Promoting Atheism - "It's the Marketing, Stupid!"

As atheists, it’s not generally in our nature to proselytize.  We get enough of that from the believers out there and, as we don’t care for the practice, we’re not much for doing unto others what they did to us.  Still, most of us I would suspect have a natural desire to see secularism and atheism advance in the face of the irrationality we too often see in our societies.  In 1992 when Bill Clinton was running for president, the catch-phrase of his campaign was: “It’s the economy, stupid!”  Indeed, it was the economy, and that phrase back then very likely contributed toward the success in winning the presidency.

In that same spirit, I have a similar phrase I want to put out there to remind atheists of what the challenge to OUR campaign is:

It’s the MARKETING, stupid!

This is not a trivial or off-the-cuff statement, either.  We want to promote our stance and see the foolishness of irrational belief relegated to the far background.  We are currently in a fierce competition of ideas with the theists on this matter, and the theists have a considerable head-start on us, never mind that they’re also in the majority.  Still, we know we have the goods; we know that they don’t.  So how to turn the tide?

We already know that our competition has a pretty fair marketing effort working for them.  Join their team and it’s like you’ve a member of the Jets of West Side Story: “You’ve got brothers around, you’re a family man!”  You’re a part of a community, with support for your beliefs and companionship to buoy your spirit.  There are happy songs to sing and a pastor who will reassure you that your belief is the right belief … and of course, the point of all this is achieving the BIG payoff: an eternity in heaven, the reward for unquestioning belief without proof.  Publisher’s Clearinghouse themselves couldn’t come up with a fatter reward, delivered to your door.

The problem, of course, is that said payoff is completely without proof or even the slightest hint of corroboration.  Its success owes to classic promotional techniques, from The Big Lie to carrot-and-stick and the underlying fear of death which continues to pervade our superficially sophisticated 21st century civilization.  It appeals to easy belief rather than effort of learning and knowing, and so it plays on the laziness of its prospective clients.  And, of course, it starts selling early, with children too young to fully understand what they’re becoming involved (and indoctrinated) with.

The appeal religion uses is the appeal of emotion, particularly fear, as stated above.  We have reasoned truth, facts and evidence on our side, and if man were a naturally reasoning animal, the fight between atheism and religion would be a first round knockout.  Yet another problem: man as a species is not given to reasoning automatically:

Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.
-- Robert A. Heinlein

Certainly there are some people who will respond to a reasoned argument.  The problem is that they are the easy converts (or deconverts!).  In addition, most of them are very likely already in our camp!  Too many of the rest are either too tired or unmotivated to apply reason as a matter of course to situations as they arise.  They’ll slough off what they don’t care about, procrastinate until the last instant, then make more excuses why their mediocre effort wasn’t rewarded at the same level their imagination would have it be.  Facts that are inconvenient are rarely facts to them but situations to be worked around and dismissed as quickly as possible.  Try to push reason or rationality on such people and they will tune you out and go back to their Jerry Springer and Bill O’Reilly.

So let’s get real about the current situation.  They have the majority and the bulk of the media.  We get some grudging respect in the persons of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and a few others, but that’s about it.  I think it’s about time we recognized that we’re fighting an insurgency here, with the occasional open public skirmish, usually in debate form, and the occasional demonstrations, billboards particularly.  The great bulk of the “fighting,” such as it is, is covert.

And a good deal of that action is happening on the internet.  Atheist blogs abound, as do video blogs on YouTube.  Indeed, many of us enjoy the opinions and adventures of Mr. Deity, stevelikestocurse, Thunderf00t, DarkMatter2525, The Thinking Atheist, and many, many others.  For what I’ve seen, on YouTube particularly, these vloggers not only hold their own in their videos, but engage and counter the arguments made by believers who comment on them in what can be sustained and protracted discussions.  One such vlogger, Thunderf00t, opines that “the internet is where religion comes to die,” because in that environment, the fantasy, myth and superstition which comprise religion is repeatedly and insistently confronted with hard fact, testable evidence and demonstrable scientific theory.  Certainly, religion has attempted to provide its own arguments, attempting to use science to counter science (an odd phrase, that!), but to date, their responses have rarely if ever had any serious credibility.

The other ground for insurgency is in everyday life, in being who we are, doing what we do, in being ordinary in every other regard than that we are atheists … and when someone asks, we say so.  Yes, I mean being OUT.  This doesn’t mean proselytizing or going door-to-door, but simply acknowledging to others that you are an atheist.  Stipulated that in some places in the US, such action might be difficult, even dangerous, and the decision to do so should be solely a personal one.  Still, when a believer runs onto an atheist and, at one level or another, realizes that we’re not baby-eating hedonists who worship the devil and moonlight as serial killers, that realization will stick.  With time and repeated reinforcements of that impression, the libel which is Psalm 14 will be recognized for what it is.  Glacially with some, more quickly with others, minds will start to change, and with them the larger perception of who and what atheists are.

So maybe it is the simplest kind of marketing which gets the job done best, using our own selves as billboards, promoting secularism and atheism by our own actions as contrasted with the too-often conflicted and contradictory behaviors we see in the theists.  I would like to believe that being real and genuine and unforced and atheist is the best recommendation we can offer to others.  It’s like my man says:

If you've got the truth, you can demonstrate it. Talking doesn't prove it. Show people.
-- Robert A. Heinlein

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Comment by Edward Teach on August 9, 2012 at 7:53pm

If you've got the truth, you can demonstrate it. Talking doesn't prove it. Show people.
-- Robert A. Heinlein


Or, as the Buddhists say, "Talk does not cook the rice."

Comment by Loren Miller on August 9, 2012 at 2:18pm

I'm not a big t-shirt wearing guy (need a breast pocket for glasses and pen!), but I wouldn't mind a t-shirt with this on it:

Would make rather a nice statement, and if someone asks what the "A" is for...

Comment by matthew greenberg on August 9, 2012 at 1:57pm

good post Loren. 

i like to wear Atheist or Science t-shirts in public.  b/c of this my separated wife contends that i'm as bad as the religious zealots.  i counter that it's a marketing campaign on an individual basis, and that raising awareness that Atheists are not monsters is important. 

my favorite one reads "Proud of my Ancestors" with a cool picture of a monkey.  that one always gets multiple comments.  sometimes people aren't sure what it means, and then they're like "oh, i get it, it's about evolution, right?".  it's the marketing, stupid, indeed. 

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