The Vileness of “Imagine No Religion”?



   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.


14 Responses

  1. What really amazed me is how someone could write so much on a subject as this…have you not heard what you read is what you think on, and doesn’t the scripture itself teaches us to think on , “Whatsoever things are honest,just, pure, lovely, things of good report, if there be any virtue, any praise,THINK ON THESE THINGS.Why give it so much power by keeping up with it, and if you are wondering if I read all that was written here the answer is no. I got the gest of it and left my reply.

  2. Wow, I couldn’t have described the closed-nature of a religious mind any better than the comment above…

  3. Should we not think on things that are unpure, ugly, “virtueless”?

    seriously, I’m confused.

  4. As always it warms my heart to see Christians being so fucking Christianly.

    Am I surprised as such narrow-minded interpretations? No. Because these are people who think being Pro-Choice is being for abortion. If the world were left to these people the progress of civil rights and homosexual rights would have been stunted. It boggles the mind how people profess unconditional love for a being they will never see and yet such unadulterated hatred for people they must face every day merely because they are different or don’t believe in the same things. Why does this sounds so familiar?

  5. Mike, No. Because if you spend time thinking about the holes in the plot line you might find that it’s A BUNCH OF BULLSHIT and stop believing in the fairy tale. The church doesn’t want that…so blind faith and unquestioning devotion is where it’s at. It’s all clicking into place, NOW I understand why the shepard is always tending his SHEEP!

  6. Hmmmm . . . I’m not sure you could say there’s no product to advertise . . . I see the websites of the sponsoring organizations pretty prominently on the ads . . . I bet they’d be happy to have some new folks sign up. Don’t the BHA and AHA have any political goals? Wouldn’t it be helpful for like-minded people to find them?

    Maybe they’d like to see real science taught in science classrooms. Maybe they’d like to pursue legal cases where atheists are discriminated against on the job. Maybe they’d like to oppose policies that let pharmacists refuse to give out birth control pills on religious grounds.

    I think attracting the attention of like-minded people and getting them to join these organizations so that they have more political clout is probably one of their goals.

    I’m just speculating, of course, but there’s got to be a reason the organization websites are displayed along with their messages, right?

  7. I disagree that these ads are targeted at nonbelievers. They seem to me to be pointed right at believers.

    Why would someone with no religion need to be exhorted to Imagine No Religion? Doesn’t he or she live it every day? Sure, the nonbeliever still lives in a world with religion in it, but the ad seems targeted at the believer to me.

    The why believe in a god one too. I think that’s arguing directly to believers.

    But the middle one is the most clear-cut for me. There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and live your life. Isn’t that what nonbelievers already do? That one is a direct appeal to believers to stop believing.

    Now, maybe what YOU get out of it is nonbelievery togethernessitude, but the intent of the campaign seems to me to be to get believers to stop believing. (and go to the websites)

  8. I think both Anna’s and Yeiser’s points are good ones, I guess there is a product-like angle to the ad’s — but not, I think, in the same way as a “proper” religion might offer… and I would say that the potential customers would not necessarily be believers, but people on the fence — those that may have doubts but who haven’t met other similarly-minded folks, or even know there are alternatives…

  9. … or, maybe they’re targeting multiple groups … up-for-grabs believers who already verge on being non-believers but maybe haven’t pondered the subject very deeply. non-believers who feel disenfanchised. and a very minute group of devout believers who will be somehow moved to becoming non-believers because of an advertising campaign. or maybe they simply want to poke a finger in the eye of those folks … like it did to your … um … first responder up there]. If the latter is part of the plan, I’d just ask how that’s helpful to any over-arching goal. But I seriously doubt any of these campaigners really think they’ll be converting the devout.

    and not to sound too cynical, but organizations/humans don’t normally spend big $$s simply to display an altruistic or comforting message. There’s usually an agenda somewhere in there. Which I’m not saying is a bad thing. I’m a big fan of grass-roots efforts in general. i.e. our President-elect’s campaign.

    but one musn’t put too much stock in who it seems is being targeted. it is marketing. it’s not really traditional logic. first it has to grab the masses all-too-overloaded attention [shock is a good way to do that] and second, the campaigners may be throwing a bunch of stuff out just to test what drives traffic to their sites and participation in their organizations.

    so i guess I only sort of disagree, ty. And i definitely agree w/ Anna. These signs can be both a “message to unbelievers that they are not alone in a society saturated in mythical and magical beliefs,” but they’re also part of a larger strategy … a step in organizing the troops toward a particular purpose[s].

    Sorry, seem to be playing devil’s advocate lately. 😉

  10. Miriam: It is okay to play “devil’s advocate” sometimes. You along with Anna and Yeiser all made some very good points!

    Oh, and I am cynical with you.

  11. p.s. thanks Veronica.

    also, i understand they did the “there’s probably no god, so stop worrying” campaign on facebook.

  12. y’know i always shake my head when i hear John Lennon’s “Imagine” on an oldies radio station or playing over the speakers in a Burlington Coat Factory. The amazing message within has diminished in a sea of overplayed songs. I wonder if the radically religious even register the meaning of his lyrics, or do they just loosely know of the song and misconstrue it’s meaning by boiling it down to only the title….imagine (sort of like the first poster on this thread).

    like this campaign, the song’s lyrics only have meaning to those who pay attention to it and the meaning can be taken in many ways. to the insecure religious it’s a threat. to those ‘on the fence’ of what to believe it’s console. to those who already don’t believe it’s a prospect of change.

    in my opinion, these billboards are the same as a political bumper sticker or support the whoever magnet….i’m not trying to make it all about “me” by displaying my beliefs on my car!

  13. […] Going to Cause a Stir Posted on January 6, 2009 by Tyson Koska A few weeks ago, I did a post on various atheist “campaigns.” Many of you who commented seemed to think the ads were purchased to drum up support/membership for […]

  14. […] the election a few posts have managed to pique reader’s interest more than others, The “Vileness” of “Imagine No Religion”, inspired a healthy debate about the motivations of Atheist organizsations’ new […]

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