Sunday, October 28, 2012

publicity and "Reason"

It may be presumptuous of me to critique the publicity efforts of other atheists, for two reasons. First, I'm not involved in any of it. Second, I'm a newcomer; I didn't successfully admit my atheism (not even to myself!) until a few years ago. I doubt that groups who sometimes call themselves free-thinkers could question my right or permission to criticize, but they could question my credibility. On the other hand, perhaps I can bring a fresh perspective as someone who has recently been on both "sides".

So let me point out the problem with one specific totem of atheistic publicists: the repeated word "Reason". To theists, an exclusive claim on a mental ability like reason sounds as laughable as...um, the attempt of theists to make an exclusive claim on moral conscience. ("If you're an atheist, then why aren't you constantly cheating and stealing and murdering?") A theist, such as me a few years ago, simply responds by saying that they employ correct reason all the time, but in questions about the supernatural, they start with different premises than atheists. And reason plays an indispensable role when theists proceed to argue, like lawyers, about complicated far-fetched intepretations of the same set of sacred texts. Indeed, "deep" introspective theists are philosophical cousins to traditional rationalists; they pride themselves on their intricate logical abstractions and otherworldly mental ideals, all of which are supposedly more "real" than temporary stuff that sullies the senses.

Therefore, it may be worthwhile to consider complementary alternatives to the prevalence of "Reason" in atheistic publicity efforts. Please note what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that the theists are as reasonable as they suppose they are. No matter what else theists say in praise of reason, they're still individuals who by definition grant credence to a number of poorly-supported ideas. The task of effective atheistic publicity isn't to encourage more reason but to hint at the theistic misuse of reason. Just encouraging more reason produces the off-putting stereotype of atheists who assume that everyone other than them is unintelligent, insane, or lazy. Then theists are likelier to conclude that the message amounts to an elaborate insult instead of a provocative insight about the true weaknesses of unquestioned faith. The significant difference is the emphasis. Rather than portray their overall mindset as contradicting reason, draw their attention to the details of the real "blind spots" which they don't normally scrutinize closely enough.

Purely for inspiration, here are some examples of groan-inducing alternatives to "Reason" slogans. Brainstorming!
  • Have you checked the data behind your opinion lately?
  • Which experts are you asking for advice?
  • When faith supports beliefs, what supports faith?
  • How do you prove that other religions are false...but yours is the exception?
  • Why does a gut feeling often fail to detect minor facts...yet is also the best way to answer Big Questions?
  • What tests do your beliefs pass?
  • Who becomes trustworthy by commanding trust upfront?

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