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Rolling Debate on God Is Hitting the Streets

By John Kelly
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Bible is silent on exactly which day God created public transportation, probably sometime between when He created the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air and when He created Kraft Cheese Singles.

And whenever it was, He probably didn't envision the theological war of words that is breaking out on some of Washington's Metrobuses. Call it deus on machina.

The American Humanist Association cast the first, er, stone in November with an advertising campaign reaching out to would-be atheists. The ads, on 200 Metrobuses, feature a Christmasy motif and the text "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake."

The ads offended some people who believe you can't -- or shouldn't -- spell "goodness" without "godness." WMATA received about 250 letters and e-mails decrying the ads, twice as many as praised them. "May all your atheist buses break down!" read one irate message.

That was not JoEllen Murphy's first reaction upon hearing about the ads.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh fun, let's have an ad war campaign,' " said JoEllen. A former Hill staffer who's currently a stay-at-home mom in McLean, she sent out e-mails looking for pledges and has raised close to $9,000. A friend from church -- McLean's St. John the Beloved -- offered to help with a Web site (http://www.ibelievetoo.org), and the pro-God ads should start running Monday. They will feature the familiar Sistine Chapel image of God's finger reaching out to Adam along with the words "Why Believe? Because I created you and I love you, for goodness' sake. -- God."

"On a superficial level, it's fun," JoEllen said of her counter campaign. "Let's have a bus going one way saying there's not a God, and let's have another bus going the other way saying yes, there is. Obviously, there's a deeper reason behind that that motivated me."

That reason is to fight the sadness and discouragement she said Christians feel this time of year, as the nonreligious beat up on their beliefs.

Besides monitoring the fundraising campaign, juggling her 4-, 3-, 2- and 1-year-olds, and preparing the family for a move, JoEllen is responding to requests from the media. Her grassroots effort has been featured in the D.C. Examiner and on WMAL, Channel 5 and Channel 7. After she got off the phone with me yesterday, she had to return a call from CBN, the Christian Broadcasting Network. Blogs are abuzz over the ad spat as well. (Arguing over the existence of God seems to rival arguing over whether the Redskins have an effective passing game.)

Another group, Pennsylvania Friends in Christ, is also placing pro-deity ads: "Believe in God. Christ is Christmas for goodness sake."

Said JoEllen: "If there wasn't the opportunity for freedom of speech, we wouldn't have this opportunity to evangelize."

Well, atheists? The ball's in your court.

"We've spent our advertising budget for the year," said Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association. "We don't feel the need to have a rolling debate -- literally and figuratively. That's not likely to be productive. You can't say that much in the sound bite of a passing bus ad."

Oh, I don't know about that.

Children's Hospital

After my first column on the American Humanist Association ad campaign a month ago, I received a letter without a return address. Inside was a $5 bill and an unsigned note urging me to collect money from readers to rebut the atheists' ads. That's not really my job, of course, so I'm doing something else with the cash: I'm giving it to Children's National Medical Center.

No matter how you come down on the issue of why people are good, I hope you'll agree that it's a good thing to help support Children's Hospital.

To donate, write a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100.

My blog, "John Kelly's Commons": http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

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