Nothing fills my heart with Christmas cheer like seeing atheists’ holiday ads, so I was glad to hear of a new campaign starting up in Texas, courtesy of the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason. Starting this month, they’ll be running ads that read “Millions of Americans Are Good Without God” on Fort Worth city buses.
But it didn’t happen without a struggle. Just look at how far the city of Dallas was willing to go to keep our ads off its buses:
“We’d have run these ads on Dallas buses as well,” noted DFW CoR Coordinator Terry McDonald, “but when we approached DART, they chose to stop running all religiously-related ads rather than include ours.”
And even in Fort Worth, where the ads are running, city officials have made clear their desire to censor them:
Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said Friday that although the city does not fund the transportation authority, he disagrees with its decision to allow what he calls “these divisive ads”….
Granted, this may just be media posturing; proclaiming outrage and then doing nothing is a standard item in any elected official’s toolbox. Even so, it sends a strong message that atheists are political outsiders who can’t expect to get the same support or representation from their government as everyone else. But what really tips the scales of absurdity is the response from the local Christian churches:
The Rev. Kyev Tatum, pastor of Friendship Rock Baptist Church, said not only the community but also some bus drivers have been offended by the ads… Tatum called for a boycott, saying about a dozen churches would try to provide rides for anyone who refused to ride a city bus over the atheist ads.
Tatum accused the transportation authority of putting “profit over principle.”
“So why would you support an enterprise that’s trying to demean the Christian principle?” he said.
Apparently, a message that atheists can be good people is an offensive insult to Christianity. (Another theist quoted in the article calls the ads “hurtful”). The implication, it would seem, is that Christians believe themselves to be the only good people in the world, and that no one else is permitted to act morally without their permission.
And it’s not just in the Bible Belt that atheists face condemnation and censorship for proclaiming their existence. In Pennsylvania, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia’s annual “Tree of Knowledge” display was banned from the county courthouse lawn. This comes after several unsuccessful attempts by the county to exclude the freethought display by confusingly changing the application process. Finally, the county commissioners changed the rules to disallow all non-county-owned displays – and then, remarkably, the displays that did go up were virtually identical to the ones that had been there before.
Even in Hawaii, a local freethought activist was roughed up, forcibly removed, and arrested after voicing a brief, non-disruptive complaint over official prayers in the State Senate. (The judge took less than an hour to find him not guilty.)
In all these stories, we’re hearing the shrill screams of Christians who’ve discovered that they’re not the only ones allowed to speak in public, and are furious over the perceived loss of that privilege. It doesn’t matter what the actual message atheists are promoting is. No matter how meek, how inoffensive, how conciliatory we make it, its mere existence will draw hatred and fury from religious bigots, because they really want is for us not to exist. Nothing less will satisfy them.
It happens all the time. Two years ago in Colorado, a billboard campaign which simply said, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone,” drew a flood of hate mail and threats directed at the Colorado Coalition of Reason, which paid for the ads. How can you get less offensive than a mere statement that atheists exist?
And in 2006, when the freethinking student Matt LaClair recorded a popular high school teacher threatening his students with hellfire if they refused to convert to Christianity, he, and not the teacher, became the target of threats and harassment. As he later said about the experience, “The nicer you are, the more they hate you.”
We’ll never appease religious people by being nice enough, and in fact, it will only encourage them to attack us more if we give the impression that we can be cowed. What we should do instead is speak boldly, refuse to apologize for our existence, and make it clear that we’re not going away and that we intend to claim a voice in the marketplace of ideas. When society gets used to our existence, when they accept that we’re not going away, the threats, harassment and censorship will naturally diminish and die off.
UPDATE: And as soon as I post this, another example comes along: In Texas, an atheist group joined the town’s annual Christmas parade, playing “Jingle Bells” on vuvuzelas. Not to protest, not to attack believers – just atheists participating in a Christmas parade. The result?
“Wasn’t exactly happy about the Christmas Parade this year, I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people and to love the fact that they were children of God and I don’t feel that they should be influenced in any other way especially not at a Christmas parade,” said Tina Corgey, who is a lifelong Bryan resident.
…”If you have younger children they weren’t going to understand but I have older children, a teenager, 8-year-old and they were curious and they asked questions and it was hard for them to believe and understand that there are actually people out there that don’t believe in God,” Corgey said.
That poor, oppressed woman, having to explain to her children that there are people who believe differently. Won’t someone shelter her from the burden of having to be in contact with new ideas?