Update, October 11, 2013:
Welcome to new readers who are viewing this page from a link from Ken Ham’s “AiG’s ‘Thank God You’re Wrong’ Billboard Campaign Begins with a Big Bang” post today! I am glad that my post made Ken “smile.” I enjoy making people smile. However, I also enjoy when people use words correctly. Ken seems to think I “do not realize the irony” of giving his campaign exposure. Honestly, I do not realize the irony because that’s not the definition of irony, anymore than Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” dealt with actually ironic situations. But more importantly:
There is a world of difference between rhetorical success and media exposure.
If there was not, then in the near future communications students will be studying Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance as a pinnacle of rhetorical mastery. Does that help you see the difference? So the question is: Do Ken Ham and AiG want to be viral successes or successful communicators? With today’s post, Ken has made his answer clear. Unfortunately, it is not the mature answer.
I am sure by now you have read the latest about Ken Ham and the new Answers in Genesis (AiG) billboards. These billboards are going up in very public, prominent places across the United States — Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, California, and Times Square in downtown New York City. Their bold message?
“TO ALL OUR ATHEIST FRIENDS: THANK GOD YOU’RE WRONG.”
As a trained communicator and former speech and debate coach, I can personally tell you that this is a rhetorical fail. But really, I do not think I need to pull out Aristotle’s Rhetoric to convince most people of that. A billboard with a simplistic slogan like AiG’s carries as much ethos, pathos, and logos as a bumper sticker: in other words, not much at all. The difference between a billboard and a bumper sticker, of course, is the latter costs maybe a few dollars whereas the cost of the former is enough to feed many hungry people in need — something that the Jesus I read about in the Bible actually and explicitly commanded his followers to do.
There has been some thoughtful pushback to the AiG campaign by Christians. Two individuals I know from homeschool speech and debate (and whom I greatly respect) have written blog posts: Cynthia Jeub at Insights on Epic Living wrote “I’m Not Ashamed of the Gospel, You’re Just Not Preaching It”; Travis Herche at TravisHerche.com wrote “4 Reasons the New AiG Ad is a Persuasive Disaster”.
I thought both Cynthia and Travis’s responses were constructive and insightful. I give them major props for speaking up. That said, both of their responses have these lines:
“I have atheist friends, and…”
“Let’s step into the mind of an atheist… Let’s try to imagine what would go through such a person’s head after reading this ad.”
I am not highlighting these lines to criticize Cynthia or Travis. My point is to highlight what is missing here — and what would be helpful to add to the conversation for everyone’s sake: what the “atheists friends” actually think.
So rather than attempt to “step into the mind of an atheist,” I just went ahead and asked some atheists. I asked a number of friends to write a few sentences in response to the following four questions:
- When Ken Ham and AiG call you their “atheist friend,” how does that make you feel?
- This billboard obviously plays off “thank God” as a general expression and relates it to actually thanking God. Do you think that is a clever play on words or stupid (and why)?
- What does this billboard communicate to you about Christians and Christianity?
- This billboard is directed towards atheists. In a couple sentences, can you explain how this billboard missed the mark in opening up a dialogue with you (if it did)? If you do not think it missed the mark, how was it successful?
And to Ken Ham and AiG, if you are reading this: I am not the target audience for your billboard. I am simply invested — if only because of my inherent humanity — in seeing you (since you are a religious leader) model mature and responsible communication and openness to sincere dialogue with people with whom you disagree.
You are failing at the tasks of communication and dialogue.
This is not a “liberal” observation, nor an “atheist” attack. Just yesterday Cynthia — a young Christian woman — bravely and boldly told you this, and you rejected her admonishment with thoughtless, rude responses like “what a ridiculous position” and “I can’t believe the nonsense some Christians come out with”:
That’s not to mention how many comments you have deleted from your Facebook page that have come from other Christians who are calling you out. (The above comment I left was deleted, too. Ken Ham also extended to me the Christian courtesy of blocking me from his Facebook page for this one comment.) Last time I checked, the Sermon on the Mount did not include “Blessed are those who delete Facebook comments, for they shall inherit the Interwebz.”
So Ken Ham and AiG, since you will not listen to other Christians, perhaps you will listen to what some of your so-called “atheist friends” think about your billboard. And if they are indeed your friends, I would encourage you to take their words to heart.
1. When Ken Ham and AiG call you their “atheist friend,” how does that make you feel?
F: The “atheist friend” bit in the ad is just insulting and adds to the condescending tone of the whole ad. In general “atheist” has so many negative connotations among Christians that the moment a Christian starts using the word, I’m already running the other direction.
R: It’s really uncomfortable to be friends with someone who thinks you will experience eternal torture after you die, and that that’s okay because it’s what you deserve anyway.
S: Annoyed. I doubt Ken Ham has any atheist friends whatsoever, and I also can’t imagine that any atheist would be willing to be his token “atheist friend,” either.
N: Normally Ken’s group uses bogus definitions of the word “Atheist”. Today, they’re using a bogus definition of the word “friends”.
M: I AM NOT KEN HAM’S FRIEND. I limit my friendships to those that embody respect and an effort to understand. Ken Ham and AiG do not actually portray a knowledge of what atheism embodies, let alone an effort to understand why someone might reach the conclusions I have or a respect for my point of view.
A: First of all, I feel like he’s using the word “friend” to make me feel all loved and stuff, when I know what he really wants to do is tell me how wrong I am. Second, he’s putting me in a special class with all the other atheists in the world, as if we’re this huge group of people he feels the duty to evangelize too. Is this some sales pitch? I feel like I’m being set up for a bait-and-switch. Guess what? I’m not interested.
2. This billboard obviously plays off “thank God” as a general expression and relates it to actually thanking God. Do you think that is a clever play on words or stupid (and why)?
N: It’s a wordplay trick that has been used time and time again, and lost all semblance of originality. (For what it’s worth, “thank god i’m an atheist” or “Thank the flying spaghetti monster” are just as stupid, in my opinion.)
S: It’s stupid. It’s clearly a slap at atheists–haha, aren’t you so silly, not believing in God, we’re going to shove it in your faces whether you like it or not! It’s born out of arrogance.
F: Screw the problem of evil, I think that the existence of that terrible “play on words” is proof enough a good, loving, all-powerful god doesn’t exist. In all seriousness though, it’s just dumb. It’s the special kind of dumb that thinks it’s being so clever but is only clever to those who hold the exact same condescending attitude and the exact same beliefs. It’s the same bumper-sticker nonsense that most atheists have to deal with every time they interact with a Christian and it’s just boring, unconvincing, and worn out.
A: Using the word “God” in a message to atheists is a huge mistake. First off, we don’t believe in God. So this is a simple jab at our beliefs saying “I don’t care that you don’t believe in God, because TADA I just called on him to prove my point.” It’s so lame. It’s like threatening a child that because she doesn’t believe in Santa Clause, he’s not going to give her any presents this year. “Duh,” she thinks, “Santa never gave me presents. They come from my parents.”
M: I think it is an expression of someone taking personal delight in being irrelevant. If I said, “Good thing there is no evidence of a higher power so I’m not going to hell like you think I am,” that would be similarly unconvincing to those who retain traditional Christian beliefs. (It is to be noted that the atheist position says nothing about potential harm to Christians, whereas the fundamental Christian position generally relegates atheists to an eternity of torture for a disagreement in belief.)
R: I’m one of those atheists who does use the phrase “thank god.” As in, “Oh thank god, I found my keys.” If someone were to point to that and claim that that somehow means I actually believe in God, that would make me upset.
3. What does this billboard communicate to you about Christians and Christianity?
A: This campaign illustrates one the things I most dislike about Christianity: Otherness. It explicitly makes a distinction between Christians (“We’re right!”) and non-Christians (“You’re wrong!”). There is no way that I would want to be part of a group that goes around telling huge groups of people “You’re wrong, and we’re right!” I mean, how tacky and self-righteous is that?!
S: That they are arrogant, uninterested in listening to different perspectives, and have little to no interest in building a pluralistic society that respects all views.
M: This billboard communicates to me that the Christians represented by it are likely ignorant and have very little drive for actual empathy with those who disagree with them. It is easier to condemn other humans to hell than to understand their point of view and their reasons for holding that perspective.
N: Nothing, actually. Christians are a varied group, and they believe many different things. There are arguably as many different kinds of Christianity as there are individual Christians. What this communicates, though, is that there are sects who remain willfully ignorant of what people who don’t take their label actually think, and take the initiative to speak for their entire religion when they really have no business doing so.
F: I’m well aware that Christians are usually completely tone-deaf about how their religion and conversion attempts come off to outsiders, and this ad is just more evidence to that effect. It’s utterly devoid of logic, it’s just an ungrounded assertion. Most Christianity isn’t this simple-minded but I know plenty of atheists who think it is just that simple-minded & their belief in the total imbecility of religion will be confirmed by this stupid ad.
R: This billboard says Christians are assholes. If I’m wrong, and the God Ken Ham worships does exist, I’m going to be tortured for eternity after I die. And yet, Answers in Genesis is glibly “thanking god” for this. Assholes.
4. This billboard is directed towards atheists. In a couple sentences, can you explain how this billboard missed the mark in opening up a dialogue with you (if it did)? If you do not think it missed the mark, how was it successful?
S: The billboard’s message isn’t even framed as an attempt at dialogue. It’s a direct attack on non-theistic beliefs. And it’s also totally unnecessary. If Ham and AiG were really interested in dialogue, there are more constructive ways to start one.
N: I actually disagree with the premise of this question. While the billboard may appear “directed” toward atheists, the target audience is actually other Christians. The point of this is not to say “Hey, atheists, let’s have a dialogue”, it’s to say “hey, look fellow creationists, let’s pat ourselves on the back and laugh at those atheists because they don’t believe what we believe.”
M: The billboard was not meant to open dialogue with atheists. Anyone skilled in human communication can tell you that announcing you are right and someone else is wrong, while basing that argument on something you fundamentally disagree about, ends dialogue before it begins. The billboard is a “Fuck you” to atheists: but it is written by Christians, so instead of utilizing profanity they spoke a common phrase involving god’s name.
F: See the problem with this billboard is, it’s not designed to open up dialogue. A lot of Christians seem to think that if they just put their faith out there & are super up-front and confrontational about it, people will be “curious” or “ask questions”, therefore putting the onus on the “atheist friends” to actually open up the dialogue. A simple, insulting, condescending, snarky, devoid-of-humor assertion that God exists isn’t dialogue. The good part is, something so incredibly inane is probably not going to do much damage, either, plus AiG is pretty known as right-wing weirdoes so this ad shouldn’t damage the prospects of any real, compassionate, Christ-like Christians in opening up actual dialogue with atheists (though really, it’s hard for me to believe that when any Christian says “dialogue” they mean anything other than “conversion attempt” and fuuuck that).
Basically, just don’t proselytize with ads. That’s probably just straight up not going to work and you’re going to come out looking like an asshole for trying it.
A: This billboard proves to me that my perception of God and Christians is correct. I look at it and think, “Those poor Christians; they think they’re so clever. Bigots.” The end.
R: Opening dialogue involves actually being willing to listen, not saying “haha, you’re wrong, suckers!” And actually, dialogue means being willing to reevaluate your own position, not starting from the assumption that you’re right and nothing will ever ever change your mind ever, as Ken Ham et al. do. So yeah, that’s not opening dialogue, that’s shutting the door in my face.