How to Think About the Objectives of Organized Atheism

In response to my last post on the American Atheists billboard ads, two people posted comments about the goals of organized atheism. Both of these comments show why organized atheism would greatly benefit from thinking about its fundamental objectives. 

Before I get into that, however, let me quote the authors. First, here is Chris Hallquist.

The problem here is that we’re trying to do several things at once.
We’re trying to convince people we’re not evil. We’re trying to have our legal rights respected. We’re trying to get people to be more comfortable being public about their atheism. We’re trying to convince people we’re right.
Billboards making fun of religion will piss people off. As will suing to get the government to follow its own laws. As will billboards with just the word “atheist” and the names of a few atheist groups.
But all those things have positive effects too. In the case of bilboards ridiculing religion: they tell people who’ve never said those things, but thought them, that they’re not alone (and that’s just the least-controversial possible benefit, I can think of others, but no need to debate them here).
Moral of the story: ou can’t judge an action purely with regards to a single goal.

Second, here is Hierophant2:

Who said our goal should be to “increase the social acceptability of atheism”?

We can get some clarity by using Ralph Keeney’s helpful concepts of a fundamental objective and a means objective.[1] A fundamental objective is a statement of a primary or essential reason for interest in a decision problem. A means objective is an objective that is desired in order to accomplish another objective, which could be a fundamental objective or another means objective. In other words, the difference between fundamental and means objectives is the difference between ‘what’ and ‘how.’

So my advice is simple: I think that it would be enormously helpful if atheist organizations were to develop what Keeney calls a “fundamental objectives hierarchy.” (See here for a tutorial.) Chris Hallquist’s comment is a perfect place to start. Hallquist identifies five objectives:

1. Convince people atheists are not evil.
2. Have the legal rights of atheists respected.
3. Get atheists to be more comfortable being public about their atheism.
4. Convince people that atheism is true.
5. Tell atheists they are not alone.

Which of these, if any, are fundamental objectives? Which, if any, are means objectives? Identifying the fundamental objectives forces you to create what Keeney calls a “fundamental objectives hierarchy.” Once that is done, identifying the means objectives which help accomplish another objective is what a “means-ends network” is all about. So, my response to Hallquist is this: are the five objectives you listed your fundamental objectives for organized atheism?

Hierophant2 asks, “Who said our goal should be to ‘increase the social acceptability of atheism’?” My goal is to increase the social acceptability of atheism, but I in my last post I didn’t tell anyone what their fundamental objectives should be. That is why I wrote, “If an atheist’s goal is to increase the social acceptability of atheism, I’m pretty sure that mockery and ridicule of widely held religious beliefs isn’t an effective way to achieve that goal.”

In sum, I hope people will think hard about their fundamental objectives first; after they have done that, they can then assess which means objectives are the best way to achieve their fundamental objectives.


[1] Ralph Keeney, Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decisionmaking (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1992.

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