Saturday, July 26, 2008

Doing Good without Doing God: On ethics minus religion

Judith Lautner

Keeping it Simple

In our personal lives we atheists might take a tip from political and advertising campaigns.

In February 2007 the news and blogs were awash in reports of the latest Gallup poll: Americans were least likely to vote for an atheist for president than for someone from any other minority group. The finding seems consistent with what we know of this country and of the common perceptions of what it means to be an atheist. But the poll was just plain silly.

Consider, for example, Scott Adams' response to the poll. Adams is the creator of the beloved Dilbert who haunts offices worldwide. Adams, an atheist himself, offers his campaign plan should he run for president:

I would handle it by manipulating the media with a sound bite so catchy the pundits would have no choice but to repeat it until it started to sound sensible. I’d hold a press conference and say that ONLY an atheist should be president, in the same way you want a eunuch to guard your harem.

. . . After my eunuch sound bite got everyone’s attention, I would soften the message to “Only an atheist can guarantee religious freedom for all by favoring none.” That argument makes no sense whatsoever, but it would be persuasive nonetheless.

Until we are actually faced with a blood-and-guts person and that person's persuasive capabilities, we really do not know who we would support or oppose for president. However prejudiced we might be we can be persuaded with the right words. The right sound bite.

It could be the best thing that has ever happened to this country to have an atheist for president. It might mean that reason somehow prevails over groundless fears. It might mean that people are judged on how they behave rather than on how they believe. It might mean that all other prejudices fall by the wayside as they are seen for what they are. It might mean that we are forced to make decisions based on what is in front of us rather than on what we believe some mysterious unknown has decreed.

That is, it might be the best thing if the actual person running has a good campaign manager.

A good campaign manager can help the public see the whole person, even if it means distilling that person into a catchy phrase. No doubt that sounds contradictory. But stay with me:
Yes, it is sad that so much of America turns to the quick impression, the fast-and-dirty analysis, the easy read. We can curse and decry the fast-food-fast-decision world we have created and live in, and throw up our hands in defeat, proclaiming that the polls tell it like it is: an irrational America doesn't want a rational president. But words are powerful and the right words can change public perception. George Lakoff is onto something when he says that framing is the key to victory in politics.

Framing doesn't just matter in politics, though. In our personal lives as atheists we can take a cue from the campaign trail and the advertising firms. We can perfect our message. We can hone the sound bite, develop our listening skills, find the words and use them. No, this does not mean reducing our position to a few choice words. But the right words might create the jolt that helps non-atheists to see us as we really are and not as a stereotype defined by others. Let's face it; most of the time atheists are inclined to say too much. We lose our listeners at “Hello”. Keep it simple even if it only addresses one myth about atheism at a time.

Scott Adams' words may be in jest but the concept is real. Richard Dawkins' comment about gods has become atheist wisdom: We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. [from The Root of all Evil?] Yes, it's bumper-sticker philosophy but it gets the conversation started on the right foot.

Judith Lautner is a grandmother, former city planner and present amateur photographer and blogger who has found her way without reliance on a god. She likes to give time and money toward the care of rescued animals and local film festivals as well as several other causes. Find her at her busiest journal:

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