Atheist ad campaigns stir the pot during holiday season

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout
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Atheists and Catholics have posted dueling billboards in New York City, creating a metaphysical face-off near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. One, put up by the group American Atheists, proclaims that Christmas is a "myth." The other, posted by the Catholic League in response, urges commuters: "You know it's real. This season, celebrate Jesus."

This is not the first such religion-themed ad showdown. Atheist groups around the country have taken to advertising campaigns to get out their message -- and Christian groups, disapproving commuters, and the occasional anonymous vandal have taken notice.

Atheist organizations have tens of thousands of members, and the number of American adults who say they have no religion has doubled to 15 percent over the past 20 years. The stepped-up ad campaigns are a way for these secular organizations  to compete for the increasing market share of potential atheists, experts told the New York Times.

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"There's a competitive environment for 'no religion,' and they're grabbing for all the constituents they can get," Mark Silk, founding director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, told the paper.

The outreach is also a way to fight the "stigma" atheists face -- even though the same campaigns also frequently provoke acts of vandalism that remind nonbelievers that they still can be pariahs.

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In June, a billboard set up by a local atheist organization in North Carolina was defaced by an unknown vandal. The billboard proclaimed "One Nation Indivisible"  -- the way the Pledge of Allegiance read preceding the 1954 insertion of the words "under God." According to the Charlotte Observer, someone inserted that phrase in spray-paint over the sign.

"It was done by one or two people off on their own who decided their only recourse was vandalism rather than having a conversation," Charlotte Atheists & Agnostics spokesman William Warren told the paper. "It does show how needed our message is. As atheists, we want to let people know we exist and that there's a community here."

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Three of 10 atheist billboards erected in Sacramento, Calif., were defaced in February, and more recently several atheist bus ads were vandalized in Detroit.

But even with these conflicts, the ads keep coming. The priciest and most extensive one to date, according to the Times, is a $200,000 series of cable TV and print ads paid for by the American Humanist Association. The ads challenge fundamentalist readings of the Bible and other holy books by playing "horrific" quotes from them, like: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." I Timothy 2 (New International Version).

In 2009, an anonymous $25,000 donation paid for ads blanketing New York's subway stations. "A Million New Yorkers Are Good Without God. Are You?" the ads read. A similar ad campaign by the same national group will debut this holiday season in Fort Worth, Texas, and in Washington state. The Fort Worth chapter of the Coalition of Reason's ads read "Millions of Americans are Good Without God" and appear on four area buses. Critics in the area say the message is insensitive during Christmas. (The Dallas transportation department rejected the ads.)

"We've been trying to put these ads together for a while, and we didn't plan for them to come out now," Terry McDonald of the Coalition of Reason told the Star-Telegram. "But I'm not unhappy it's running during Christmas. Why do Christians own December? There were people that said this may cause a problem. That doesn't bother me."

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The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which has billboards up in a dozen cities, recently launched a series of bus and billboard ads in Madison, Wisconsin, to encourage people to "come out of the closet" and admit they are atheists.

Not all religious leaders feel threatened or offended by the atheist message. "If the ads aren't intended to be hostile, then they shouldn't be met with hostility," Pastor Karl Travis of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth told the Dallas Morning News.

(Photo of the atheist and Catholic billboards on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel: AP)

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