See Also: Tricks from the Churches: Websites
Most secularists are acutely aware that mainstream Americans see charity as a largely religiously-derived virtue. This is evidenced in idioms such as “that’s mighty Christian of you.” This is a hurtful stereotype—that nontheists are less compassionate than the devout—that has been countered with many billboards and bus ads such as this one produced by Indiana atheists:
I was inspired by these lovely, positive campaigns which started to spring up everywhere. In the summer of 2010, I was the new president of the University of Illinois student atheist group, the Illini Secular Student Alliance (ISSA), and I wanted ISSA to produce its own campaign- the first of its kind in central Illinois, but I did not want to merely replicate what had already been done. I wanted a new angle.
The Center for Inquiry‘s Campus Outreach section hosts a wonderful leadership conference each summer training secular student leaders in such areas as group organization, activism, fund-raising and so on. It was at that conference in the summer of 2010, during a brainstorming session with a small group of other students, that we came up with an interesting twist on the “good without God” theme. The stereotype of religiously-inspired charity isn’t merely wrong– it’s perversely wrong. I discovered that the greatest philanthropists in history (in terms of magnitude) are mostly a secular bunch. Warren Buffett is the single largest charitable donor in history, and a self-described agnostic. George Soros is an avowed atheist who has given multi-billions to educational institutions around the world. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, by itself, contributes 17% of the entire world budget for the eradication of Polio.
Since many Americans seemed fairly clueless about all of this, it was a good hook: the faces of a few good secular humanitarians could combat the popular nonsense that only religion sources social compassion. I decided to use the likeness and deeds of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Not only are they the largest of the bunch, but they demonstrated a truly humanist ethic in at least two ways. First, by targeting human suffering without regard to borders or politics. For example, the lion’s share of funds from Gates’ foundation have gone to fighting disease in Africa and Asia. Second, Buffett and Gates have endeavored to transform the culture of philanthropy itself, for the better. They’ve not just given, but promised to give their entire fortunes during their lifetime rather than investing in a familial dynasty as many magnates do. They’ve actively lobbied the ultra-wealthy in the United States and Europe to do the same, with some success. There are many other individuals deserving of focus in such an ad as we sought to produce, but ISSA is a student group of limited means, so we settled on two designs for our bus ad campaign.
Funding, Legality and Design
Strictly speaking, ISSA had no budget. Our university would help fund specific events, such as guest speakers, but not an activist ad campaign. In the beginning, we did not know the costs or if we could get enough donations to make the project work. Ultimately, we secured enough for an initial one-month run thanks to the generosity of the Secular Student Alliance, Phil Ferguson and his group CU-Freethinkers, and a few individual donors. Funding aside, we were also nervous about the use of the images of famous people. Ideally, permission should be secured as a matter of respect, but we knew this was a remote possibility at best.
I researched “Fair Use” legal precedent and got some legal advice sufficient to learn our use of the images was legal under Fair Use, as our goals were educational and not-for-profit. Of course, that didn’t mean we would not get sued. I decided it was worth the risks, banking on the unwillingness of either giant to sue well-meaning, penniless students promoting them as good people.
The design itself was a critical matter. We needed the ads to highlight human goodness, and specifically not be construable as criticizing anyone; we needed to celebrate, not denigrate. And we needed that to be self-evident at a glance. For these reasons, we felt simplicity was best. A visage, a fact, and the now-ubiquitous slogan:
These lovely images were constructed by ISSA’s talented graphic artist Emelyn Baker. Note the effective design: the clean, black and white images and text, with the central message “Good without god” offset with a splash of color; the single, simple fact which supports the message; the consistent design choices across both posters, to link them together in the mind; the smartly-chosen question (“Are you?”) to engage the viewer’s attention; and the smiling faces of the Secular Samaritans.
Besides the visage, fact, and slogan, one other element was extremely important here, the URL pointing to (now taken down) SecularSamaritan.com. This is where the curious could find more information about our campaign and why we were doing it. The link lead seekers to this page. In addition to citing facts that support the claims made above, the web page allowed us to clarify our intentions further. These two points written therein are especially salient:
To be clear, many religious people and groups do great service work and are good-hearted. …Similarly, atheism doesn’t make anyone moral or charitable, nor do we mean to imply it with our ads. The message is simply that religion is not required and that in reality, the largest scale humanitarian aid projects in human history are now conducted by atheists.
…Donating large sums to worthy causes is not the only or even most important way a person might be “good”, but it is undeniably one of them. Perhaps for some people, religion really does inspire them to help others and if it does, great. Just don’t imagine it is a requirement.
To promote our campaign and give it life beyond our local community, we hit the internet hard. Atheosphere blogs like Hemant Mehta‘s and Phil Ferguson‘s were especially helpful, as was promotion by the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry. Some member of social news site reddit.com produced this parody image which turned our ads into a certifiable meme which is still regularly trending at reddit, tumblr, and various blogs and news aggregaters. We also utilized more traditional media by authoring and issuing a standard-format press release (printed in the SSA’s coverage here) to local and national news outlets. I was even able to get favorable television news coverage, simply by making a few calls and emailing local news affiliates. The CBS video is available at their website here and below is NBC’s piece.
Despite some negative remarks on and offline (watch CBS’s interview with one oddly offended bus rider), the general response was highly positive. Our ads have, improbably but flatteringly, been mimicked by a Guatemalan secular group:
We were shocked and delighted that our message could have such amazing reach. It is a testament to what can be accomplished by a handful of students with no money or training, but one good idea and plenty of determination.