Getting Our Message Out

As atheists grow in political power and begin to exert our influence, we should expect to draw attention from religious bigots who will try to silence us. Three stories from the past three days illustrate this principle, showing not just atheism’s increasing assertiveness, but the arrogance of religious groups and individuals who think they can prevent us from getting our message out.

Imagine No Religion

First is Rancho Cucamonga, California. The Freedom from Religion Foundation had placed an “Imagine No Religion” billboard in that city as part of its nationwide billboard campaign. The FFRF paid to display their message for two months, but after only a week, the billboard company took it down in violation of the contract, and apparently at the behest of the city government. Naturally, the FFRF has sued. Legally speaking, this ought to be an open-and-shut case – both against the billboard company, for breach of contract, and against the city government, for acting in its official capacity to suppress atheist speech.

Atheism has encountered similar obstruction in Australia, where the advertising company APN Outdoor refused to permit the Atheist Foundation of Australia to run freethought advertising on buses. No explanation was given for why the atheist ads were rejected – which almost certainly means the real explanation stems from prejudice, because if they had had a legitimate reason, there would have been no reason to withhold it. Notably, APN has in the past permitted Christian groups to run bus ads containing Bible verses. Given this latest evidence, one might well suspect that their involvement in the Christian ads had more than purely commercial motives.

Finally, consider the reaction to another set of atheist billboards in Denver and Colorado Springs (HT: The Liberty Papers). Although these billboards have not been censored like the others, they have drawn a predictable flood of viciousness and bile from Christians, most of it targeted at the group, the Colorado Coalition of Reason, which paid for them:

The hate mail and nasty, threatening phone messages began almost immediately.

Much of it has been directed at Joel Guttormson, who mostly has been serving as a spokesman for COCORE, as they call it.

All three of these stories illustrate an important point that they have in common. In all three cases, the advertising that atheists sought to place was in no way angry or polemical – simple, mild statements like “Imagine No Religion”, “Celebrate Reason”, or “Don’t Believe In God? You Are Not Alone”. Yet even these mild, inoffensive messages drew the wrath of religious groups, who responded not just with censorship but with hate mail and threats. This mirrors the experience of nontheist U.S. Rep. Pete Stark, whose simple declarative statement of his nonbelief was still enough to get him vilified by a hatemongering Christian group.

The spokesman for COCORE has drawn an important lesson from the hate mail, one I want to emphasize:

It is what he calls the radical Christians that are making the most noise, Joel Guttormson said.

“I’ll spend more time defending this than anything else,” he said. “I’ve already learned that anything we do is not going to satisfy them. Anything we do or say is only going to make them more angry.”

These backlashes show the futility of listening to those people who claim that atheists will only be accepted by society if we water down our message and refrain from saying anything that might offend anyone. The bigots will attack us no matter what we say, so there’s no point in trying to appease them.

But one thing we can take heart in is that, in the modern world, effective censorship is impossible. The controversy generated when religious groups try to stifle the atheist message will fuel news stories and coverage that will be seen far and wide, almost certainly attracting more attention than the ad campaign itself could have drawn. People in general are drawn to underdogs, and the “What are you so afraid of?” message is a winner. When we’re censored, we shouldn’t get angry, we should cheer – the religious interests who try to suppress our message are doing us as big a favor as we could have hoped for.

In honor of the season, let me leave you with this heart-warming example of atheists getting our message out, courtesy again of the FFRF:

OLYMPIA, Wash. — An atheist group has unveiled an anti-religion placard in the state Capitol, joining a Christian Nativity scene and “holiday tree” on display during December.

…With a nod to the winter solstice – the year’s shortest day, occurring in late December – the placard reads, in part, “There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

And to those would-be theocrats who hate atheist speech and would like to silence us, I’ve got only this to say: You’d better get ready. You ain’t seen nothing yet!

UPDATE (12/6): Two new developments in the FFRF’s Washington solstice sign. First, the sign was stolen – evidently by another private citizen who wanted to censor us – and was later found at a local radio station. It was returned to the capitol, and police are investigating the theft. Second, some Christian groups decided to respond with signs of their own:

The Rev. Ken Hutcherson of Redmond’s Antioch Bible Church put up his own sign at the Capitol on Friday that says, in part: “There is one God. … Atheism is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

This Christian evidently understands that the appropriate way to respond to speech you disagree with is competing speech, and good for him. But he doesn’t have much creativity: all he did was copy the wording of the FFRF’s sign and invert the message. This kind of mindlessness is precisely why I believe atheism can win on an open battlefield of ideas.

However, with competing signs now proliferating, I agree with those who say this is turning into a circus. That’s exactly why government shouldn’t endorse any religious or irreligious position: leave the Christmas trees, menorahs, atheist signs and Festivus poles to private property, where they belong. We are all more than capable of celebrating the holidays on our own, without government help.

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