Earlier this year, the Center for Inquiry, an Amherst, N.Y.-based atheist group, initiated a controversial and provocative ad campaign in a number of U.S. cities. The campaign, called “Living without Religion,” questioned not the existence of the christian deity, but the relevance. The group’s president states the obvious, that millions of Americans live rich, loving, hopeful lives without participation in any religion.
The ad featured signs that say: “You don’t need God - to hope, to care, to love, to live.”
The signs have shown up on buses in Grand Rapids, Mich., Durham, Niagara Falls, Houston, Indianapolis, and Portland, Ore., with more to come. In Washington, D. C., the ads graced 15 buses and greeted riders at the Dupont Circle and Farragut West Metro stations for a week in March.
The message is positive and attacks no one’s beliefs, nor does it call for any action. It merely points out that many Americans -- somewhere north of 50 million-- are unaffiliated with any religion and do not require the strictures or the scriptures of the old mainline congregations to live good lives.
And it’s not just the buses. National organizations, like American Atheists, founded in 1963 by Madalyn O’Hair, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have put up billboards next to busy highways in cities from New York to San Francisco. American Atheists also had banners towed behind airplanes in over 20 states on July 4th and has facilitated the placement of secular displays on courthouse lawns next to nativity scenes. Many of these signs, banners, and displays openly question the existence of deities and the validity of religion as a source of morality.
The bus ads, billboards, banners, and displays are the tip of a very large iceberg. The larger story is that there is a secular base in this country that is finding its voice, its numbers, and its strength and is ready to be visible and vocal in its opposition to increasingly strident and politically connected religious extremism.
Yes, the atheists are coming. Actually, we are already here, but millions are being lured out of complacency and closets by what we perceive as wrong-headed assaults on science, education, reason, on civil rights, on individual liberty and self determination, on women in general, and on our secular Constitution. We are taking our message public.
Certainly this has caused fear and loathing and gnashing of teeth in some quarters. But the atheist community is no longer content to respond to outrage with silence. The religious extreme uses every tool at their disposal: billboard, buses, Internet, TV and radio, print, public relations expertise and tons of cash. We have learned from them.
The atheist community does not enjoy the numbers of the religious community and cannot begin to match them in cash. But we get a lot of bang for the buck because the ads and signs are controversial and new and they get lots of news coverage, often touted as signs of rapidly approaching Armageddon.
But they are not the end of the world - they are just signs announcing the presence and the growing political strength of a long-oppressed minority in the US - a minority with rights exactly equal to to the rights enjoyed by the religious majority. Our presence is not new, it is just unfamiliar. That is largely because atheists were hunted for bounty for most of the last 2000 years. Silence was a successful survival tactic. .
Many are still reluctant to come out, but, in large part, we can thank the Internet for giving atheists a way to find each other and to establish community and to begin to organize politically. And we have learned from religion the importance, the necessity of getting the message out, early and often.
That is why we will continue to see atheists advertising on buses and billboards and publicly demonstrating in front of the White House and the Supreme Court. The signs, the ads, and the rest are meant to counter the claims and policies of the religious extreme, but they also serve the purpose of introducing us to the public in non-threatening ways. They are, over time, normalizing our presence. You can tell it’s working every time you see a sign on a bus, a billboard off I-81, or someone standing in front of the Supreme Court with a big sign that says “Hi Mom! I’m and Atheist.”
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