The Yuletide Honking of Privileged, Out-of-Touch Atheist Organizations

Oh, Christmas. It’s a time of year I like a lot; it gets cold, snow falls, I get to wear big scarves and hats, and I get to spend time with my family. I bet the same is true for many of you. Good cheer, good will towards humankind, whichever version of the Christmas Carol movie is your favorite (George C. Scott, for the record, beats them all), and all that jazz.

There are, however, a few things I also hate about Christmas.

  1. The rampant, awful consumerism.
  2. Bill O’Reilly and other conservatives’ shrieking about how the Baby Jesus is under attack from the Grinch and Satan. Or something.
  3. Obnoxious atheists with a victim complex.

It’s like clockwork. Every single year, while Papa Bear and his ilk rant on, it seems that every mainstream atheist organization around gets into the act. Dave Silverman makes a few media appearances and shouts soundbites at anchors, then someone gets sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation for having a nativity scene on public property. This year, it’s no different; not only has Silverman made his Fox News rounds, his organization, American Atheists, has, rather than invest in activism or supporting civil rights for atheists as is their mantra, they have spent what must certainly be an absurd amount of money to put up a poorly designed, terribly written billboard in Times Square. Fortunately, unlike in the past, they have managed to avoid being hideously racist, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not exactly making me feel better.

Source: Friendly Atheist

The FFRF, too, has been active, demanding equal space for signs of their own wherever those evil Nativity scenes may roam, in small towns throughout America, and raising a stink when one of those signs was supposedly vandalized. And in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, an atheist is moaning about his Very Real Oppression because the town’s buses are displaying Merry Christmas on them. All in all, there are lots of atheists who are Very Very Cross with those silly Christians for… um, quite honestly, I have no fucking clue.

To me, and maybe to you too, this all just seems like petty, bush-league bullshit. To Silverman, though, it seems to be the most important cause on the whole earth. His zealotry and blindness to the absurdity of his methods was put into a stark light recently by Dan Merica at CNN, who wrote a piece analyzing the differences between the approaches to the Christmas season offered by American Atheists and those of the Humanist Community at Harvard. Silverman, as we’ve noted, thinks billboards and shouting are going to result in civil rights. Epstein, though, seems to be taking the novel approach of, well, helping people, partnering with religious groups to provide food to those in need. He said:

My biggest hope at this season — especially this year — is that our movement can focus on building communities that serve those in need. That means the poor, the hungry, the isolated, the enslaved — and it also means all of us. Any of us can, at any point, become the victim of a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook. We need to look out for one another and love one another. Usually it is religion that does so. But if we work very hard and invest time and money in it, the coming generation can bring real, meaningful secular communities all across the country where people can be the light and the gift to one another.

He did include a slight dig at AA, but nowhere near the arrogance of Silverman (emphasis from Hemant’s article on this at Friendly Atheist):

While we differ strongly in method, our end goals are the same — atheist normalcy and full acceptance in society. I don’t think [Epstein is] doing the right thing because he is going out of his way to be tolerant to that with which we should all be intolerant — lies and organized corruption. But he is doing what he thinks is best, and if that includes getting atheists to stay in the movement by playing nice with religion’s victims, well, there are worse things he could be doing.

I certainly believe he is benefiting from AA.

In essence, what Silverman is saying that, given the chance to help people in need, he would not take the opportunity if it meant he had to work with a religious organization. But then, just in case, tried to take credit for the Harvard Humanists’ successes.

I’m just baffled all around that a group of people who deem themselves rationalists can indulge in such overwhelming bravado and blindness to their privilege. Claiming that spending an outrageous sum of money for a billboard, which Silverman justifies by the number of members that AA gets from each one that goes up, is more effective at making the world a better place than direct action initiatives is not just absurd, but offensive. The tens of thousands of dollars that AA spent on their ego trip could have actually helped people without a place to go or food to eat this holiday season, but instead, they chose membership fees. They chose to be blind to their privilege, and focus their activism on an avenue that is inherently classist and ostracizing to anyone who has to save their money to buy food or pay for their utilities rather than get an AA e-mail every once in a while. And certainly, being one of the oldest and most well respected legal bodies in secular activism, the FFRF has better things to do with their very limited budget than walk through tiny towns and piss all over a plastic representation of Jesus’ birth?

With their incredibly out of touch priorities, American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are not helping to advance secularism or civil rights for atheists with their Christmastime actions. What they are doing is sophomoric and more fit for name-calling in a high school cafeteria than it is for high profile activist organizations. Especially when lined up side by side with the Harvard Humanists, they are an embarassment. And while I still have my differences with some of the Humanists there, their activism is actually helping people, and they should be applauded for it. On the other hand, AA and the FFRF need to take a strong look at themselves, and think about whether they actually want to change the world for the better or just continue to try to one-up religious people. If it’s the latter, they do not deserve our community’s support.


14 thoughts on “The Yuletide Honking of Privileged, Out-of-Touch Atheist Organizations

  1. For what it’s worth: the billboard was paid for by an anonymous donor, using earmarked funds (as in, the donor came to them and said “put up a billboard, here’s a boatload of money for it”). AA couldn’t have used it for anything else.

  2. I was wondering.. does the “Atheist Census” now up and running, after having been attacked / hacked by I don’t know who, qualify as “Obnoxious atheists with a victim complex” ? – I was wondering also.. how about myself, – do i qualify ? – I am Danish, and as such atheism is no big deal, and we have no reason at all to have a victim complex.- In the U.S. it’s probably different.. – Anyway, – my own last three blog-posts are about atheism / non-believers, NOT because I wish to be obnoxious, and NOT because of some complex, but because I wish to support atheists in the Arab World, in Iran and other places.

    • By “atheists with a victim complex” I was referring to the ones like Dave Silverman who think they’re being oppressed when no such thing is happening. Atheists do not win, place, or show in the oppression olympics.

      • I believe an extended visit to the rural south would change your opinion about oppression. In many cases, you won’t get hired (or promoted) if your boss discovers you are an atheist. A lot of parents discourage their children from associating with your children. Nativity scenes on public property and “Merry Christmas” on city buses are proffered as evidence by the faithful that we are officially a Christian nation. When we point out that the Constitution says otherwise, we often hear, “Christians are the majority around here. If you don’t like it, then leave.” This type of rhetoric isn’t limited to the rank and file only; we get it from elected officials too.

        Last year, a local freethought group sought to put up a billboard to advertise their group. It stated on a plain background;

        “Good without God? You’re not alone. The”

        They could not find a single outdoor advertising company that would agree to put up the billboard at any price. They all offered variations of the same reasons – it was too controversial, their other customers would boycott them, and they could not afford to lose the money.

        Partnering with religious groups in the South is problematic. In many cases they simply refuse to do it. When they do, they often insist that it’s a sign that we are “coming around” to their beliefs and use it as a tool to reinforce the case that their particular brand of Christianity is the only viable way to live. They would never agree to take second billing in advertising of charitable events and often insist that the secular organization not be mentioned at all if they think it might imply that the religious organization is tolerant of non-belief. In no event would they ever allow the word “atheist” to be mentioned at all. They are willing to take our time and money so long as we support their message.

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    • I agree, but separation of church and state is still a very important issue. I just think strategies to solve it should be based more on actual activism and not just PR stunts. Taking down nativity scenes won’t bring a secular state; making arguments and changing minds will, and we have to make those happen in truly substantial ways.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Mr. Tripp. There are laws on the books in the US restricting atheists from holding public Office. In Polls, atheists (in America) are compared with rapists on trustworthiness. Where I live being an atheist can cost you your job, the ability to rent a house, get you treated differently by the police, and judges. In fact, where I live the state supreme court chief justice believes that only his religion is valid, others are blasphemous, and science is not valid.

    So there are plenty of places in this country where being an atheist really is a stigma. And I will take anyone willing to fight against religion taking over our government, and I will take anyone willing to stand up for all of us. I do not care about their hoidays, or their feelings. Here, they proudly flaunt their disregard for the constitution, and their belief that their religion is law. Being a dick may not be nice, but it gets you on tv, in the paper, and in the discussion. Ask all those vitriolic, hate filled rightwingers how they stay relevant. Ask Mr. Hucabee, Hannitty, Limbaugh, O’Reily how they keep people interested… Being loudmouthed assholes.

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