Embracing the Narrative
by Noah Lugeons
As many of you know, I recently appeared on the “Thank God I’m Atheist” podcast to speak for the “acerbic” brand of atheism. The debate was sparked over American Atheists recent dedication of America’s first monument to secularism in the form of a quote-laden bench. Frank and Dan (the hosts of TGIA) were two of the many atheists who saw AA’s approach as too caustic, too reactionary, too antagonistic. They wondered why American Atheists hadn’t used the opportunity to present a positive message rather than a chiseled “fuck you”.
Now, when I characterize the debate like this, I do a disservice to American Atheists, as the monument is certainly more than a “fuck you”. It contains a number of quotes from our founding fathers that demonstrate how important the separation of church and state was too them and how little they cared for organized religion. But it also includes a list of biblical punishment prescriptions for breaking the ten commandments, which can only be seen as a retaliatory strike to the ten commandments structure that prompted the bench’s existence in the first place.
So Frank and Dan wondered why we were so willing to play the villain? Why were we so eager to be exactly the people that the Christians said we would be? If we were going to send a message with the monument, why not send a message like “we all benefit from the separation of church and state” rather than a message like “your holy book is stupid”? Why play in to “us versus them” narrative? And, if we were going to do that, why do so in a way that reinforces the “Atheists are callous jerks” stereotype.
I understood their points, but I felt like there were a few major elements missing from their calculus so I had a little email exchange with Dan and before long it led to an invitation to discuss the issue further on their show. The interview went really well and while I think everyone left with the opinion they came with, I think all three of us also left with a better understanding and more respect for the other side. And barring the swaying of positions, this is probably the best outcome one could hope for from a conversation.
I think that Dan made some excellent points in defense of soft atheism, particularly in combating the notion that soft atheism is “non-combative” and I think Frank made some excellent points about what message we sent to the vast middle; the wavering believer, the uncommitted agnostic. In all, I think they did a great job making a case for their side; not just for the utility of soft atheism, but against the utility of hard atheism.
But I also think ol’ Noah made a few good points there, too. And I think the most important one came toward the end. We were talking about how big a job American Atheists has as the nations premier atheist organization. How does one provide a single voice for such an intellectually diverse group? We were all lamenting the lack of another prominent national group that advocates atheism with an approach that is antipodal to AA.
But, as I pointed out on the show, there are no shortage of groups offering to be that voice. Sure, they’re not as well funded as American Atheists, but there are plenty of individuals and organizations that represent atheism in a far more ecumenical style and the media isn’t talking to them. Bill O’Reilly isn’t inviting the warm, fuzzy atheist on his show, he’s inviting the rabid, angry, argumentative villain on.
But, of course, the debate rages on. Our discussion aired on their show last Saturday and yesterday I had a chance to listen to the follow up episode where, to no surprise, they discussed some feedback they got from their listeners regarding the interview. Among them were several voices raised in objection to the approach and while several of them were well-reasoned, none of them (and no answer I’ve heard so far) addressed that core objection: If an atheist is nice in the woods and there’s nobody around to hear him, does it make a difference?
The problem is that we still have to rely on the media to get our message out. Sure, there are blogs and podcasts and media sources that make the mainstream media superfluous, but the only people using those resources are the people already firmly entrenched in our camp. If we want to be heard, we still need CNN and the Washington Post and, as much as I hate to say it, Fox News. So how do we get them?
To hear the copacetic voices lay it out, we just be really, really nice so that whenever you see a quote from an atheist group, they’re showing up with an olive branch in hand, ready to explain how their position benefits not only the non-believer, but the vast majority of the nation. Separation of church and state, for example, tends to benefit everybody who isn’t part of the largest religion in the country and in America, that’s most of us. They prefer an approach where we take out the “Fuck you” and add a “Thank you” and deflate this stereotype of the negative, angry, arrogant atheist. I think of this approach when people say (as they do with increasing frequency) “Atheism can’t just be against something, it has to be for something, too.”
And, in a storybook kind of way, this all sounds good. The problem is that is doesn’t work. And that’s not just my opinion, it’s been proven for decades. Atheists didn’t just show up in this country when David Silverman took over as President of American Atheists. We didn’t appear when Sam Harris called us into existence in 2001. We’ve been here the whole time. And our public face, by and large, has been this above-the-fray, all-inclusive, what’s-good-for-the-goose persona. And yet, somehow, the atheist voice was never represented on the news. The atheist rebuttal was never given even a cursory glance in the story. The atheists were ecumenical and invisible.
But along comes somebody willing to play the villain and the media absorbs it like a sponge. Along comes an atheist willing to be the person that Christians fear and- presto -he’s all over the media. He’s spreading the atheist message on the most conservative political outlet outside of talk radio. He’s putting up monuments where all the major media outlets can’t help but go and when they get there, they can’t help but notice the circus atmosphere that these fundamentalist windbags have concocted around it. After all, you can’t ignore a voice that offends you.
And still, despite the overwhelming success of the Silverman approach, there are plenty in this movement who would have us reign in that acerbic voice. They’d have us throw a wet blanket over the caustic approach that has come to characterize Silverman’s approach. They pretend that now that the media has started talking about us, they’ll keep talking about us no matter what. They pretend that we’re somehow too big to ignore.
But look at the recent bullshit Time editorial that went out of it’s way to belittle the charitability of secularists even to the point of blatantly lying. Consider the recent nonsensical story on CNN’s website about Christians being happier than atheists on Twitter. Consider the narrative.
The major media is still in the business of telling stories and they have the narratives that they’re trying to sell. If you want in, you’ve got to fit into your niche in the narrative. They can’t have violent gays or thoughtful scientologists or nice atheists because that doesn’t fit the narrative. That’s not the story they’re telling.
People often say of David Silverman’s leadership “He’s great at getting press, but I hate the message he sends when he does”… as though we can somehow separate those two things. As though the caustic nature of his approach is in no way responsible for the amount of press he gets. As though we’d never tried the olive branch approach before.
Of course, to be fair, I should concede that the number of non-believers is a hell of a lot higher than it was before and it’s possible that the mainstream media is just starting to recognize that they can’t ignore us as a group. Some would argue that at this point in our movement, we’d be getting the press no matter what and we might not need the caustic crutch anymore.
While this is a fair point, I don’t think it’s a correct one. Just look at the mainstream media in the UK, one of the world’s least religious nations. I’m willing to bet that if you go to the atheism page on the Guardian’s website right now (regardless of when “right now” might be), you’ll find as many stories attacking atheists as you’ll find stories supporting them. And you’ll find that same damned “angry, militant atheist” narrative being trotted out over and over again.
The primary objection to the copacetic approach to atheism is that I think it’s utopian. Sure, when you’re talking to your wife’s mom or your kid’s teacher or your co-worker or your brother-in-law, that’s the way to go. But to dismiss the atheist bench and the acerbic approach to atheist activism represented by Silverman’s leadership as “theological dick-waving” (an admittedly clever term coined by one of TGIA’s listeners/voice mail opiners) is to overlook the fact that this guy has actually hit upon a formula that works. It gets the atheist message out there in a way that nobody else has been able to do in this country. He stays in the headlines, he forces the conversation and he’s been damned good at it.
Like it or not, when you embrace the media narrative, the media embraces you back.
And, in the interest of extending an olive branch to the olive branch extenders, show me an example of the other way working; working in terms of getting press and forcing the discussion, and I’ll reconsider everything I’ve said. But I’m first and foremost an empiricist and what I see David Silverman doing seems to be working, at least by my definition of working. Until then, I’ll defend every non-aesthetic decision that went into that bench.