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by Dale McGowan

[An essay in three parts on current atheist outreach. Appears in the current issue of Secular Nation.]

The scene was the ballroom of the Kansas City Airport Marriott at the 2006 convention of the Atheist Alliance. On stage was the smart and articulate Hemant “Friendly Atheist” Mehta.

Hemant was talking about his book I Sold My Soul on Ebay. He was also, unsurprisingly, talking about friendly atheism, suggesting that atheists show a friendlier face to the religious world than we often do.


Intentional ridicule and insult directed at religious folks, he said, are especially counterproductive. Included among his examples was the “Smut for Smut” campaign at the University of Texas San Antonio, in which atheist students offered to trade pornography for Bibles.

“BULLSHIT!” screamed an audience member near me. “THAT’S BULLSHIT! Those people have courage, they’re out there fighting for your rights, and you ought to be honoring their courage!! For you to stand up there and…”

You get the idea. A kind of atheist “Support Our Troops” thing.

It was a seminal moment, a genuine clash between two different heartfelt visions of atheist activism. Both seek to move atheism out of the margins, but only one of them sees force as the way to get there.

Mr. Bullshit isn’t alone in thinking that a two-by-four between the eyes of religious folks is the best tool for advancing freethought. But neither is Hemant alone in thinking otherwise.

Each of the two approaches can be effective, just for very different receivers. I have met a few formerly religious people who said they needed a little cranio-lumber contact to rattle the fillings of their faith. They couldn’t hear Corliss Lamont or John Stuart Mill with an ear trumpet, but a good wedgie from Hitchens got them kicking the tires of their belief system at long last. There are also the silent, anonymous atheists among us who finally found their voice once someone like George Carlin or Pat Condell assured them that yes, it’s okay to call breathtakingly stupid things breathtakingly stupid.

These things can certainly go a bridge too far. David Mills’ response to the Blasphemy Challenge (in which Mills uses a bible to pick up dog feces, smearing the feces on a picture of Jesus while swearing a blue streak in front of his laughing 10-year-old daughter) leaps to mind. But it’s much more often the case that atheists are accused of playing too rough—Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens—when in fact they have merely refused to pull punches in a fight that genuinely matters, and the entrails on the ground are evidence not of excessive force but of the opponent’s refusal to go sensibly to the mat for anything less.

But there’s another audience out there, one that dwarfs the fans of the two-by-four by a good many multiples. This includes believers cautiously open to disconfirmation and closeted nonbelievers cautiously open to coming out. Numbering in the millions, they are predisposed to our message but unwilling to gird for culture war.

Though both approaches have long been available, only the two-by-four has generally been audible. Lamont’s joyful Humanism was there at the same time as Madeleine Murray O’Hair’s “Religion is induced insanity,” but only O’Hair’s efforts made it to the general radar. She achieved great and noble things, Madeleine did, but her approach, even as it emboldened the True Unbelievers among us, also made the cautious, silent majority of the nonreligious slump ever-further down into the “no comment” pew.

There is an audience that is well-served by the no-prisoners approach, and I count myself among them. But I’m thrilled to see that the “friendlier” frequency is gaining bandwidth of late, beginning at last to tap that huge reservoir of potential self-identified freethinkers who are reached more effectively on that wavelength than the other.


All three of the outreach efforts featured in this issue [of Secular Nation] — the Tree of Knowledge (Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia), the turnpike billboards (FreeThoughtAction and now PhillyCOR), and the highway cleanup (Atheists United and dozens of other groups nationwide) are operating on this less abrasive frequency. I believe that in doing so, they are moving us into the second of three phases in our courtship with the population at large.

The Courtship Challenge

Though we need to make ourselves visible to the public, visibility is not enough. A four-car pileup is also visible, but that doesn’t mean you want to be a part of it. We need to engage in something beyond exhibitionism—something closer to courtship.

Courtship is a three-step process: (1) be noticed; (2) be attractive; and (3) deliver the goods. In the all-too-recent past, freethought was stuck in step one, trying desperately to convince the public—and each other, for that matter—that we exist. As recently as 2003, when I began floating the proposal for a book on nonreligious parenting, agents and publishers shrugged it off, saying “there’s no audience for such a book.” Then the Four Horsemen took care of visibility once and for all.

Now for step two.

To make yourself attractive to the beloved, you’ve got to see yourself through that person’s eyes—an effort organized freethought has too seldom made. Too often we spend our time ranting in frustration at the general public’s inability to see how darn good-looking we are instead of finding out what really turns them on.

All three of the featured outreach efforts are giving consideration to attractiveness. Each is positively focused and speaks to one or more of the specific human hungers that church has traditionally satisfied.


The highway cleanup by Atheists United and others sends a message of civic responsibility and a desire to work for the greater good.1 FSGP’s Tree of Knowledge (a holiday tree decorated with freethought bookcovers) makes use of a familiar, attractive holiday symbol with happy and loving associations, underlining what is shared between worldviews rather than what differs. Finally, the billboard by FreeThoughtAction speaks to the desire for the embrace of community while at the same time cleverly addressing the existential fear of human aloneness in the absence of the divine—i.e., “you are not alone” in your disbelief and “you are not alone” despite the absence of God.


All three also invite the public into the third step in the courtship—assessing the substance of organized freethought. The FreeThoughtAction billboard provides a prominent and memorable web address, leading to a brilliantly-designed site with well-organized links for additional exploration of the world of freethought.2 The book covers on the Tree of Knowledge represent invitations to explore freethought. And the Atheists United name on the freeway adoption sign provides an easy-to-remember, Googleable point of contact.

These three efforts share another crucial feature: simple clarity. In five seconds, I get it. And I know I’m not alone in finding wit—especially nuanced wit—to be an intellectual aphrodisiac. The Tree of Knowledge names and celebrates precisely the thing that Yahweh forbade in Genesis 2:17, while the FTA billboard is a gentle (and cheerier) counterpoint to the white-on-black messages signed by God.3

[continue to part 2]

1Though I winced hard when one spokesman for the group was quoted as saying they made the efforts “so we get to keep the sign.” A nice benefit, but if exposure is all it’s about, that’s more than a tad duplicitous.
2And, through the use of the capitals, turns the potentially unfamiliar concept of “freethought action” into three positive and lively words: FreeThoughtAction. Brilliant!
3Which I must admit to adoring. It’s fairly rare to see religious folks making effective use of humor.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.