Monday, August 4, 2008

Atheist Protest: Be Careful, It's Not a Game

This is a response to vjack over at Atheist Revolution, who asks whether atheists should consider picketing Christian extremist churches, and has a followup post continuing and clarifying his thoughts on the discussion. The Atheist Ethicist also had some good thoughts.

While I agree in principle that picketing could be very effective at raising people's awareness of some of the extremist views of these churches, it's a dangerous game. A picket, poorly conceived or executed, could backfire, making the Atheist movement look silly, and increasing, rather than decreasing, people's respect for the extremist churches. Modern political activism is a science, and jumping in head first without learning the science first is foolhardy.

It's a common misconception that pickets and protests are a sort of spontaneous action by outraged citizens. They hear about something, start talking and getting angry, and finally band together, buy some posterboard, sticks, and pens, make their signs, and start marching.

In reality, many or most of these "spontaneous" demonstrations are carefully orchestrated by behind-the-scenes marketing experts. They pick the topic, the town, and the protesters. They decide what the signs will say, they arrange the demonstration so that it doesn't conflict with other news, and gets maximal coverage. The "protesters" who get interviewed by the news media are carefully supplied with sound bytes, crafted by marketing experts to get maximal impact in the five to ten seconds of exposure they'll get on the nightly news.

If Atheists try to play in the same arena with these professionals, without first learning the rules of the game, it could go very badly indeed.

Consider the case of Rosa Parks, the African American civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. We've all heard Parks' story, but who knows about, Claudette Colvin? Ms. Colvin was a fifteen year old student who did the exact same thing as Rosa Parks in March of 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested. But Colvin was not considered a good representative for the cause, partly because of her age and attitude, but mostly because she got pregnant by an older married man right after being arrested. The NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists, all agreed that Claudette Colvin wasn't the right person to represent their cause.

Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat was hardly a spontaneous action. Parks was secretary to the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, and had been raising money for Colvin's defense before Colvin got pregnant. The African American community in the South needed someone to "take the bullet," and Rosa Parks knew this better than most. Parks, Dr. King, and the NAACP knew that the person who challenged the racist laws of the state had to be a model citizen. Who better than a mild-mannered, middle-aged housewife, highly respected in the community?

The official story is that Parks' action was spontaneous, but I find it much easier to believe that Rosa Parks actions were carefully planned in advance, by a group of very savvy civil-rights activists. I know I would have done the same if I were in their shoes in 1955.

Which leads us back to the original question. If Atheists are going to start conducting protests, they need to carefully orchestrate the event. You can't just send a bunch of hotheads, or worse, a bunch of sarcastic intellectuals, out to face the cameras.

Here are some questions. If you can't answer them, you shouldn't even think about protesting.

Goals. What is the purpose of the protest? What do you want to achieve by protesting? How will your protest achieve those goals?

Message. What message are you trying to convey? Is it clear? Is it something that non-Atheists will sympathize with? (We're talking five- to ten-second sound bites for the news, and one-column pamphlets to hand to passers-by. If you can't say it in ten seconds, you don't have a message.)

Target. Why have you selected this particular group or church for your protest? What have they done that deserves the attention you'll be giving them?

Backlash. What are the potential bad consequences? Will you be drawing attention, empathy, sympathy, or publicity to a group that would otherwise remain obscure? Will the public side with them, not you?

Protesters. Are the people who will be marching good citizens? Have any been arrested or have criminal records?

Atheists are a notoriously free-thinking lot. I predict that the biggest barrier to a good protest will be getting everyone to agree on a plan!


  1. "Modern political activism is a science, and jumping in head first without learning the science first is foolhardy."

    This kind of agonizing tends to sabotage all sorts of actual or potential political movements. Strategy and tactics are important, but treating political activism as some kind of highly specialized discipline ignores the history of activist movements where the most effective groups are the ones that actually got out there and did something.

    Take it from someone who has been involved in political movements which have nothing to do with atheist (e.g., lgbt and AIDS). Strategy and tactics are icing on the cake. Action is the thing that matters most in real world activism.

  2. Not sure it's as complicated as that really. Ingenuity has a lot going for it. It only takes one person outside the church (during services) with a sign asking: "Honk if you want proof god exists" to make a statement in a reasonably busy area.


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