Appropriating the Victim Complex: American Atheists’ Latest Billboard

by: Andrew Tripp

These days, I so often feel mortified by the atheist movement, but more so, by those who are considered luminaries within it.  There are days when I just want to curl up with a bottle of whiskey, put a bag over my head, hide in my apartment and watch QI forever. Paraphrasing Tim Minchin, I am ashamed of my fellow atheists and their innate sense of superiority over everyone else.

What is it this week? Well, technically, it was a few weeks ago, but American Atheists, that most cringeworthy of secular advocacy organizations, put up a billboard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ostensibly to protest Governor Tom Corbett’s signing into law a bill that declares 2012 the “Year of the Bible” in that state. Now, AA has a long history of poorly designed, blunt, generally terrible billboards, but the Harrisburg one really takes the cake. It shows a shackled black slave with the quote, “Slaves, obey your masters,” a quote from Colossians 3:22. Now, the intention behind the billboard was, apparently, to show one of the many instances in which the Bible endorses slavery or misogyny or rape or all of the other wonderful things the supposedly happy, peaceful, transcendent piece of literature does.

However, as anyone with a modicum of understanding of how advertising, particularly billboards, actually works, that message is not what this billboard projects. What it projects to the average passerby is something incredibly racist, particularly given its location in one of Harrisburg’s most diverse neighborhoods. Billboards are not made to push complicated ideas; they’re made by their images, and it’s not ridiculous for anyone to see a giant shackled slave with a supporting quote looming over their heads and get a bit upset. The advertisement was summarily vandalized and replaced after one day.

Surely, you might think that an organization such as American Atheists, which prides itself on its promotion of reason, rationality, and all those other objective buzzwords, would take notice of their mistake here, publish an apology, and work in the future to avoid such things. Well, their partner group, the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, did indeed put out an explanation, managing in the space of it to completely miss the point of why the billboard was defaced; namely, its use of race.  Essentially, the Nonbelievers asserted, “well, I guess you guys who caused this DESTRUCTION (that’s how they term it) just aren’t smart enough or have strong enough investigative skills to get it. Our poor billboard!”

This is the same white New Atheist bullshit that I am so tired of; this intellectual superiority that is carried as a badge of honor by its adherents, and the intellectual imperialism that follows from it. I have previously written on why I think this kind of conversion advocacy is wrong, and this debacle is just another example. Dave Silverman and his ilk are so convinced of their own rightness, of their own indefatigable rationality, the superiority of not believing in the genocidal sky man, that they think that gives them the duty to force others to follow their own path. They think that if everyone would just read Dawkins’ The God Delusion, then everyone will be convinced, and we could run off and create a grand secular wonderland, because science.

Sikivu Hutchinson, as ever, lays it down:

“It’s cartoonishly pro forma when white folk, ignorant of these historical traditions, swaggeringly insist that atheist discourse is implicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist because one, we white people say so, and, two, hierarchy is something only those knuckle-dragging supernaturalists do. It’s paint-by-the-numbers entitlement time when the so-called new atheist “movement” is resistant to the charge that racial and gender politics just might inform who achieves visibility and which issues are privileged in the broader context of skeptical discourse. It’s not PC to point out that traditions of scientific racism, secularism, and Judeo Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West’s enlightened history.”

The New Atheists LOVE to do this kind of thing: they put out shirts declaring “We Are All Africans,” or sit around asking how to diversify the movement in rooms entirely made up of white people, or make ignorant comments wondering why people of color still go to church when it is oppressing them. The ignorance of race and gender oppression, in particular, amongst New Atheists is absolutely stunning at times.

I have recently had discussions (well, if we’re honest, arguments) with two such strident atheists, who insist that their views are the best because they are “rational,” and that they have a right to compare themselves to oppressed groups like African Americans and queers because atheists are like, super oppressed, too. Certainly, as I mentioned in my conversion piece, atheists are not exactly well-liked in America, but we have never been stolen from our native lands and kept in the worst conditions possible for months-long sea voyages only to be sold into nigh-inescapable slavery for the rest of our days. There aren’t Atheist and Christian drinking fountains. We aren’t forced to live on the outskirts of town, or in the worst neighborhoods of a big city, in food deserts without any public transportation access, for our nonbelief.

The attitude of American Atheists in the Pennsylvania billboard escapade, and in fact pretty much all of their publicity stunts, are steeped in these ridiculous notions of intellectual imperialism, superiority, and oppression, that just scream out the fact that they are desperate for a place in the Oppression Olympics.  The victim complex at work here is mesmerizing in its sheer absurdity, and frankly, I believe through things like this they are ruining any chance our movement has of growing into one that is respected by other activist communities, or one that can make any kind of meaningful change. We need to cut this kind of discourse out, now.

Andrew Tripp is a scoundrel, raconteur, and all around roguish individual who is studying Philosophy and Art History at DePaul University. He is the co-founder and President of the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, the university’s first and only group serving its population of nonreligious students, and often writes on how ashamed he is to be in the same movement as Dave Silverman. You can find him on a barstool cheering on Manchester City Football Club on the weekends, at his blog consideredexclamations.blogspot.com and on Twitter @ahtripp.

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2 responses to “Appropriating the Victim Complex: American Atheists’ Latest Billboard

  1. Pingback: The Yuletide Honking of Privileged, Out-of-Touch Atheist Organizations | Considered Exclamations·

  2. Pingback: The Yuletide Honking of Privileged, Out-of-Touch Atheist Organizations | NonProphet Status·

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