Most of you have probably heard about the Atheist “ads” that have gone up in various spots in the U.S. and England. Last year the Freedom From Religion Foundation did an “Imagine No Religion” campaign that looked something like this…
In response, some within the religious community have had “extreme” reactions. Bishop Council Nedd from In God We Trust is a good example. Nedd characterizes the billboard above as a “vile message demanding Americans to abandon faith.”
Really? Is that what he sees when he looks at that phrase. This reaction is, I think, telling. I’ve often wondered how two equally religious folks can get nearly opposite meanings out of the same scriptural passage, and perhaps this gives me some indication… what they see may not coincide with what is actually written. Religion works on the mind in mysterious ways. It seems to warp one’s very experience of the outside world. I also had to chuckle at Bishop Nedd’s closing line:
…despite the continued efforts of the most radical members of the American atheist movement, we are winning, America is winning and God is winning.
How is it that an all-everything God is always up to his beard in holy struggle with His… er… own creation that he, uh, already has a plan for and… er… controls every second of — but can’t really seem to get on the straight and narrow — but loves so much that He gave his only begotten son — but will damn for eternity unless you worship him — but already knows if you will worship him or not because His knowledge is perfect and timeless — but still somehow leaves the choice up to us by His gift of free will, which we are free to exercise… kind of — except that He knows our choice, and He can’t change that, because He planned it that way, except… aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!! My brain would go all “mysterious” too, I think, if I had to get down on my knees and pray to this sort of nonsensical being.
More recently, buses in London have started to carry signage like this:
It is sponsored by the British Humanist Association and their American counterpart, AHA (no, not that A-Ha, Jay) — the American Humanist Association — is running a campaign here in the US that looks something like this:
As you can imagine, some in the religious community are absolutely incensed. Bill Donahue, President of the Catholic League, uses the opportunity to link the above sentiment to “gay terrorists storming Catholic churches.” Yeah, I know, mysteries of the religious mind at work again.
And you can watch here as Fox News commentators scoff and chortle at the image of an atheist with actual human frailties; they have quite a bit of fun picturing atheists as isolated individuals saddened by their exclusion from holiday festivities. But what of the commentator’s underlying assumption? Is this campaign the desperate expression of atheists longing to belong? The pleas of a group of people getting their “just deserts” for abandoning the faith and community of larger society?
Or are these atheist “ads” truly that? Are they a marketing campaign to attract new “members” to the ranks? Are these advertisements like those placed by other religious groups — a way to spread the “word,” to bring folks into worship centers where throngs of ready followers will welcome and include new recruits, provided they accept and embrace the same myths the believers do?
No, I don’t think so. I think these campaigns are exactly what the organizers claim to be. I think these signs are simply a message to unbelievers that they are not alone in a society saturated in mythical and magical beliefs. I remember quite clearly discussions with family members when I was in my early teens, discussions where my expressions of doubt were met with absolute bewilderment and in some cases fear. I recall feeling isolated and alone simply because I could not buy in to to the worldview and mentality urged on me by the church. And I recall, too, that to speak of such things required a kind of courage I was seldom able to muster.
There was no internet, there was no Dawkins nor Harris nor Hitchens nor Dennett to give voice and definition to those doubts — and when those doubts were spoken, one had always to be prepared for a fight and to find a way to keep one’s dignity under the piteous stares and sad shakes of the head the believer would eventually be brought to… well, that and the unavoidable, “I’ll pray for you” (as if those words actually meant something).
Yes, I understand why a humanist organization might run such a campaign, and I’m glad for it. I’m glad that somebody is advertising the fact that morality is not based on the writings of patriarchial bronze-age desert tribes, and I’m doubly glad that these messages will be seen on buses and not sequestered away in the halls of higher-learning. No, these are not “ads” in the traditional sense, because there is no product to advertise. There are no atheist, agnostic, or free-thinking churches or bibles, there is no community of unbelievers — there are just people, people who have decided to unchain themselves from the old religions and gods, people whose community is not based on creation stories and rituals required for salvation.
For such unbelievers, all peoples are their community, and the world is their church — indeed, they are not alone, it’s just that many of them don’t know it yet.