and holding protest signs, a contingent from World Can’t Wait with a banner demanding that the troops come home now, and assorted punk anarchists with their Zapatista bandanas in the hopes that they’d be teargassed. The police were attempting to figure out how to legally keep these rabble rousers off of the public sidewalk leading up to the hotel.
Meanwhile, Boyd and the Billionaires for Bush come marching down the sidewalk from another direction costumed in tuxedos, top hats, fake furs and pearls (one of them even had a monocle). They were also holding protest signs, except that theirs read, “Rove is Innocent.” Everyone was nervous as they approached closer to the police who were guarding the red carpet entrance to the hotel. One of the officers reached down to his walkie talkie and reported in. “We’ve got two protest groups here,” he stated. “One against . . .” Then the cop looked over the assembled mob of fake bankers and socialites. “. . . and one for.” Code Pink and the other protesters were herded into a designated “protest zone” across the street and out of view of the cameras. The Billionaires for Bush, however, were placed right next to the red carpet. Boyd started laughing as he told me that multiple reporters, taking them at face value, interviewed them and asked, “You say Karl Rove is innocent. What is he accused of?” Message achieved.
My point in bringing this up is that actions matter, in more ways than one. In organizing an action it needs to be tactical and with a clear goal in mind. It also needs to be creative and be appropriate to the local context. An action that works in Seattle, Washington may not be the best approach for Topeka, Kansas. So what would’ve been a better response to Comfort and his fellow creationists? That’s not for me to say, but I can offer a few ideas. Perhaps a similar approach to the Billionaires for Bush would work in some cases. Comfort is trying to claim that Darwin was responsible for the Holocaust. Make him own that position. Get a bunch of people to dress conservatively and have big signs depicting Darwin as a Nazi. Go as over the top as possible and make sure that many of the signs have poor spelling. Have other people hold signs with a large picture of Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron that people are praying to. Run around the quad with bananas and a cross insisting that this represents the atheists’ nightmare. “Did you know that Darwin was wrong about bananas?!” It may be hard to out crazy some of the crazies, but be creative and have fun. Look at Christwire and the Landover Baptist Church for some inspiration.
I would also say that there needs to be some more thought about what atheism as a movement hopes to achieve. If punking websites and causing mischief wherever creationists show up is the extent of your activity then you’re only being reactive and aren’t helping to make atheism more acceptable. Identify policies that are biased towards religious groups in your university or community and petition the administration to change them. Putting up plaques or billboards can be an effective way to get people talking, but identifying specific policies is the way to affect real change. If your interests are primarily about promoting a greater understanding of evolutionary biology, start a discussion group at a youth center or even a church. Emphasize Darwin’s difficulty in developing a theory that fundamentally challenged the beliefs of his wife who he was truly devoted to. Make Darwin a person, not just a set of ideas, and show how his struggles to let go of religion in the face of overwhelming evidence are the same as that struggle today.
And remember that facts and arguments are not going to convince everybody. Their connection to religion is emotional, so showing how morality can be achieved without religion may be a very effective strategy. Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming up. Your Secular or Atheist Student Alliance could organize a canned food or turkey drive. Volunteer at a children’s hospital for a day and do some science tricks. Make contacts with elementary and junior high schools to show how science is fun. In these cases you wouldn’t need to talk about atheism, your actions would speak louder. And if your university or high school doesn’t have an Atheist Student Alliance yet, start one. Hold weekly discussions with campus religious groups and talk with other atheists about what specific strategies you’d like to focus on as an organization.
There are many strategies that can be effective in countering the creationist agenda. My point though is that it should be a strategy that is proactive, and not just responding to what creationists initiate. It’s time to take it to the next level. What I’ve suggested here are just a few possible ideas. What’s more important is what you and your organizations do. What do you suggest? What’s been effective in the past? Let people know in the comments below.