Are Atheist Groups Competing with their Advertisements? November 10, 2010

Are Atheist Groups Competing with their Advertisements?

The New York Times has a piece in Wednesday’s paper about the holiday arrival of atheist bus ads and billboards, including the American Humanist Association’s bonanza from yesterday.

There’s a secondary story about how various non-theistic groups are competing with one-another for members:

That is one reason for the multiple campaigns: the groups are competing with one another to gain market share, said Mark Silk, founding director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, which is also at Trinity College.

“There’s a competitive environment for ‘no religion,’ and they’re grabbing for all the constituents they can get,” Mr. Silk said.

Reporter Laurie Goodstein misses the point entirely.

Sure, every organization wants more members, but if that were the main purpose, there are far better ways to find due-paying, card-carrying atheists than to put out tame, usually-inoffensive ads promoting reason over faith that tend to target people who aren’t already hard-core non-believers. The cost of the ads just doesn’t justify that claim.

The reason the ads keep coming is because they’ve been successful at generating publicity. They get the attention of people on the fence about religion, who might be atheists and not even know it. They get news coverage. They find their way into the New York Times.

Hell, the United Coalition of Reason has paid for billboards and bus ads in dozens of cities (including my own) but they have no desire at all for members.

Even if you want to be a member of United CoR, they’d just direct you to the local groups in your city.

Many of the national organizations are working together on larger projects (like the Secular Coalition for America)

These ad campaigns aren’t about cutthroat competition for members. As a current and former board member of a couple of these groups, I can tell you we work together far more than we “compete” — there’s the shared philosophy that a rising tide lifts all boats and we’re better off if we work together.

Not to mention people can be members of more than one atheist organization at a time — and often are.

These bus ads and billboards are part of a larger consciousness-raising campaign. We want atheists out there to know they’re not alone and that there’s nothing wrong with not believing in a god. We want closeted atheists to go public with their non-belief.

I’m surprised a religion reporter missed all that.

At least some of the atheist groups’ leaders can set her straight:

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., one of the groups running advertisements, said, “We feel the only way to fight the stigma toward atheists and agnostics is for people to feel like they know them, and they’re your neighbors and your friends. It’s the same idea as the out-of-the-closet campaign for gay rights.”

David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said that the idea of the campaign is to reach people who might go to church but are just going through the motions. “We’re going after that market share,” he said.

He may use the business-like phrase, but the intent there is not to win members for American Atheists. (Like I said, that’s just a bonus if it happens.) It’s to get people who are already atheists to admit as much.

Side note: Anyone notice the cheap dig in the photo caption?



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  • Well, in my humble opinion it is not the goal for these things to garner membership. I’m not sure what these groups would gain with new membership so to speak. What I do think it is aimed at doing is giving a voice to those who often feel they cannot proclaim their true feelings on the subject of religion. They cannot say to people that they are an atheist, as quite often that will result in shunning, or even job losses, or threats of physical harm.

    These adverts simply give a more public stance on these things, and show that there are others out there to talk to, and discuss things with, and to show that you are not actually alone.

  • Epistaxis

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure the atheist message hasn’t reached saturation yet.

  • Neon Genesis

    Some Christians are unable to try and see things from a different perspective, so since some Christians are always competing with each other to steal other church’s members, they assume atheists must be doing the same thing. This is just another “atheism is another religion” argument.

  • Dave

    I guess theists have trouble getting their head around being able to belong to more than one group – after all, it isn’t that common to find christians who are simultaneously members of, for instance, a Catholic Church and Evangalical Baptist church – christians organisations actually do compete with each other, and demand that you only belong to their one, true organisation. Not really like secular/humanist/athiest groups at all.

  • One thing I think that would satisfy those types of journalists would be if there was a joint-national convention, held by multiple national groups. Actually I think that’s already happened, but not on the scale we need, and not with the right national groups.

    If the Atheist Alliance and American Atheists were to have a combined convention, it would not only pack a lot more Atheists into that hotel, it would also give the media tangible evidence that our movement is coming together, not dividing. We’re certainly not the money-grubbing capitalist competitors against ourselves that some in the media are claiming we are.

    By the way, if this is what the media is saying while it points to us, I’m happy. It means we’re behaving ourselves, and even the most wiley media pundits have nothing embarassing on us.

    I bet the Vatican is jealous of us, in that regard. lol

  • @Neon Genesis

    …and that point is also reflected in the “sparsely attended” AHA meeting.

    An empty atheist meeting does not mean the same thing as an empty church – precisely because atheism is not a religion.

  • gsw

    Joe Zamecki Says:
    “If the Atheist Alliance and American Atheists were to have a combined convention”

    You are forgetting the many ‘interfaith’ conferences, usually claiming to promote understanding, harmony and fluffy chicks, actually aimed at attacking ‘secularism’ (this being a term used as synonymous to atheist, satanist etc).
    So if we were to have an inter-non-faith convention, they would of course assume it was to attack them.

  • Claudia

    I wouldn’t put this down to prejudice as much as to journalistic sensationalism. It’s hardly the first time media has tried to go with the conflict story-line in atheism. They are especially fond of using the word “schism” in reference to intra-community disagreements, because that way they can place us in the “religion” category.

    However even though the not-so-nice theists like to fling “you’re just another religion” at us (which is always amusing, seeing as how they are trying to insult us by saying we’re just like them) I don’t see the same intention in most reporters. I think that they are simply lazy, and find it simpler to lump us into the “religion” category than to do the legwork of explaining that it’s not quite the same thing.

    Likewise with the conflict thing, I don’t think it’s just because we’re atheists. When have you heard of Episcopalians in the news? When they’ve had intra-community fights over homosexuality. Otherwise, you don’t hear a thing. Media wants controversy and conflict. We partially feed on that with our ad campaigns, so though I support correcting misconceptions about the community, I don’t think we should be surprised when they happen.

  • Thegoodman

    “Market share” implies that there is a “market”. While competing religions and even competing denominations are certainly in competition for a larger market share; atheists clearly are not.

    Atheist organizations may operate on financial contributions, but one of the strongest anti-organized-religion selling points is that church is a sham to swindle money out of the weak minded. There is no competition for atheist money just a joint effort to spread information and let others know they are not alone in their doubts or disbelief.

  • feh, i expected as much from the old gray Ho. seriously, Henmant- have you not noticed already how often the NYT publishes trite, factually incorrect, biased or just plain foolish pieces? good gravy that’s a long list. go over to MediaMatters.org and do a search. it’s practically a full time job, documenting all the garbage that comes from that paper these days.

    do you know of a term called “The Village?” it’s shorthand for people who work in politics and the media that covers issues that politicians care about, and people tangential to those fields, like important people in the finance industry. it’s an elegant concept because it (among other things) helps people better understand trash writers like this one. in the Village, they play by very different rules than the rest of us. one of them is that one’s status in the Village is partially determined by how many rubes, which is to say everyone who doesn’t work in the Village (for that is how they think of us) one can convince to support one’s chosen “cause.” now, the ironic thing is that most Villagers don’t actually give a crap about the cause, or perhaps better expressed as “brand,” except insofar as it will advance them in the Village hierarchy. this reporter is exhibiting typical Village thinking in the way as she misses the real point of what nonbelievers are trying to do. with typical Villager shallowness, she literally can’t conceive of people who honestly and sincerely care about something that would make the world a better place. to her and her kind, that sort of “naive” and “foolishly hopeful” attitude is completely foreign.

    and the little slam at the end? the way Villagers almost always put down non-Villagers. “look how powerless and lacking in influence and money and media they are, ha ha ha. they’ll never be like us!”

    it is for this reason i stopped paying attention to the NYT, WaPo, and most other media outlets many years ago. but i never forget that despite their privileged status, most Villagers? pretty damn stupid.

  • Peter Mahoney

    Still, it is a plus overall just the fact that the NYT article acknowledges that nonbelievers and nonreligious are a fast-growing segment who now make a significant part of the American population. And it notes that there are a growing number of groups for us. Nonbelievers and skeptics who read the NYT article may start to check out those groups and join if a group suits them.

    Meanwhile, regarding the NYT “dig” about the press conference being sparsely attended, so what? I will gladly choose a sparsely attended group that favors reality over a very large group that favors delusions.

  • Are atheist organizations mutually exclusive? Can’t one belong to, say, the AHA and the UCR?

  • So what if we are? Hello? That’s a good thing. Maybe wasn’t her intent but she just helped us look real main stream. Yay!

    I’m surprised a religion reporter missed all that.

    Um, I’m not.

  • Valhar2000

    Side note: Anyone notice the cheap dig in the photo caption?

    It’s not a cheap dig: it’s an essential soothing balm they have to give their readers. They have to re-assure their readers that atheists are a small, nocturnal conspiracy, not a group of normal people who agree with each other that the Emperor does not, ion fact, have any clothes on.

  • pansies4me

    I thought the whole “just in time for the holiday season” comment in the article was obnoxious. I guess we’re supposed to be more silently respectful than usual so the baby Jesus and his merry band of followers don’t get their wittle feelings hurt. So over getting told to STFU!

    @Dave and Valhar2000 – Precisely.

  • Ben

    IMO, there is no need for atheists to organize. After all, there aren’t groups who get together to discuss how they don’t believe in Santa Claus. Who gives a shit is there event was “sparcely attended?” It should be “sparcely attended.”
    I’m getting sick of the attempt to lug atheists with Secular Humanists. They aren’t necessairly the same. Secular Humanists seem to be more of a political and social organization. But there is no reason to think that all atheists are liberal Democrats as the Secular Humanists seem to be. We’re not.

  • But there is no reason to think that all atheists are liberal Democrats as the Secular Humanists seem to be. We’re not.

    Ben is right on this point. If you could put something in the water that made everybody lose their god beliefs, people would still self-organize into Republicans and Democrats, Socialists and Fascists Anarchiststs Tea Partiers, National league fans and American league fans, etc. And yes, 50% of the people will be of below average intelligence.

  • TychaBrahe

    The picture is more brainwashing. What an unflattering portrayal. The poor dear looks terrified to be publicly self-identifying as an atheist.

    IMO, there is no need for atheists to organize. After all, there aren’t groups who get together to discuss how they don’t believe in Santa Claus. Who gives a shit is there event was “sparcely attended?” It should be “sparcely attended.”

    Atheists tend to share some interests: science, philosophy, (discussions of) religion, science fiction books and movies, science television. I attended a Carl Sagan Day showing of Cosmos/astrophysics lecture yesterday with three other atheists. The topics discussed on the hour-each-way commute included Robert Heinlein, Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Pratchett, Wicca, Islam vis-a-vis Christianity and Judaism, sabbath goys, Animal Planet, National Geographic, Henrieta Lacks, holographs, Neil de Grasse Tyson, the Cosmos series, and the politics of WGBH Boston. Best convo I’ve had in months.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    It’s not a cheap dig: it’s an essential soothing balm they have to give their readers. They have to re-assure their readers that atheists are a small, nocturnal conspiracy, not a group of normal people who agree with each other that the Emperor does not, ion fact, have any clothes on.

    @Valhar2000: That’s one way to spin it, but I think that’s offered by overly sensitive people who are way too easily offended.

    Only two questions about the caption are relevant. 1. Is it true? (Yes) 2. Should a reporter note that an event is sparsely attended when it is? (Yes)

    You might disagree with 2, but if it were for any other sort of event, I think it would be important to note that it attracted few people. That’s how you determine how newsworthy an event is when you’re not biased by being part of the cause that is being covered. If it were a press conference about Darfur and nobody showed up, I think it would be worth pointing out that the conference was sparsely attended–whether it ‘should have’ been or not.

    (And I don’t like speaking in ‘should’ terms because whenever you hear someone say ‘should’ the next logical question is ‘should… according to whom?’ ‘Should’ is just shorthand for ‘do what I say’ way too often – and when I hear it I wonder who died and made that guy my or your boss?

    IMO, there is no need for atheists to organize. After all, there aren’t groups who get together to discuss how they don’t believe in Santa Claus. Who gives a shit is there event was “sparcely attended?”

    @Ben: I hear you. I have no problem with the people who want to put together sparsely attended events or the people who attend them. They’re presumably put together for those sparse attendees, not for you and me. I only have a problem when some self-appointed boss of me comes down from on high and tells me that, as an atheist, I have some sort of moral imperative to attend their crappy meeting. I do not.

    I agree with you about the Humanists being more of a social/political bunch. I’m not sure where that leaves us less social or less political atheists, except that I guess we’re not Humanists. But that’s OK because I don’t really care about any particular label. They’re just like brand names for me – the generic ‘atheist’ stuff is just as good as the brand name ‘Humanist’ stuff, with all the same active ingredients, just without all the unnecessary and more costly trappings.

  • You see? Atheism is just like a religion. Well, except for the absence of belief in deities, and no discernible shared ideology among its members. But, besides that, it’s like totally just like a religion.

  • Heidi

    @TychaBrahe: Is there something in the politics of WGBH that would/should concern viewers like me?

    *peers suspiciously at the “2” on the remote*