PhillyCOR Wants You!
Posted: August 20, 2008
driving home from work and you see a billboard with a religious message.
Nothing unusual--you see several each day on your route to and from work. But
this one has a surprise ending.
a backdrop of lue sky and floating clouds, bold white letters ask, "Don't
believe in god?" Rather than tell you that you should, however, the printed
response just lets you know that "You are not alone."
you "not alone" because this god is with you--whether you believe in god or not?
Or are you "not alone" because there are others who, like you, "don't believe
in god"? It's the latter, surprisingly. The question is answered in the contact
information at the bottom of the board. Along with a listed Web site, it notes
a phone number, part of which includes the letters, "humanist."
message stands out as unique in that it is an invitation to those who are
already nonbelievers. And it is inviting to nonbelievers utterly without an
attack on religion or theism. It doesn't request anyone stop believing in god.
It doesn't ask anyone to question their belief in god. It simply invites those
who already lack belief to contact this like-minded group for information or to
attend events where they can meet, mingle, work, and socialize.
Philadelphia group has found a completely inoffensive atheistic message to
promote their worldview in a positive light. They received press coverage in
articles at Philly.com and
Pillyburbs.com that focused on Stephen Rade, the man
who funded the billboard and helped to create PhillyCOR (Greater Philadelphia
Coalition of Reason). Rade was a businessman who identified a need for
interaction between nonbelievers from all over the area with different
interests and agendas, including separation of church and state, furthering
science education, or simply opposing supernatural shenanigans in general.
PhillyCOR is available to atheists, freethinkers, secularists, humanists, and
any individuals who share a connection to a lack of belief in god.
group immediately began to involve itself in charitable projects, working
side-by-side with faith-based groups such as Lighthouses of Oxford Valley, a
Christian group affiliated with the Reformed Church in America.
maintains it is not out to win converts, but to combat prejudices and misconceptions
often aimed at nonbelievers. In the article at Phillyburbs.com, Rade was
quoted as saying, "There's a myth that if you don't have religion, you don't
have morality. The best way to disprove it is to do things of high moral
June 2008, a Fox News report echoed the idea of negative public sentiment when
it stated that "many people now want that sign to come down." However,
according to Martha Knox, director of the Humanist Association of Greater
Philadelphia, and coordinator of PhillyCOR, "The fact of the matter is, while
we have gotten a fair share of nasty voicemail messages from religious kooks
who like to curse a lot, we haven't had any threats, and most people who have
contacted us were happy about our billboard. Also, the billboard company hasn't
received any calls from people demanding that it be taken down. Overall this
whole campaign has been very positive."
the Fox interview, Rade was asked, "Why did you put up this billboard?" One has
to wonder how many theist organizations are questioned when they put up
billboards promoting their perspectives on god. The question itself highlights
an underlying prejudice that does not appear to apply to believers who engage
in the same promotional activities.
President for Policy, Peter Sprigg, of the Family Research Council, a
Washington DC-based lobbying group that promotes "conservative values," had
this to say during the Fox segment, "This billboard in Philadelphia seems to
represent a trend--a new assertiveness, even aggressiveness on the part of
atheists." He further added, "Atheists are very vigorous in promoting the
separation of church and state, but with the extreme way that they interpret
that concept, you would basically eliminate every mention of god from the
public square, and that would amount to the establishment of atheism." Sprigg
did not go on to explain how the billboard could be interpreted as representing
did not automatically go on the defensive. He unapologetically supports a more
secular society "I say that we are promoting a secularist agenda. We do believe
in a separation of church and state, and we believe that this is the way the
country should be run." Rade understands that secularization and atheism are
not the same thing. In fact, without a secular government, religious freedom is
in jeopardy. Theists and atheists alike are involved in the movement toward a
more secular government.
wonders, for example, how Sprigg might interpret the agenda of Americans United
for Separation of Church and State--an organization often represented by the
Reverend Barry Lynn. The "Our Issues" segment of the Americans United Web site
begins, for example, with this statement, "Americans have more religious
freedom than any people in world history. We can choose what to believe; what
to teach our children; how, where and when to worship; which causes to give
money to; or even whether we want to get involved with religion at all. We have
the separation of church and state to thank for this broadly based freedom."
the conservative Web site onenewsnow.com, an image of the billboard ran
with an article which laments that information concerning nonbelief is even
available to the public. One quote in the article includes, "You've got the Web
site. You've got a phone number. And young people who are questioning [the
existence of] God have this front and center." Not surprisingly, the image that
ran with the article was altered so that it did not include the Web site or the
phone number for PhillyCOR.
Knox was asked for her reaction to that idea that people should be protected
from access to PhillyCOR's contact information, she had this to say, "I react
to that the same way I react to burning books. We aren't using highly manipulative
propaganda here; we're mostly using words and being pretty direct on our Web
site about what we're about. If our children are taught to think critically,
they can handle straight information. In order to be able to differentiate good
ideas from bad and false ones, you need to be exposed to both. I'm not afraid
of my children seeing religious billboards, so [the fact that] some religious
people being afraid of their children seeing our billboards makes me think they
are insecure about their beliefs and have little faith in their children's
ability to think."
remains to be seen whether or not PhillyCOR's efforts to create cohesion among
atheists, freethinkers, and secularists for socialization and charity work will
yield positive, long-term results for the community of nonbelievers. If nothing
else, it offers opportunity to a group that has historically lacked strong
unity and influence. Perhaps, one day, messages promoting nonbelief will be as
uncontroversial as messages promoting religion? If so, PhillyCOR could
certainly claim credit for being one of the first groups to work positively
toward that goal.
© 2008 by Tracie Harris.
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