Defending the ‘Myth’ Billboards April 30, 2011

Defending the ‘Myth’ Billboards

My friend Ashley Paramore interviewed American Atheists President Dave Silverman at AA’s convention last weekend.

It gets really good starting at the 2:08 mark. That’s when Dave defends the billboards that say “You KNOW It’s a Myth”:



At the risk of sounding completely inappropriate, I *love* it when Dave gets really passionate.


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  • I love it!

  • Korinthian

    I’m going to call it now: This guy will get caught doing something illegal before 2012 is over.

    Just the vibe I’m getting from hearing him talk.

  • Congratulations, Silverman. It turns out being an ignorant or dishonest jerk is good for media attention. Mission accomplished!

    Ignorant if he really believes Theists know God is a myth.
    Dishonest if he doesn’t care.
    Jerk…well, that one would be ok if it weren’t combined with the above.

    He’s the Atheist version of every Christian who says we know in our hearts that God exists but we’re lying to ourselves about it.

  • ACN

    I liked this! It was good to actually hear him explain…although questions on the poor graphic design were conspicuously absent.

  • Actually, I need to modify that. He goes on to explain that he’s referring to closeted Atheists only.

    It would be the equivalent of a preacher telling an atheistic group “You know in your hearts God exists. Time to stop lying to yourselves!”

    …then responding to honest denials with, “Well, I only meant those of you who do know God exists.”

  • Cortex

    @Garren,

    Except he’s grown AA’s membership by 25% with that strategy. Hard to argue with results.

    But let’s keep being nice and tolerant toward Christianity. They’ll respond in kind. Any day now.

  • Michael

    What he is trying to challenge is the concept “to know.” It’s something that has been grievously abused by the faithful, and it’s good that we have an effort to set things straight.

    It is an important kind of respect in being honest with someone.

  • CanadianNihilist

    So if I hear this correctly at the 5:50 mark he’s Like Batman? The hero we deserve but not the hero we need?

  • captsam

    just think how boring it would be if everyone was perfect, and totally agreed on every thing. Silverman is just fine.

  • I have nothing but applause for growing the membership, even doing so provocatively.

  • Vanessa

    I dont like that you exist either, Silverman.

  • Michelle

    I don’t like that his type has to exist either, but will also concede that they do need to exist.

  • Garren,
    Thing is, I have never heard any preacher who follows the ‘you atheists know in your heart that god exists’ line, ever clarify that this is conditional to only those whom it applies to. Indeed, being conditional would undermine what he was going for, which is traditionally to explain away the existence of atheists if god is as obvious as is preached.

    On the other hand, this in-your-face approach has its merits when reaching people that have been weaned on assertive, absolute certainty statements from the pulpit and will not respond to anything less to even consider an argument.

    Small tangent: This past Easter, I ended up listening to a sermon from a Greek Orthodox priest on the radio. (observers of tl:dr may skip this next paragraph)
    In this sermon he related a parable-like story, where an elder monk sent a younger monk to town for an errand. On the way he traveled with a Jew who “spewed his venom” (quoted for those who say antisemitism is not a part of Christianity today) and was asking hard questions, so the monk said ‘Well, perhaps, you’re right.’ When he returned, he found the door locked and the elder monk shouted at him “So, ‘perhaps’ eh?” And it was only after much pleading and acknowledgment of the wrongness of his action that he was let back in, and it was clear that the elder monk would have been within his rights to exile the younger one, and was letting him back in the fold out of the magnanimity and goodness of his heart.

    The moral of the story was of course, ‘Never question, and if you have unanswered questions, never even consider of formulating them in a fashion that might question the authority of the church doctrine and never EVER voice aloud that the church might be wrong, or risk your place in heaven. There are undoubtedly people in churches that fit Silverman’s target audience or preachers would not keep demonizing doubt (and specifically doubt voiced out loud.)

  • Garren:

    If you’ve ever spoken with or heard the testimony of people who have come to atheism from religion, you’ll know that many grapple with the decision to do so, in some cases persisting in their religious observance for years before inner doubt finally becomes impossible to ignore. AA’s billboards are a push in the right direction for those to whom this applies and I have to wonder whether ignorance, dishonesty, or a combination of both are to blame for your visceral response.

    It seems to me that religion’s hand-holders in the secular community are no less angry or aggressive than the forthright atheists they relentlessly attack for supposedly being angry and aggressive. In reality, the rage of the dogmatic moderate seems often to far exceed that of the people s/he accuses, the primary distinction being that, whereas unapologetic atheists typically direct their criticism at the purveyors of error, superstition and religious oppression, the bootlickers of religious accommodation reserve their strongest words for non-believers.

  • Noodly1

    Hemant,

    Are you really taking money from Christian Mingle? ‘Cause that’s the ad I see at the top of this page…

  • Drew M.

    @Korinthian

    I’m going to call it now: This guy will get caught doing something illegal before 2012 is over.

    Oh hell, I’ll take that bet. I’ll even lay you 50:1 odds.

    AA is lucky to have Silverman at the helm. The man is brilliant.

  • People like Silverman need to exist. And I’m damn glad he exists. Atheism (atheists that are part of our movement, that is) needs somebody like Silverman. Hand-holding, religion-coddling “hippie” atheists have their place, but they are doing nothing to spread atheism, nor to combat the festering reach of religion in the U.S. You can cry all you want about how Silverman violates the “Don’t be a dick” rule some people love to uphold, but he’s getting things done and getting the word out. He’s helping the rest of us fight against the spreading tendrils of religion.

  • Gordon

    I had many stepping stones on the way to waking up, but one was a discussion where I realised I picked and chose elements from different traditions, as if I was playing make believe.

    At the time I thought “that’s ok, I’m just not dogmatic” but it helped. Deep down I knew it was a myth.

  • Cyberguy

    Dave Silverman is right.

    This is a classic example of using the “Overton Window”. By moving the discourse to the limit of current acceptability, it makes the less extreme viewpoints become understood as moderate and reasonable.

    Which is exactly as it should be. It was only recently that the mildest billboards which said no more than “atheists exist” were being regularly vandalized, and parents were complaining that it was wrong to display these billboards because children might see them!

    We need many more people to push the boundaries just like American Atheists are doing.

  • Lukas

    I didn’t particularly like the Myth billboards, but the man is right: suddenly, the other atheist groups are the good guys. Like Cyberguy says, we need people like Silverman, because they move the center line in our favor. The more, the merrier.

    It’s like the Tea Party people: they are crazy, and everybody knows it, but it doesn’t matter. With all their crazy yelling and insane antics, they’re moving the center line towards the right.

  • Peter Mahoney

    I friggin’ LOVE this guy. David Silverman is awesome. He represents my version of atheism perfectly. I am THRILLED with him as the spokesman for my views. I am happy that American Atheists spends my dues on relatively cheap billboards that obtain massive, priceless media coverage.

    He is CORRECT that there are atheists in the pews, who KNOW their religion is a crazy myth. I was that way for years before I stopped going to church. Looking back, it’s crazy, but true. I am sure there are MANY others currently in that same situation.

    He is also dead right that his in-your-face pointedness with religious myths helps make all the “softer” atheists now become mainstream. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

  • CanadianNihilist

    As much as I agree with him (and I do) Lets not forget the site we’re posting on is the “Friendly Atheist” So without the soft cuddly Atheist like Hemant we would have less places to discuss things. And that would be a shame because I like this place.

  • John

    Awesomely done! Dave SIlverman appears to be a very articulate, and personable spokesman for American Atheists (unlike Madalyn O’Hair!). I agree with the “in your face” approach of the billboards, and would personally finance one if I could! The “Reason Rally” sounds wonderful-though I am not so sure that “bumping” the “Easter Weekend” time of the AA convention (which has only been done on the Easter weekends since they began!). Keep up the good work!

  • Methdissed

    The leadership at American Atheists is demonstrating their philosophical ignorance – what is epistemology again?!?!

    When AA says you “KNOW there is no god” (all caps), they’re claiming certainty about something that they cannot possibly “know.”

    Stupid statements like that provide fodder for legitimate criticism, and are an embarrassment to the atheist movement.

  • Peter Mahoney

    CanadianNihilist: You imply a false dichotomy that IF we have in-your-face atheists like David Silverman (actually, I find him polite; he’s not Pat Condell) then we can’t have “soft cuddly” atheists like Hemant Mehta.

    The beauty is that we can, and do, have a spectrum of atheists. Different ones may appeal to different subsets of atheists. (And some atheists may love both Silverman and Hemant, as I do.)

    Atheists should strive to have as many flavors of atheism as possible…. something for everyone. Groups of senior citizen atheists, former-muslim atheists, friendly atheists, argumentative atheists, former-preachers now atheists, LGBT atheists, [insert-your-town-or-state] atheists, etc., all fluidly intermingling with atheists as a whole and/or with their subgroup(s).

    The more flavors the better: different subgroups will appeal to different atheists to bring them out of the closet.

  • Methdissed:

    Unless my memory fails me, non-believers were paid little heed prior to publication of the works of the New Atheists, whose plain-spoken criticism of religion presumably runs afoul of your sunshine-and-lollipops approach but nonetheless, succeeded in initiating the conversation on a scale never before seen. If anything is an embarrassment to the secular movement, it’s the ingratitude of its accommodationist naysayers toward the loud-and-proud atheists who built the public platform from which individuals like yourself now lob insults at them on behalf of all the “good” atheists.

    The billboard in question attracted 600 new members and a slew of donations to American Atheists from the publicity it garnered (http://www.buffalonews.com/city/article370910.ece) and I’d call that a positive outcome no matter how many delicate sensibilities were bruised in the process (walk it off). Religious hurt-feelings are acceptable collateral damage in the effort to remove the arbitrary – and often, deadly – barrier that religion presents to human cooperation and understanding. Believers will just have to learn to take it in stride just as the rest of us do when we have to look at their offensive advertisements damn near every day.

  • Cyberguy

    Methdissed Says: “The leadership at American Atheists is demonstrating their philosophical ignorance – what is epistemology again?!?! When AA says you “KNOW there is no god” (all caps), they’re claiming certainty about something that they cannot possibly “know.””

    You’ve missed the point of the billboard, I think on purpose because you write like a troll.

    Joe Public doesn’t understand or care about the finer points of epistemology, and it has no place on a billboard. Tell me, when did a billboard ever have “epistemology”? It’s a billboard.

    The real target audience is the closeted atheist who dutifully goes to church to keep up appearances. The “you know it’s a myth” billboard is a wake-up call to get them off their knees and out of their pew.

    And the campaign is working, which proves you wrong.

  • Methdissed

    So, it’s okay to say stupid shit as long as you’re fighting the good fight? I disagree. No one attempted to challenge my actual argument, so apparently my critique is solid. Let’s look at the responses:

    @ DUSTIN FINNEY
    I (Methodissed) am an “accommodationist naysayer” with an “sunshine-and-lollipops approach.” That’s funny. I said “stop saying stupid shit” from which you made irrational assumptions about me, and then and went on the attack. Can you say “non sequitur?” How about “red herring” or “ad hominem?” It would appear that the philosophically naive is boldly defending the philosophically naive.

    I’m a bad atheist for lobbing insults at “good atheists.” You have much in common with your religious brethren who ostracize people within their ranks for daring to make valid criticisms against “good Christians.” Nice job.

    “AA got 600 members and donations” – Wow, let’s see. Out of 311,000,000 people, we got a whole 600. Holy shit that’s impressive!! Has it occurred to you that they could have done much better, perhaps by not saying stupid shit?

    @CYBERGUY

    “I write like a troll.” Like Finney, you can’t counter my criticism so instead you used the time honored tactic of attacking the person.

    Joe Public doesn’t understand or care… Some of the public and many of our more sophisticated critics do understand – and they use stupid statements like this to legitimately criticize AA, potentially influencing the views of millions of people. Here’s a question for you. How many people didn’t join AA because they recognized the stupidity of the AA claim or because someone else pointed out the stupidity?

    “epistemology… has no place on a billboard. Tell me, when did a billboard ever have “epistemology”? That comment is so stupid, it doesn’t warrant a response. How about looking up the definition of epistemology before you pretend to know something about it? (pun intended)

    And the campaign is working, which proves you wrong. The only thing this proves is that stupid billboards can attract a tiny number of people. It’s quite possible that an intelligently worded billboard would do much better. You haven’t proven anything other to subjectively validate your own unsupported beliefs.

    I’d love to hear responses from folks who have at least a basic understanding of epistemology. Finney and Cyberguy haven’t contributed anything to this discussion.

  • Aj

    Methdissed,

    When AA says you “KNOW there is no god” (all caps), they’re claiming certainty about something that they cannot possibly “know.”

    You’re right about “no god” but what’s pictured on the billboard is a myth, a lot of gods people believe in are myth maybe even most gods, you can say something about the non-existence of specific gods.

  • Methdissed:

    Your criticism seems to be based purely on a trifling objection to the advertisement’s use of the word “know.” Would you have preferred “convinced,” “pretty sure,” or “persuaded in the absence of evidence?” At what point do you decide that you know something with practical, if not absolute certainty, or have you simply expunged the word “know” from your vocabulary since all knowledge is relative to some external point of reference that may or may not be a figment of the peculiar arrangement of cells comprising your imagination? Will you agree that there is no teapot orbiting in space, or would this also be too much of a commitment for your deep philosophical mind?

  • Cyberguy

    Methdissed, you are right when you say the the billboard is logically incorrect. But you are missing the point of billboards. It is basically an advertisement with a attention-grabbing phrase which is working to increase AA membership. To quote Dave Silverman in the video, membership has increased “well over 25% since I took office”.

    If AA followed your advice their billboard would be so neutered that the point would be completely lost.

    What would you change the billboard to? –
    “You *strongly suspect* it is likely be a myth due to a complete lack of evidence in support of religion, but can’t be 100% certain because of the inherent limitations of inductive reasoning. This season, celebrate inductive reason.” I think this message would miss it’s target, don’t you?

    Ok, your turn. What would you have the billboard say?

  • Methdissed

    AJ makes a good point. I find the blue xmas billboard pictured at the top of this blog post acceptable. I still don’t like the implication of certainty, but the claim is about a specific religion and the evidence to support their claim is absolutely overwhelming.

    It seems as if the leadership at AA said, “Heck, we said something kind of dumb and it really worked. I’ll bet if we say something really fucking stupid, we’d do even better.” Hence the billboard, “You KNOW there is NO GOD! We Know You’re Right!”

    Notice how this changes the focus from a single bullshit belief system to all possible gods. We simply can’t “know” and its intellectually arrogant to claim otherwise.

    I’m giving AA too much credit. As noted in my original post, they don’t seem to have any idea how utterly ridiculous that billboard makes all of us look. Stunts like this explain why so many other secular organizations won’t closely affiliate, or have anything to do with AA. I’ll bet the folks at Center for Inquiry (CFI) get pounding headaches every time they see AA’s latest billboard.

    @Dustin Finney

    Will you agree that there is no teapot orbiting in space, or would this also be too much of a commitment for your deep philosophical mind?

    I agree that it’s incredibly improbable, but I wouldn’t claim absolute certainty. Notice how you’re focusing on a very specific claim in our tiny solar system, not a blanket statement about the entire universe. I’m arguing against the latter.

    Seriously dude, study epistemology and the related evidence from the cognitive sciences that expose the enormous fallibility of the human mind. You’re viewing this issue through the lens of an uninformed and poorly educated popular culture. I don’t mean that as an insult toward any one person. Our education system sucks!

    @Cyberguy

    I don’t have the time or inclination to write a slogan for AA. However, the possibilities are infinite. All it takes is a creativity and effort that is informed by philosophy and the cognitive sciences.

    They could easily make the same point without publicly exposing their ignorance, which is a refection on all atheists.

  • Methdissed

    Here’s a billboard idea I could get behind:

    *****

    Worship me or I’ll torture you forever – Love Jesus

    We know better – so do you!

  • Cyberguy

    “Worship me or I’ll torture you forever – Love Jesus
    We know better – so do you!”

    Using your own words – when you say you “know better” (caps or no caps), you’re claiming certainty about something that they cannot possibly “know.”

    Stupid statements like that provide fodder for legitimate criticism, and are an embarrassment to the atheist movement.

  • Methdissed

    Using your own words – when you say you “know better” (caps or no caps), you’re claiming certainty about something that they cannot possibly “know.”

    Stupid statements like that provide fodder for legitimate criticism, and are an embarrassment to the atheist movement.

    Nice try Cyberguy, but as previously noted, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I used a lowercase “k” (and yes, that’s important).

    Also, unlike AA, I’m not making a grand unfalsifiable claim about the entire universe. I’m targeting a specific irrational claim by a specific religion. The “Worship me…” statement is a glaring contradiction supported only by an old storybook and faith (belief without evidence). I know better than to blindly believe stupid shit like that and I have a ton of evidence to support my doubt.

    You’re comparing AA’s bullshit claim with a reasonable position and pretending that they are comparable. Rather than continuing to say stupid shit and boldly touting your ignorance, you might consider first doing your homework.

  • Steve

    Actually people do know better about some of these things. Not about the existence of god and such, but deep down they know there is something wrong with the concept of hell or utterly lunatic ideas like the Rapture.

    When you press Christians (at least the non-fundie type and especially liberals) if some of their friends who not believe or are of another religion will go to hell, you can make them very uncomfortable. They’ll waffle around and may say it’s not true or adopt a unilateralist stance that there are other ways to heaven.

    It’s because despite their horrible beliefs, they are moral people for the most part and no matter their brainwashing and what they may think intellectually, they can feel that it’s wrong to torture people for eternity.

  • Wait a minute, Methdissed – you know better? You won’t claim absolute certainty on the non-existence of the orbiting teapot but you don’t have a problem making that statement in regard to Jesus? I think this warrants some elaboration. Can you explain why the proposition of god/s is more plausible than the orbiting teapot or the Jesus myth?

    The capital K-N-O-W, I think, is meant to evoke the tendency in conversation of emphasizing certain words, for example, when one is trying to persuade another: “You KNOW you want to!” Perhaps you’ve never mingled among the commoners? Please don’t let our crude speech offend you.

    David Silverburg explains in detail the rationale behind the billboard in the above video, if you can lower yourself to viewing it. You may find, at least from a rhetorical perspective – the one that matters in this context – that his arguments are quite persuasive and backed with evidence of the advertisement’s success.

  • Methdissed

    @Dustin Finney

    … you know better? You won’t claim absolute certainty on the non-existence of the orbiting teapot but you don’t have a problem making that statement in regard to Jesus?

    I haven’t claimed absolutely certainty about anything. Try paying closer attention and please quit putting words in my mouth.

    I watched the video before writing my initial post (his name is Silverman, not Silverburg). I think he means well but is seriously misguided for the reasons listed above.

  • Silverman – yes, pardon me.

    No, you didn’t claim absolute certainty, but then neither has Silverman. Somehow, though, you concluded that AA’s use of “know” was just such a claim of certainty whereas your use of the word in the same context is not. This is where I get a little confused. In my ignorance, I humbly ask that you explain the distinction in a way that my inferior intellect can grasp. By my reckoning, the existence of god/s is no more likely or in keeping with available evidence than the truth of the Jesus-myth or the orbiting teapot, but you seem to take a different view.

    Ultimately, I think AA’s choice of language was informed somewhat by the knowledge – I mean, er, acceptance – that most people are not anal-retentive semantic nit-pickers waiting to pounce on the slightest unorthodoxy of speech.

  • Methdissed

    @Dustin Finney

    So you freely admit your own ignorance yet maintain a strong opposition based on your uninformed opinion. What’s wrong with this picture?

    The issue is the wording and use of capitalization in the latest AA billboard. I also said that to understand my criticism, you need to learn more about epistemology, which apparently you’ve made no effort to do.

    I’ve already answered your question – re-read my comments above beginning May 1 at 3:37p

  • Taylor

    I know all realigns are false. Yes all!!
    But I don’t see how challenging people or promoting the word “atheist” can accomplish anything. All will be of no religion in time, its not that we have to promote “atheists” or challenge peoples belief structure. That won’t accomplish anything. Do you think a devoted Christian will here a couple facts and just- “woops I was wrong” It all comes to ones intelligent. You can’t be that bright and believe in so much rubbish. Therefore it is of my opinion that as people evolve mentally they will naturally see fact from fairy tail.
    This may sound arrogant but I truly pity people that are religious. I think they are week and naive and I do hold myself and others who just know, higher in mental evolution.