Taking Atheism for a Ride Around Town

By John Kelly
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

If you sometimes find yourself praying for a seat on a crowded Metrobus, some atheists have a message for you: Don't bother.

They would say that, wouldn't they? Prayer's not their thing. And starting Tuesday they'll be bringing their unique brand of holiday message to area commuters. Advertisements will begin popping up on Metrobuses in the District that read: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake."

At a news conference at the National Press Club yesterday, members of the American Humanist Association -- one of the country's leading atheist and agnostic organizations -- explained what they're up to.

"Our message is that all of us can have moral values as a natural result of who we are as a species and who we have become as a civilization," said Fred Edwords, the association's director of communications. "Each one of us knows what it means, generally, to be ethical."

Giving up your seat for a pregnant woman? Ethical. Eating a french fry in a Metro station? Unethical. Holding a Metro train's doors open until they break, thus forcing everyone to be offloaded? Stone him!

The atheists said they aren't trying to proselytize -- a funny concept -- just reaching out to what they say is an increasing number of people who do not believe in a deity.

"We're striking while the iron is hot," Fred said.

What iron? Well, Bill Maher's movie, "Religulous." And books by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins and Philip Pullman. Fred pointed out that the ad campaign by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) linking challenger Kay Hagan to "godless Americans" backfired -- although the humanists wish Hagan had said, "Darn right I don't believe in God," rather than tout her Sunday school credentials.

Jan Meshon was at the news conference. He helped organize the placement of billboards on Interstate 95 and the New Jersey Turnpike that read: "Don't believe in God? You're not alone."

Of course, you're never really alone on the Jersey Turnpike. We drove on it last weekend. It took an hour to inch the last 200 yards up to the ticket dispenser. God apparently works in strange and annoying ways in Jersey.

The humanists said the Metrobus campaign is the first of its sort in the country. It was clearly inspired by British atheists, who have been raising money to launch a campaign on London's buses. Those ads, which should start appearing next month, will read: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

I wondered aloud whether it's somehow fitting that the ads should be going up on Metrobuses, what with the dissatisfaction some people express toward the buses and the trains. I asked Steve Lowe of the Washington Area Secular Humanists whether he found commuting, well, hellish.

"No, I don't find it hellish," he said, taking issue with my use of the H-word. (No God equals no Satan, see.) "I find it challenging sometimes. I would say that these things are caused by humans alone, without referring to 'evil,' which I think is never a noun but sometimes an adjective."

The ad campaign cost $40,000. That's 40,000 of those green paper rectangles that have the words "In God We Trust" on the back. It's an uphill battle for the atheists, but they're keeping the faith.

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Etc.

Speaking of Metro, my recent gripe that the stations are too dark prompted a reader to point out that the dimness serves a purpose: It reduces crime. Supposedly people are made more violence-prone by brighter lights. I'm not sure I buy it. Surely the lights could be a little brighter without it getting all "Clockwork Orange"-y down there.

Signage is another problem, said reader Arthur Higbee of Washington. "The station signs are too widely spaced," he wrote. "They occur every six wall panels; that's too much distance between panels. Every three panels would be better. Often, very often, on unfamiliar lines, between the conductor's mumbled announcement and the nearest wall panel blocked by a stairway, I feel that I'm really on a magical mystery tour."

See for yourself. Next time you're in a Metro station, pretend you have no idea where you are. Stand in one place and swivel your head in search of the name of the station, a pylon naming all the stations of that line, or a full Metro system map. Five times out of 10, none will be close by.

The lights are always on in my new blog, "John Kelly's Commons." Go to http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

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