Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Atheism Activism Frustrations


Sometimes, I admit, I have to wonder if what I'm doing is actually having any effect. Yesterday's letter got me a little down, but after reading Greta Christina's great post discussing what if the atheist movement actually succeeds, I felt a bit better. But there are now two more letters in the Exponent that illustrate what the atmosphere at Purdue is really like. Effectively, "stop criticizing us because Christians have the right to do and say whatever you want, but since you're a mean poopy head atheist you need to shut up."

Why do I bother?

I have devoted so much time, effort, and even money into developing the Society of Non-Theists, and while we're a big active group, are we actually accomplishing our goals? We do one event that's mildly controversial, and instantly we're being called lazy, ignorant, zealots, idiots, biased... I'm not necessarily upset that people disagree with me, but I'm upset that people are so damned ignorant about it. You can tell from their letters that they either didn't read our flyers, didn't visit our website, or at the very list didn't try to rub two brain cells together to understand what we were doing. They don't even try to be intellectually honest. And I can write letters back, but even if they do get printed (which only some will), they're not going to have any effect because these people are so closed minded. Even ranting here seems effectively pointless, since I'm just preaching to the choir. It's all well and good that people pat me on the back for writing a well thought out argument, but does it matter if only non-theists and skeptics are reading it? Or that even if a theist did read it, they'd just ignore it?

Or how do we even go about planning events if one controversial one is going to totally ruin our reputation? People will see our tame Blasphemy Day event tomorrow and think we're a bunch of jackasses. They'll go on claiming we're amoral or don't volunteer, even though we have volunteered and have many more philanthropic events coming in the future. But they're so set in their ways they're not going to take the time to ask questions or read a website. They know we're not doing those things.

Blah. Maybe it's just Indiana, or just my campus, or just the US, but it's getting pretty damned frustrating.


  1. I'm a theist and I don't ignore you or dismiss your arguments as being hateful or ignorant or whatever. We're not all terrible. Maybe you just attract the worst ones :p

  2. Honestly, I see no good coming out of Blasphemy Day. It will either be mildly "successful", or it will go horribly wrong. I'm not really sure what you are trying to accomplish with it. I think it's just going to offend people more than anything.

    Now, I know what you are going to say. "The fact that people would get offended by it is exactly why we need to have it; to challenge people to think about their beliefs!" While I agree that atheists should encourage others to think critically about their beliefs, offending them is not the way to go. While some people will be offended no matter what you do, you should stay away from things that will offend many people and has no clear message.

    For example, Pastafarian Preaching is good because it gets people thinking about how silly real preachers look, while offending a minimal number of people. Having posters where people can write whatever they want on it will not get people thinking about anything, other than how bigoted atheists are, or something of the sort. I bet you anything that it will turn into a flame war more than being about free speech.

    Not to discourage you from doing events like this, but just want you to think things through a little more thoroughly.

  3. There will be a lot of times where you feel like this, but keep at it! The frustation is illusory.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again - you are my hero! I wish I would have been 1/10th as productive as you are when I was in college...

  4. Take the high ground, let them condemn themselves with their ridiculous outrage...

  5. You said it yourself in the other post, they post the letters that will get reactions. This is the state of media today. Don't show what the majority thinks and feels, instead show the whiny ignorant screamers because people will buy it just to dissent with it if nothing else.

    I consider it all to be reaction comedy wearing the costume of news.

  6. Hey, Jen?

    It makes a difference. It makes a difference to the people in your group, first of all. Those individuals have somewhere to turn for support when these sorts of things happen, when people come out with nonsense and bullshit about you. So you help out in that way.

    Secondly, you broadcast your thoughts and methods on your blog, and how many times have we seen, "I wish my campus had an atheist group." or "I'm going to look into doing this too!" So, one video of a pirate day protest, or of a creation museum presentation may influence one person to do in one campus what you do for all the dozens of people at Purdue.

    Thirdly, it affects me. I think I speak for most of the people who read this site that your opinions have really shown us both why it's important that we're vocal about our atheism, and also why it's important that we retain our sense of humour and our firm stride forward. It's become a pool to find friends and even debate those who oppose is.

    I think what you do is great. I see that it is hard, and I think that is one of the reason you have a vibrant commenting community - so many of us know what you're doing, given that you're a full-time student in a difficult discipline, is incredibly time consuming and sometimes unrewarding, and that's why we try to post positive comments for you to read.

    Don't think you don't make a difference in people's lives - you make a difference in ours, and I know I've been enjoying a hint of vicarious living through you, feeling now on the subject of atheism as I do, wishing I had been as vehement on the subject when I was at school.

  7. Remember that your activities and letters are not just for the asshats; probably not even primarily for them. Your actions and writings will be viewed by a wider audience, some of whom may be on the edge of rational thought. Or at least get a seed planted that will accumulate with all the other snowflakes to cause an avalanche (mixed metaphor FAIL!) So don't worry so much about what the asshats say or do and keep up the good fight.

  8. Vanessa:

    It depends on the light you put on Blasphemy day. My group here is taking a free speech approach and telling theists that their criticisms of other religions can be considered blasphemy in the eyes of the other religion, and we all need to be tolerant of each other.

    This is frustrating, to be sure. I've been trying to advocate for vaccines, and recently got into a bad argument about someone who seriously thinks that megadosing vitamin c will offer the same protection a vaccine will. Things like that can be fairly frustrating, but every now and again you find that you will break through to another person and get them to think, and then you find that (hopefully) it was worth it.

    Keep fighting the good fight.

  9. Jen,

    I've been reading (lurking on?) the blog for some time now but have not commented until this moment.

    Greta and a few of those before me have stated it well. That is, if you reach only one person with each attempt then you should consider it a success. Eradicating deep seeded beliefs is not a simple thing to do and I'm sure it's sometimes easy to not see the larger picture. You're not just "preaching to the choir", you're enlarging that chorus and opening minds one person at a time.

    Of course, I'm sure you know all this. You provide inspiration. Don't lose sight of that.


  10. Jen,

    Don't let those letters bother you. If it bothers you, then your enemy has succeeded.

    Throughout the history, Christians have done the same thing to the non-Christians, especially the Jews. The inquisition is the best example.

  11. Oh, I almost forgot. You can always schedule an event for your club to talk about what Christian Church did during the inquisition, as an counterattack.

  12. "Don't let those letters bother you. If it bothers you, then your enemy has succeeded."

    In the same way that you have succeeded in bothering them.

    OF COURSE there is a backlash, Jen. That is what happens when people get shocked out of their comfort zone and start losing power.

  13. Hey Jen,

    I know this is always easier said than done, but sometimes- you have to just ignore the idiots. If they want to believe that the group is nothing more than a bunch of whiny brats, then whatever. You and everyone else in the group know that you're not.

    And believe it or not, the things you do do have a positive impact on those around you- even if it is just "preaching to the choir." Your ability to stand up to adversity shows that the group is more than just what stupid people believe.

    And honestly? It's the Exponent, Jen. The stupid journalists fabricated quotes. Most of the letters to the Editor are written by idiotic people who, as you've said, are close-minded.

    To be perfectly honest with you- I think it'd just be for the best to ignore them. The Exponent isn't the end-all, be-all. You make a lot of people feel happy and accepted, and that's all the matters.

    The Non-Theist club is the thing that I miss the most about college. Even if people talked trash about us, I still was happy being a part of the group because I felt like I belonged there and was accepted. I don't feel like that we're I'm at now, and I wonder if I ever will.

    Keep going strong, Jen. Don't let the idiots tear you down. :)

  14. It matters! You need more help at Purdue—you shouldn't be doing all of this alone.

    Get some friends and reply to those letters. Whatever is thrown at you, counter it threefold with logic and calm, steady reason.

    Those letters read like something a high schooler would write. Even if all you say is, "we aren't doing this for you or to you, we are doing it for us," that's enough.

    No, it won't change their minds, and no, they will never listen. But remember, that's the point. This isn't to piss off or offend people. It's to stand up for the rest of us who get trampled on and called evil and dangerous every day by the very people who promote hatred and bigotry.

    That's why we do it—and that's why it matters. It isn't about them. In fact, it has nothing to do with them.

    I'm sick of this mentality. I'm sick of "if you don't believe, just leave us alone". I'm sick of it, I'm so sick to death that it makes me want to punch a wall.

    They wouldn't say that about any other cult trying to entrap and indoctrinate their own children. The cognitive dissonance is painful.

    The fact of the matter is that it isn't possible to show them that it's the same damn thing. It can feel pointless at times. Our only option is to ignore them and to speak out—which is what you're doing—and to ignore their whining. Let them be a high-pitched noise in the background if they want, but tuning it out is the only thing we can do if we want to make a difference in the world.

  15. From one of the Exponent letters: "Disproving God won’t feed the hungry or stop genocide."

    First of all, who tried to disprove God? Proving the non-existence of something is absurd.

    Second, how much genocide and hunger has been caused by belief in God?

  16. One would think that minor religions would remember that their beliefs are often considered blasphemy. The last people in the US charged with blasphemy (in 1971) was for a poster that most liberal Christians would consider completely reasonable. Blasphemy laws protect the establishment.

    BTW are you aware of the code that Purdue's University Religious Leaders (URL) are suppose to follow.

  17. Mike, that sounds like a good way to go about Blasphemy Day. I didn't mean that Blasphemy Day in general was bad, just the way that Jen decided to go about "celebrating" it here at Purdue. Maybe it would work on a more open-minded campus, but anyone who has been to Purdue or who reads Jen's blog will know that Purdue students are not the most open-minded of people.

  18. Jen, Your letting them get to you! This is what Creationists/Theists want, that's why they do those things. People notice when you don't give up/in. So don't do it. They go to the website, read the flyers, but the way you challenge those people scares them, so they try to rationalize that your the enemy (instead of the "hero") and try to bring you down. If you let them win, you loose. If you keep fighting and win, then they win as well because you'll be one of the people responsible for opening up peoples minds and setting them "free." So don't give up, don't give in. People will always try to bring you down when your challenging their opinions, but that's a issue we must all face. if you give up, and think things like "why bother" your letting the Theists win because they will keep pushing until you break. So stay steadfast, and keep standing up for what you believe, and don't worry about trolls, because that's all they are, trolls.

  19. "I'm sick of "if you don't believe, just leave us alone"."

    Well, I don't think I would be sick of it or anything, if they actually felt that way.

    Keep in mind, these people aren't writing letters to the paper opposing Brother Jed's visits, or complaining about the preaching by the people putting on the Porn and Popcorn or the Mormon folks riding around campus trying to spread the word. Oh no, preaching and evangelizing, trying to convert the non-believers, that's all fine. These are just good people, trying to help make things better. Atheists, however, are evil troublemakers, intent on imposing their beliefs on everyone else.

    There is a common phenomenon that happens in internet discussions, what I call the "I'm entitled to my opinion" response. Basically, what happens is that someone who is getting hammered in an argument and can't deal with it tends to hide behind the claim that, "Well, I am entitled my opinion" with the implication that calling it an opinion shields it from criticism. In all the boards I am part of, I advocating added a statement to the FAQ like, "This is a discussion group, and your opinion is welcome. However, other opinions are also welcome, including the opinion that your opinion is wrong. Do not insist you have the right to your opinion and complain when others express theirs."

  20. Preaching to the choir does help. Because of writers like you, I have ended 45 years of silent unbelief, and now everyone I know has more of the full picture of who I am. :) I have taken to attending free thinker's events, and over the last 6 months or so, I have begun to contribute financially to several secular organizations as well as lending my voice to the cause.

    Look at it this way, when you provoke a strong backlash, people are being taken by the scruff ideologically, and shaken roughly! Fragile, nonsensical belief systems don't fare very well in that instance, and they don't know how to do anything but lash out.

    We are winning! Just keep doing what you are doing, and we cannot fail. Reason will eventually prevail, maybe not because it makes sense, but because eventually we will outnumber them! Your generation is the key!

    Now, stop feeling sorry for yourself soldier, and get out there and show everyone just how ignorant and and irrational these reactionary conservatives are!

    The battle for the future begins now! Go!

  21. I can't blame you for wanting to give up.

    But for every ten idiots, there'll still be that one non-theist who's happier because of you.

    It doesn't help much on campus, but you're famous on the internet (to more than your allotted fifteen people).

  22. Look on the bright side. They've published their idiocy for all the world to see. Furthermore, it means that you've actually had an impact. People are hearing your message. And even if there were 10 inane letters to the editor, it's out of a campus of how many?

  23. Jen, for the sake of your sanity stop reading the opinion section of the Exponent. Only the lowest trolls at Purdue bother to write in to them. The opinions that they print are never what the majority believes in. They purposely print the most indendary letters to get people to read.

  24. The kind of people you're describing are a minority. You're not talking to just the choir but the silent majority, too. And most of them are just normal people, quite different to the frustrating ones you often have to deal with.

    Of course, whatever you do wou will upset someone. It's statistically unavoidable to find some bigot people who just won't listen because their prejudices against you make them feel attacked, so they attack back to feel safe again. It's the same reaction we cause when demonstrating for homosexual's civil rights (look at them fags!), against war (look at them traitors!), whatever. Since they won't listen to reason, in my opinion there's only one proper way to respond to them:

    "And all of this controversy circles me
    and it seems like the media
    points a finger at me
    so I point one back at em,
    but not the index or pinkie,
    or the ring or the thumb,
    it's the one you put up
    when you don't give a fuck,
    when you won't just put up
    with the bullshit they pull"

    ...and them move on. Or maybe just move on.

  25. You're a fucking inspiration Jen! You've made us want to reach out more and do more so you've scored a huge one there. I know personally, I can relate to you more than any other blogger I have ever read. You're a student, a scientist, a creative, and enourmously independent. Most times there will be negative feedback, but there will be many wins too.
    Focus on the wins and laugh off the negative.

    You have to admit - they are pretty funny.

  26. I'm so late to this I can't say anything that hasn't already been said. So, I'll try to burn as little time as possible in this, as chronophages love the smell of burning time.

    As of my first year in college, I was Ebert's letter, and I was desperately trying to hold on to my faith and Catholic upbringing. Hell, back then, I was still aiming for confirmation. I don't recall what changed, but after that, until 2008, I was Chapla's letter.

    After that, I was introduced to Pharyngula and Bad Astronomy, then En Tequila Es Verdad, then this blag. Each one had a sort of, well, 'adjustment' effect on me. Pharyngula showed me I was being a dumbass. Bad Astronomy showed me how not to be a dumbass. En Tequila Es Verdad showed me that it was okay to point out that other people are being dumbasses. I'm not sure what I'm learning here, but I read it more often than the others for the most part, so it has to be something I think is important.

    Either that or it's something stupid like "Durr, I want to be a fan of a slightly obscure blog before it's super-popular so I can get a lot of indie cred and my e-peen will be BIGGAR!" But I doubt it's that, because if it is, I'm going to have to defenestrate myself.

    So, yeah. I guess we can tack on a long list of ass-kissy moochy-smoochy 'You're the best... arouuuund~!' stuff too. You're probably going to get a whole pile of that, though, so I may as well stick with tsundere-style stuff, because I am a dork.

    Just because I'm commenting on your blag and stuff, it... doesn't mean that I like it/you or anything! Don't let it go to your head!

  27. well jenn, if you're lookin to convert the really religulous people, chances are that aint gonna happen, since theyre lost cause. most people from somewhat religulous background who came to become non-theist are coming to it on their own. and they were somewhat in the middle ground before. I just recently discovered your blog and enjoy reading it. I have to say that porn and popcorn review thing you did was excellent. I myself do not involve in any atheism activism cos its a bit remind me of what churches are doing. but I applaud your effort cos someone has to raise the conciousness of how ridiculous religions are.

  28. Jen,

    I think we've all been there. I certainly think you're under far more pressure than I've ever been, as a result of your leadership in the Society of Non-Theists, and as a result the backlash is naturally going to hit you the hardest. You have my sincere sympathies.

    What I'm going to say may come across as slightly callous or tactless, but... the fact that you're getting a reaction is a good thing. It may be unpleasant, but the thing to keep in mind is that it means that what you're doing is working to a certain extent. Certainly this can only increase awareness that we atheists exist, and we shouldn't lose sight of the importance of such a simple thing.

    You've certainly motivated me to think about getting more involved, and I'd hate to see you give up in frustration (although I quite understand the impulse).

    I'll make a slightly idiotic offer: if there's anything I can do to help from almost 400 miles away, just say the word.

    Hang in there.

  29. Ohhh Jen. Those comments should be your red-badge of courage. Its means you're doing something right! Being ignored would be far, far worse.

    "since you're a mean poopy head atheist you need to shut up"

    I was surprised at how close this comes to the actual content of the letter. If you don't get your rebuttal up in the news paper, just post them both up on your website and forget about it. It shouldn't go unaddressed, but no need to stress out about it.

    And I want to encourage you to keep up with Blasphemy Day, but make it about freedom of speech. That is how we're addressing it at Kent State, anyway.

  30. Smile, Jen. It's cheaper than tithing. :-D

  31. In response to some of the comments above, saying that offending people is not the way to go. I find that many religious groups think it certainly is the way to go, they will slag you, yell at you, throw fire-bombs at you, kill doctors, claim vaccines which might save you will definitely kill you and in some instances use their manipulatory rights to exact sexual and otherwise favours, out of adults and children and then sweep it under the mat. If that doesn't offend you you have a fucking problem. And if saying one expletive is too much for someone to handle maybe they should shut themselves away in a hole and not come out. Jen I think you have to stick in there go at whatever you plan with gusto and confidence and show these fuckwits that hey you can actually think. I mean just swearing is gunna force them to make an argument as to why you shouldn't swear. There you have made a little progress.

    Sorry I am angry too now. xo


  32. "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."
    - Mahatma Gandhi

    Just keep it up. If nothing else, for your principles. I also think there are plenty of "closet atheists" who do appreciate what you're doing. Atheists are increasing in numbers. We just need to keep putting our message out there, make ourselves known and show them that we're normal, regular and moral people. People will come around. At the very least, young people have a fighting chance to avoid being brainwashed, and when the current generation dies out, the rational, free-thinking youth have grown up and taken charge.

    I know perfectly well that arguing with die-hard fundies is pointless, but I don't do it for them, or for me. I do it because I need to make a stand, I refuse to sit silent while they spew their garbage. If I don't convince anyone, that's a pity, but at least I've made sure they can never claim me as one of their own. That's at least something.

  33. Jen your doing great work in fact essential work for the well-being of the human race. If there had to be one cause for another world war it would be religion. And religion is likely to be another cause for world war- just look at Iran's new nuclear program.

  34. Hi Jen,

    Like a few others above, I've been reading and enjoying your tales for some time but haven't been moved to comment until today. Like so many of the other posters I have to remind you that you are making a very real difference to a lot of people.

    Last night I was sitting in a pub about 4000 miles away from you, chatting to a friend about our thoughts on religion. He's a clever guy but hasn't been exposed to a lot of the arguments and fallacies around atheism and, like anyone discovering them for the first time, it often takes some time to sink in. Which blog do you think I sent him to? Any guesses? It's one that deals with a very emotive subject with humour and intelligence.

    I told him about your visit to the creation museum, your Pastafarian preaching and we both reflected how amazing it is to hear about this incredibly intelligent young woman who is brave enough to stick to her guns in the Midwest.

    You might sometimes feel that you're a small voice in the dark but you have managed to reach out across the globe and find strike a chord. Considering how long the various theist movements took to establish that kind of coverage I'd say you're doing pretty well.

    There is a queue forming on this side of the pond to buy you a beer!

  35. How does an atheist Blasphemy Day work? Surely, to be blasphemous you have to believe in what you are blaspheming against? It's impossible for an atheist to blaspheme by the very fact that they are an atheist. However, if it irritates Christians and other religious cults. that's fine.

    You'll be doing even better if you make them think too, but lets take it one step at a time and not try the impossible too soon.

  36. Aphanes,
    blasphemy laws don't care about your beliefs. If you do something that they consider blasphemy, then you must pay a great big fat fine no matter what your beliefs are. That's why blasmephy laws are absurd and need to be wiped out from this planet. This is only an example of why blasphemy day is sensible and important.

    Now, linking blasphemy laws with the main topic AND with my last comment: omg, when I read Jen's post those lyrics I copypasted immediately came to my head, but there's some lyrics that fit even better --the chorus of the song CRIMINAL, from the same album.

    Every time I write a rhyme
    these people think it's a crime
    to tell 'em what's on my mind
    I guess I'm a criminal
    but I don't gotta say a word,
    I just flip 'em the bird
    and keep going,
    I don't take shit from no one.

    Now, at your choice, you can replace the word "criminal" for "whiny brat".

  37. I don't have time to read the whole comments thread, so I apologize if I'm retreading someone else's ground, but...

    I started my campus group to let others like us know that they are not alone and that they can hold their beliefs publicly if they want to. I didn't do it for the religious. I didn't do it for free speech. I did it for me and for us. Religion already controls so much in this world. There is no reason it should hold sway over friendships and social lives, cutting kids off from the only social network available -- the local church.

    If the kids in your group have found solace, friendship, or more in your group, then you have accomplished the most basic goal of atheist activism: making your part of the world safe for atheists. The next step -- making the rest of the world safe -- is something you can't do yourself. That will take the effort of every freethinker around.

    Rest easy. Religion had a 2,000 year head start. We just started this marathon.

  38. Jen, your post reminded me of "Tempter" series of short stories over at Daylight Atheism, especially the most recent one, "The Tempter Returns." They're a really great read if you have the time, and are guaranteed to make you feel better about all the hard work you put into defending and promoting atheism. (I would link to it directly, but I seem to be having difficulties with this comment box. Hrm...)

    Keep it up. It really does matter to a lot of us.

  39. Seriously, if this club wasn't around I don't know what I'd do. I run into so much of this stuff everyday and this club makes me feel like somebody cares about these issues. Even if I've gotten into trouble about it, it's important that it exists, and even better that it's active.

  40. I enjoy those Exponent letters because they make the writers look like the crazy bigots they are. The more publicly they expose themselves, the better.

    But on a more serious note: Keep at it, Jen. You have no idea how refreshing it is to have a liberal voice on that campus. When I first started attending Purdue, I never expected to actually have my beliefs or views represented so prominently, or even defended so ably. I can't participate in the club as actively as I'd like, but know that people really do appreciate what you do. Your presence on campus has made my college career just a little bit easier and made me just a little less defensive about my views on religion.

    And I thought Blasphemy Day was absolutely great. The people who want to silence everybody are the enemy - not the people speaking their minds.

  41. Keeping fighting the good fight, Jen!

  42. Yes it matters. It matters that you think and can put this all down into a rational, coherent post. It matters because non-theists are so few and far between that we don't naturally profess to the masses our non-belief and thus we don't have the same kind-of fellowship that theists do. I'm a brand new non-theist and it's voices like yours that help me to organize my own thoughts and voices like yours that help me to reinforce why I made the huge step out of belief the way that I did.

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