This week the American Atheists unveiled two billboards that the organization will post in Charlotte, NC during the Democratic National Convention. The billboards, the group proudly proclaims, expose “the foolishness of religion in the political landscape.”
Except they don’t do that. They don’t even try to do that.
One of the boards mocks Mormons for their, um, unorthodox beliefs about baptisms for the dead and their wearing of “magic underwear.” The other takes broader shots at Christianity in general, mocking Jesus as a “Sadistic God,” and “Useless Savior.” Neither of the billboards mentions politics, the influence of religion on politics, any particular concerns about the separation of church and state or anything about why people should be concerned about Democrats or Republicans of faith.
In what would be considered ripe irony if only it were meant ironically, the billboards also tout atheists as “simply reasonable,” an image of atheists the billboards do just about everything they possibly can to subvert.
On a personal level, I was raised Mormon and came later in life to a worldview that does not include belief in the supernatural (or, in short, atheism). In my dealings with friends and families, I’ve tried to use reason and science to illustrate why I can no longer believe what I used to believe. A billboard that holds what my friends believe to be sacred up to public ridicule just makes my job that much more difficult. If that’s what atheists are, why the hell would they want to consider joining us!?
The funny thing is, mocking Mormons is probably a great way to entertain fundamentalist Christians, but the second billboard ensures that that larger group is also going to hate us.
On a less personal level, and speaking as someone whose career has been spent in marketing, advertising and public relations (I know, evil, right?), I’m at a total loss to understand what the American Atheists are trying to accomplish from a communications standpoint. I assume the goal here is not to win friends or influence people, but rather to engage in a PETA-style “engage-in-the- most-outrageous-stunt-imaginable-so-that-the-media-covers-us” PR effort.
But at least PETA, despite their overboard tactics, is promoting a cause to which most people, at some level, are going to be sympathetic. American Atheists can’t draw on any base of support among the general population. So a campaign like this just further defines us as cruel, sanctimonious and full of hate. Sure, let’s reinforce the worst things that most people already believe about us! That'll show 'em!
Yes, the media is covering and will continue to cover these billboards, providing advertising “value” that massively dwarfs the actual costs of the campaign. In PR, that’s always the goal. But in this case, what’s the point? They’re not making any case for separation of church and state. They can’t seriously be saying we shouldn’t vote for someone who is either Christian or Mormon or both, ‘cause who’s left?
And they’re making it that much harder for those of us who are atheists but who aren’t interested in being dicks to talk to our friends and families about our worldviews.
So thanks American Atheists.