A few years ago, the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason launched an ad campaign on the side of local buses. It was a mashup of the faces of dozens of local atheists/agnostics made to look like an American flag, with the message “Millions of Americans are good without God.”
The billboard received the usual share of outrage from Christians who felt this was somehow an affront to their beliefs. (Not surprising. By now, we’ve just come to expect that.) But it also prompted backlash from the local African-American community.
For what reason?
Zach Moore, the chair of the Texas group, had no idea at the time. He just knew people were upset:
The response from the Black community was almost immediate, and it took us completely by surprise. A coalition of Black pastors organized themselves from the earliest announcement of the campaign, and used their traditional tools of social justice activism to fight against us. As the media picked up the story, it became apparent that this criticism had a racial component; none of the White pastors who were invited to comment on the story had similar criticisms of our campaign. I was sure that there had to be some misunderstanding, and I was also sure that it wasn’t on our part.
So I called the lead protesting pastor, and asked to meet with him.
It wasn’t long before he figured out what had happened — and why it affected that community in such a profound way:
It simply had not occurred to me (nor to any of the other White organizers) that the bus system primarily serves non-privileged communities, which meant here (as it does in most places) the Black community. And rather than console them, the inclusion of Black faces in our campaign only further antagonized them, and suggested that we were pushing our message specifically at the Black community. And this was not simply a philosophical disagreement: the function of the Black Church is as a supplementary social safety net, and for many the only safety net. Thus, we privileged White atheists who didn’t need the Church to survive, were being seen as using the token Blacks among us to launch a campaign with the goal of stripping a crucial resource away from a community that already lacked social privilege.
It wasn’t intentional, of course, but it was an aspect of the campaign that Zach didn’t anticipate. Maybe he couldn’t have. (When I started reading his piece, I didn’t know what the big deal was, either.) But you can bet that future ad campaigns by DFW CoR took that perspective into account.
Alix Jules, an African-American who was part of DFW CoR at the time, was with Zach when all of this happened. He offers his own perspective on the situation:
In fact the inclusion of my round brown face in the ad didn’t help much. It pissed a few of them off even more! At the public hearing that brought much of this to a head, the glares and stares at Zach intensified. They didn’t expect to see me standing in his defense defiantly glaring right back at them, as only “one of theirs” could, like a rebellious child that would not give them the satisfaction of a whimper during the beating. I could hear them think “sellout.” I could feel their betrayal. My whitewashed suit, which had worked well in the corporate world, left me feeling naked in their eyes.
Honestly, if I could’ve just pulled them aside to explain that it’s the message and the method, not the people we were addressing — perhaps that might have been different. But for a minister who is the message and embodiment of his people, how would that have been any different. And how would I have defended the dismantling of a system that provides so much for so many. Even many of our historical Black Humanists and Freethinkers who personally shunned the church, advocated “reform first” because of the latent but apparent needs it served.
The sad fact is that the mainstream secular community, while priding itself on packing its speaker list with colorful faces, has yet to address many of its own biases due to its own indulgent belief that it is “better than” many of its religious counterparts.
Not that I’m any better on this issue, but I’ve definitely had conversations over the years about how logic and reason alone isn’t enough for people to shed their faith. Churches do too many good things — provide too strong of a social safety net — that disbelief in God alone isn’t enough to pull people out of the pews. Unless we can offer secular alternatives to what people may find in church, we’re not giving them a reason to abandon their religion completely.
Anyway, please read both pieces. It’s great to see two honest perspectives on the same issue — especially when you know they both came away from the incident with much more understanding than they did going into it.