The Problems with Atheist Publicity Stunts February 2, 2010

The Problems with Atheist Publicity Stunts

Should atheist groups try to make headlines and get attention when their ideas have little to no chance of succeeding?

Despite the fact that I like it when groups I support and people I know are involved, it’s hard for me to automatically say yes.

Last week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a boycott against stamps featuring Mother Teresa. Their reasoning was that she was a religious figure and the USPS Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee says:

Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs.

Fair enough. She was Catholic. And we all know about the Christopher Hitchens book tearing apart her legacy. She has a lot of flaws — she was notoriously anti-abortion, for example. She supported Charles Keating of the Keating Five. And her care wasn’t always medically sound. I’m not defending her and I think people should be educated about her faults as much as they are about her accomplishments. Hell, here’s a link to a clip from the Mother Teresa-themed episode of Bullshit!

That said, the reality of the boycott is that no one is paying attention to the other side of her life. If this was an awareness campaign to enlighten people about how Mother Teresa wasn’t a “saint” and held some really despicable views, so be it. But that’s not what people are talking about. In that sense, this boycott has failed.

People are thinking atheists are going after her (and the stamp) because she’s a religious figure and for no other reason. (FOX News is taking advantage of the situation.)

FFRF isn’t helping matters any with their arguments. Politics Daily points out some problems with their defense, notably that they have not boycotted stamps with other religious leaders in the past:

For example, previous postal honorees with obvious religious identities include Malcolm X, the former chief spokesman for the Nation of Islam, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1986, the Post Office issued a stamp in honor of Father Edward J. Flanagan, founder of Boys Town, that is still widely used.

In explaining their conflicting positions on those, both the USPS and the FFRF get a bit tied up in contradictions.

Postal spokesman Betts said Flanagan was “honored for his humanitarian work.” Annie Laurie Gaylor doesn’t agree. But she doesn’t have any problem with King or Malcolm X. Martin Luther King “just happened to be a minister,” she said, and “Malcolm X was not principally known for being a religious figure.”

Gaylor does object to the “darker side” of Mother Teresa’s religious activism, chiefly her opposition to abortion. Then again, in its press release objecting to the Mother Teresa stamp, the FFRF urges its followers to buy the Katherine Hepburn stamps the Postal Service is producing this year, because Hepburn publicly described herself as an atheist and was featured in an FFRF ad campaign.

Oy. The boycott is bad publicity.

It’s one thing to get bad publicity when you’re doing something worthwhile (e.g. putting up certain atheist billboards, filing necessary lawsuits, etc), but to boycott a beloved figured? Regardless of their reasons, FFRF had to know they would receive a ton of backlash.

What upsets me is that I’m sure they did know that. And I think that influenced them more than the argument of why Mother Teresa shouldn’t be on a stamp.

Protesting things just for the sake of publicity is something the Religious Right does. They know damn well that things like protesting the Gap for mentioning other religious holidays alongside Christmas won’t win them any fans or followers of Christ. They do it because it gets their organization’s name in the news.

We shouldn’t be stooping to their level when it comes to something like this.

We’re supposed to be the rational ones. We shouldn’t go out of our way to be pariahs.

Incidentally, why is there no mention anywhere of the idea that Mother Teresa was having a “crisis of faith” and may even have been an atheist?

Another publicity stunt took place yesterday, when American Atheists announced that they wanted to purchase naming rights to the football stadium in which the Super Bowl would be played.

Obviously, that was a joke.

Don’t believe me?

Sun Life Financial currently owns naming rights to the stadium. No offer of money from an atheist group (or any other group) is going to nullify their contract.

Even if it was allowed, do you really think any sports stadium would lease itself out to an atheist group and open the door to a possible “Jesus Field” in the future?

American Atheists said in the press release that if the hourly stadium naming doesn’t work, they’re willing to negotiate “for one punt or during the next ‘Hail Mary’ pass.” That sounds like something right out of The Onion.

Clearly, they’re not being serious… (though, by putting out the release, I suppose they would be obligated to pay the money if anyone accepted).

So why put out the press release?

To get attention. And for nothing else.

So far, it hasn’t gotten any media hits… but even if it does, I doubt any of them will make religious people think twice about our ideas.

Why waste our time and energy on things like this?

There are so many more important battles to be fighting.

These are silly distractions.

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  • Stephanie

    I agree. I cringed when I read these two stories. I’m a member of FFRF and I think they should focus more on filing lawsuits to keep Creationism out of schools and prayers out of government. Leave the stamps alone.

  • For once I actually agree with you.

  • cypressgreen

    I have never read Hitchens’ book, although I’ve planned to. That’s because I already own “Mother Teresa The Final Verdict” by
    Aroup Chatterjee. The entire book can be read thru this site:

  • Rick M

    Are you suggesting there should be an orthodoxy, a True Atheist(TM) approach to all things political, scientific, and cultural?

    I applaud the FFRF for their stand on the Mother Teresa stamp. They describe their purpose as, “The nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation works to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism, and to promote the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.” Their past battles have attracted support from religious groups who agree with church/state separation.

    If the “bad” publicity forces the media and the public to more thoroughly examine Mother Teresa’s life and work, all the better. Let’s teach the controversy!

  • Ron in Houston

    Hemant, you are so right. When I watched the Faux News clip about the stamp all I could think was, “well, Fox News does have a point.”

    Love her or hate her, Mother Theresa did win a Nobel peace prize and is known for her humanitarian work. You aren’t going to deconstruct that image in a one page press release.

    Fox News helped it along, but in the end the FRFF just ended up looking like reactionary idiots.

  • The first thing I thought about the stadium idea was, “Oh, no, don’t give the Christians, with their tons of cash and blindly received good will, an idea like this. Every venue across the country will soon be named after a megachurch.”

    I haven’t seen any stamps other than generic stamps in years. Why can’t we just get some stamps of famous atheists who are well known for their scientific or literary accomplishments? You can even order specialized stamps.

  • Are you suggesting there should be an orthodoxy, a True Atheist(TM) approach to all things political, scientific, and cultural?

    How? By expressing his own opinion about strategy? That’s not allowed?

  • Angelo Palma

    I completely agree with you on this issue, we need to focus on the bigger issues rather than small details.

  • Can I just boycott the stamp because it’s freaky? If someone sent me a letter with Mother Teresa’s wrinkly face on the corner of it, I would scream in terror. Seeing that stamp really just freaks me out.

  • Aj

    Was “Mother Teresa” known for her humanitarian work? Ask people what she did to help the poor, and what makes her special over nurses, doctors, and charity workers who also have worked with the poor for decades. Apart from being a Roman Catholic Church propaganda symbol and mouth piece what has she done that’s special? Are the USPS interested in public image or actual works?

    Did the FFRF say it’s wrong for Christians to favour MLK Jr. stamps, because he was a Christian? No. So there’s no contradiction there. Audrey Hepburn isn’t on a stamp because she’s an atheist, she’s on there because of her work for UNICEF and being generally awesome. Did the FFRF say that religious people shouldn’t be honored for their good works on stamps? Fuck no. So where’s the contradiction? I can buy an Audrey stamp because I think Wait Until Dark and The Nun’s Story were great, that’s not the reason why she’s on there.

    You know douchebags from Daily Politics and Fox News are going to be ignorant and stupid, they’re going to wilfully misrepresent the FFRF, that’s their job. The FFRF press release lays the case out well for not having a “Mother Teresa” stamp. If we’re going to start criticizing organisations for making perfectly sensible appeals because some ignorant fools won’t like it then we’re well and truly fucked. We must be silent because others will disagree with all of our premises and ignore half of our arguments? That’s fucking cowardly.

  • J. Allen

    I agree, just didn’t know how to say it. So many better battles to be fighting. It just makes us all look bitter.

    Not to say they are not entitled to their opinion, we’re gonna look bad most of the time anyway. But we should be allowed to criticize their approach.

    It reminds me of MoveOn’s General Petraus ads. Ended up hurting them and their cause in the long run in my opinion.

  • JulietEcho

    The Stadium stunt I completely agree is bollocks. I have no freaking idea what they’re trying to accomplish, and it definitely could be an Onion headline at this point.

    I’m torn over the stamp thing. Was the FFRF consistent in the past on this issue? Maybe not, depending on how you define “individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs.” I think that, while there’s a legitimate debate about MLKJ (and Hepburn definitely doesn’t fit that bill), Mother Teresa definitely *does* and the fact that we’ve done a poor job upholding the rule thus far doesn’t mean we should abandon it now.

    Continuing to publicize the problematic approach she used to “help” the poor is also important – people need to learn that just because someone is lauded by a church for being pious and good, it doesn’t mean that their actual actions should be immune from criticism.

  • Ron in Houston

    We must be silent because others will disagree with all of our premises and ignore half of our arguments? That’s fucking cowardly.

    No one is saying anyone must be quiet. However, when atheists stand up for things like separation of church and state, they are often demonized as being anti-religious zealots.

    Hemant is criticizing cheap publicity stunts. I’d go one step further and say if you’re going to engage in a cheap publicity stunt, at least don’t do anything that will reinforce the “anti-religious” stereotype.

    My two cents is that anything attacking someone who won a Nobel for humanitarian work is only going to reinforce the anti-religious stereotype in the eyes of the public.

    Fox News greatly helped that along, but whatever your feelings about folks that watch that channel they consistently have a larger number of viewers than any other news channel.

    To me, it’s not a question of criticizing Mother Theresa. I think there are a number of valid criticisms of her life and her work. For me it’s a question of how you’re perceived by the general public when you make your criticism.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    Without publicity stunts, what would the FFRF have left? It seems to me that is all they do.

  • It’s said that “all publicity is good publicity” but I’m not sure that holds true with atheist groups.

    I used to be an FFRF member, but didn’t renew because I just don’t like their approach on some things and I feel there are other groups who can put my money to better use. The stamp thing seems a bit silly, and the situation is made worse by bad arguments to support a boycott.

    I also saw a lot of bad arguments (or perhaps just inarticulate ones) against the “Jesus Rifle” issue a few weeks ago, which was painful because I think that was a much bigger issue than the stamp is.

    That said, I’m okay that there are lots of different approaches to promoting atheism. My opinion is just that I think some work better than others and those are the ones I’ll support.

  • En Passant

    As obnoxious as these publicity stunts may be, the FFRF isn’t stupid to try them. It’s marketing. No, it’s not “present the facts and convince the masses using reason and sense” persuasive, but it raises top-of-mind awareness, which is the first goal of advertising. Then the idea is that people start talking about it, then some people get interested and look for more information, etc.

    Essentially they’re taking the stance that there IS no bad publicity. Which, though it may be embarrassing for those of us who consider philosophical truths about our world to be a bit more weighty than a stadium stunt, isn’t without precedent.

  • littlejohn

    In a sense, the discussion may be moot. Why would it be necessary for atheists to agree to boycott Mother Teresa stamps? Can you imagine any atheist going to the PO and actually requesting them? Not in a million years. I just bought some stamps: They are way cool Simpsons stamps.
    As for stadium naming, that’s just never going to happen, for the reasons you cited. It would be funny if we could pull it off, but it just won’t happen.
    BTW, the examples of Malcolm X and MLK are red herrings. They may have been religious spokesmen, but they were primarily known as civil rights activists. Their religious views were largely irrelevant.

  • Deiloh

    The only truly bad press would be violent or destructive atheists. Otherwise, at the least, silly stunts will be ignored, most likely criticized, and definitely bring the name more mainstream.

  • Neon Genesis

    “My two cents is that anything attacking someone who won a Nobel for humanitarian work is only going to reinforce the anti-religious stereotype in the eyes of the public.”

    So Nobel prize winners are suddenly immune from criticism now? This didn’t stop Fox News from complaining about Obama winning a Nobel prize and I don’t see Christians’ image being hurt from doing that. For once I agree with AJ. While this issue is not high on my priority list of separation of church and state issues, how is the FFRF protesting these stamps different from the atheists who protested the Jesus license plates? Atheists weren’t forced to buy those either, so was that not a big deal then?

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    Rather than wasting time trying to keep Mother Teresa of a stamp maybe we should promote atheism by doing something positive, trying to put someone on a stamp. I know that there were some designs made, but did they (or are they) ever going to issue a Carl Sagan stamp?

  • Rick M

    @ Secular Planet

    How? By expressing his own opinion about strategy? That’s not allowed?

    Hemant makes liberal use of the words, “we” and “our”, in his post. He opens his post with the question, Should atheist groups try to make headlines and get attention when their ideas have little to no chance of succeeding? OK, so it’s opinion of strategy but he seems to be suggesting that there is a correct strategy for atheists – stay away from bad publicity. Given that atheists, at least in the US of A, are one of the most reviled groups, I’d suggest that almost any public pronouncement by an identified atheist group can and will be greeted with derision by the likes of Fox News and the religious right. It can’t be helped.

    There are many theists, particularly of the non-Christian flavor, most, if not all, atheists in the US, and other citizens who have no strong religious attachments who are concerned about church/state separation. IMO, FFRF’s campaign shows all of these folks that an atheist group will stand up for constitutional rights.

    The stamp issue is not about atheism. My status as an atheist does not compel me to battle theists over religious issues. Hemant warns, There are so many more important battles to be fighting. Well, what are the battles and the correct strategy? Again IMO, church/state separation is the battle and “we” will lose it if “we” are cautious.

  • Rick M

    I would support a campaign for a Madalyn Murray O’Hair stamp. Not because she was an atheist but because she stood up for constitutional rights in the face of bad publicity – and won.

  • Jen

    I believe, now more than ever, the timing is excellent. People have been very annoyed by the so-called “humanitarian work” that Robertson’s Operation Blessing and the Scientologists have been doing in Haiti. More than ever it is becoming apparent that missionary work is not all that it’s cracked up to be, and often unwelcome. I applaud anyone who sticks on principles. Too often the world gives people a pass without examining their motives. No need to continue to perpetuate a false myth about MT.

  • mkb

    Thinking of more important issues, where is our leadership on urging Obama etc. not to attend “The Family’s” prayer breakfast, For the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s sake, CREDO mobile has spoken out and the SCA hasn’t?

  • Agreed! It’s a postage stamp. Who cares? for that matter, who even sends snail mail anymore? 😀 It’s not like Mother Teresa will benefit from the sales.

  • Ashley Moltzan

    Yeah who cares … it’s a stamp. I hate these publicity stunts that don’t matter.

  • Adding another ‘Hear! Hear!’ vote. Extremism bugs me. And this sort of antics is what makes me rather reluctant to identify as an atheist even though I don’t believe in any religious definition of god.

  • Revyloution

    This is similar to the time they changed the trafic control signs. Its a stupid idea.

    Thats what were going to have to realize as we become a majority minority. Were going to have stupid people who carry our name tag. Then we will have internal politic disputes, and groups will splinter, or merge over them.

    When atheism was the refuge of the professors and philosophers, you could equate it with intelligence. Atheism today goes beyond academia. We have movie stars, singers, and even morons.

    I personally wouldn’t protest a stamp, or change traffic signs. There is a silver lining though. The appearance of morons, rubes, and the common man in the ranks of atheism means we are finally on the rise.

  • Pseudonym

    Just a random thought: Had the FFRF used this as an opportunity to teach people about Mother Theresa, perhaps commending the USPS for producing a stamp of a likely agnostic, that would have been clever, not mean-spirited and completely within the FFRF’s charter of publicity-whoring antics at any cost.

  • Ron in Houston


    I love your comments but that last was simply brilliant.

    Unfortunately no one thought that deeply before they went “publicity whoring.”

  • ColonelZen

    Disagree on the stamp, though a small thing.

    MT had no connection to the US. MLK and Malcolm X were US citizens who acted in the US and had a profound effect on US history. The MLK stamp did NOT have his religious title … the MT stamp says “Mother Teresa” not Agnese Bohaxhiu.

    Once again the FFRF proves itself well worth my membership fee!

    — TWZ

  • muggle

    Um, I already boycott those kinds of stamps. So, no, I see nothing wrong with it and it’s a good way to focus attention on something that shouldn’t be happening: the Post Office issuing religious stamps.

    Hell, as a Christian coworker used to say, they should just print one stamp instead of wasting money on all these commenerative nonsense. I’ll puke even more if they commenerate that perv Michael Jackson and they probably will.

    Just issue the forever stamps already and stop with all the other nonsense. No need to print postage even. Just have to pay more when the price goes up.

    The AA thing was just dumb and irritating and made us look stupid and hedonistic.

  • Revyloution

    I’m with Ron from Huston on praising Psudonym. Thats an excellent idea, much better than what the FFRF did.

    Muggle, the idea of a Michael Jackson stamp made me laugh. I can just imagine all the small boys licking Michael when they send away for Sea Monkeys.

  • ihedenius

    “And her care wasn’t always medically sound.”

    What healthcare ?

    I read Chatterjees book. I’ve not read Hitchens. Chatterjee is born and grown up in Calcutta, he is an MD and most importantly he spent a very long time researching MT (after arriving in England and encountering the MT myth “Teresa who ?”). Chatterjee’s is the first book to read concerning MT I believe. Not having read any Hitchens book (no anti bias I just haven’t) I suspect if Hitchens writing is as aggressive as his rhetoric maybe believers can easily find reasons to ignore everything he says. It will be hard to ignore Chatterjee.

    If a medically trained volunteer showed up in the ‘house for the dying’ it was by accident. One such person did and was discouraged from performing “the most basic of palliative care”: turning people over to prevent lie sores. MT had a fetish for frugality, which resulted in needles being reused until to blunt to use. The 1981 aids scare changed nothing, practice continued until MT died 1997. Ambulances were donated to MT. Their medical interior was removed and they were used as nunny cabs.
    The three first chapters of “The final Verdict” is online ( All chapters used to be online (maybe 5 years ago), not anymore.

  • BrettH

    I’m starting to get used to feeling this way about FFRF, yet again I completely agree with the point their trying to make and think they publicized it in a way likely to hurt separation of church and state by lowering sympathy for secular thinking with voters. The problem is that if someone is that people think Mother Theresa is a great humanitarian. That may be incorrect, but the move just looks like their boycotting a humanitarian’s stamp because she happens to be christian. This view might be completely false, but that won’t help us any if people are angry and stop listening before they learn anything about the issue.

  • I agree! FFRF–you make me so angry sometimes. Another reason why I stopped listening to their podcast.

  • muggle

    “I can just imagine all the small boys licking Michael when they send away for Sea Monkeys.”


    Seriously, we should take a pool on how long it takes. Ever since his death, all the criticisms of his pervy behavior and his plastic surgery addiction have morphed into what a great man. Gimme a break.

    (Hemant, can we have the nice convenient html tags back, please? I thought I remembered how to do the blockquote but it didn’t work.)

  • AxeGrrl

    Kaleena wrote:

    FFRF–you make me so angry sometimes. Another reason why I stopped listening to their podcast.

    Me too. The other reason I stopped listening regularly was those damn songs by Dan Barker! Not saying he’s not talented or anything, but please, put out a CD or something and keep the podcast Dan-Barker-song-FREE!

  • AWayfaringStrainer

    As an FFRF member, I am glad that they responded to the MT stamp, which clearly violates USPS policy. One question: if Congress were to propose a Mother Theresa National Holiday, would you also say “No problem.” I think we can all agree that Martin Luther King was in a very different category. If you are not convinced, just read Agnes’s Nobel Prize speech. It is nothing but a religious rant.

  • Curious Atheist

    Should atheist groups try to make headlines and get attention when their ideas have little to no chance of succeeding?

    Why waste our time and energy on things like this?

    These are silly distractions.

    My irony meter just went off the scale. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    How are these examples “silly distractions” while suing the government because Obama says “so help me God” at his inauguration, or because Obama attends a prayer breakfast, is serious business?

    Silly distractions all.

  • muggle

    AxxeGrrl, you don’t like Dan Barker’s songs?

    I love them — which makes my daughter groan. She says he sounds like a Christian musician but that’s actually one reason I do. I somehow love the irony of the blasphemous lyrics in that style that I had to endure in church.

    My favorite is “Unbelievably Good” which I realate to because when I was a religious teen, I was suicidal and as soon as I escaped the brainwashing and my mother’s home, well, I found life just that.

    But I’m weird. I hate Elvis. I think his voice sucks. The same thing goes for Bob Dylan though he was a good song writer. Dan’s is nice enough but nothing to write home about, same with the music. It’s purely the lyrics and the singability that do it for me.

    I used to have neighbors who’d start playing religious pop music too loud. I’d drown them out with Dan and Godsmack. Worked. They knocked it off after a bit.

    But one thing I keep saying about music — beauty is in the ear of the beholder.

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