You're 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.
Against 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."
Are 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."
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
PhillyCOR 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 value."
In 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."
During 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.
Vice 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 aggressiveness.
Rade's 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.
One 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."
At 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.
When 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."
It 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.