Living without religion

Earlier this year, the Center for Inquiry, an Amherst, N.Y.-based atheist group, initiated a controversial and provocative ad campaign in … Continued

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.”

Rick Wingrove is the CEO of Beltway Atheists, Inc. and the Virginia State Director of Atheists in America.


Read more essays from local faith leaders.

  • RaymondKoepsell

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  • RaymondKoepsell

    As an adult Christian but having grown up agnostic, it has always been difficult to understand atheists painting themselves as a “long-oppressed minority.” From my youth well into adulthood, I never once felt oppression, discrimination, or persecution at the hands of believers. Apart from the occasional knock at the door by Evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, religious folks left me alone to my agnosticism. They were about as problematic to me as Girl Scouts selling cookies or Trick-or-Treaters. I’m unaware of a single agnostic or atheist friend, family member, or relative who was ever given any trouble at school, or work, or in the community for not believing in God. Nobody lost a job, was passed over for a promotion, got into a fight at school, or was denied participation on a sports team because he/she didn’t believe in God.

    Apart from you exercising artistic license, nothing in my experience corroborates “atheists were hunted for bounty for most of the last 2000 years. Silence was a successful survival tactic.” If such statements get repeated enough times, they eventually become popular opinion, and then they are written into history books. If our culture survives another thousand years, history will write that 21st century atheists rose up to put down Christian oppression. If history books print that, it will be factually inaccurate revisionism.

    Only after I became a Christian did anyone ever insult me for my worldview, and insults from militant atheists pile high. For my faith in God, I’m called delusional, irrational, moronic. I’m called stupid, idiotic, and my personal favorite, obtuse. When I see cars with bumper stickers reading “Dog is my Co-Pilot” and “Born Right The First Time,” I don’t peel them off the cars or write nasty notes. Atheists don’t afford me the same courtesy for the simple “In God We Trust” I have on my car. When dining out I pray before eating, which has more than once generated negative commentary from fellow patrons. Of

  • jjgoodtimes

    Are you serious?? Are you not familiar with the inquisition and the crusades? The forced conversion of indigenous people? The heresy laws? The blasphemy laws? In the middle east infidels are put to death on a daily basis. When he says hunted for bounty he’s not making it up. You may have lived in a community that was open minded but that doesn’t mean everyone else did. You can’t possibly have any understanding of history if you aren’t aware of the millions of people persecuted for non belief in the West as well as the rest of the world. I hope your comment was a joke/troll post.

  • member8

    Awww, had your bumper sticker peeled? How sad. Of course, my atheist bumper sticker has been peeled, too, and my car was keyed with “F— You” scrawled in it. I’ve been stopped and preached to several times while in traffic. I’ve even been mooned. Still, I’m not counting that as oppressive. Those are just a-holes doing what a-holes do, though it does represent the hostility there is in this country against atheists.
    Just a while back, I heard the good news that the Tea Party just replaced us at the bottom of the list of people Americans trust. We’re currently grossly under-represented in government and laws are created each day to favor Christians. I can’t even take my kids to Boy Scouts, because that don’t allow atheists. Though, the government supports the Boy Scouts through my taxes. And speaking of taxes, there are laws being written which will subsidize students going to religious schools through vouchers, again on my dime. Do I have a say in the matter? Not much. Mob rules here.
    Maybe sometime you and I can get together and compare how many times our cars have been spit on. Should be fun.

  • RaymondKoepsell

    jjgoodtimes and member8, thank you for both your replies. This is a topic that thoroughly interests me and I sincerely appreciate both your input and would welcome replies to my following comments:

    jjgoodtimes, since this column appeared in the Washington Post, and American publication, in the year 2011, I am skeptical that lives of its target audience would be significantly impacted by the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, or Heresy Laws of Tudor England – other than for historical study or simple curiosity. When I visit the doctor, I don’t worry about leaches being applied to my skin. Americans of African descent don’t have to worry about being rounded up from their homes and sold into slavery. Wiccans don’t need to worry about being burned at the stake. Certainly, these are shameful passages in human history that should never be allowed to repeat, and for that alone they have historical merit. However, I question the relevance of citing the inquisition, the crusades, and heresy laws to everyday life, in the United States, in 2011.

    I absolutely agree that, “In the middle east infidels are put to death on a daily basis,” and would add (as I’m sure you would) that over 3,000 American infidels were put to death on September 11, 2001. That attack was unprecedented in American history and has not been repeated due to the swift (and extraordinarily expensive) actions of the United States military. 9/11 has been cited numerous times as one of the primary causes for the rise in atheism in the 21st century, which is in direct contradiction to “silence being a successful survival tactic” for atheists. If American atheists really are fearful of being targeted by radical Muslims, it appears they have forgotten that they need to be quiet to survive.

    I will look into the blasphemy laws as I am unfamiliar with them, but I am unaware of any such laws in place in the United States in 2011. Again, I did not comment that atheists throughout history have never been oppres

  • RaymondKoepsell

    member8, if I came across as whining about my bumper sticker, it was certainly not my intent. The point I made was that, for decades, nobody ever had a problem with my not believing in God, and in the decade since coming to Christ, many have had a problem with my belief. Opposed as I am at atheism as a concept or worldview, I am also opposed by Christians make bad witness for Christ by committing vandalism and disrespect. As Christians, we are called on to spread the Good News of salvation – but I doubt anyone ever had a moment of conversion from having their car keyed or spit on, getting mooned, or getting preached at in traffic. Not that it will matter, but I give you my apology as a Christian for being on the receiving end of un-Christian behavior by people supposedly acting on behalf of the Lord. I assure you, they are acting on their own behalf.

    In addition to these minor issues, I can find no Biblical precedent for the inquisition, the crusades, or heresy laws. These represent examples of human beings acting according to their own will rather than the will of God. Those are extreme examples of un-Christian behavior, religious extremists, that have tarnished history. They do not tarnish modern life in the United States, and really that is my only point.

    I’m well aware that the Boy Scouts don’t admit atheists to membership. What really is the impact of that other than not associating with people you wouldn’t want to associate with? Do your boys want to join the Girl Scouts? If you could take them to Girl Scouts, would you? I can’t get a job waitressing at Hooters, but so what? Would the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, NY or American Atheists welcome my membership? No, but so what?

    On the tax issue, each of us pays taxes for issues we don’t support. I don’t want my tax dollars funding abortions. I don’t want my tax dollars funding blasphemous artwork. I don’t want my tax dollars paying a million-dollar bonus to the CEO of a failed bank. I do

  • marag

    I was going to post “countdown to some Christian whining about being the real oppressed person” but I’m already too late. ::eyeroll:: Wow, the Internet is so predictable. Next is someone saying atheists are going to hell and then there will be someone asking how we can be moral without religion. What am I missing?

    It does always amuse me that the billboards are so controversial because our very existence is dangerous and terrifying. Wow, it’s nice to be powerful. If I stand outside, do I emit anti-religion rays or something? (Wouldn’t that be a cool superpower? Man, I’d have fun with that.)

  • kalacaw

    It is very important to realize and consider the cause of fear related to “coming out” as an atheist. The causal factor must be addressed.

  • RaymondKoepsell

    I believe you are experiencing what is referred to as scenario fulfillment – when you expect to see something, you see it whether it is there or not. Assuming I’m the Christian you’re referring to (I don’t see any others in here), can you point me to where I “whined about being the real oppressed person?”

    Was it the part where I wrote “Of course, none of [what I experienced as a Christian] constitutes oppression, discrimination, or persecution.”

    Was it the part where I wrote “there are millions of people around the world who are persecuted, oppressed, abused, and discriminated against for not having the ‘right’ belief?” (Note: I specifically wrote “‘right’ belief” instead of “being a Christian” because religious persecution runs the full spectrum of religious belief.)

    Was it the part where I wrote “Persecution of atheists is no less a concern to me than the persecution of theists?”

    Was it the part where I wrote “I am also opposed by Christians who make bad witness for Christ by committing vandalism and disrespect [of atheists].”

    marag, what is always predictable on the internet is people ignoring what is written and reading what they want to see. (No need for me to give you an ::eyeroll:: though.)

  • RaymondKoepsell

    kalacaw, If you care to, I would be very interested for you to expand on the your perception of the causal factor for fear of “coming out” as an atheist.

  • RaymondKoepsell

    One other thought

    Elsewhere in this thread, I wrote: “As Christians, we are called on to spread the Good News of salvation – but I doubt anyone ever had a moment of conversion from having their car keyed or spit on, getting mooned, or getting preached at in traffic.”

    Based on your comment, it seems fair to add that I doubt anyone ever had a moment of conversion by being told they are going to hell by some anonymous somebody on the internet or being engaged in a debate about the reason for ethics. As a Christian, the fire and brimstone approach borders on the offensive. If somebody is frightened into faith, it will be a very shallow, short-lived walk for him/her. I’m discouraged that the bully pulpit is part of some Christian tradition.

  • RickWingrove

    This sounds like a little bit of scenario fullfillment – when you don’t want to see something , you don’t. Or, maybe your source of information has given you an incomplete, possibly self serving version of history painting christianity as a blameless for any alleged prejudice or injustice. But such a sweeping denial of poor treatment of non-believers at the hands of empowered christianity (or islam), shows either a shocking level of unawareness of both history and current world events, or an agenda of denial.

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