Should Atheists Distribute Freethought, Atheist Tracts?

Atheists Can Advertise, Evangelize with Freethought, Atheist Tracts

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A popular means used by religious believers, and Christians in particular, to spread their ideas is the ubiquitous religious tract. Tracts are so common and have spread so far that people tend to overlook them and forget they are there. This is unfortunate because I believe that it causes atheists to overlook the impact atheist tracts might have. Religious organizations and churches are not the only ones who can benefit from short pamphlets focusing on particular issues.

Dealing with Religious Tracts

What about all the religious tracts, and especially Chick Tracts, that you can find lying around? Is there anything that can be done about them? If you want, you can take them all for yourself. You may not have any personal interest in them, but if you have them then others won't be affected by the propaganda — and this is arguably most important when it comes to children who seem to be targeted by this material. It also costs the churches and religious organizations more money. This might not seem polite, but it's entirely legal.

You might also think about complaining to whoever has authority over the place where the tracts are found. You can either complain that space is being given to religious propaganda or you can complain that religious propaganda is being given a privileged place because secularist and freethought material isn't present. If you can offer alternatives to present alongside the religious tracts, then managers and owners will be faced with either privileging Christianity or prohibiting the religious material as well.

Religious and Anti-Religious Tracts

The use of tracts for nonreligious, and even antireligious, purposes might sound strange, but it would help to remember that "tract" is simply a synonym for pamphlet or leaflet, but with a religious or political connotation. There was a time when political groups used pamphlets and leaflets extensively, but today "tract" tends to be limited to religious contexts because churches use them so much more than other types of groups.

That can change, however, if freethought and secularist groups make greater use of the medium.

Tracts must be short and direct to the point — no extended arguments or deep philosophical treatises will work. Tracts must be easy to read while other things are going on (like while waiting in a line) and easy to finish in a short period of time. Starting tracts with a question is a good tactic for sticking to a specific topic and helping readers. By the end, the reader must feel that they have been introduced to some new ideas, given some new information, and most importantly know how to act on that information.

For example, simply informing people that there may be high levels of pesticides in their food would be insufficient for a good environmentalist tract. A good tract for this topic would have to conclude with information about how to get more facts from food growers and how to contact government representatives to investigate. Not everyone who reads a tract will agree with its position, but those who do must also be told what they can do to learn more, to make a difference, to become more active, etc. Without this, you haven't achieved anything.

Creating Freethought, Atheist, Humanist Tracts

What topics should atheists create tracts about?

If you don't want to make your own, you can purchase good tracts from others. The best source for tracts that can be purchased is the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They offer a series of freethought and secularist "non-tracts" which you can buy online. You can also consider making your own using a similar Q&A format which distills a specific issue down into a number of comprehensible and basic points.

Distributing Freethought, Atheist, Humanist Tracts

Once you obtain or even create your freethought, atheist, and humanist tracts, how can you go about distributing them?

Having the best tract in the world is pointless if you can't get them into the hands of people who need to read them. Here are some ideas to get you started and if you have suggestions that have worked well for you in the past, let me know so I can add them:

  • Wherever you find religious tracts
  • Tables in the post office
  • Community bulletin boards (libraries, grocery stores)
  • Phone booths
  • Dressing rooms
  • Restrooms
  • Benches in public parks
  • Waiting rooms
  • Plane seat pockets
  • Candy machines and video games
  • Set up an information table or booth at a local fair

Handing out tracts directly to people will often be treated as a bit intrusive and aggressive. This fits with religious evangelism, but probably not such a good idea for freethinkers and humanists. Leaving tracts where they can simply be found and people have the choice to take them or not, however, is more defensible. One exception to this would be a local fair where you have set up an information table or perhaps a political demonstration where it's expected that literature will be handed out.

A riskier idea, but one which might lead to more interesting results, would be to leave a couple of tracts on a table of literature in a local church. Many churches already have tables of tracts, pamphlets, forms, etc., and a couple of freethought tracts would not only blend it but perhaps reach just the people who need it. It's possible, though, that the controversy and discussion raised by this tactic will not be entirely positive, so if you try this, you are taking a chance at making your organization and cause to look worse or both.

It's thus important that if you try this, you do so with a tract that is very positive rather than one that attacks.