For some reason, I find religious leaflets interesting. Previously in this blog, I wrote a post comparing two brochures that I had picked up in a church in Stockholm, Sweden. Perhaps it is this overlap between religion and marketing, between what is supposed to be sacred and what is supposed to be profane, that fascinates me about them. In this post, I will revisit this topic, but instead of comparing two religious brochures, this time I am going to compare a religious flyer with an atheist/secularist brochure.
The religious flyer was handed to me last June by an old man in the Swiss city of Bern (fun fact that not many people know: it is the capital of Switzerland!). It says, in German, “God’s YES to you…”. The organization behind the flyer, Society for Biblical Propagation in Bern, states no confessional affiliation in its website. It claims it is neither recruiting converts nor seeking donations but merely spreading biblical message.
It is not hard to guess that “Jesus” is “God’s Yes to you” according to the flyer. It speaks of God’s love and mercy for us and of the sacrifice Jesus made, inviting the reader to return “God’s Yes” with a “Yes”; that is, to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. Anyway, the content of the brochure itself is not what is interesting for me, but its presentation. As you can see from the photo below, there is an emphasis on the word “Yes” (Ja in German), which stands out in large font.
A couple of weeks later, I attended a lecture titled ‘State without God’ by German legal scholar Horst Dreier at the City Library in Leipzig, Germany. On a stand at the back of the lecture hall, a German secular-humanist organization called the Giordano Bruno Foundation (gbs) left few copies of a brochure titled ‘Farewell to the Church Republic’, from which I picked one up.
I am not very familiar with the gbs foundation—I first heard about it when I picked up the brochure. It describes itself as an “evolutionary humanist” organization, which is how its executive spokesperson Michael Schmidt-Salomon calls his philosophical system. I don’t know what is the exact difference between “evolutionary humanism” and “secular humanism”. Possibly it is merely a branding thing (philosophers, like extreme metal bands, love to think of themselves as the creators of their own ‘genres’).
Some critics of the gbs foundation, however, including a previous member of its advisory board, describe the organization as an advocate of New Atheism. The gbs foundation does not endorse this label (nor the label “anti-religious”), preferring instead to describe its position as “naturalist” and “religion-critical”. Anyway, the gbs and New Atheism do not seem to be far apart in their critical attitude toward religion nor in their marketing approaches. In fact, the gbs brochure was released as part of the Secular Bus Campaign, which seems to be the German version of the Atheist Bus Campaign franchise that was launched in Britain in 2008 with support from the New Atheist superstar Richard Dawkins.
The ‘Farewell to the Church Republic’ brochure is relatively big in size (28 pages with a lot of text). It contains a list of demands to end what it considers unconstitutional privileges given by the German state to the two historical churches of the country: the Catholic Church and its Lutheran counterpart. Again, what is interesting for me here is not the content of the brochure but its presentation (visual as well as linguistic).
The first thing that struck me when I browsed the pages of this atheist/secularist brochure is its negative language compared with the positive language of the Christian flyer. Well, I am not using positive/negative here in the sense of good/bad but in the sense of affirming/negating something, as in ‘positive answer’ (saying yes, showing agreement) and ‘negative answer’ (saying no, disagreeing).
The gbs brochure is full of negative expressions such as Abschied (farewell), Ablösung, Abschaffung, Aufhebung (all more or less mean abolition, repeal, revocation, cancelation), Schluss mit (no more, enough with), genug (enough) and nein, kein (no). Moreover, it contains four images of individuals ‘texting’ WhatsApp-like messages addressed to God, some religion, or the Church. Two of these messages, interestingly, are formulated as ‘breakup’ or ‘rejection’ messages (as in romantic relationships).
The first message, ‘sent’ by a young woman, says “Hallo Church, we have been separated for 100 years already, yet you still live off my pocket. Enough!” The other message (pictured above), says “Dear Islam, thank you that you have been trying so hard to win me, but I think you are just too old for me.” Indeed, the official website of the ‘Secular Bus Campaign’ is www.schlussmachen.jetzt, which would correspond to ‘www.breakup.now’ (Schluss machen in German simply means ‘to break up’).
The contrast between the ‘Ja’ of the Christian flyer and the negative rejectionist language of the atheist/secularist brochure made me wonder whether this is typical of most, if not all, religious and atheist/secularist brochures. In other words, do religious brochures tend to formulate their messages positively, whereas atheist/secularist brochures are usually formulated negatively?
Of course, one cannot generalize solely based on these two leaflets. After all, they were produced for different purposes: one is inviting people to accept a specific creed; the other was concerned with legal or policy issues. One may also add that atheism and secularism, by their very nature, negate religion (entirely for atheism or in specific social domains for secularism), whereas each particular religion affirms a specific message about God, the universe, truth, etc. In other words, religion has content; atheism/secularism negates that content. Thus, it is not surprising that one side represents itself in affirmative terms, the other in negative terms.
Well, this is only partially true. Almost as much as religions disagree over gods, prophets, and holy books, atheists and secularists disagree how to reject them. This is because atheism and secularism rarely exist ‘in pure form’. They are usually an aspect of a larger ideological or philosophical system such as communism (for Karl Marx), positivism (for George Jacob Holyoake, a founding figure of British secularism), or, in the case of New Atheists, some distorted form of liberalism.
At any rate, what struck me about the two brochures was the marketing aspect. Is preaching a negative message the best marketing strategy? I am no marketing expert, but I think that you have a better chance of ‘selling’ your product, if you highlight what it does or what it offers instead of complaining about the faults of other products. Assuming that, would a religious flyer or brochure be more appealing from a marketing perspective than an atheist/secularist one? In other words, does religion have an advantage over atheism/secularism in terms of marketing because it is more able to present a positive message?
Another issue in this regard is the target group. Are the gbs and other Neoatheist/secularist organizations targeting the non-religious, the religious population, or both? Is it wise to preach rejection of religion to those who have already rejected it? And for those who are still religious, don’t you need to offer them an alternative instead of asking them to reject what they already have?
I cannot offer specific answers to these questions based on two leaflets only. But I think it is worth keeping this issue in mind whenever you pick up a religious or anti-religious leaflet in the future. Take a look at its language, and ask yourself: does it say ja or nein?
PS. Not all people use WhatsApp messages to break up with God; some seem to be interested in him!