Monday, March 5, 2012

If it's not a battle, why make it one?

The ever-controversial American Atheists have erected billboards in Paterson, New Jersey (large Muslim population) and Brooklyn, New York (large Jewish population), respectively, with the following two messages:

Even though the CNN Belief Blog notes that AA president Dave Silverman says that the billboards are intended to reach atheists in these communities who feel pressured by those around them to conform to religious beliefs and customs, their title for the piece still claims that "Atheist group targets Muslims, Jews with 'myth' billboards in Arabic and Hebrew" and portrays the billboards as taking a step further in the "battle between atheists and believers." Because that's more exciting, I guess. Quote from Silverman:
“Those communities are designed to keep atheists in the ranks,” he says. “If there are atheists in those communities, we are reaching out to them. We are letting them know that we see them, we acknowledge them and they don't have to live that way if they don’t want to.”
Hence writing the text both in English and in these languages. Reactions from Muslim and Jewish figures in these communities hover around irritation, amusement, and disdain, as you might expect:
Mohamed Elfilali, executive director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, laughed when he learned the Arabic billboard would go up in the same town as his office. He says he’s surprised that someone is spending money on such a sign. 
“It is not the first and won’t be the last time people have said things about God or religion,” Elfilali says. “I respect people’s opinion about God; obviously they are entitled to it. I don’t think God is a myth, but that doesn’t exclude people to have a different opinion.” 
But Elfilali bemoaned the billboards as another example of a hyper-polarized world. 
“Sadly, there is a need to polarize society as opposed to build bridges,” he says. “That is the century that we live in. It is very polarized, very politicized.” 
The Brooklyn billboard is likely to raise eyebrows among Jews, in part because Orthodox Jews don't write out the name of God, as the billboard does. 
“It is an emotional word, there will be an emotional response," said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future. "People will look at it in a bizarre way. People won’t understand why someone needed to write that out.”
Except that the billboards aren't intended for observant Jews and Muslims (ostensibly). They're intended for atheists living in neighborhoods dominated by such people who are probably visibly indistinguishable from those who are observant, because they are afraid of backlash. I get it. In theory, at least, these are intended to be advertisements to give such people the message that they are not alone; that there are others out there who have seen fit to question and even abandon their religious faith. One major thing a lot of people wrestle with in this process is the feeling of having to give up the support structure that a religious community provides, and this is probably doubly, triply, a concern when your religion is a minority one. And, you know, when you live smack dab inside one of its enclaves. This is something that appears to have flown right by Elfilali and Brander, who can only interpret the billboards as directed toward the entire body of Muslims/Jews.

...Not that I can blame them, exactly, when the billboards say "You know it's a myth." I think that if the intent of the billboards is, as Silverman says, to reach out to specific people who have abandoned or are abandoning their faiths, the message would be made drastically more clear-- and drastically less obnoxious-- if it read "If you believe it's a myth." Here's why:

1. It's presumptuous, but more importantly often dishonest, to tell other people what they know. If you haven't heard a prior statement from them claiming such, or witnessed them facing evidence that directly contradicts their belief, then you have no idea what they know regarding it. And even if you have been exposed to such things, you can't quite be sure. Knowledge is justified, true belief. If people do not believe a thing, they cannot know it. If there is a possibility that a person is ignorant or mistaken, it is erroneous to claim that they know. People sometimes claim to believe what they know to be false, but to suggest that to an entire community simply because you believe (or even know) what they believe is false is an error. And an offensive one, because it accuses them of dishonesty in addition to ignorance/mistakenness.

2. "If you believe it's a myth" sacrifices nothing in terms of epistemological grounding, and gains everything in terms of clarity and consideration. It doesn't entail that the speaker loses any knowledge of whether the religion in question is a myth, but acknowledges that the listener (reader, in this case) may or may not believe it to be a myth. Indeed, that's what determines whether the billboard is speaking to that particular individual or not. A person who does not believe that his/her religion is a myth might have use for an atheist organization according to the atheist organization, but probably not according to him/herself, so can safely ignore the message and-- more importantly-- need not be offended by it. After all, for every religious doctrine out there, there is someone who considers it mythological in the sense of not being true. A person who is offended by this fact would be just as offended by the existence of a billboard advertising for any other religion besides his/her own.

"If you believe it's a myth" does not entail that a person can't also know it's a myth. After all, all of those who know also believe. But the use of the words "if" and "believe" would enable the billboard to more effectively pick out the members of these communities to whom it is ostensibly directed, and do so far less offensively without sacrificing its own viewpoint. Win-win, I'd say. And they should keep "And you have a choice," because presumably that choice is about what to do regarding this view that the religion which predominates in one's community is a myth. You believe it's a myth; now what? Well, I guess you go to and proceed from there, on your way to becoming a well-adjusted atheist.

JT Eberhard has a post up today saying that the billboards are an answer to "fatwa envy." "Fatwa envy" is a term for the resentment some Christians voice when atheists are insufficiently (in the Christian's view) critical of Islam, suggesting that the reason is that atheists refrain from such because they fear Muslims but not Christians. It's masked as a complaint about inconsistency, but in this particular form is really a case of the Christian making the complaint ruing the fact that they aren't as scary-- that they can't say "I'll make you shut up" and have anything with which to back up that threat (whether that means Christian terrorists or laws against blasphemy, or both).

Sure, the billboards count as equal opportunity pissing off of religious people. I just don't see any particular reason to piss them off in this case, view it to be a matter of incoherence of message and failure in logic, as well as counter-productive. Four counts against it, and none for it (at least, if you count this as an argument for altering the message rather than silencing it, which is the intent).

Eberhard then posts a couple of pro-religion billboards, one which depicts a boy with a gun aimed at you (the viewer) which reads "If God doesn't matter to him, do you?"; the other simply asks "Where are you going? Heaven or Hell" with an enormous phone number underneath: 855-FIND-TRUTH (you can dial that; I sure am not going to). Yes, those are offensive-- strangely enough, for much the same reason that the American Atheist billboards are. They all make unfounded, presumptuous assumptions about both the person reading the billboards and the beliefs (or lack of beliefs) they attempt to depict. There is no evidence whatsoever that if God doesn't matter to a person, people don't. None. Fail on that one, for a crap argument which offensively suggests that a person's lack of belief makes them violent. The second billboard compounds the error of assuming what the reader knows with an outright (and ironically vague) threat: heaven or hell?  You're going to one of them, for some reason, and we're not saying why but we're sure you know it! Or maybe I'm reading it wrong, and it's a one-question quiz: Where are you going? A) Heaven, or B) Hell? That, I suppose, would make the acronym in the phone number at bottom make a lot more sense. However, in that case it assumes that you don't know your eternal destination whereas whoever/whatever answers the phone can tell you.

So ultimately, bringing up those billboards amounts to a tu quoque: they're doing it, so why shouldn't we? The answer can be expected: Because two wrongs don't make a right. Because not all offense is created equal. Some people are offended simply by being told that their beliefs are false, sure-- the more important the beliefs are to them, the more offense is likely. But the A/A billboard claims that not only are religions myths, but that the person reading those words-- who is more likely to be an actual observant Jew/Muslim than anything else-- knows it. That's justifiably offensive for reasons that I have already explained, and what's more completely unnecessary. No better than telling someone they know that they are going to Hell, another version of asserting someone's beliefs for them. Not nearly as bad as telling someone they're likely to be a murderer because they don't share your beliefs, or telling other people falsely that they are, I'll grant. But still offensive, and pointlessly, counter-productively so. What's to be gained from that, I really don't know.

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