Can Atheist Billboards Kill Religion?

This spring, billboards sprouted across the country like cranky, God-hating daffodils. They proclaimed the bad news that God does not exist, that belief is bad for your soul, that religion enslaves—and they were met with predictable upset. Here Anthony Pinn reflects on the the state of the (A)theist conversation. –Eds.

I am a non-theistic humanist, and I am one who believes theism does more harm than good. It provides cosmic justification for all sorts of trauma and damage; it devalues human bodies and places bizarre restrictions on quality and content of life. 

Non-theists like me understand our work as, at least in part, as addressing the stuff of religion that does harm to collective, public life. But many of my atheist friends and acquaintances go the extra mile, believing that religion can and will be destroyed, that we are in the midst of a growing secularity. No longer content to be in the shadows, this group’s effort to dismantle theism involves a blend of mockery and deep critique.

Billboards, rallies, biting commentary—all this is meant to deconstruct the cultural worlds framing sacred texts and ideas, and to do deep damage to the stronghold religion has on life in the United States. I’m in favor of billboards, as well as other organized efforts to advance progressive values and life-affirming ethics. Why should theists alone be allowed to present their ideas in grand ways? The anger coming from theists when confronted with the absurdity behind some of their own faith commitments shouldn’t silence non-theists, and it doesn’t require special handling by public figures.

Let theists be angry—it is an opportunity for conversation, for engagement.

While I do agree on the need for non-theists to be vocal and explicit in their critique and in the presentation of their views, I don’t see that this type of activism will result in the demise, the final destruction of churches and other traditional religious institutions. I don’t see that happening, and I’m not sure it’s even necessary.

Non-theists are due for a bit of introspection, for an honest assessment of atheist and humanist missions and objectives: What is the basic concern – the destruction of religion? Or, more specifically, the destruction of the poor patterns of thinking, communication, and practice supported by theistic religion? Does the development of human societies that are reasonable and more progressive require the end of religion or simply the containment of its most harmful dimensions? It’s the latter that matters most. If traditional forms of religion go away (and I use this phrasing because I think the term “religion” isn’t restricted to theistic modalities of expression) some despicable human practices will lose their cosmic rationale.

Traditional, theistic religious traditions to not fall prey easily to logic and reason. In fact, the extreme examples of fundamentalism and evangelical thinking find attacks from non-theists an indication of their spiritual prowess. Ritual and theological structures insulate them from attacks on their most fundamental beliefs and practices.

Fundamentalist theology — the type atheists and humanists most typically attack — actually feeds off resistance and intellectual critique; these traditions runs contrary to reason and logic, and there is little hope this will change. This type of theologizing is a prophylactic against thinking: faith trumps reason in such cases in that reason is perceived to be the arrogance of humanity.

Pointing out the symbolic or metaphorical nature of theistic claims is important as a way of mapping out the deeply human and cultural nature of theism; but, it will not do deep damage to the ways in which sacred texts and rituals are applied to human life. It is likely theistic religions will transform but remain. And the growth of secularism in certain places does little to convince me otherwise, not in light of the rapid spread of Pentecostalism in Brazil, Prosperity Gospel-styled ministries in Africa, and so on.

A word of advice to atheists and humanists: deconstruct theistic models of religions—and expose the illogic and destructive thought and practice by those that have done so much graphic damage to human existence; but don’t be delusional concerning the outcomes of such effort.It might be cathartic for atheist and humanists to broadcast their disdain for religion, but it does little to shake the theistic world. Only those who already harboring doubts fall prey to such attacks.

So, my atheist and humanist colleagues should continue to put up billboards, hold public events, lobby, and do everything possible to enter into public conversation on religion. And there is benefit to this, but non-theists of all kinds will continue to struggle and work within an environment composed of competing claims. And while increasing public attention on the limits of theism, it might be a good idea to also do a bit of work to provide a ‘home’ for all those “Nones” who can’t stand the idea of church.

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Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. His most recent book is The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford, 2012).